Australian Railway Story: Chapter 15

Chapters: • 1 • 2 • 3 • 4 • 5 • 6 • 7 • 8 • 9 • 10 • 11 • 12 • 13 • 14 • 15 • 16 • 17 • 18 •

Railway Accidents: Chance, Bad Luck or Calamity

A train delayed by a simple faulty switch, railway signal or even a cow on a railway track is enough to hit the headlines of the daily newspaper if an editor is short of a story. Many of these stories tend to under play the seriousness of railway accidents that have been a problem for 150 years.

Unfortunately when a major railway accident occurs (unlike most road accidents) it can affect hundreds some time thousands of people who share a common bond. A range of books and endless pages of newspaper stories and Coroners reports have been written on Australian railway accidents and disasters. Much of these details are serious attempts to get to the bottom of a problem that affects both workers and those using the service alike. In recent days the focus on the cause of railway accidents has turned towards the need for a safety culture but is the problem more complexes that this. Describing many of these events poets and songwriters often challenge the very concept of the mean of accidental, chance, or bad luck and often point to poor maintenance procedures and even a culture that puts economic cost cutting above important safety needs as a cause of major railway accidents.

The Gowrie Junction Smash , July 5, 1876

I will not sing of battle-fields or martial feats of arms,
For Providence has cast our lot remote from war's alarms;
But I have known some noble deeds performed by humble men
Which would inspire a loftier muse—deserve a worthier pen.
It was a most tempestuous night upon the Darling Downs;
The elements were at their worst, and wore their gloomiest frowns;
The storm-king rode upon the blast—down dashed the blinding rain
God help all those who had that night to face the Gowrie Plain!

Upon the Dalby railway line the damage had been great—
Long strips of ballast washed away—all in a dangerous state;
And, though the traffic had been stopped, an engine had to run
For gangs of labourers to repair the havoc which was done.
At duty's call four gallant men without a murmur went/
And, to carry out the orders given, each heart was firmly bent.
Into the dark they steamed away, 'mid blast and blinding rain—
God help that noble crew to-night upon the Gowrie Plain!

'Twas black as pitch; in either ditch foamed down a raging flood;
And what firm ballast was before was now but yielding mud.
Yet still the engine kept the rails until they reached to where
.A dangerous gully crossed the line, and death was lurking there.
No beacon light appeared in sight to bid the doomed ones wait,
Nor friendly signal could they see to warn them of their fate.
Oh! God, to think one little lamp had saved the woes and pain
Which those four heroes felt that night upon the Gowrie Plain!

The flood had washed the line away, and down into the gap
The fated engine disappeared, as in some hideous trap;
A dozen feet she rolled and fell/ then on her side she lay,
It was miraculous that one survived that awful day;
For in the dark no eye could mark a method of escape,
It seemed as if the jaws of death for them did open gape;
But God from heaven in mercy looked on the poor shattered train,
And spared their lives that stormy night upon the Gowrie Plain.

The fireman, Robert Dollar (all honour to his name!
For he proved in this catastrophe his thorough British game),
Soon as the first surprise was o'er that he was still alive
To extricate himself and mates endeavoured to contrive.
The cruel steam played on his legs with fierce and scalding force;
And he was sadly bruised and jammed beneath the iron horse.
Without a pause he struggled on his freedom to regain—
Soon clear he stood, but sorely hurt, upon the Gowrie Plain.

To help his mates he then commenced, But only one was found,
The other two were gone from view, and Dollar thought them drowned.
The one remained—Gerhardt his name, of German lineage; he
Was stuck so tight beneath the wreck "Bob" could not get him free
The only plan to rescue him was straight to hurry back
To Gowrie Junction, whence they'd come, upon their wretched track,
And send assistance; for he saw that with all his might and main
He could not get him out himself upon the Gowrie Plain.

Three weary miles he had to trudge upon that cruel march,
Around him was the howling storm, above the heavenly arch.
His mind was firm in duty's path, his courage strong and pure,
Or else he never had been fit such tortures to endure.
And when we think upon the pain poor Dollar had to feel—
For his head was bruised, and both his legs were skinned from hip to heel!-
We must admire the manly pluck with which he on did strain
To bring assistance to his mates across the Gowrie Plain.

