On a very hot Friday, 7 February, 1969, just after 7.00am, the Southern Aurora, Australia’s overnight express passenger train between Sydney and Melbourne, collided head-on with an Albury-bound goods train, 174km north of Melbourne. The Melbourne-bound Southern Aurora ran through the Violet Town crossing loop where it should have waited for the goods train to pass.
The Southern Aurora bore the brunt of the collision because the goods train was heavier. Nine people were killed (2 drivers, 1 electrician, 1 conductor and 5 passengers) and 117 passengers were injured. Most deaths and casualties occurring in cars 7 and 8. The two locomotives (S314 and S316) and five carriages were written off. The first two sleeping carriages of the express were crushed, a third sleeping carriage and a lounge car were thrown from the track and landed on top of locomotive S316. The fireman on the goods train jumped out of the locomotive cab prior to the collision whilst the driver went back into the engine room of the locomotive. He did not survive the impact of the head-on collision.
Track damage stretched over a distance of 200 yards and involved the restoration of 450 yards of rail, 270 sleepers and 300 cubic yards of ballast.
The coroner, HW Pascoe, found that John Bowden, the driver of the Aurora, died from heart failure before the crash. Bowden knew that he had a pre-existing heart condition and was advised by his doctor that he could die at any time and that he should retire. When asked what would happen if he died suddenly at the controls, Bowden said that there would be another crew member who was qualified to stop the train in an emergency. As it happened, there were two other crew members qualified to perform the task, fireman Mervyn George Coulthard and the guard at the rear of the train William Frederick Wyer, but both failed to act.
Coulthard was preoccupied making a cup of tea and Wyer admitted to ‘dozing from time to time’. Consequently, Wyer’s entries in the guard’s journal were falsified and deemed by Pascoe to be ‘largely a piece of fiction’.
The coroner, Pascoe found that Coulthard and Wyer breached their duty in relation to public safety and that the tragedy could have been prevented if they had been alert or awake. He declared both men ‘extremely negligent’, but stopped short of declaring them culpable. He decided that the resulting deaths of the accident were caused by ‘misadventure’.
It was determined there was no mechanical failure on board the Southern Aurora and that all appropriate maintenance had been carried out. There was no criticism of the crew on the goods train as when the imminent collision became apparent, they could do nothing to avoid the accident.
The recommendations put forth by Pascoe included annual medical tests for drivers with an electro-cardiogram every two years, installation of a vigilance control button to be pressed regularly to prevent guards from sleeping whilst on duty, the fitting of speedometers to guards’ vans to warn them if the train is speeding and potentially not in control of the driver, and the adoption of a modified vigilance control in locomotives on passenger trains with the driver and fireman confirming regularly that they are alert to their duties.
The Library has 50 digitised photographs of the Southern Aurora train crash in its collection.
1. Banger, C 2012, Southern Aurora: and Melbourne Express & Sydney Express 1962 -1993, Australian Railway Historical Society New South Wales Division, Redfern, N.S.W.
2. Fiddian, M 1990, Victorian railway mishaps, Pakenham Gazette, Pakenham, Vic.
3. Pascoe, H.W. 1969, Findings of the City Coroner, H.W. Pascoe, 1st July 1969, upon his investigations into the fatalities arising from the collision that occurred between the Sydney to Melbourne Express passenger train, the Southern Aurora, and a Melbourne to Albury goods train, near Violet Town on 7th February, 1969, Victorian Railways, Melbourne, Vic.
4. Pearce, K 1999, Australian railway disasters, IPL Books, Davidson, N.S.W.
5. Victorian Railways, 1969, Railway accident : report on the collision that occurred between the Sydney to Melbourne express passenger train, the Southern Aurora and a Melbourne to Albury goods train, near Violet Town on 7th February, 1969, Victorian Railways Commissioner’s Office, Melbourne, Vic.
Written by Sarah Ryan, Librarian, Australian History and Literature
Contributions by Russell Wallace, Senior Collection Access Officer. Russell worked for Victorian Railways for 35 years.