Families who have lost loved ones at level crossings are still fighting to reduce the risks.

Story Kirsty McKenzie   Photos Lara Jensen

It’s the call in the middle of the night that no-one wants to receive. On the night before shearing was due to start in July 2000, Lara Jensen answered a knock on the homestead door to 2 local police officers. They had come to her family’s sheep station near Mount Magnet in WA’s Murchison to deliver horrific news. Lara’s 20-year-old brother Christian and two of his friends, Jess Broad and Hilary Smith, had been killed when a loaded grain train hit the car Christian was driving. 

The youngsters had been on their way to a 21st birthday party at the Jennacubbine Tavern when the train wiped them out on the Yarramony Road level crossing. Friends and neighbours rallied around the Jensens. They brought flowers and cakes and casseroles, and got on with shearing the sheep and trucking the wool so the family could grieve and arrange Christian’s funeral. 

More than two decades down the track, Lara still shakes her head at the tragedy, the senseless loss of life, the system that caused it and the apparent lack of regulatory will to prevent it from happening again. “Inadequate signage on a dusty road, overgrown vegetation, poor train lighting, the absence of rumble strips, boom gates and flashing lights at the crossing were all factors that contributed to our families’ losses,” she says. “Christian was such a conscientious driver. He even put up warning signs on a series of bends in the road on our station. If there had just been a stop sign at that crossing, our loved ones might still be with us. We were horrified to learn that a young man had been killed at the same crossing three years previously, but still it took 14 years before flashing lights were installed.”

It takes a freight train, weighing 3,000–10,000 tonnes and travelling at up to 160km/h, more than a kilometre to stop. Yet, of the almost 24,000 level crossings around the country, about 80% only have so-called ‘passive’ protection – stop or give-way signs directed towards vehicle drivers. Research compiled by the rail industry regulator, the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR), showed that in the 2020–2021 financial year there were 34 collisions at level crossings, resulting in 4 fatalities and 4 serious injuries. 

For Lara, who now lives on a cattle station 80km from Mount Magnet, every news report of similar tragedies reopens the wound of Christian’s death. “In February last year, when I heard that Grenfell farm worker Ethan Hunter and his work colleague Mark Fenton were killed when their truck collided with a freight train near Young, NSW, something inside me snapped,” she says. “We’ve been pushing for improved train lighting and better road signage for too long. There have been no end of inquiries, coronial recommendations, reports and trials without results, and I just decided enough is enough. Something has to change.”

Lara rallied together a group of 8 families who had suffered similar losses. They started a Facebook group called Improve Train Lighting and Passive Level Crossing Safety, and have written to countless politicians. In October last year, representatives of the families bravely told their stories to ABC TV’s Landline program and subsequently 4 more families joined the campaign. The group includes Ethan’s parents, John and Angela Hunter, and his former fiancée, Madeleine ‘Maddie’ Bott, an emergency department nurse at Orange Hospital.

“Ethan was 27 when he died and he was not a risk-taker,” Maddie says. “He and his colleague were helping a mate by taking a load of gypsum from one side of a farm to another. There was nothing level about the crossing where they were killed. It was on a hazardous incline on a dirt farm road and there were trees obstructing the view of the line.”

In the months following the tragedy, Maddie gathered more than 21,000 signatures on a petition that was presented to the NSW Parliament in November last year. It requested mandatory warning lights at all level crossings, a decrease in speed limits on approaches to crossings on highways, and improved train visibility, with reflective material and better lights. While Maddie and her family sat in the gallery to see the petition delivered, a group of concerned family, friends and supporters watched the debate as it was live streamed to the Grenfell Bowling Club. The audience included Ethan’s parents, representatives of local councils, NSW Farmers, the Country Women’s Association (CWA) and motor mechanic Barry Wooden, who travelled from Wagga Wagga to be there.

Barry’s interest in the issue is intensely personal, as in January 2001 his 18-year-old son Kyle was killed when the car he was travelling in was hit by the XPT Sydney to Melbourne express train. Kyle’s 19-year-old friends, Cameron Tucker, Graham Kelly, Luke Milne and Ben Wilkins, also from Wagga Wagga, were also killed. The NSW deputy state coroner at the time, Carl Milovanovich, rejected any suggestion that the boys were racing the train and found that speed was not a factor in the collision.

