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 66 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.

    • Would you’re nana be willing to have a little interview about the crash? I am working on a pilot about the Voilet Town Crash

  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.

    • Hello Fred, it was a terrible day. I lived 12 km away and for me etched in my memory is the awful sound of the crash. 4 members of my immediate family were involved in fire fighting, rescue and other important activities. The local Violet Town community is planning a remembrance weekend on the 50th anniversary in Feb 2019. Depending on funding we hope to create a range of respectful tributes to the volunteers, organisations, victims and survivors of the tragedy.
      I am continuing to put together a history of people’s experiences and to also pay tribute as mentioned above. Would love to chat with you. Cheers Bruce.cumming1@bigpond.com 0357981680

      • Hi Bruce
        I am a West Australian survivor of the Southern Aurora crash if you would like any input regarding my experience of that horrible day.
        Regards Judi

    • Rest In Peace all of those who passed on that day. Bless all of those who were saved. And thank you to all of those who helped my grandfather! He helped many that day, with a dislocated shoulder. Love you my tough Opa! I’m so grateful to have my grandfather with me! So thank you and god bless you all!❤️

  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.

    • 1982 that should have read.

      • Hi Brenton

        Thank you for sharing your connection to the event. It was indeed a fateful morning on that hot summer’s day in February 1969.

    • The Violet Town community hopes to greatly improve the small tribute at the crash site with landscaping and information, but also to create a meditation garden next to the railway line in town, across the tracks from the station.

  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.

    • That’s amazing Dean that they had footage. I have seen a lot of photos, but would like to see that footage some day. It would be great to have that as part of the history I am putting together. Cheers. Bruce.

  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!

  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.

      • Perhaps a small amount of responsibility should be proportioned to the man who knew he had a medical condition too .? And yes in hindsight we will neve4 know .Lila

        • Hi Lila

          Thanks for your comment. The driver of the Aurora was advised by his doctor to retire to avoid an incident such as this. He chose to continue driving in the knowledge that he was putting the lives of others at risk. He bears responsibility for the fatal consequences of that choice.

  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.

    • Hi Carmel,
      Thanks for your question. I’ll get back to you through your email.
      Paul

    • Hi Carmel. That’s amazing your partner arrived first on the scene, it would have been shocking. My 20 year old brother and 18 year old brother were both there too, with our father and very involved. I think they got there about 1/2 an hour after the crash. I was 15 and my father dropped me off at the bus stop to go to school, and the smoke was going up like a ribbon thousands of feet into the sky. It was spooky.
      Do you think I could speak to your partner about this as part of my recording the history?

  9. Who was the mother and daughter killed from Doveton.? Thanks

    • Hi there

      Thank you for your enquiry.

      The list of dead and injured is in the official report into the accident that we hold here at the Library.

      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 ([Melbourne] : [Victorian Railways Commissioner’s Office], [1969]).

      http://search.slv.vic.gov.au/MAIN:Everything:SLV_VOYAGER27943

      I’ll send you the names of the mother and daughter from Doveton in a separate email.

      Regards

      Sarah

    • The second young daughter was badly injured, and was the last person rescued. It was a terrible situation for her of course. She was rescued by a team which included my father and brother. Indeed, she very clearly remembers someone calling “Bill, Bill” (my fathers name) saying that he had heard a voice calling for help from the bottom of the wreckage. As a result she worked out who Bill probably was and then found my name in the phone book. It has been lovely to make the connection to our family. And it was coincidental that I was already compiling a local history of the tragedy. Cheers. Bruce. See contact details in another post above.

    • Hello K Williamson,that was my mother Nora Newell and my sister Lorna,tragically both were killed and l survived.

      • Hello there. Heather I was the young girl that visited you in the Wangaratta base hospital. Julie Bowdern. I would love to catch up. Every Week end I went up and stayed with you.

      • HI heather, I am sorry for your lose. I am a Script writer who is currently tasked to find wittness, survives anyone who was there when the horrible accident happened and wondered if you would be willing to have an interview with about that day.

        Kara

        karajosiedebono@gmail.com

  10. I served on the the Ballarat – Mildura line from 1974 to 1989. Stations i worked at, Maryborough, Dunolly, Cope Cope, Donald, Bealiba, Birchip, Bet Bet, Emu, Bacchus Marsh, Parwan, among others.
    My highest rank was Acting ASM at Watchem in the 1980s.

