Last week, chilly winds and threatening rain failed to dampen the spirits of a small group of people gathered at a level railway crossing near the village of Bribbaree, west of Young.
It was an occasion that called for sober celebration, one that was termed bittersweet for one young woman who attended, as her loss has been the state’s – and possibly the nation’s – gain.
Trucks and cars increasingly lined Mary Gilmore Way as NSW transport minister Jenny Aitchison praised the efforts of former local nurse Maddie Bott, who has campaigned for better safety measures at passive level rail crossings since the death of her fiancé in 2021.
On Friday (7 July), Maddie saw the results of those efforts at the unveiling of new battery and solar-powered advance warning lights and illuminated stop signs.
Replacing passive stop signs, now radar-activated orange ‘wig wag’ lights will flash if the motorist is not slowing down to prepare to stop at the level crossing.
Additionally, LED stop sign lights will remain constantly illuminated in daylight to increase driver awareness of the stop sign at the level crossing, flashing if the incoming driver still doesn’t slow to stop.
Closed-circuit television will monitor the performance of the system at each site and the data will be analysed to ensure safety at the three crossings improves.
The Bribbaree enhancement is one of three deployed across the state as part of a $1.8 million two-year state government trial. The other two have been installed at passive railway crossings near the western NSW town of Narromine.
The level crossing on Mary Gilmore Way has been the scene of two serious train and truck collisions in recent years.
In February 2020, a driver from the Riverina town of The Rock was travelling northeast on Mary Gilmore Way when his truck collided with the front wagons of a freight train.
That crash resulted in a derailment but the driver escaped the wreckage.
In December 2022, a second major collision occurred at the same crossing when a prime mover, travelling west on Mary Gilmore Way, collided with an eastbound freight train.
The impact caused the trailer to break away from the prime mover. However, the truck driver – a man aged 50 – was not injured.
These collisions happened just kilometres away from a private rail crossing on Eurabba Station where two Grenfell men lost their lives on 23 February 2021.
Ethan Hunter, 27, and work colleague Mark Fenton, 50, were transporting gypsum on the property when the B-double they were travelling in collided with a freight train.
The collision sparked a fire, causing the truck to burst into flames, claiming the lives of the two men.
Ethan was set to marry Maddie Bott that Easter, and Mark Fenton was the father of three young children.
A parliamentary petition launched by Maddie after the tragedy gathered more than 21,000 signatures.
The petition was presented in the NSW Parliament on 11 November 2021, calling for all level crossings to be made safer, including the introduction of mandatory warning lights.
The Emerging Technologies branch of Transport for NSW was directed by the NSW Government to develop technology trials designed to improve level crossing safety.
In addition to these trials, 103 NSW level crossings have now had their approach speed limits decreased to 80 km/h or lower, as part of the Level Crossing Speed Zone Reduction Program, which was completed last month.
Maddie told media gathered to see the trial technology come to life that the moment was bittersweet for her.
“I just want Ethan to be known and always remembered as the beautiful person he was and the reason why rail safety is going to improve in Australia,” she said.
She said her next focus would be ensuring all trains were properly illuminated and has asked the NSW rail industry to step up like the NSW Government has.
Local MP Steph Cooke said she was very pleased to have the trial underway in the Cootamundra electorate as part of ongoing efforts to improve safety at railway level crossings in regional areas.
“It is my hope that the data collated at Bribbaree will lead to a broader rollout of the technology to passive level crossings in other parts of the electorate,” she said.
“We have seen how the rollout of flashing lights at school zones, for example, has helped to boost driver safety and awareness, and this trial is an important step in response to calls for a boost to level crossing safety.”