"Now, God be praised!" methinks he said within his thankful soul
When on his sight there flashed the light which heralded his goal.
Half-dead he struggled bravely on; and soon his piteous tale
Caused manly eyes to fill with tears, and sunburnt cheeks grow pale.
No time was lost by those who soon were to the rescue bound;
And, by the help of Providence, they all alive were found;
'Twas then the doctor's skill was taxed to ease the dreadful pain
Of those poor fellows wrecked that night upon the Gowrie Plain.

So, now, hurrah for Dollar! that fireman young and brave
Who tried, with such heroic zeal, his comrades' lives to save.
Long may he live and flourish to reflect with manly pride
How well he bore himself the night they took that fearful ride!
Long weeks he lingered on his bed all scalded, sick and sore;
But, thanks to God, he soon will be as hearty as before.
One only—poor Gerhardt—has died, and three alive remain;
But memory still their hearts will thrill when they think of Gowrie Plain!

The Granville Disaster
The early morning train from Mt. Victoria,
Heading for the city and the grime
But no-one was to know that the train
That ran so slow was riding on the Tracks
For the last time.

At 8.00 am the train neared Granville Station
And it never made the town
For the Bold Street bridge crashed down
Who’s guilty when a worn out system fails?

The papers greedily took up the story
For any news is entertainment now
“It’s carnage” screamed the press
“How many dead, or can you guess?”
To the mourners does it really matter?

As they cleared away the bodies and the wreckage,
People started asking how and why
But nobody dared name
The ones who shared the blame.

They knew full well that they’d get no reply.
When the public transport network’s in a shambles
When the system’s fifty years out of date
It was the Government’s neglect
That had that poor train wrecked
For so many now these answers come to late.

The Coombell Railway Smash
GORTON Millie — Lismore
They replied with a whistle to "Right away"
From the guard in the van behind.
They steamed out of Grafton that fatal day.
A little uneasy in mind;
The driver Gleeson, was steady and strong.
Like Curnow, his fireman mate:
They thought of the line as they steamed along,
And-trusted to luck and to fate.

They rattled on through that pitch-dark night,
Running straight to their unseen doom,
The rails in front they could hardly sight,
The night was of deepest gloom.
Near Coombell, the engine left the lines,
They were hurled to their cruel fate,
They put on the brakes at the very first signs,
But all their good work was too late!

The Driver and Fireman were plunged to death,
But the guard got off unhurt,
He got up and ran, though out of breath,
He rang for help, his mind alert.
A sad scene it was at break of day,
With the trucks and the splintered limber,

Away from the lines the engine lay,
And further along, the tender.

So Curnow has left a sorrowing wife,
And the driver a mother kind,
Traveller, think of the risks in a driver's life,
And keep all his perils in mind,
And think of the guard as you steam along.
The one who sees you are safe,
For with out him the train would all go wrong,
Think of him for his sake, -————-

Millie Gorton was a high school girl when this railway accident occurred at Combeell,1925. The driver, Gleeson, and fireman, Curnow were both killed. The Guard, William (Bill) Barry , was unhurt and remained in the district, but was later involved a similar accident, and lost both his legs.

The Springwood Smash (1930)
The train left Lithgow coal stage
It was number seventy Two-
The crew perhaps you know them,
Engine 1122.
They ran OK to Wentworth Falls.
Working their train with care.
But when they got to Lawson
They found they had no air.
Now, how this really happened
None of us can say
We only know one thing.
The train just ran away.
Through Hazelbrook and Woodford
She went on her mad career
The thought of the wives and children
And their hearts were filled with fear,
The roar as they passed Linden
Was enough to waken the dead,
The Whistle blowing loudly
Giving warning on ahead
Down past Old Weemah
She was going beyond control
Just imagine how she hit the curve
There near the water hole.
The engine fell to pieces
As along the road she flew;
She lost here springs and side bars,
And the piston broke in two
No one can imagine
The awful nervous strain,
Or the agonising thoughts
Of the men who worked this train
Even the prisoner in his cell
Awaiting the hangman’s rope
Right to the last sad moment
Has one little ray of hope
But these three men were flying
Solely in Gods power
To what they thought was certain death
At eighty miles per hour.
Their only hope was Faulconbridge,
They passed there like a flash,
And left the road at Springwood-
Then came an awful crash.
Sixty eight tons of loaded trucks
Were smashed up in one go
And how these men escaped from death
Well God alone must know
Nothing so bad that couldn’t be worse
Is a saying old and true;
Had they only gone another mile
They’d have crashed into “32”
We gave prase to those heroes
Who repelled the enemy hosts
But we lift our hats to these three men
Who stuck gamely to their post.

