Causal factors

Collisions between trains and cars and people almost always occur because the driver or pedestrian has made a mistake in judgment or perception.

They either didn’t slow down or stop (therefore failing to see the train until it was too late) or they thought they could beat the train over the crossing.


Sometimes people become distracted by external factors around them and fail to look for approaching trains.  This might include children or other passengers in the car, sunlight, eating food in the car or other things that can distract a driver.  To stay safe drivers and pedestrians should stay focused around railway tracks at all times.

Pedestrians can also become distracted, particularly by the use of modern technology.  People can stay safe around tracks by removing headphones and not using mobile devices anywhere near the rail corridor.

Ignoring warning signs

Alarms and bells signal that a train is coming.  Sometimes people decide to cross tracks after a train has passed but before the signals have stopped operating.  This is particularly dangerous on double tracks as a train may be coming from the other direction.


A significant number of vehicle level crossing collisions occur within a close distance to people’s homes.  Some people wrongly assume that they know the train timetable. They can also become complacent around the crossing because they use it all the time.

Train timetables change and trains can come at any time of the day or night.  People should always be mindful and vigilant and never assume when a train might arrive at a particular crossing.


It can be difficult for people to accurately perceive the speed of an approaching train, because from a distance it can appear as if it is not moving.  For this reason people are advised to always wait for a train to pass if they can see it down the tracks.


Some collisions occur because people decide to ignore the warning signs or signals and try to beat the train across the crossing.  People may not understand that trains are usually travelling faster than they think, and decide to take unnecessary and unlawful risks.  This puts their lives and the lives of their passengers at risk.

Some collisions occur simply because drivers approach a crossing too fast to stop if flashing lights start operating.   In this type of incident usually the road vehicle crashes into the side of the train.

Failure to comply with road markings

Some collisions occur when motorists fail to leave enough space for their vehicle on the other side of a crossing and become trapped on the crossing in front of the barriers.  Always ensure there is space on the other side for your vehicle before entering a crossing.


Most deaths on the railway occur when people choose to walk on railway tracks at any place other than at a level crossing.  Some of these deaths are attributable to self-harm.

In-vehicle technology

Noise cancelling technology in modern vehicles may mean people find it more difficult to hear railway crossing alarms until they are close to the crossing.

Human factors approach

Human factors is the study of how the design of equipment and devices fits with the capabillities of the human body and brain.

A ‘human factors’ approach  to the causal factors of level crossing collisions suggests that they occur when several elements come together to allow for the event/failure or consequence to occur.

Sometimes there is a mismatch between a person’s interpretation of the situation and their understanding of the road/rail environment.

For example, while people can make mistakes, they might also act in a certain way because they have succeeded in getting away with that behaviour in the past.  That is, they have learned that they can get away with it, because they have done it before, or have watched someone else doing it.

Many of the elements that mislead or allow mistakes or misjudgments to occur come down to design of the system.   The science of Human Factors and Ergonomics is constantly attempting to understand behaviour in relation to the design of road and rail environments.  Improved design can help prevent safety incidents that may occur as a result of human mistakes or misjudgments.


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Latest news

Rail Safety Week launches high tech simulator

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Motorists are being given the chance to take the controls of a freight train courtesy of high tech virtual reality technology, in the name of rail safety.

KiwiRail and TrackSAFE NZ have developed an interactive train simulator for Rail Safety Week in an effort to minimise the number of near misses experienced by train drivers at level crossings around the country every day.

“Every near miss is in reality a near hit,” says KiwiRail Chief Executive Peter Reidy.

“We hope that by putting people into the driver’s seat of a train they will better understand the need to stay alert and always be prepared to stop as they approach level crossings.

Rail Safety Week 2014 was launched in Wellington today by the Associate Transport Minister Michael Woodhouse.

Those keen to try out the experience will be asked to don Occulus Rift virtual reality headsets at a series of events in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Masterton. The simulation is also available online here.

In the year to date there have been 16 collisions with vehicles and cyclists, with five fatalities in four separate incidents. In addition there have been 68 near collisions reported, although the actual incidence is likely to be much higher.

Mr Reidy says a train hauling 1500 tonnes takes up to a kilometre to stop and that is why trains have right of way at level crossings.

“I am horrified to hear the stories from our drivers of the many instances that they see motorists ignoring flashing lights and bells, or driving through level crossings protected with Give Way or Stop signs just ahead of their train.

“We urge motorists to always approach a level crossing prepared to stop. They should always obey the alarms or road signs and never enter the crossing until they have checked both ways to ensure there is enough time to cross safely.”

TrackSAFE Manager Megan Drayton says trains are heavy and take a very long time to stop – and research has shown that many people cannot accurately gauge how fast they are travelling.

“Crossing in front of an approaching train is very risky behaviour, and each one of those instances could so easily have ended in a tragedy that affects many lives.

“Train drivers are so often the forgotten victims in these circumstances. They are simply doing their day’s work, and if someone puts themselves in the wrong place – whether by inattention or misjudgement – there is little a train driver can do to prevent a collision. That is why this year we have made them a big part of this week’s activities by telling their stories.”

Other agencies to support the campaign include the NZ Police, the NZ Transport Agency, Auckland Transport, Tranz Metro, Greater Wellington Regional Council and Transdev Auckland.

Ms Drayton says she recently surveyed all train drivers to find out what crossings they believed to be the worst. “We’ve been able to pass this information on to Police, so that they can target their enforcement activities to the right areas.”

Police will be conducting nationwide spot checks at these hot spot level crossings and in some areas will travel with the train drivers in the cabs of the locomotives.  Read more

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