  11. I know Merve personaly have done for quite some years, very caring man he is now in an aged care facility and has been for 3 years. He has never discussed the accident to anyone so this was a big shock when I came across the article. It now haunts him deeply along with his dementia, very sad.

  12. I just hope that Heather makes contact with me. I have searched tiredlessly to find her.

    • Hi Julie. I am often in contact with Heather. She was found by my father and his mate in the wreckage and I speak to her regularly. It has been nice in recent years to establish a connection to her with me and family.
      Feel free to contact me Bruce.cumming1@bigpond.com 0357981680 0419540552

  13. Hi Julie, this is heather here,l am not sure who you are?Were you in tractor accident on your parents place.?

  14. Hi Heather
    I am a nurse that looked after you in the Wangaratta Base hospital after the accident. I often wonder how you are and how you got on after your time with us.
    We ( the nurses )would read stories to you when we had time and try to entertain you as you were often very bored. It was very difficult for a little girl to be tied to a bed, waiting for your leg to heal.
    People from all over Australia sent you gifts, in fact we had a special room set aside just for your toys
    While you were a patient you wrote a letter to your local paper to thank all the people who had helped you, you drew a picture of me next to your bed. We still have a copy of it.
    We hope to attend the Remembrance Day next year and would be pleased to be able to meet you then
    Regards and best wishes
    Heather Bryce ( Nurse Stewart )

    • Hi Heather. That is a great connection! I was contacted recently by another nurse who looked after Heather. She lives in Benalla. Her father also was involved in the aftermath, as were so many local people.
      If you ring or email me I can let you know more details of the 50th anniversary commemoration at Violet Town in February 2019. Cheers. Bruce. Bruce.cumming1@bigpond.com phone 0419540552 or 0357981680

    • I’m sure many people will look forward to having a memorial garden in Violet Town
      Thank you to Mr Bruce Cumming and Southern Aurora Committee

  15. Hello l am still trying to find the names of the mother and daughters name in 1969 aurora train accident. Can you email me names please…

    • Hi Kaylene

      I emailed the names to you a year ago. I’ve just forwarded it to you again.

      Regards

      Sarah

      • Hi Colleen, many thanks, we are progressing gradually with the project, and still seeking more funds to help us, but its going well.
        Today a friend of Allan Hyatt from Ballarat dropped in to the local cafe. Unfortunately they didnt catch a name. Look forward to meeting you in February.

  16. Hi Julie sorry for very late reply,were you in wheelchair,please send me your email,mine is hevs2@bigpond.com,Cheers Heather.

  17. My father (Charles C. Clayton) was at the time the Assistant Chief Signal and Telegraph Engineer and, as you might imagine, the accident played a big part in our lives. He was summoned to determine if a signalling fault caused the accident (it didn’t) and I distinctly remember the point blades that the Aurora ran through at speed were on his office floor for several months. They had a deep gash there the S class wheels struck them. Apparently his department had recommended vigilance controls (known as “dead man’s brake”) be fitted to all mainline locomotives for several years prior to the 1967 Broadford goods crash but the Commisioners considered it too expensive. Of course, after the Aurora crash….

    Dad retired in October 1970 and passed away in October 1982.

    • Thanks for sharing your connection to the event Fraser. Tragically it is too often the case that safety measures aren’t put in place until serious injury or fatalities occur. It must have been very frustrating for your father.

    • Hi Fraser, great to see your comment here, I hadn’t noticed it before. It was also great to catch up with you in February. Will catch you next time you are passing through and have a coffee!
      cheers Bruce

