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Emergency services were called to the scene at the rail crossing near the intersection of State Highway 1 and Hilderthorpe Rd shortly after 11.30am.
The car involved in the crash, which sustained significant damage to its front, was found abandoned on the highway a short distance away.
Senior Constable Bruce Dow, of Oamaru, said the man was driving from the Lower Waitaki Golf Club, in Hilderthorpe Rd, in the direction of the highway, and stopped when he was distracted by rubbish near the rail corridor.
"He actually had stopped because he had seen rubbish on the road. He's quite community-minded, so he's thought about picking it up.
"He's actually stopped and the front of the car, if you imagine the train is wider than the track, was too close. He's looked up and the train was right there."
After the crash, the man walked back to the golf club to call his wife.
KiwiRail South Island general manager of operations Jeanine Benson said the locomotive, which was travelling from Dunedin to Christchurch, was not damaged.
The driver was not injured, but was "relieved of his duties, as is normal procedure".
The incident would be reviewed, she said.