Freight Rail, Safety, Standards & Regulation

Funding refused for Whyalla runaway investigation

The South Australian government has declined to fund a full investigation into the July runaway of an empty train through the Whyalla steelworks yard in South Australia.

Initial investigatory work by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) following the July 31 incident found the train reached speeds of 51km/h on track with a permitted speed of 15km/h, passed over eight level crossings, and crossed a railway track used to move rail wagons carrying molten iron, during its runaway.

However the expiry of a funding agreement between the South Australian government and the ATSB meant that in this case, the decision was left to the state as to whether the investigation should be completed in full.

“The Government of South Australia informed the ATSB that they considered additional investigatory effort would not provide any increased understanding of the root cause of the incident, and had decided not to fund any ongoing activities,” the Bureau said this week.

The ATSB’s initial work with the train’s operator, Genesee & Wyoming Australia, suggested that while the train’s driver was transferring control from remote equipment to the locomotive cab, a pneumatic connection was closed before the brake pipe had been exhausted. This, combined with an undetected fault on one of the two locomotives, resulted in all brakes releasing and the subsequent train runaway.

“Within the steelworks, GWA operated trains using a single driver. The driver controlled the locomotive through a combination of cab controls and remote control equipment depending on the task (transiting, loading, unloading),” the Bureau said in its summary.

“At about 0815 (Central Standard Time) on 31 July 2019, a driver was connecting a pair of locomotives to an empty rake of wagons using the remote control equipment. The driver was in the process of transferring control from the remote control to the locomotive cab. At about 0824, while in the locomotive cab, the driver noticed that the train was beginning to move backwards, towards the steelworks.

“At that time, the removable locomotive control handles were not in their normal location, so the driver was unable to operate the train’s airbrakes. The driver attempted to stop the train by applying the mechanical handbrake outside the locomotive cab, but this had no effect. With the train accelerating, the driver chose to jump off while the train was moving at low speed, and alert train control.”

The runaway lasted about 11 minutes, during which time the train travelled about six kilometres without a driver in control. Fortunately the track levelled out, the train slowed itself and stopped on the steelworks balloon loop.

With the government’s decision not to fund a full investigation, the ATSB’s work will be discontinued at this time. The Bureau said the South Australian government is committed to working towards a new funding agreement to replace the expired one.