“There were actually two carloads of young men going to Gerogery to see their friend Nic Henderson play his first first-grade game for Melbourne Storm,” Barry says. “Sadly, half of them didn’t make it. The crossing where they were killed was a notorious blackspot and, from memory, it had the highest accident rate in NSW at that time. There had been plans to have a bridge built, but they had never been acted on.”

Immediately after the accident, boom gates were installed and there is now an overpass called the Five Mates Crossing. “There were bells and lights on the crossing, but they were F lights, like a car’s tail-lights,” Barry says. “That was totally inadequate as the crossing was a double dog’s-leg across the main southern line. My wife, Alison, wrote to every shire in the state and eventually some funding was allocated to make upgrades and there were some crossings removed altogether. But it was all too little, too late.”

At the Grenfell debate screening, Barry sat beside a pilot who explained that aircraft flying in outback Australia are equipped with technology to activate landing lights on remote airstrips. “If planes have that capacity, why can’t trains?” Barry reasons. “Every level crossing in the country should be equipped with solar-powered LED lights that could be activated by the train driver.”

Lara says that other industries — road transport, mining, shipping and aviation — have mandated lighting rules, so the rail industry should as well. “A semitrailer has to have a minimum of 36 lights along its length,” she says. “But a 1.8km vehicle with one headlight is somehow okay. Even Queensland sugarcane trains have rotating beacons. The fact remains that it’s difficult to get all passive level crossings up to scratch, so the solution is to make trains more visible. Unfortunately, we’re dealing with bureaucracy and we all know how that works. The rail industry is very profitable and so far has shown very little appetite for implementing change.”

For Adelaide agricultural consultant Alice Morley and her three siblings, the world shifted on its axis in 2020, when their father, 62-year-old former farmer and earthmoving contractor Harvey Betts, was killed as a result of driving into a train at a crossing just off the Dukes Highway at Culburra, in SA’s south-east. 

“It was broad daylight and the train driver said Dad had come to a complete stop,” Alice says. “He wasn’t on his phone. The inquest found he hadn’t used his phone for a few hours. He just didn’t see the train. He was a real character. He loved his dogs, he loved his kids and everyone loved him. When I see better lighting on trains, I will know that his death was not for nothing.”

There have been some small gains, including an allocation of $160 million in the recent federal budget for upgrades to level crossings in regional areas, as well as extra grants for a safety education program, improved data collection and risk assessment, and to support research and trials into new technologies and safety measures. The Australasian Centre for Rail Innovation (ACRI) recently completed a review into train visibility on behalf of the ONRSR and, as a result, rail operators Aurizon and Pacific National are currently trialling higher efficiency lighting and new locomotive lighting. Coincidentally, the Rail Industry Safety and Standards Board has called for public consultation on train visibility and lighting standards, which is the first review in almost 7 years.

It’s a mediocre start, Barry says. “Trials and tests are just an excuse to do nothing,” he says. “What’s a lighting trial going to show? Obviously if you put more lights on a train it’s going to be more visible.” 

Rail safety expert Dr Brett Hughes, Curtin University’s adjunct professor in the faculty of sciences and engineering, agrees and says that the ONRSR/ACRI review makes it clear what the requirements for train lighting are. In consultation with the families, he has recently prepared a report, called the Yarramony Lights Concept, to honour the loss of Lara’s brother and his friends.

“Conspicuity needs to be improved with flashing lights, of more than one colour, outline lighting and a unique signature,” he says. “The sides of trains also need improvement, as do other facets of safety, such as low-cost warning systems at level crossings. During the past 20 years railways have told me they couldn’t improve the lighting, because it wasn’t proven, it was too expensive, it wasn’t fail-safe, though nothing is, it was too large and too heavy. In recent years all those limitations have been reduced with modern technology, especially LED lights, cheaper electronics, advanced batteries and more efficient solar charging. Railways must now shift their practice to the current level of what is reasonably practicable.”

Maddie says there’s still a long way to go. “In this day and age, putting up a sign is not good enough,” she says. “It’s a 19th-century approach to treat a train travelling at 160km/h as you would a horse and cart.” 

This story is from Issue #143

Outback Magazine: June/July 2022