Penrith 1930 ( Frank Brown)

The Wreck of the Thallon Mail
I was a railway worker
Attached to the "relief,"
At the time the Brisbane-Thallon Mail
On the Main Range came to grief.

I was booked to go to Nobby
On that Sunday "Thallon Mail"
To relieve a man the following day:
I must be there without fail.

1 was standing, on the platform
At Toowoomba, in the rain,
With my camping gear assembled
Waiting for the Thallon train.

When word came through "A" Cabin
That the train was then "on line,"
Which meant the train had left Spring Bluff
On time, and running fine.

And as the people waited
On the platform drenched with rain,
The clock ticked by an hour,
But no arrival of the train.

We grew restless as the hours passed,
And after a long wait,
A call came through from Rangeview
Saying "This is the driver's mate.

Our engine's lying on its side
In mud up to the funnel.
We ran into a landslide
Outside the Manhole Tunnel."

The station master said to me,
"Nobby's out, that's fairly plain,
So you'd better sign on duty
And go on the breakdown train.

It seems the whole main line is blocked,
If what I'm told is true.
We don't know the position yet,
But there'll be work for you to do.

Now, as this is a passenger train
There can't be any doubt,
Our consideration first must be

To get the injured out."

Gangs and crews then were called out
To work the rescue train,
And poor old Doctor Woodhill too,
Came in the pouring rain.

And after several weary hours,
Which seemed undue delay,
We climbed aboard the rescue train
And it was on its way.

We stopped at Rangeview station
To pick up the fireman chap,
Who piloted the rescue train
To the scene of the mishap.

We stopped outside the "Manhole,"
The weather dark and damp.
I took Doc through the tunnel
With the aid of a van lamp.

Emerging at the other end
We saw in the dim light,
At the mouth of the next tunnel
The wreckage of that night.

The loco buried in the mud,
The tender off the track,
The first coach through the second one,
Where it had been forced back.

And as we stood and viewed the scene.
That none were dead we hoped,
Then we scrambled through the rubble
To those coaches telescoped.

And trapped within those coaches,
Which were branded "Second Class,"
Were two fellows and a woman
'Mid the splintered wood and glass.

The first man that we noticed
As we looked in through the door,
Was trapped beneath a broken seat
With his head pinned to the floor.

The second man was tightly jammed
As far as I could see,
Between two seats. His leg was broken
Just above the knee.

The woman had a mangled foot,
A plank wedged on her thighs;
Severe internal injuries
From which she later dies.

The Doc and 1 crawled through the coach
And in the confined space,
He needled the three injured
While I held his syringe case.

The driver of the "Thallon Mail"
Had suffered minor burns,
While the guard had slight concussion
Which later caused dizzy turns.

And all the other passengers
Showed some degree of stress—
Well. being in a wreck at night,
That's natural, I guess.

The rescue gang were working hard
To get the injured out,
And whilst this work was going on
I heard a piercing shout.

It came from Ganger Chicken,
Who was holding up a wall
Of the splintered broken carriage
So that it wouldn't fall.

Someone had placed a carbide lamp,
Not intending any harm,
In a possie where the naked light
Was scorching Chicken's arm.

Jack Chicken went off duty,
And much later it was learned
He, too, had doctor's treatment
On the arm that had been burned.

The passengers and injured
Were all taken up to town
The rescue gang were soaking wet
And still the rain came down.

For days and days the rescue gang
Worked in the pouring rain,
To clear away that landslide
So that trains could run again.

