As Maddie sat solemnly with her mother, Frances, and sisters, Courtney and Shakaya, in the Cooper Gallery of the rich historic, leathery green chambers at 6 Macquarie Street, she witnessed proof that one person’s resolve could make a difference.
Sydney is a five-hour journey east from the remote spot where Maddie’s fiance, Ethan Hunter, 27, and his work colleague, Mark Fenton, 50, a father of three, were killed instantly when their b-double truck collided with a northbound train in February 2021.
The private level crossing near Bribbaree, on the western fringes of the NSW South West Slopes, was signposted but Maddie contends that better visibility, brighter warning signage and more conspicuous trains may have meant Ethan and Mark would be alive today.
Few people are more aware of that than those who gathered at Grenfell Bowling Club to watch the livestreamed debate, including Ethan’s parents, John and Angela Hunter, and family, friends and representatives of Transport for NSW, Weddin, Cowra and Hilltops councils, Lachlan Regional Transport Committee, NSW Farmers and the Country Women’s Association of NSW.
And then there were the families across Australia who have lost relatives in level crossing accidents who joined Maddie in her fight to be heard through a change.org petition which segued into a parliamentary petition, garnering 20,011 signatures.
Member for Cootamundra Steph Cooke urged Maddie to petition NSW Parliament requesting mandatory warning lights at all level crossings; a decrease in highway speed limits approaching level crossings; and increased visibility measures on trains.
Ms Cooke said level crossing safety strikes a chord with every regional community.
“Currently, there are more than 2700 road level crossings on operational lines on the NSW railway network – 1360 on public roads, and the remainder on private properties such as farms,” she said. “Of those 1360 level crossings, 434 have active traffic controls such as boom gates and flashing lights, and the other 926 have passive traffic controls such as stop or give-way signs.”
Ms Cooke told NSW Parliament that between 2008 and 2021 there were 84 collisions between trains and cars at level crossings in NSW, resulting in 10 fatalities and 15 serious injuries.
“Maddie, John and Angela have bravely turned this personal tragedy into action, calling for more to be done to improve safety at level crossings,” she said.
Ms Cooke said change had already been achieved with Transport for NSW recently launching new signage and reducing speed limits on approach to railway level crossings at various locations throughout the region.
She said it is important to note safety also involved issues with the visibility of rolling stock.
“[This] falls under the responsibility of the Australian Government and is why Maddie and I look forward to meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce in coming weeks,” said Ms Cooke.
The petition triggered an uncommonly concordant debate among ministers and MPs from both sides of the NSW Legislative Assembly, in a poignant 30 minutes of dialogue commending Maddie’s efforts and highlighting the ever-increasing NSW level crossing road toll.
NSW Minister for Regional Transport and Roads Paul Toole said he is wholeheartedly committed to making a difference.
He told NSW Parliament a rail safety working group has been formed to investigate railway crossing safety solutions and, as the result of a Transport for NSW international roundtable, trials of emerging technology are slated along with investment in crossing upgrades and the reduction of speed limits at all active crossings.
“The deputy prime minister has already publicly committed to a review into train visibility in Australia, and to look at a number of other options to help to make level crossings safer for everyone,” said Mr Toole.
Maddie said the petition is just one step in the process of real change, but thanked NSW Shadow Minister for Regional Transport and Roads Jenny Aitchison, Upper Hunter MP David Layzell, Shellharbour MP Anna Watson, Barwon MP Roy Butler and Mr Toole for their support in the parliament.
“All I have to say about today is bipartisan,” said Maddie. “Now the hard work starts.”
“We have everyone talking about rail safety, and today is just a stepping stone we have to jump across. Level crossings will be safe one day and we will keep tackling this one track at a time. We won’t give up.”