  18. Brenda Mullins-Jackson

    I quite by accident came across a news article about the 50th anniversary on the Friday night of the weekend of the anniversary. My mother Joan Mullins & I were survivors of the Southern Aurora train accident. My mother has since deceased.
    After some phone calls & organising I was able to drive to Violet Town from the Sth Highlands NSW to attend the commemoration of the garden on the Sunday. I met committee members Gary & Bruce & other Violet Town folk who were so welcoming & grateful I made the trip at short notice. So am I. And it was so nice to meet the lovely lady & her daughter who cared for some of us at her home after the accident. And to meet Nurse Heather, and a niece of one of the passengers who sadly died was special. And the thoughtful people I met & chatted with, thank you.
    The exhibition Bruce Cummings has created is no mean feat & added to the memories I have in a scrapbook of the accident.
    To visit the site of the accident after all these years, I still cannot describe how I felt. I have memories of the accident but memories of it actually happening are quite vivid. We were fortunate, my mother & I to be in the first passenger carriage after the dining car to remain on the line. We were not too seriously injured, though I do remember the pain my mother was in with her neck when we were travelling back to Adelaide that night on the Overlander train from Melbourne. Despite the pain she was in, my mother feared if we didn’t get the train home that night, she would never be able to get on another train.
    I am forever grateful for the tireless work the committee has done & is doing to create such a meaningful & moving memorial which will bring calm & peace to many. It is a tragic event that will not be forgotten.

    • Hi Brenda

      Thanks for getting in touch and sharing your personal experience of the accident. So glad you were able to make it to the commemoration.

      Kind regards

      Sarah

      • Hi Sarah,
        many thanks for your support of this story and our commemoration
        Cheers Bruce

        • No worries Bruce. I’m glad the blog has provided a platform for people to connect with others and share their experiences related to the event.

    • hi Brenda, it was great to meet up with you at the exhibition and chat for a while. I am so glad that you found out about the commemoration events and you were able to come down at short notice. It was a very meaningful weekend for all involved in any way.
      I was constantly asked by visitors to the exhibition what the plans were next for the exhibition, and they all wanted it to continue in some way.
      As a result I kept it open in the big hall for another 10 days when we needed to move it out for another function.
      I have moved most of the exhibition into adjacent rooms in the Violet Town town hall complex, but it isn’t quite as spacious, however it is working well with constant visitors. The plan is to keep the exhibition there for the rest of the year. When we can seal and restore the Aurora carriage to a display space we hope to move the whole exhibition into the carriage. We are still chasing funding support for that work, and we are increasing our band of volunteers, so the important work goes on.
      look forward to another chat as part of my compiling the peoples history.
      cheers Bruce

  19. I have read a few reports but still a bit confused. The SA went through a red light – was it the red light at the end of the loop?. They had passed a warning light and I read that the driver did not slow down a bit as was customary. Why did the co-driver not wonder why the driver did not slow down and then go to make tea?. I assume that the co-driver was not aware that they were in the loop otherwise he would have done something because of the high speed. When the co-driver moved into the engine room, how could he not notice the driver do nothing?.

  20. Hi Kent

    According to the Victorian Railways Accident Report –

    ‘Train running arrangements provided for the Southern Aurora to cross the goods train at Violet Town crossing loop.

    Approaching Violet Town Loop, the Southern Aurora passed an Automatic Signal which displayed a Normal Speed Warning indication; it also passed the Home Arrival Signal which protects the entrance to Violet Town Loop, and was showing a Low Speed Caution indication. The train was travelling near 71 m.p.h. when it passed these signals.

    It then continued through No. 1 Road (main line) of the loop, increasing in speed to about 72 m.p.h. and passed the Home Departure Signal which displayed a Stop indication. At the Melbourne end of the Loop, it forced its way through the points which were set for the goods train driver to enter No. 2 Road, and continued on at 72 m.p.h. on the single line section between Violet Town Loop and Longwood Loop, which was occupied by the oncoming goods train.

    The goods train approaching Violet Town Loop reduced speed about 35 m.p.h. on passing the Automatic Signal prior to the loop. The Signal was displaying Normal Speed Warning indication. Soon after that, when realising that a collision was inevitable, the Driver applied the air brake and apparently then entered the locomotive engine room. The Fireman said he jumped from the locomotive some 60 ft. before impact.’

    There was no co-driver on board the Southern Aurora, but the guard and fireman were qualified and trained to stop the train in an emergency. They were distracted in the lead up to the accident and this is why they failed to act. The fireman was making a cup of tea and the guard was ‘dozing from time to time’. Both men were grossly negligent in the performance of their duties.

  21. Robert Carlisle
    To Sarah Ryan
    I have been a railway historian for some 50 years and have written a book on the R Class Locomotives

    I have at present collated some 40-50 stories in Victorian railway accidents going back to the days of the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company

    Could you kindly get in touch with me on this project

    Kind regards

    Robert Carlislercarlisl@netspace.net.au

  22. I’m wondering if the names of those who died in this disaster are published anywhere? I am trying to find out if a relative of mine was amount them.

    • Hi Don, I’ve logged your query with our ‘Ask a Librarian’ service and we’ll be in touch with a response.

      Regards

      Sarah

  23. Hi Sarah,

    In February of 1969, whilst in my last year of university, I wrote a folk-song about the Violet Town disaster entitled, ‘Southern Aurora’. I had a friend at the time sign off later that year as a witness to copyright on the music and lyrics, which I had scribed in black ink on an A3 sized scrap book page. Throughout that year, whenever I had my guitar handy, I sang the song at many friends’ parties and a few times in the Roundhouse at the University of NSW.

    In 2017, whilst on a family-tree research trip to country Victoria, my younger brother and I visited Violet Town and the spot of the collision near McDiarmid’s Crossing. I stood behind the rock memorial and sang the song. As we moved back to our car to return to the town for some early lunch, a freight train heading north came through the crossing. It was a special moment in time. We caught the event on our cameras. At that point I made a commitment to have the song recorded by the time of the 50th anniversary in 2019 and to go back to the collision memorial site to hopefully play the recording and then sing the song again as a commemoration to those who had died in the disaster.

    However, after one attempt to record the song, I stopped the project because I had researched the on-line material now available these days (as well as the History teacher in me telling me to fix any inaccuracies), and I came to be a little unhappy with the accuracy of a couple of the lyrics. I also wanted to personalise the lyrics a little by including the names of some of the people involved in the disaster. For the most part, when I wrote the song in 1969, I got the gist of story right. However, I did not know anything about the loop-line/siding part of the story. The lyrics were based mainly on information from radio news bulletins and TV news reports at the time. These varied on matters to do with the causes of the collision, the speed, the signals, and which train was, or was not, running on time. To change a couple of lyrics also meant having to alter the melody, which I did not want to do. Furthermore, family life and work began to take up more and more of my time. I had to let go of the project.

    Now that I am retired from teaching, my brother and brother in-law, both of whom know something about song recording and have the facilities to do so, approached me recently on my 72nd birthday to complete the recording project. Hopefully, I’ll have something I can share musically by the 55th Anniversary of the disaster. As a former History teacher, I would also like to use the song and other materials available on-line to make-up a short series of student worksheets for students in Years 7 and 8 introducing them to Historical Source Analysis Skills (e.g. perspective, reliability, usefulness/value, etc) using the available written and visual evidence from the 1969 Violet Town disaster as the case study.

    My grandfather, who passed away in1970, had worked on NSW-Victorian Railways for many years, in his younger days as a baggage handler, and later as a conductor. He shared many stories with me. As a young boy and teenager, I travelled the return train route from Sydney to Melbourne on several occasions both before and after the introduction of the single-gauge line. I well remember the trips on the Spirit of Progress and having to change trains at Albury – if I recall accurately, sometimes in the dark in the dead of winter. My grand-pop knew many of the workers on the trains and slipped them a couple of ‘quid’ to look after me on one occasion when I travelled back to Sydney from Melbourne on my own, firstly on the Spirit of Progress, then the very early years of the Southern Aurora. I thought I was ‘King of the Railways’ – my own overnight cabin, conductors bringing me breakfast, tea and biscuits, as well as the newspapers. Leaving my shoes out to be polished and returned via the small locker near the bottom of the cabin door made me feel like ‘royalty’. They were good times but not so the 7th February, 1969.

    Regards
    Mike

    • Wow Michael! Thank you so much for sharing your personal connection to the Violet Town disaster.

      Your performance of the song at the memorial in 2017 with your brother would have been a moving experience, particularly with the passing of the freight train.

      Glad to hear your family are encouraging you to complete the reworking of the song. Performing it at the 55th anniversary is a goal to keep you motivated. I also like the sound of your initiative to use the song and other resources to create some educational material for school students. Once a teacher, always a teacher.

      Those overnight trips from Sydney to Melbourne as ