Train derailment: drivers refused to use section of track where XPT crashed, killing two

Calla Wahlquist and Melissa Davey

A section of track near Wallan where a train derailed, killing two people on Thursday night, was awaiting maintenance and Victorian train drivers had refused to drive on it, the Rail Tram and Bus Union has said.

The XPT from Sydney to Melbourne, with 153 passengers on board, came off the tracks near Wallan, about 45km by rail north of Melbourne, just before 8pm.

It had been due to arrive in Melbourne at 6.30pm and was running more than two hours behind schedule.

The union’s state secretary, Luba Grigorovitch, said she was “deeply saddened” by the accident which had killed the train driver and train pilot, and “unnecessarily” injured passengers.

“The Sydney to Melbourne XPT train derailment near Wallan Station last night occurred over a section of track over which was awaiting maintenance,” Grigorovitch said. “Conditions were altered and V/Line drivers rightly refused to traverse this section over the past week.”

On Friday morning the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, was at the scene and described it as “a very tragic day”.

He offered condolences to the families of those killed – a 54-year-old driver from the Australian Capital Territory and his co-pilot, a 49-year-old man from Victoria, who both died at the scene.

He said the union claim that the track was in need of maintenance was a matter for investigators, and that he was unaware of driver complaints about the track.

“No authorities would let a train go on on an unsafe track and engineering scopes and safety inspections are conducted on tracks … That happens all the time so public safety, passenger safety is first and foremost,” McCormack said.

“I welcome the unions to partake in those investigations. I invite the unions to put all those matters to the proper authorities so that we can fully investigate what has taken place beforehand and of course, what took place last night. I reiterate no authority would let passengers travel on unsafe track. We will ensure that proper answers are found for the bereaved families and making sure these sorts of things don’t happen again.”

Meanwhile police were trying to confirm the exact passenger number on Friday, urging anyone who was on the train but who had not spoken with emergency services, or who purchased a ticket but did not board the train, to call Seymour Police Station.

Victoria police Inspector Peter Koger said there had been a number of passengers “scrambling and trying to get off the train” when first responders arrived.

“There was a number of passengers that had already alighted from the train and there were still some on the train,” he said. “The first responders to it established control of the scene and ensured that the passengers were escorted off the train and taken to a contact point where we can account for them and then they were treated.”

Passengers told reporters at the scene the train had been gaining speed when the crash occurred, after having been stopped near Wallan due to a signalling issue, but did not seem to be up to full speed.

The crash caused several carriages to come off the track, with the engine and the first carriage lying on their side.

McCormack said it was too soon to know how fast the train was travelling before the crash.

“I’m not aware of what speed the train was travelling at … I’m not aware of at the moment what section of the track and what speed limit was placed on that section of the track,” he said. “So, that become part of the investigations by the national rail safety regulator and by the state authorities, both NSW and Victoria.”

Related: Two dead after Sydney to Melbourne XPT train derails in Victoria

One passenger, a man in his 60s, was flown to the Royal Melbourne Hospital with upper body injuries but Ambulance Victoria said he was in a stable condition.

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Eleven other passengers were taken to nearby hospitals – three to Kilmore hospital, eight to Northern hospital – with minor injuries.

The cause of the crash is not yet known, but V/Line had regularly warned passengers of delays to services to Albury on the Seymour/Sydney line this week due to “rail equipment faults at Wallan”.

An upgrade of the Melbourne to Albury rail link, on which the XPT travels, was assessed by Infrastructure Australia last year but deemed that it “should not be included on the Infrastructure priority list at this time”.

Passengers reported being tossed around the carriage.

Dr Scott Rickard, from Canberra, said she and her husband used the airline brace position to stay in their seats when their carriage, which was the first one behind the engine, left the tracks and came to rest on an angle.

“We thought the carriage was going to go 360 degrees at one point, but that didn’t happen,” she said.

Other passengers fell out of their seats and across the aisle, landing on top of other passengers. The train conductor, who had been in their carriage handing out complaint slips for passengers annoyed that it had already been subject to lengthy delays, began checking if people were ok.

Some received minor injuries, but Rickard said everyone was able to get up and jump down from the carriage to the tracks. It was immediately obvious the driver had been badly injured, Rickard said.

“He seemed like a lovely man,” she said. “He was very warm and generous talking to us on the intercom.”

Rickard and her husband boarded the XPT at Yass Junction, hoping for a quiet trip in Melbourne to make up for a summer in Canberra where bushfire smoke aggravated her asthma. They booked a return ticket, and say they haven’t been put off rail travel.

“It’s not going to change my outlook on trains,” she said. “I just want them to be better maintained and for there to be more of them.”

Emergency responders at the scene of the train derailment near Wallan station. Photograph: Karen Sweeny/EPA

One passenger, James Ashburner, said the carriage he was travelling in was tilted 30 degrees to the right when it finally stopped. He said emergency services took 20 minutes to arrive, and that the response was “exemplary” and “immensely reassuring”.

Acting police Inspector Peter Fusianto told reporters at the scene that it was lucky more people had not died.

“As a first responder who turned up, it would have looked like a horrific scene,” Fusianto said. The outcome, it’s unfortunate we lost two lives, but with 153 passengers, the outcome was probably far greater than what you would have anticipated when you first turned up.”

A spokesman for Victoria police said they were removing the bodies from the train on Friday morning and awaiting the arrival of investigators from the National Rail Safety Regulator, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau and WorkSafe, who will all investigate the crash.

The Victorian and New South Wales transport ministers, and the chief executive of V/Line, toured the site on Friday.

Police will also prepare a report for the coroner.

They are seeking information about 20 passengers, who are believed to have evacuated before emergency services arrived. Those passengers have been asked to come forward to confirm they are uninjured.

Ambulance Victoria said they received an emergency call at 7.45pm.

Passengers were triaged in the carpark of a BP service station, some 200m from the crash site. Almost all had been transferred to hospital, picked up by relatives, or transported by bus to Melbourne by 11pm.

All V/Line train services to Seymour, Shepparton and Albury have been replaced by buses until further notice.