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Off the Rails at Judds Road

With a significant expansion of rail services scheduled for Wairarapa, whether the region’s 30 level crossings are fit for purpose is currently under scrutiny.

The crossing at Judds Road in Masterton is considered particularly problematic by KiwiRail, which has expressed a preference for closing it, although no decision has yet been made.

KiwiRail passenger locomotive at the Judds Road level crossing

“Judds Rd level crossing has got a really short junction,” explained locomotive driver Nick Ellor, who regularly carries passengers and freight on Wairarapa’s line.

“If there’s a couple of cars stacked up, you may not actually get across. Longer vehicles are probably stretching to get a full-size truck through there. If you stop on the crossing when the lights are going you could be in for a doozy,”

Nick Ellor locomotive driver

With 10 deaths on level crossings and 40 very serious near misses nationwide in the past year, driving a locomotive can be nerve-racking at times.

“On a daily basis there’d be at least one – you’d see one person go over a crossing without stopping or without slowing down. You’re just preparing yourself to be in the fastest position possible to put the train into emergency if you need to,” Ellor said.

With the potential closure of Judds Road crossing affecting 900 vehicles that use it daily, solutions to keep the junction open, and safe, are being proposed by a community steering committee that’s chaired by John Cockburn, who owns the Breadcraft factory that constantly has trucks and cars coming and going to its Judds Rd site via Ngaumutawa Rd.

“What we could do is have an advanced warning system, so that barriers actually come down a lot earlier than other crossings. If a vehicle is actually caught in the hatched area, like a long truck, it will be allowed to escape through a special escape lane,” said Cockburn.

John Cockburn at Judds Road level crossing

Given the Judds Road level crossing is also a major connection to the town’s bypass, the possibility of it being shut down is also causing concern within Masterton.

“If it’s closed, 900 vehicles are going to go somewhere else, so instantly you’ve got more traffic on other roads and more emissions,” Cockburn said.

“The emergency services people are also all quite concerned about this because if an ambulance needs to get to someone that’s having a heart attack … the chance of being able to use a defibrillator and actually save that person’s life drops by 10% every minute. We need to get people in here quickly.”

KiwiRail train at the Judds Road train crossing

More than $375 million is earmarked for upgrading the Wairarapa line and the train timetable is set to double, with faster quieter trains capable of running at over 100 kilometres per hour.

Andy Lyons, KiwiRail’s upgrade programme manager, is sympathetic to the local community’s desire to prevent Judds Road from closing.

“That intersection could remain open, but that would have to be done as a roading project separate to the rail upgrade,” he said.

“The solutions that we have been presented with we can work with, but someone has to put their hand in their pocket unfortunately.”

In other words, it’d be up to Masterton District Council and local groups to pay for it.

And there’s another proviso: “We’d need to see that the funding was secure and arranged and get some surety by November,” Lyons said.

The present day bells and signalling at Judds Rd

Local MP Kieran McAnulty is advocating for keeping Wairarapa’s level crossings open, including Judds Rd.

“The council will have to stump up. But how much they stump up is a matter for them,” he said.

“And I’ve said that, as local MP, I will go away and push for the remainder to be filled by the government somehow.”

The estimate for the community steering group’s proposed new road layout is currently $1.5 million – and the clock is ticking.

Phil Stebbing
Phil Stebbing
Phil Stebbing is Wairarapa’s Local Focus video journalist. He regularly covers in-depth stories on arts, culture, people, health, and the occasional cat.

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