It's Friday afternoon in the unassuming town of Grenfell, west of Sydney, and a group of friends and family are coming together for a drink and a chat.
The Esky is full. The hugs are warm. The vibe is peaceful. It's the sort of get-together 27-year-old Ethan Hunter would have loved.
Those gathered at Grenfell's cemetery have come to share photos and memories of Ethan, after he was killed in a railway crossing accident earlier this year.
"There's just no words good enough for the person Ethan was," fiancé Maddie Bott says.
"He would do anything for anyone … he was so beautiful.
"I miss him so much … life will never ever be the same without him here."
Maddie and Ethan were due to marry in March and looked forward to starting a family.
In February, a freight train slammed into the truck Ethan was driving with 50-year-old workmate Mark Fenton as they crossed between farms, killing them both.
The crossing has no lights or boom gates — just a stop sign with the message "look for trains" — like most of Australia's 23,000 rail crossings.
Maddie often visits the gravesite after work to say g'day to her partner of eight years.
As dusk falls, this is everyone else's chance to have one final beer with him.
Ethan's best friend twists open a lager and drives the bottle into the soil, as friends pin photos to a board to be erected at the crash site.
"Cheers, to Ethan," they toast at quarter past five — the time of the crash.
"He still drinks as slow as ever," quips a mate.
Campaigning for change
Ethan and Mark's deaths were among three level crossings fatalities nationally during the year to June, according to the rail safety regulator.
Over the past five years, there have been on average three deaths and one serious injury at crossings annually from 38 collisions.
"I went out to the crossing two days after Ethan had died, and I was absolutely horrified that these are our level crossings," Maddie says.
"They're obstructed with vegetation and the gradients are hazardous in themselves.
"It's just not good enough in 2021.
"I lost the love of my life to a preventable death."
Maddie has turned her personal tragedy into a campaign for change.
Weeks after the crash, the nurse launched a petition calling for a debate about crossings in the New South Wales parliament.
"We're petitioning for lights to be mandatory at all level crossings and reflective materials and strobe lights to be made compulsory on locomotives," Maddie says.
To force the issue onto the agenda, Maddie needs 20,000 signatures from residents of the state. Only a fraction of petitions ever reach that threshold.
She's driving to towns across NSW, repeating her story hundreds of times in the hope of creating change.
The day after having a drink with Ethan at the cemetery, Maddie and friends are back on the campaign trail, dropping off posters and pamphlets to businesses throughout western NSW.
"This petition is pretty much the only thing that gets me out of the bed of a morning," she says.
After a day of campaigning, Maddie's small army pulls into the Rabbit Trap Hotel — the local icon in the blink-and-you-miss-it village of Albert.
For Ethan — a mechanic, farmer and country kid at heart — this was going to be the final stop on his buck's party pub crawl.
'What's a life worth?'
Reports over many decades have called for further safety measures to prevent crossing deaths, including strobe lights on trains.
Families affected by this issue say progress is too slow.
"It does feel like a long time ago, but it's still raw," Milly Dempster says.
A Perth-Kalgoorlie passenger train killed Milly's sister Amanda in 1993 as she drove a tractor through the family's farm.
The train line cut the property in half when it was built in the 1960s.
Despite years of complaints, rail authorities only agreed to install flashing lights months before the crash, but they weren't erected in time.
"After all these years … nothing's really ever been implemented," Milly says.
"And it all comes down to money. But what's a life worth really?"
Federal Transport Minister Barnaby Joyce says a review is underway into train visibility.
"We're in the process of trying to see if I can get some further funding," Mr Joyce tells 7.30.
"It's an issue we've got to deal with.
"It's very expensive but it has a profound outcome for the lives that are saved."
Mr Joyce says he is open to trialling lower-cost warning systems, which are also being trialled in NSW.
The Deputy Prime Minister is due to meet with Maddie later in November.
'We'll tackle this one track at a time'
Maddie passed the 20,000 signatures she needed two weeks before the petition closed.
"It was very stressful and very draining emotionally on all of us who walked the streets for many days in different towns talking about our story," she says.
"I just thank my whole family and our friends who have helped us get here … [and] the 20,000 NSW residents that put their name to this petition."
She went to Sydney last week and heard MPs discuss the need for further action.
"Knowing that all these people have said that they're going to help us make level crossings safer, it really makes me feel happy and warm, and like something positive is going to come out of Ethan dying," she says.
"It doesn't matter how long it takes; we're going to tackle this one track at a time.
"I'm prepared to spend the rest of my life fighting for this cause and fighting for Ethan and Mark."
Posted 1h ago1 hours agoTue 16 Nov 2021 at 6:19am, updated 1h ago1 hours agoTue 16 Nov 2021 at 6:39amShareCopy linkFacebookTwitterArticle share optionsShare this onFacebookTwitterLinkedInSend this byEmailMessengerCopy linkWhatsApp