WA families join national push for rail crossing safety improvements

EXCLUSIVE Cally DupeThe West Australian
Wondingong Station pastoralist Lara Jensen with her children Gordon, 5, and Alice, 4, and Matilda, 2, her sister Annemaree Jensen, mother and father Catherine and Laurie Jensen (third from right), with Beverley resident George Smith, and Perth resident Milly Dempster, and Moore MLA Shane Love, at the Yarramony Rail Crossing where Christian Jensen, Hilary Smith and Jess Broad were killed on July 8, 2000.
Camera IconWondingong Station pastoralist Lara Jensen with her children Gordon, 5, and Alice, 4, and Matilda, 2, her sister Annemaree Jensen, mother and father Catherine and Laurie Jensen (third from right), with Beverley resident George Smith, and Perth resident Milly Dempster, and Moore MLA Shane Love, at the Yarramony Rail Crossing where Christian Jensen, Hilary Smith and Jess Broad were killed on July 8, 2000. Credit: Alison Cooke

Some of WA’s most well-known pastoral and farming families have joined a national push for immediate safety improvements at level crossings in regional areas.

The families say lives are being put at risk by poor visibility on trains travelling through the regions, with just one in five Australian rail crossings having boom gates or lights.

Wondinong Station pastoralist Lara Jensen recently penned a letter to The Nationals’ new leader Barnaby Joyce, calling for Federal action on safety at level crossings.

Ms Jensen’s brother Christian and two of his friends, Hilary Smith and Jess Broad, were killed when their car was hit by a wheat train at the passive Yarramony Crossing on July 8, 2000.

Ms Jensen wrote the letter to Mr Joyce on behalf of seven families that had lost family members at passive level crossings in regional WA and New South Wales.

The families have thrown their support behind Orange resident Maddie Bott, whose fiance Ethan Hunter was killed by a freight train in NSW in March.

“We are calling for an immediate commitment to increasing safety measures at all passive level crossings, Australia-wide,” Ms Jensen said.

“This is a Federal issue and must be treated with the utmost importance given the long overdue attention it deserves.”

Ms Jensen called for three major changes, including:

  • The installation of flashing amber lights across the front of train roofs to increase visibility
  • Providing ultra-high frequency radio communication on channel 40 to trains so drivers may alert truck drivers of arrival or other potential dangers
  • Implementing solar-powered, flashing red lights on top of the level crossing warning posts, to automatically flash when a train is within 5km of a passive crossing.

Ms Jensen said the lights should be activated by a low-powered, dedicated frequency radio transmitter with a 5km range.

Christian Jensen and Lara Jensen.
Camera IconChristian Jensen and Lara Jensen. Credit: Lara Jensen
Jess Broad and Hilary Smith.
Camera IconJess Broad and Hilary Smith. Credit: Lara Jensen

Ms Bott circulated a 20,000-signature petition calling on the NSW Government to implement a raft of changes.

Her fiance Mr Hunter and his work colleague Mark Fenton were hit by freight train and killed at a passive level crossing 70km north-west of Young, in NSW, in March.

The pair were in a B-double road-train truck carting gypsum across a farm, and were killed at a crossing that only had a sign saying “stop and look for train”.

Ms Jensen’s brother Christian and two friends were also killed at a passive level crossing called Yarramony, near Jennacubbine, on July 8, 2000.

“A lack of signage and rumble strips, as well as poor train lighting and overgrown vegetation all contributed to the triple fatality,” Ms Jensen said.

“My brother was an experienced, careful and conscientious bush driver who was not speeding or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

“He and his two friends simply did not see that train.”

Melrose Station pastoralist Merrilea Broad’s 18-year-old daughter Jess was killed at the Yarramony Crossing.

She holds grave concerns about the increase in people travelling regionally this year because of Australia’s border closures.

“It is the passive crossings that are a far bigger worry,” Ms Broad said.

“I got in contact with Maddie Bott because I felt we had a lot of historical data, and we may be able to help them.”

Seven years before the fatal accident at Yarramony, 22-year-old Amanda Dempster was killed at Grass Valley when she was hit by the Prospector train in 1993.

Her sister Milly Dempster was among a group of nine that met with Moore MLA and shadow transport minister Shane Love at Yarramony Crossing last Thursday to mark 21 years since the fatal accident.

Mr Love and WA Nationals leader Mia Davies this week said they were committed to working with the families to “make the case for change”.

“It’s been more than 20 years since these families tragically lost their loved ones and they still haven’t seen the changes to prevent others from suffering the same trauma,” Ms Davies said.

“The changes these families are calling for, such as solar-powered, flashing red lights on top of level crossing warning posts, are basic but vital safety improvements that can help improve rail crossings in all regional areas, nationwide.”

We are calling for an immediate commitment to increasing safety measures at all passive JU level crossings, Australia-wide.

Lara Jensen

After a coronial inquest into the Yarramony Crossing deaths, then-WA coroner Alastair Hope called for immediate action to install some form of external axillary lighting on locomotives which would provide an effective warning to motor vehicle drivers, to serve in addition to ditch lighting. That measure was never implemented.

The accident was also the catalyst for the implementation of the Rail Safety National Law by the Council of Australian Governments in 2009, in a bid to administer a nationally consistent law — with the National Safety Regulator becoming operational in 2013.

“Clearly the value of human life has still not outweighed the inconvenience for government of making legislative changes in the interests of public safety,” Ms Jensen said.

“It’s been more than 20 years since these families tragically lost their loved ones and they still haven’t seen the changes to prevent others from suffering the same trauma.”Mia Davies

Ms Jensen said she believed Australia’s railway industry — worth $26 billion to the national economy — should be on the “front foot” of public safety.

“Yet people continue to lose their lives at level crossings around Australia,” she said.

Crossing lights — located at the bottom of the train to illuminate opposite sides of the track — are the only mandatory change of train illumination in more than five decades.

Ms Jensen has also requested the support of the CWA of WA, and the WA Nationals. CWA of WA president Elaine Johnson has also penned a letter to Mr Joyce, calling for Ms Jensen’s requests to be actioned and highlighting the “trauma several families” had experienced “due to the loss of loved ones on level crossing sites”.

There were 84 fatalities reported on Australian railways in the 2019-20 financial year.

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