FCW (Bill) Larkin

Bill Larkin's account of his experience after a landslide in the 1930s brought downs tons of rock and earth between No. 5. 7 and 8 Tunnels on the Main Range.

Running a fast schedule was always in some drivers mind particularly with a little encouragement from the General Manager (GM) One of Australia’s largest steam locomotives “The Sprit of Progress” driven on Victoria’s wide gauge of 5 ‘ provided the trip times for many a driver to live up to even if you were driving a C16 Queen land shunting locomotive on the 3’ gauge track.

Billy Sheehan
On the forty-pound rails steamed a C-16,
Commanded by its driver, Mister Billy Sheehan.
The G.M. gave him orders on the strict Q.T.
To run a faster schedule than the Spirit of P.
Keep the regulator open, watch the black smoke roll,
Pile on all the floorboards if we run out of coal.
If we don’t beat the record, ’Billy said to his mate,
‘Send my memos care of Peter at the golden gate!’

Billy Sheehan, ran a faster schedule
Billy Sheehan, a mighty man was he.
Billy Sheehan, ran a faster schedule,
Out to break the record of the Spirit of P.

His fireman was a punting boy for Narrabeen,
He said, ‘I’ll lay the odds against the C-16.’
Billy flashed a roll of notes that was a bear;
The boiler then exploded, blew them both in the air,
Said Billy to his fireman as they left the wreck,
‘I dunno where we’re going but we’re neck and neck!’
The fireman then said, ‘Billy I’ll tell you what I’ll do.
I’ll bet another fifty I go higher than you!’

The wife of Driver Sheehan was at home in bed
When the Railway wired that old Bill was dead.
She called her children to her, said, ‘Listen, honey lambs,
The next old man you get’ll be a guard in the van!’
The railway’s all in mourning now for Billy Sheehan,
No more we’ll hear the puffing of his C-16.
There’s crepe on all the locos, both the goods and mails,
From Ingham and Mount Isa down to New South Wales.



Railway employees and their families were no strangers to the dangerous of the railway industry in a modern industry can such problems described below be disregarded

The Shunter
The engine bars are splashed and starr’d
They've killed a shunter in the yard.

“He never seen how he was struck
And he died sudden,” someone said
The driver coughed – ‘That flamin' truck
Came on the slant and struck him dead.’
The fireman chocked and growled ‘Hard Luck!’
As he was carried to the shed.

The engine whistles short and low
(his blood is on her ‘catcher-bars’)
We had to let his young wife know
His soul had passed beyond the stars
Where he will hear no engines blow
Nor listen for the coming cars.

She stared and stared - until he came
On four men’s shoulders, up the hill
She sobbed and laughed and called his name
And shivered when he lay so still-
She had no cruel words of blame-
She bore no one of us ill-will.

They’ve washed the rails and sprinkled sand
(Oh! Hear the mail go roaring on!)
And he was just a railway hand-
A hidden star they never shone-
And no one seems to understand-
Her heart is broken! He is gone!

The engine-bars are cold and hard-
They’ve killed a shunter in the yard.

(Will Lawson, 1898: Source "Freedom on the Wallaby" - M. Pizzer [1937])

ROSE DAYS Brian Bell

(written on the night of the Glenbrook train smash,
published in the Blue Mountain Gazette 19/01/2000)

Like flies, lately ventured too close to a barbecue plate,
they find their way back along the line. Stunned, resentful,
yet grateful, they lick their wounds as best they can.

Like bullants, receptors ready to respond at any time,
they haul heavy equipment down ladders, disassemble wreckage
to expose the injured. They stop to give small comforts
when able, then get on with their tasteless job.

Like angels, they tend wounds, latest methods carefully
drilled, minds somehow detached from tragedy's reality.
Bodies will have to wait till later, bodies everybody
wishes were not there.

Like vultures, their helicopters hover, cameras covering
every possible angle. They conquer all barricades - insist
they're just doing their job, collecting the news.

Like mother hens, they set up road blocks, ensure people follow
strict rules, inflict their strange normality on the scene.
They supply expert supervision, way beyond the call of duty.

Like lions, they feed on publicity, make apologies, promise
approriate inquisitions. Occasionally, a corner of their eye
looks to see if voters are taking notice.

Like expectant fathers, they pace wherever they can, unsure
outcome losing confidence as time slowly drifts to certainty.
They hope against hope to see their loved ones again.

Like Granville, Glenbrook now waits to become a softer spot
in our history, even as budding roses wait to have their day,
join the healing power of other roses
cast annually on uncaring, waiting tracks.


In September 2000, I was to take part in a concert in Springwood,
for the 30th anniversary of the Blue Mountains Orchestra, reciting
a poem I had written about the Blue Mountains. I met one of the
orchestra organisers, a man who had the misfortune to be a passenger on
both the Granville and the Glenbrook train disasters.

Bold Street Bridge Disaster
Anniversary Committee,
To the person in charge,

Dear Sir,
I don't know whom to write to, for the man I always wanted
to talk to died in the Granville bridge disaster, in 1977.
He married my Mother a year before the bridge fell onto the
carriage in which he was a passenger. His was one of the last few
bodies to be taken from the wreckage. He never knew me, but if
he could hear me, this is what I would like to say to him.

Stories are still being told of people who normally caught
your train, but who missed it that day, and others who missed
an earlier train, or caught that train because they were early.
One man had to go home instead of catching the early train, for
he had forgotten his tie, and he died that day. For you, I know
it was always your train, your carriage.
You never knew about me, for I was born after you died.
Mum has told me lots about you, but there are some things that
she won't talk about. You can imagine the shock of losing you,
for she loved you very much - the bewilderment of a young bride
having her husband taken so suddenly, without warning.
We moved from your town when I was very young, but I have
had a little contact with your old friends. Those who didn't know
you very well thought of you as a fitness fanatic, seeing you
jogging to the National Park each morning before you caught the
train to work. They still speak of the injustice. I had to
laugh when Mum told me about the "special" plants, which made
all that jogging worthwhile for you, for they needed regular
care and water.
We still have the record collection that you cherished.
Mum says you would play records a lot of the time, especially
before you were married. She says she misses that, adding that
there are songs she never wants to hear again.
Your friend, Keith, finished building his dream home a
couple of years ago. He misses you. Alan, another of your friends,
has had a lot of illness, but still remembers you fondly.
Well, that's about all I need to say, except that I feel
I owe you so much. Oh, and I must add that for all that it
was such a tragedy, Mum says that every cloud has a silver
lining, that if you had not died, she would not have married my
Dad and had me.


Tune: If Those Lips Could Only Speak

If those trains had only run
As they should, their proper time,
There wouldn't have been a disaster
At a place they call Sunshine.
If those brakes had only held
As they did a few hours before
There wouldn't have been a disaster
And a death-roll of forty-four.
The doctors and nurses arrived there
And the sight it caused them pain
To see all the wounded and dying
In the wreck of that fateful train.
The people of Sunshine ne'er faltered,
But assisted with all their power
To help the doctors and nurses
In that awful painful hour.

He was driving a Bendigo engine,
The train was running all right.
It was going along as usual,
Till Sunshine came in sight.
He put on his brakes and he whistled,
For the signal was against the train;
He applied his brakes for emergency,
But alas! It was all in vain.

If those brakes had only gripped,
As they did a while before,
There would be no Sunshine disaster
Or deaths numbering forty-four.
If that guard had only seen,
That danger lay ahead,
There would be no widows or orphans
But happier homes instead.

Recorded in 1974 by Warren Fahey from Mrs Peg Collins, Perth.

Red Light (Denis Kevin 2000)
Enquiry, solemn tones, here their cries, and hear their groans,
Panic terror on the faces as they flew,
Hit the brakes, you;ve seen the light,
But for them it was goodnight
And the workgang on the night shift always knew,

CHORUS —Red light down the track,
The train is comen back,
The misty mountain morning starts to reel,
The birds are crying wild, like a long abandoned child
But the brakes can’t hold six hundred tonnes of steel

Red light on the line, in the signal box at nine,
A grinding, screaming tangle of a crash,
Eight good people gone, what is the good of singing songs?
When they measure care and safety out in cash.

