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Ngāruawāhia train death: ’If they want to cross the bridge, give them alternative ways of doing it’

The danger signs at the rail bridge at Ngāruawāhia. - Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Adding walkways to the Ngāruawāhia rail bridge could help prevent tragedies, a rail union boss says, but a culture change is also needed.

An 11-year-old girl died when she was hit by a train while playing on the rail-only bridge across the Waikato River on Sunday evening.

It is a popular spot for locals to jump from into the river and stopping people from climbing on it is a hard task - despite fences, cameras and threats of fines to deter them.

When someone is on the tracks, there is little drivers can do to stop the thousands of tonnes of freight train from hitting them except blast the horn.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union secretary Wayne Butson told Morning Report train drivers were terrified to cross the bridge at Ngāruawāhia in case another child is killed.

"I drove trains for 20 years and I was unfortunate enough to experience these things.

"I'm really torn on this particular one, I think it is a complete and utter tragedy and every time someone is killed on the tracks it is a complete waste whether they're in a motor vehicle, or trespassing, or whatever.

He said slower trains were not the solution, with the current speed restriction on the bridge already at 25km/h.

"There are other interventions that can be done, and I don't think slowing down a train is necessarily the answer, it's already going very very slow."

The bridge does not have a footpath unlike rail bridges in places such as the Hutt Valley and Whanganui.

"Should be talking about putting decks on the side of the bridge, walkways on the side of the bridge," Mr Butson said.

"Ngāruawāhia bridge has no walkways on the side of it. We could put those sorts of things in there to - if they want to cross the bridge - give them alternative ways of doing it."

He said the effect of crashes like this could be traumatic for the drivers.

"On this particular train there were two people on it, one was a fully qualified local engineer and the other was a new trainee starting their career in rail.

"They have a three day mandatory stand-down, they are supposed to undertake counselling and we hope that they are able to return to work because the other reality is not all train drivers who go through these experiences are able to carry on with their careers.

"A number of them are medically retired with post traumatic stress."

Culture change

Mr Butson said it was also a New Zealand-wide problem.

"You know what the message is? Tracks are for trains," he said.

"You wouldn't think of walking down the middle of a state highway if you're in a sane rational mind, but people in this country seem to think it's acceptable to walk all over the railway tracks.

"It's extremely dangerous and it should not be encouraged."

It was also a local concern, with the bridge itself having a significance for residents. The girl is the third person to have died on the bridge since 2002.

Former Ngāruawāhia community board member Jack Ayers met with Waikato District Council last week to discuss solutions for the problem.

"What has been proposed at this stage is education, education for the parents and the generations before," he told Morning Report.

"They have a saying here that it is a rite of passage, it's something that the older generation has done and they think that because they've done it that it is the right thing to do.

Things had changed now, however.

"Now that a child has been killed though, there is no rite of passage.

"Ngāruawāhia's such an old town, and very much steeped in Maoridom going back along way, and traditions go back a long way.

"Because there has been a life taken on that bridge there is a tapu ... that education has to be passed on to the younger ones from the ones that know, the older ones.

He said any previous education programmes around the bridge and safety had been pretty basic.

"And they haven't really reached the heart of the people," Mr Ayers said.

"If the community wants to see an end to the tragedy then they can do it."

The community is rallying to support the girl's family. A givealittle page has been set up with funds raised going towards funeral costs and other needs.

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