Mother of man killed by train calls government response slow, inadequate

The federal government says it has taken steps to making level crossings safer across the country, in response to the Transportation Safety Board investigation of the death of Moncton's 29-year-old Steven Harel.

Ottawa responds to recommendations arising from investigation into 29-year-old Steven Harel’s death

Diane Harel said she's disappointed by how slowly things are moving to improve safety at railway crossings after her son's death. (CBC)

The federal government says it has taken steps to making level crossings safer across the country, in response to the Transportation Safety Board investigation of the death of Moncton's 29-year-old Steven Harel.

But Harel's mother said very little has changed since her son died two years ago, and people with reduced mobility in Moncton continue to struggle with level crossings.

Steven Harel's motorized wheelchair became stuck at the Robinson Street crossing in downtown Moncton in July 2016 as he was on his way home. He had spent the evening watching movies at a friend's house.

Harel died at the scene. Investigators believe he could have been stuck on the tracks up to 50 minutes before a CN freight train struck him.

Wednesday was the federal minister of transport's deadline to respond to the TSB recommendations made public in February, at the end of an 18-month long investigation into Harel's death.

The independent agency concluded people with reduced mobility continued to face risks when using railway crossings across the country, and more needed to be done to ensure their safety.

Steven Harel, 29, died on July 27, 2016 after his wheelchair got stuck at a level crossing in downtown Moncton. (Diane Harel)

In its report, the TSB said it was concerned with how far behind municipalities were falling on a plan established in 2014 to improve safety at all level crossings across Canada by 2021.

In response, Transport Canada said Transport Minister Marc Garneau sent letters to road authorities, municipalities and provinces urging action.

It also said a working group was created with representatives from railway companies, the Railway Association of Canada and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to "further focus efforts on sharing information to allow railways and road authorities to better manage safety at grade crossings."

'I'm frustrated for my son'

But Steven Harel's mother, Diane Harel, said that is not enough, and she will continue to push for change.

"I'll never stop," said Diane Harel.

"I'm frustrated for my son. Because I lost my son. But I'm still frustrated for the people that want to go by every single day because they have to."

There is an apartment building for people with reduced mobility down the road from the Robinson Street crossing where Steven lost his life, and as a result, many have to use it every day.

Many say despite work by CN since the accident, the Robinson Street crossing remains dangerous for people with reduced mobility. (CBC)

Harel said many of Steven's friends live there, and she will continue to fight for them.

"All of Steven's friends were like children to us. They were like family," she said.

She doesn't understand why things are moving so slowly.

"They have money to spend on other things. Well put it there, where people with reduced mobility pass by every day. They need to do groceries too, they need to go to the doctors'. Do something!" she said.

'It's a real struggle'

Marisol Benoit was one of Steven Harel's friends. She uses a wheelchair and must cross the railroad tracks every day.

"It's a real struggle," said Benoit.

Benoit, who lives down the road, was awakened by the emergency whistle from the train the night of the accident. She was terrified the next day when she found out it was her friend that died.

"I cried and cried..it was really hard," she said. "He was always there when you needed him."

Marisol Benoit, a good friend of Steven Harel, said it has been difficult since he died. (CBC)

Kourtney Stevenson feels the same. She's also a wheelchair user and has occasionally been stuck on railroad tracks.

"It's scary at the time. I know they say they're going to do something and update the standards, but when is that going to happen?" she said.

"People's lives are at risk if they get stuck. It was a tragedy what happened to Steven. I don't want it to happen to me or someone else."

Need better solution

Stevenson and Benoit feel the accident could have been avoided, and are afraid another could happen if improvements aren't enacted.

They would like to see more permanent solutions, like overpasses across the tracks.

"They put in concrete, but it's time they come up with a better solution. Because the concrete is just going to break down over time. And they're going to have to do more work over time," said Stevenson.

Kourtney Stevenson said she gets stuck sometimes at the level crossing, and worries another accident will happen. (CBC)

The city of Moncton hasn't responded to CBC's request for comment.

CN said the crossing was completely redone in 2017, but declined further comment.

The Harel family is suing both parties, as well as the wheelchair manufacturer and supplier, for negligence.

The TSB investigation revealed CN had done work on the asphalt a month before Harel's death, and the reflective white lines meant to guide pedestrians through the crossing at night hadn't yet been repainted.

As a result of the work, there was a small hole in the asphalt at the edge of the sidewalk, where Harel's front wheel became lodged in the gravel, according to investigators.

About the Author

Gabrielle Fahmy

Reporter

Gabrielle Fahmy is a reporter based in Moncton. She's been a journalist with the CBC since 2014.