'A beautiful soul': families pay tribute to driver and pilot of fatal XPT train crash

Melissa Davey
Photograph: David Crosling/EPA

Days after an express train that derailed in regional Victoria, the families of the driver and pilot who were killed in the tragedy released statements mourning their loss.

Driver John Kennedy, 54, from Canberra, and 49-year-old pilot Sam Meintanis, from Castlemaine in regional Victoria, were killed when the Sydney to Melbourne XPT derailed on Thursday night at Wallan, 60km north of Melbourne. Eleven of the 160 passengers were injured.

Meintanis’ family described him as “a beautiful soul who loved and lived life to the full”.

“He made sure those around him were safe, happy and well cared for, which carried through in everything he did,” their statement said. “Family was everything to him. With him, our life was happy, loving and fun.

Related: Victoria train derailment: driver wrote of faults on line before fatal crash

“He made us all laugh out loud with his storytelling and continuous funny and positive outlook on life. Everyone who knew Sam loved and admired him and saw him as a strong and trusted leader.”

Kennedy’s family described him as someone with a passion for trains who had joined the rail service at 14. “To try and sum John up in a few words would be a gross misrepresentation of how great a husband, father, grandfather, mate and bloke he was,” their statement said.

“His love for the rail never changed. If anything it grew stronger. John enjoyed travelling, cricket, fishing and a good billy tea, but the biggest love of all was his wife and his ever-growing family.”

Transport for New South Wales contractors put the lead locomotive on a specialised flatbed truck about 1pm on Tuesday, while two carriages were lifted on to trucks on Monday night. The trucks were set to leave for Sydney on Wednesday and return later in the week to load the two remaining carriages from the site. Contractors have already begun repairing the tracks ahead of signalling works starting.

A passenger on the train who was in the second carriage, Charmaine Bolte, said prior to the derailment passengers were handed cards with the Transport NSW phone number and website, and were encouraged to make a complaint about the service, including delays due to signalling problems.

“Train staff were very concerned about the delays and stops and starts,” Bolte said. “Before the crash they were asking passengers to complain, telling people who did not have the internet to call Transport NSW and tell them they were blind so that they would not be fobbed off and would have to write down the complaint for them.

“They explained all about the faults and nothing being done about them. Both the driver and train staff were apologetic about the train being late and all of the stops. Most passengers were very good about it.”

Investigators will examine the signalling, maintenance of the train and railway line, and the speed of the train prior to the incident. It was earlier revealed that on 3 February, Kennedy wrote to his friend, Australian National University professor Clive Williams, that numerous trips along the same rail line had been precarious.

“My last six Melbourne return trips have been very late or cancelled mainly due to train fault issues, three of the six runs I was down to one engine, on another trip I had no speedo and the only trip without a train fault was disrupted by the big derailment last week,” Kennedy wrote.

Investigators from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau will release a preliminary report after 30 days, ahead of a final report due in 18 months.