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.

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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’.

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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.

Bibliography

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.

This article has 16 comments

  1. This disaster forms the background to the novel by Steven Carroll “The Art of the engine driver” (first published in 2001). Chapters 41, 43 and 48 deal directly with the disaster and its aftermath although the novel refers to the disaster as involving the Spirit of Progress rather than the Southern Aurora as was actually the case and the names of the crew in the passenger train are altered.

  2. My nana was on the train she survived 3rd carridge from engine

    • Wow Mick! The third sleeping carriage was thrown from the track and landed on one of the locomotives. It would have been a traumatic ordeal for all involved. Thank you for sharing your personal connection with the event.

  3. Reading all the above and seeing the photos brings back vivid memories.That day is engraved in my memory forever, I was the fireman on the goods train and 0710 hrs 7 Feb 1969 is like a birthday to me, I survived, where too many did not.

    • Hi Fred

      I can imagine revisiting the events of that fateful day would open the floodgates. The survival instinct is a strong force. I’m glad you managed to jump from the train when you did. The disaster resulted in a tragic loss of life that could have been prevented. Thank you for sharing your part in the story.

  4. I visited the site today and felt quite moved being there. I was 12 at the time of accident and remember it well. I had traveled on the Spirit of Progress with my parents a couple of years before and was impressed with seeing the Aurora depart ahead of us.
    In 1987 my wife and I traveled on the Aurora with our then baby daughter. I can only imagine the horror of that fateful morning at Violet Town.

  5. Yes my grandparents survived the crash in their pyjamas had super 8 footage of the arftermath which we watched every xmas for many years
    RIP Bev & Tom Watson from WA

    • Hi Dean

      I’m glad your grandparents lived to tell the tale. They were up with their technology. Super 8 cameras were relatively new at that time. The first one was manufactured in 1965.

  6. My grandmother’s brother Fred McKenzie was the conductor that was killed.
    This is the first time I’ve seen pictures of the accident. I can’t believe anyone survived!

    • Hi Debra

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. The images of twisted metal are confronting. It looks like a bomb blast.

  7. I was 15 at the time and seem to remember that “Dead Man’s Pedals” were fitted to NSW locomotives but that Victorian locomotives did not have them-
    They were somewhat primitive by today’s standards as you could put a toolbox on them and continue running unlike the push button ones they have now, at least the American versions had these pedals. Numerous accidents in the USA were caused by crews sleeping and I always wondered if the Southern Aurora’s second engineer was really making tea in the rear of the locomotive as reported at the time..

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Malcolm. Even modern ‘dead man’s pedals’ aren’t fool proof. In the 2003 Waterfall rail accident, the pedal failed to activate and 7 people including the driver were killed. We will never know for sure if Coulthard was distracted making a cup of tea, but we do know that if he and Wyer were alert and/or awake, the outcome could have been very different.

  8. Carmel Sprenger

    Hi Sarah, would you know where I can find a list of the dead and injured from the crash? No websites pertaining to the disaster appear to have a list. I would appreciate this information to assist in a contribution to a segment of my partner’s 50 year school reunion later this year, in which memories are to be shared of experiences had since the students left school all those years ago, which have impacted their lives. My partner (as a 19 year old ) witnessed the immediate aftermath of this horrific accident unfold with a friend, as they were driving alongside the railway, and rushed to the scene, being the first to arrive at the site, at the same time as a unit of the local rural fire brigade. By co-incidence, one of the female victims was from the suburb in Brisbane in which he grew up, and it is her name we are keen to confirm.

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