The train driver calls it the “long loud” – a sustained and desperate blast of the locomotive horn.
It’s not just that perfunctory honk indicating the train is approaching a level crossing, but the sound of danger, the sound of impending disaster, like hearing screeching car tyres and waiting for the sound of impact.
“You have to give people as much warning as possible,” says Mike Loughnan, the Otumoetai KiwiRail driver. “You have to make them aware that danger exists.”
The danger is a thousand tonnes of freight train, an unstoppable force, rounding a bend at close to 40 km/h, just 100 metres off the Chapel Street rail bridge in suburban Tauranga. It should be a clear run into the container terminal for Loughnan. But on this day, there are four or five kids on the railway bridge.
“It scares the hell out of you,” says Mike. During the summer months, kids use the bridge as a jumping platform into the harbour. It’s illegal and extremely dangerous, but that doesn’t stop them doing it.
“I am getting closer and closer and I am waiting for them to jump,” says Mike. There’s not much room for error, but so much room for tragedy. “You’re thinking ‘for God’s sake, jump’.”
Even if he throws on the brakes, the 700-metre train laden with 60-odd containers would not stop in time. “I can only watch and pray they don’t freeze or make a wrong decision - that they make the right move and jump clear into the harbour.”
The driver is reliving these incidents in slow-motion for The Weekend Sun after we broke the story on the bridge jumpers a couple of weeks ago. This is a salutary warning to those bridge jumpers and their parents, and it’s painful for Mike. Before freight trains took over his life, he was a cop on the streets of South Auckland. He has seen it all.
He wanted a job he could walk away from at day’s end, so he didn’t have to take his work home. The bridge jumpers at Chapel Street aren’t helping.
The 12.05 has just rumbled out of the container terminal. It’s winding up from 10 km/h over the bridge headed through Otumoetai and Matua on the 1 hour 40 minute trip to Hamilton and beyond - the inland port at Westfield in South Auckland.
Sitting on the sand on Maxwell’s Road Beach, just below the bridge, Mike Loughnan is watching. He’s no doubt speaking for all train drivers, appealing for some commonsense and consideration. “They are our trains, our railway lines and our bridges,” he says. “We can’t share them, it’s just too dangerous.”
He warns that if the behaviour continues, the worst will happen. “There’s nothing surer. It’s not a case of if, but when.”
On this particular day, Mike Loughnan starts his KiwiRail shift at 6pm, and he would rather there was no-one on the Chapel Street bridge, either then or at any time.
“You don’t go to work to be involved in accidents, and you don’t go to work to kill people.”
But he has, inadvertently. And when he rolls past one particular part of the track out of town – he won’t say where – he is on edge. “I don’t want to go there, not really,” he says. “It’s not at the forefront of your mind at the beginning of the shift, but it’s certainly there when you pass by.”
A man died, and Mike Loughnan, locomotive driver, also became a victim because he was drawn into a situation he had no control over – one with devastating consequences.
There are no bridge jumpers today. They’re probably at school and far removed from the damage they are causing. “Some drivers manage to avoid it,” says Mike. “But unfortunately for others, fatals just seem to follow them.
“A colleague recently left the job after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome – the result of the cumulative effects of a number of traumatic incidents over his train driving career. I can’t image being in that guy’s shoes.”
And, says Mike, it will be something a locomotive driver will want to forget, but won’t be able to. It’ll live with them forever.
Mike tells the story of a male in his late teens climbing onto the bridge and goading an 8-to-10-year-old to do the same. The youngster was petrified and clung to the rail bridge for longer than 10 minutes before being coaxed into jumping.
“The youngster was obviously the smarter one. He sensed the danger which the older man ignored.”
He also points to the causeway traffic bridge just 100 metres away. It has a fully fenced footpath separating people from the traffic. “It’s not as if there’s no risk, but there’s much less risk.” And it too is well patronised by jumpers.
Since the first Weekend Sun story, KiwiRail has carried out further security upgrades at the Maxwell Road bridge, including the installation of barbed wire on top of the fence to deter trespassers.
KiwiRail’s Katie McMahon says: “Safety is KiwiRail’s number one priority for the public and our people, particularly our locomotive engineers. It is critical for communities that people stay off the tracks and rail bridges and that children are made aware of the dangers of this behaviour.”