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

Melissa Davey
Photograph: Ellen Smith/AAP

The driver of the Sydney-to-Melbourne express passenger train who was killed when the train derailed emailed a friend less than a month before the tragedy outlining faults with the track.

John Kennedy, 54, from Canberra, was killed when the train derailed on Thursday night at Wallan, 60km north of Melbourne. His 49-year-old pilot, from Castlemaine in regional Victoria, was also killed in the accident, while 11 of the 160 passengers were injured.

Investigators continue to sift through the wreck as questions have been raised about the maintenance of the train and railway line, signalling, and the speed of the train at the time.

In an email dated 3 February, Kennedy wrote to his friend, Australian National University professor Clive Williams, that numerous trips along the same rail line had been precarious.

Related: Victoria train crash: investigators to look into speed as possible factor in XPT derailment

“… my last six Melbourne return trips have been very late or cancelled mainly due to train fault issues, 3 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.

Williams told Guardian Australia that he and Kennedy became friends over their mutual interest in a fast train service between Canberra and Sydney. Kennedy invited Williams to travel with him on routes from Canberra to get a better understanding of the rail system, which he did several times.

“We had trouble on the Albury to Melbourne sector, it’s not a very good track” Williams said. “There was a lot of jumping and bumping around and it was quite violent.

“He was a genuine train enthusiast, and he died doing what he loved doing. It’s just so sad because it’s really down to politicians, who should be putting more money into a railway system that’s falling apart at the seams. What I’d like to see at the next Coag meeting is an action item to do something about regional rail, because it’s a disgrace that Australia has a rail system worse than many developing countries.

“When I heard about the crash I was hoping it wasn’t John, but there are only two or three drivers doing that route. He was an easygoing and well-liked person who at one point had been a manager in NSW rail, but he much preferred driving.

The Rail, Tram and Bus Union secretary Luba Grigorovitch said it was a disgrace that the signalling box had been out of operation for about three weeks. On about 3 February, a truck collided with an Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) power cable that feeds the Wallan signal box, starting a fire. That fire left the signals inoperable along a section of the rail line.

The line continued operating at full speed, with the pilot having to manually navigate the XPT through the affected section. It is not yet known at what speed the XPT was travelling immediately prior to the incident.

ARTC’s rules allow for trains to continue at normal speeds while under the control of a pilot under such conditions. However, Victoria operators V-Line and Metro Trains Melbourne impose an automatic speed restriction of 25kmh.

“Can you imagine if traffic lights on a busy intersection took three weeks to get fixed?” Grigorovitch said. “Of course that wouldn’t be acceptable. Unfortunately it does happen a bit too much. Whether it’s mud holes on a track or broken signals, regional rail has been neglected for so long it’s put lives at risk.”

“Our members are hurting, and our hearts go out the families and friends of the two workers who were killed. But along with our grief, the rail community is also angry at the federal government for its failure to invest in a safe and reliable 21st century interstate rail network.”
Grigorovitch said there were likely a range of contributing factors to the derailment. “The Melbourne-Sydney rail line should be the jewel in the crown of Australia’s interstate rail network,” she said. “Instead, it’s known within the industry as the ‘goat track’ because it is in such bad condition.”