The quest to understand how a passenger train’s routine detour onto a siding became a death ride for its veteran driver and local pilot is focusing on three potential catalysts for catastrophe: track, speed and signals.
The double-track “loop” at the crash scene near Wallan, about 60km north of Melbourne, allows trains to pass in safety, although this time it was being used so a maintenance crew could work on the main line.
It was on that siding where the driver, 54-year-old Canberra man John Kennedy, lost his life in Thursday’s derailment, along with his as-yet-unnamed pilot, 49, who also died when their locomotive tumbled off the tracks and flipped onto its side.
Eleven passengers were injured when the train turned onto the siding, which had not been used for two weeks, the ABC has reported.
Shortly before the crash, Mr Kennedy was reported to have promised passengers via the train’s public address system that he would be trying “to make up for lost time”, a comment that has had investigators looking into the speed the train was travelling.
On Friday it also emerged that automatic trackside signals weren’t operational as the result of a fire which damaged a vital signal hut and left that stretch of track under manual control.
“That signal has been out of action because of that fire. It has really put the signalling out of action between Donnybrook and Kilmore East,” said Rail Futures Institute president John Hearsch.
Instead of the normal signalling system, Mr Kennedy was being guided by the local pilot, who knew the track and conditions intimately and would have been simultaneously in touch by radio with a controller in NSW.
And then there is the condition of the track itself.
— Harley (@HarlsPOV1) February 20, 2020
“It was built in a hell of a hurry. It is fair to say we have had some trouble ever since,” said Mr Hearsch, who noted the stretch of rail was infamous for its “mud holes”, especially after a downpour.
“It is not properly supported .. we have had a bit of rain lately and they tend to get worse,” Mr Hearsch said.
The fatal crash, which also injured 11 passengers, was not the first mishap on that section of the key Melbourne-Albury-Sydney route. It came less than two weeks after services resumed on February 10 following an incident with a V/Line passenger train and a derailed freight train near Barnawartha in late January.
Rail Train and Bus Union Victorian Secretary Luba Grigorovitch confirmed that V/Line drivers had “refused to traverse this section over the past week”.
“The Sydney to Melbourne XPT train derailment near Wallan Station last night occurred over a section of track which was awaiting maintenance,” Mr Grigorovitch said in a statement.
“Conditions were altered and V/Line drivers rightly refused to traverse this section over the past week.”
A V/Line driver operating a train from Albury to Melbourne last Monday refused to continue along the line due to safety concerns after the fire. V/Line declined to comment.
The federal government-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) operates the track and is understood to be responsible for the signalling.
“We are providing full support to the investigation which will look at all potential factors,” the ARTC statement to AAP reads.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who visited the scene on Friday, stressed multiple times that no authority, state or federal, would ever, under any circumstances, allow a train run on unsafe track.
“That just wouldn’t happen,” he said as workers prepared to right the locomotive, which remained where it come to rest.
“Passenger safety is first and foremost.”
While the Deputy Prime Minister was adamant rail authorities would not put passengers at risk, deputy leader of the Victorian Nationals, Steph Ryan, said she had been worried about the state of the line “for years”.
“The reality is that this line has been beset by problems now for the best part of a decade,” she said.
Ms Ryan said that while investigations were just beginning, “we do know this section of the line has been the cause of numerous delays on the V/Line service over the last week or so”.
While Transport for NSW operates the trains on this track, NSW Regional Transport Minister Paul Toole said he wasn’t aware of concerns about the track’s condition.
The North East line has been plagued by concerns for years and was described in 2010 as “a disaster waiting to happen”.
The Federal and State Governments signed a $235 million agreement in 2019 to upgrade the infrastructure, but work has not yet commenced.
The Australian Transport Safety Board will produce its preliminary report in a month before a final version not expected until mid-2021.