Smashed remains of one of the four-wheel carriages on the Ballarat train in Victoria’s Sunshine Railway Disaster, 1908. Photo: Coroner’s inquiry into the Sunshine railway disaster, p. 85.
Aerial view of the disaster scene at Granville, New South Wales, following Australia’s worst railway accident on 18 January 1977. Photo: Blue Mountains City Library, Local Studies Collection PF 1472-3.
Worst Railway Accidents in Each Australian State
14 November 2021
Railways are generally one of the safest forms of public transport. Nevertheless, accidents do occur, sometimes with terrible consequences. This article briefly outlines the worst railway accident in each Australian state.
The Sunshine Railway Disaster in 1908 was the worst railway accident in Victorian history. It occurred when a train from Bendigo crashed into the rear of a stationary train from Ballarat at Sunshine station, killing 44 people and injuring at least 400.
Monday 20 April 1908 was Easter Monday and that night many travellers were returning to Melbourne at the end of the long weekend. A train that departed from Ballarat was hauled by AA Class 4-4-0 locomotive 534 and A Class 4-4-0 locomotive 202, and consisted of two vans and 11 passenger carriages. Another train from Bendigo was hauled by AA Class locomotives 564 and 544, and consisted of a post van, horse box, six passenger carriages, a guard’s van and a louvre van. Around 1000 passengers were on the two trains.
Both trains were crowded and running behind schedule. The Ballarat train arrived at Sunshine first, at 10.47 pm. Since the train was too long for the platform the train made two stops. Passengers in the forward carriages alighted, and the driver then began to ease the train forward to enable passengers in the rear carriages to alight. Before the train stopped again, the train from Bendigo crashed into its rear with horrific results. The official estimate of its speed was 42 or 43 miles per hour (67.6 or 69.2 km/h).
Four passenger carriages and the guard’s van at the rear of the Ballarat train were destroyed by the impact, the carriages being smashed to matchwood. Debris was strewn across the platforms and tracks at the station. All of the dead and most of the injured passengers were on the Ballarat train.
Subsequent tests on the brakes of the locomotive and train found that the equipment should have been sufficient to stop the train before reaching the station at Sunshine. A coronial inquiry found the driver of the first engine on the Bendigo train, Leonard Milburn, the driver of the second engine, Gilbert Dolman, and Station Master at Sunshine, Frederick Kendall, were guilty of manslaughter due to culpable negligence. Milburn and Dolman were committed for trial in the Supreme Court of Victoria, where the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Charges against Kendall were withdrawn.
Leonard Milburn was dismissed from the Victorian Railways but Gilbert Dolman continued to be employed as a driver. Frederick Kendall was dismissed, but later reinstated and transferred to Melbourne as a clerk.
Tasmania’s worst railway accident occurred when an express train running from Launceston to Hobart derailed on a horseshoe bend near Campania, on 15 February 1916. The train was being hauled by M1, class leader of the M Class 4-4-2+2-4-4 Garratts that commenced service in 1912. These locomotives were equipped with two engines powered by a single boiler and were operated simultaneously by one set of driving controls. At about 4.00 pm the train approached a well-known horseshoe bend located about three miles north of Campania, which is around 29 miles (47 km) north of Hobart. It was driven by Louis Goodchild and the fireman was Doug Bessell. Around 200 passengers were on board. Goodchild slowed the train as it approached the bend, but as it was leaving the bend the leading bogies of the Garratt’s rear engine became derailed. The derailment threw the locomotive off the tracks, and it turned over as it went down an embankment. The first passenger carriage followed the locomotive, while the second veered to the left. Both carriages were largely smashed to matchwood. Driver Goodchild was trapped in the locomotive while fireman Bessell was thrown out. Despite being badly scalded, Goodchild attempted to minimise the risk of explosion by opening the steam valves. When later receiving attention, he was reported to have said, “Leave me lads, go to the others” and “Oh! My God! My poor passengers!” Goodchild was taken to Hobart General Hospital but died the following day.
Seven people died, including the driver, and 33 were injured. The passengers who died were mostly in the first carriage of the train, which was smashed when the locomotive fell back on it. The accident took place during the First World War, and among the passengers were a number of soldiers returning from leave to Brighton Camp, and other young men heading there to enlist. One soldier was killed and ten were injured, but others assisted in the rescue work. A Board of Enquiry was established by Tasmanian Government Railways. The cause of the accident was found to be excessive speed.
