THE Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) and NSW Trains have been fined $A 525,000 ($US 346,950) over the fatal derailment of a Sydney - Melbourne diesel XPT train. Both parties pleaded guilty to breaching the state’s railway safety laws following the accident at Wallan, Victoria, 45km north of Melbourne, on February 20 2020.

The crash killed the train driver and his pilot, and also resulted in injuries to 61 of the 153 passengers onboard, including eight serious casualties. The accident occurred when the XPT was diverted into a 15km/h loop while travelling at 100km/h, resulting in the derailment of four of the train’s five coaches and one power car.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s final report on the crash, released in August 2023, found that a fire in a signalling hut on February 3 had caused extensive damage to wiring and had affected signalling on a 24km section of the North East Line between Donnybrook and Kilmore East. Initially trains were signalled through the section using Caution Orders, limiting speeds to 25km/h. However, this was changed to Train Orders on February 6, meaning paper documents were issued to train drivers instead of the regular system, but with normal line speeds of up to 130km/h permitted.

On February 20 the Wallan Loop was used as a diversionary route while rail cleaning took place on the main line. Two earlier V/Line trains passed through the loop without incident before the fatal derailment occurred. The XPT approached the loop at between 114 and 127km/h, with the driver applying the emergency brake before traversing the turnout into the passing loop. The XPT was running around two hours behind schedule at the time of the accident.

The prosecution was brought by the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR), which says that extra safety measures used when signals are out of service were not in place. While the XPT driver was provided with information of the rerouting at Wallan, there were no protocols in place to ensure that he understood this. The report says it is probable that the driver did not fully comprehend the changes to the text of the train authority, which had been given to him on the eight trips he had made over the route over the previous 10 days. The report also concludes that ARTC, which is responsible for the line from Somerton, Victoria, to Macarthur, New South Wales, via Albury, failed to use several available and practical risk controls.

The investigation also found that design of the XPT cab contributed to the deaths of the driver and pilot. Passenger briefings, onboard guides and signage did not properly instruct passengers on the procedures to follow in the event of an emergency.

A review of the Rail Safety National Law, dating from 2012, is now being undertaken by the National Transport Commission and rail industry consultant, Mr Tom Sargant, in the hope of preventing a similar accident in the future. The findings of the review are expected to be presented to Australia’s transport ministers later this year.