I can't get it from my brain, that they hit a private train^
The cicadas keep or. chanting this refrain,
And the private driver said-- I quote--
And his words stick in my throat,
"I had no time-table for the electric trains!!"

It was a simple, signal fuse, that mixed up the driver’s cues,
The handle of the phone ? how many spins ????
Go ahead? Well, yes and no
Speed of what? Oh, fast and slow,
It is murder, we are suffering for their sins.

A million dollars, hear the news,
Just for pollies’ cut-price booze,

A million bucks for just that one little perk,

But for a simple, signal fuse, they had no money for to use,

To save the lives of folks going- to work »


It shook the Granville Station
The crash echoed through the town
When the 'Mt Victoria' hit the stanchion
And the concrete bridge came down.

It crushed a railway carriage
Like a steamhammer would your hand
And sent a wave of horror
Right throughout the land.

The ambulances came screaming
The fire engines stood by
The air was charged with emotion
You could hear the people cry.

There was a dressing station for injured
And a morgue for the deceased
Tea and coffee was served to the workers
But they had no time to feast. . '

The media was represented
Television radio and the Press
They unfolded the story before you
With scenes of deepest distress.

They reported this great tragedy
Between "Commercials" on the screen
Showing the bridge across the line
And a carriage squashed between.

They took pictures of the wounded
And they photographed the dead
Also shots of bloodstained clothing
Where the travellers had bled.

They weren't all vultures that hovered there
Good men came to the fore
They worked all day and through the night
And they heaved and cursed and swore.

Great mobile cranes assembled there
With hooks and wire slings
The common-worker in dirty overalls
Did a lot of useful things.

They worked non-stop with crowbars
Oxycutters and hydraulic jacks
Slowly the bodies were removed
And laid between the tracks,

They said it was an accident
No motive or intent
"One chance in a million"
Said a well-heeled country gent

But the tracks were in bad condition'
The trains were old and worn,
The steel lines were on rotten sleepers
And the ballast had withdrawn.

The stretch of line had been neglected
Repairs were overdue,
And it had not been inspected
By the maintenance crew.

The "media made a noise about
Quite loudly did they shout
They rushed to shut the stable door
After the horse got out,

If it's our life style that safety and progress
Must be paid for in death and pain
Then the eighty-five killed at Granville,
May never have died in vain.
Fred Wills Poems of Australia Auburn Art Society 1983

The Glenbrook Train Smash
16th Jan. 1976
Last Friday night, the 'After Nine' left Central right on time,
It hastened out through Penrith and commenced the mountain climb,
She cleared the Glenbrook tunnel and just then upon that hill,
With all power gone due to a fault that train became quite still.
Full details of what happened next are yet to come to light,
But death and injury were close upon that fatal night.
While people sat within that train and spoke of the delay,
They did not know that just behind, a 'Goods' was on the way.

The 'Goods' roared through the tunnel and then on that mountain side,
It ploughed into the 'After Nine' in which a local died.
The lights went out and in the dark there were the cries of pain,
From people trapped with broken limbs inside that shattered train.

When rescue workers reached the spot they toiled with willing skill.
To get the dead and injured out and off that rugged hill.
Throughout the night they worked with lights and as the day broke fine.
They faced the problem of just how to clear the Western line.

Four hundred feet above the creek up in that steep terrain,
Pew places could have been much worse to have a derailed train,
The last car was a twisted mess, it's hack was broken too.
What could they do with such a wreck? Their options were quite few,

They saw a ledge some twelve feet down and thought they'd place it there,
Then later on reclaim the gear when they had time to spare,
The saying goes 'We act in haste, at leisure we repent',
With no restraint, this was the case as o'er the edge it went.

It paused but briefly on that ledge then with a mighty roar,
Continued on and cleared a swathe right to the valley floor.
The deed was done, the line was clear, onlookers had their fun,
And in the National Park below junk glistened in the sun.

The Wildlife people are upset and very rightly so,
The PTC has been advised their scrap will have to go.
Oh what a costly exercise, we all will have to pay,
For one decision made in haste upon that Saturday.

Terry Regun

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