Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) investigators are on the scene of an XPT train derailment north of Melbourne. The derailment claimed the lives of two rail employees and injured several passengers on Thursday evening.
A NSW TrainLink XPT travelling from Sydney to Melbourne derailed near the Hume Freeway at Wallan, roughly 50kms outside of Melbourne, just before 8pm on Thursday evening.
The express passenger train was carrying 153 passengers and five crew at the time of the derailment. Two of those crew members – the driver and the pilot – were killed in the derailment.
Senior ATSB investigators arrived at the scene shortly after 9am Friday morning to commence the formal investigation that will involve Victoria’s Chief Inspector.
Federal and state government officials have confirmed that the ATSB, Work Safe, and the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) will conduct a full and thorough investigation to establish the cause of the incident.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said no authority in Australia would allow a train to travel on an unsafe track as “the ARTC monitors these things very closely and regularly”.
Michael McCormack said investigations will look at every factor, including examining the speed limit, signalling, track maintenance, and interviewing witnesses.
“The track will not be reopened until everything has been looked at properly by authorities,” he said.
Greg Hood, Chief Commissioner and CEO of ATSB said they will start their investigation straight away once Victoria Police hand over custodian to investigators.
“All evidence will be gathered and examined in the next week or so,” Hood said.
Hood said ATSB will endeavour to release a preliminary report in the next 30 days and a full investigation report will follow.
Victoria Police have confirmed the two fatalities in the crash were the driver, a 54-year-old ACT man, and the train pilot, a 49-year-old Castlemaine woman. Dozens of passengers were taken to Northern and Kilmore hospital for minor injuries following the incident.
Acting inspector Peter Fusinato said the initial investigation will take days and must be completed before the wreckage can be cleared.
The derailment caused the train’s engine and first carriage to be left on their side opposite the track. Both the driver and the worker were in the same area of the train when it came off the tracks.
The standard gauge track is operated by the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) and has been damaged due to the derailment.
An ARTC spokesperson said services are suspended until further notice, to allow emergency services to respond to a train derailment.
“We are working hard to support emergency services, NSW TrainLink, and investigators to respond to this tragic accident,” the ARTC spokesperson said.
This incident follows a freight train wagon derailment earlier this month in Barnawartha located south of Wodonga, Victoria that caused 1800 damaged sleepers and 180 metres of damaged rail.
Public Transport Minister Melissa Horne said she had written to the Australian Rail Track Corporation to continue with works on lines in the region after the Barnawartha incident three weeks ago.
“If it’s at all relevant, it will be looked at in the context of this investigation,” Hood said.
James Pinder, V/Line chief executive said the section of track was a “particularly complicated part of the infrastructure” because V/Line trains run alongside XPT trains.
“There are separate signalling systems for the different tracks,” he said.
Pinder confirmed V/Line was operating on the track on Thursday, before the Sydney to Melbourne service derailed.
Paul Toole, NSW minister for regional transport said the government can not speculate what investigations will find.
He said agencies across both Federal and State levels will be working closely together during this situation.
The Victorian Department of Transport said services on the Seymour, Shepparton and Albury lines would be affected by the incident today. The line is expected to remain closed for several days.
Ongoing track fault and delays between Albury and Southern Cross stations had been reported by V/Line’s social media updates in recent days leading up to the incident.
The train left Sydney’s Central Station at 7.40am Thursday morning and was running more than an hour late at the time the accident happened. It was due to arrive at Southern Cross Station in Melbourne at 6.30pm.
Several passengers said the train was gaining speed at the time of the accident after being stopped due to a signalling issue.
One passenger told The Age that signals should have alerted the driver to slow down to be able to move into the side track, but he did not notice the train slowing prior to the derailment.
Four hours before the incident yesterday, the Seymour V/Line Twitter account said the 12:45 Albury to Southern Cross service would be delayed by approximately 70 minutes due to an “ongoing rail equipment fault near Wallan”.
Infrastructure Australia said in December last year that the ARTC’s business case for an upgrade of the Melbourne-Albury North East Rail Line should not be included on its national priority list.
The business stated that Victoria’s regional trains had a self-imposed speed limit of 15km/h on the entire line from Melbourne to Seymour, due to “poor track quality” including mud holes and tight rail alignments.
Last year the Victorian and Federal Government committed $235mil to upgrade the North East line, due to be completed by 2021.
The Border Mail reported on Thursday that north-east train travellers were being asked to allow an extra 60 minutes for trips after a signal hut at Wallan was destroyed by fire earlier this month.
Luba Grigorovitch, Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) state secretary said the section of track was awaiting maintenance.
“Conditions were altered and V/Line drivers rightly refused to traverse this section over the past week,” she said.
“The RTBU is deeply saddened by the tragic accident that has taken the life of two rail workers and unnecessarily injured many more.
“Today marks a difficult day for drivers and rail workers across the state and the RTBU will be here not only to offer support but to ensure a thorough investigation is undertaken.”
The union had refused to operate in that area because it believed the tracks were degraded.
Danuek Bowen from the Public Transport Users Association said serious accidents on the Australian rail network are very rare, “but that makes it even more important to investigate the cause”.
Emergency crews, including from CFA and SES, scoured the tracks and surrounding scrub until 10am Friday morning.
Ambulance Victoria stated that an air ambulance was not required at the scene and a number of people did not require treatment. One passenger was taken by road to the Royal Melbourne Hospital in a stable condition.
The front locomotive carriage remains on its side as the train has not been moved from the position where it derailed.
Results from an engineering report will determine when it’s safe to travel trains on the line again.
Toole confirmed that the NSW regional rail fleet of XPT are 38 years old and have served their purpose. The aged fleet will be replaced in 2023 as part of the $2.8b upgrade with Momentum Trains.
The Express Passenger Train (XPT) travels between Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Dubbo, Grafton and Casino.