The worst railway accident in Western Australia occurred on the night of 6 November 1920. Nine people were killed after a train ran out of control on a steep gradient approaching Wokalup, near Bunbury. A privately-operated Millars’ Timber and Trading Company train of around 32 government-owned wagons was running from the company’s mill at Mornington to Wokalup. The train was being hauled by Jubilee, a Baldwin locomotive, which was running tender first. As well as the train crew, on board the train were around ten mill workers riding on the wagons, which were carrying 4000 sleepers and had an estimated total weight of 600 tons (610 tonnes). It departed from Mornington shortly before 9.00 pm.
The train was around 300 metres in length and ran out of control as it descended a steep gradient, varying between 1 in 30 (3.33%) and 1 in 40 (2.5%). It gathered speed until it reached an estimated 70 to 80 miles per hour (113 to 129 km/h). Upon reaching a sharp curve the locomotive and every wagon except the last two were derailed. The wagons piled on top of each other, creating wreckage about 25 feet (8 m) high.
Riding on the footplate of the locomotive was Christopher Wilton, the Mornington Mill’s traffic manager, Clarence Cook, the driver, and Thomas Wilton, who was the fireman and also the son of Christopher Wilton. Christopher Wilton jumped off the locomotive shortly before the crash and suffered only a slight scratch. Sadly, his son Thomas was killed in the crash, while Clarence Cook sustained a broken leg. Seven men riding on the wagons were also killed as sleepers and debris from the derailed wagons tumbled on to them. John Paulson, the guard of the train, died later in hospital. The locomotive and most of the wagons were completely destroyed in the crash. A mill worker riding on the last wagon hurried to Wokalup and raised the alarm. A train was later sent from Mornington with workers from the mill, who searched the debris for anyone who may have been trapped. The injured were conveyed to Bunbury Hospital.
Queensland’s worst railway accident killed 16 people following the derailment of a picnic train near Camp Mountain. The train was conveying passengers to a picnic at Closeburn on 5 May 1947, which was the Labour Day public holiday. It was hauled by C17 Class locomotive No. 824, which was followed by a water gin and six passenger carriages. Closeburn and Camp Mountain were located on the Dayboro branch, which has since been truncated to Ferny Grove.
The train departed from Central station in Brisbane at 8.59 am. Beyond Newmarket it climbed slowly until it reached the top of the grade between Ferny Grove and Camp Mountain. From here it began to descend through various eight-chain (160-metre) and five-chain (100-metre) curves on 1 in 55 and 1 in 66 gradients. It then reached a six-chain (120-metre) curve to the left, on which the engine and tender turned over on their right-hand sides. The water gin detached from the locomotive and the tank was lifted up from the frame before ploughing through the first carriage of the train, causing huge damage. The second carriage telescoped and veered to the right, while the leading end of the third carriage became interlocked with the trailing end of the second carriage, derailing its front bogie. Prior to the accident the length of the locomotive, tender, water gin and first three carriages was 238 feet 5 inches (73.5 metres). As a result of the telescoping in the crash, these vehicles were compressed to a distance of 134 feet (40.8 metres).
The engine driver, H C Hind, was trapped for around six hours before being freed by rescuers, but died in hospital the following day. Fireman A C Knight was killed instantly in the crash. Fourteen passengers were killed, bringing the total to 16 dead, while 38 were injured.
A Court of Inquiry established following the accident found that the primary cause was the overturning of the locomotive tender, which itself had been caused by the excessive speed of the train at the location of the crash. It was estimated that the speed of the tender when it overturned was 51 miles per hour (82 km/h), which was well in excess of the 20 miles per hour (32 km/h) permitted on curves on the Dayboro Line. Driver Hind had not previously travelled over the section where the accident occurred and was being taught the road by Fireman Knight. The accident was not caused in any way by defects in the track or rolling stock. However, the leading bogie castings on the tender had considerable wear, which contributed to the tender overturning on the curve.
The worst railway accident in South Australia occurred on 12 April 1970 at a level crossing approximately half-way between Gawler and Roseworthy. A double-deck bus crashed into the side of Bluebird railcars Nos 104 and 258, which were operating a service from Adelaide to Gladstone. Seventeen people in the bus, including the driver and three small children, were killed, and 39 were injured. The bus was wrecked almost beyond recognition.
The accident occurred on a Sunday evening at 6.24 pm, and the bus was returning from a picnic at Wasley’s Oval in Gawler. At the time of the crash the train was estimated to be travelling around 50 miles per hour (80 km/h). Railcar No. 104 had all of its wheels derailed, with the impact of the bus being around the centre of this carriage. The level crossing was in the middle of a three-mile (4.8-km) section of straight road, and from the crossing it was possible to see for a considerable distance in each direction. Although it was dark at the time of the accident, the train was built of polished aluminum and had bright interior lights. Fortunately, the solid construction of the railcars prevented any deaths or serious injuries to anyone on the train. Buses conveyed passengers to their destinations after the accident.
The coroner found that the driver of the bus was under the influence of alcohol, did not slow the bus approaching the level crossing, and did nothing to avoid the accident. He did not see the train until just before the impact. Some passengers on the bus reported that he had been sleeping inside the bus during the day.
New South Wales
The Granville Railway Disaster was the worst railway accident in Australia. On 18 January 1977 train No. 108, the 6.09 am from Mt Victoria in the Blue Mountains, departed on time and was scheduled to arrive at Sydney Terminal station at 8.32 am. It was a regular weekday commuter train taking passengers from the Blue Mountains and western Sydney to the city. On this day the train was formed by electric locomotive 4620 and eight carriages.
The train departed from Parramatta at 8.10 am, three minutes behind schedule. By this time at least 469 passengers were on board. Two minutes after leaving Parramatta, the train was travelling around a curve as it approached Granville station when locomotive 4620 derailed, which also caused the derailment of carriages 1 and 2. It proceeded uncontrolled for a further 46 metres before the locomotive struck and demolished one of the steel trestles supporting the Bold Street overbridge. 4620 continued on and came to rest on its side, a further 67 metres beyond the bridge. An electric power line mast was sheared off at its base and ploughed through carriage 1, much of which was demolished to almost the level of the floor. Carriage 1 came to rest partly on its side with its detached roof on the adjacent tracks. Carriage 2 was separated from carriage 1 and came to rest tilted against a retaining wall. The damage to the Bold Street Bridge’s supports led it to collapse, most of it falling on to carriages 3 and 4 of the train. A total of 83 train passengers died and 213 were injured, with 31 of the injured being admitted to hospital.
A formal investigation into the accident was conducted by Judge James Staunton, QC, Chief Judge of the District Court. The report was tabled in parliament on 31 May and identified the poor condition of the track as the cause of the accident. The left front wheel of locomotive 4620 had derailed by falling inside its rail where the track had widened in the lead of a set of points for a crossover on the curve approaching Granville. The derailed locomotive struck the Bold Street bridge and the resulting disaster followed.
Bagley, WO, Coroner’s inquiry into the Sunshine railway disaster, W O Bagley, Melbourne, 1909.
Buckland, JL, ‘The Sunshine railway disaster’, Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, no. 381, July 1969, pp. 146–57.
‘Bus driver blamed for deaths’, The Canberra Times, 6 June 1970, p. 3.
Cooley, TCT, Railroading in Tasmania, 1868–1961, Government Printer, Hobart, c. 1963.
‘Disastrous railway smash: timber train derailed at Wokalup’, Geraldton Guardian, 9 November 1920, p. 3.
‘From here and there’, The Recorder, vol. 7, no. 10, July 1970, p. 7.
Gunzburg, A, & J Austin, Rails through the bush: timber and firewood tramways and railway contractors of Western Australia, Rail Heritage WA,
Perth, 2008, p. 61.
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Quirk, M, 'Queensland’s Camp Mountain disaster’, Australian Railway History, no. 930, April 2015, pp. 4–12.
‘Railway disaster’, The Mercury, 16 February 1916, p. 5.
Staunton, JH, Report on the formal investigation of an accident on or about the Up Main Western railway line at Granville on 18th January, 1977,
‘Tragedy at a level crossing’, The Canberra Times, 23 April 1970, p. 15.
‘Tragic railway smash: timber train derailed’, The West Australian, 8 November 1920, p. 7
‘Wokalup disaster: indescribable sight’, The West Australian, 9 November 1920, p. 7.
The scene of the accident at Campania in Tasmania in 1916. Photo: Flicker Commons. This image is in the public domain.
WC 313 Rescuers inspect the wreckage of the Camp Mountain train disaster, Queensland, 1947. Photo: John Oxley Library, Sate Library of Queensland. This image is of Australian origin and is now in the public domain because its term of copyright has expired.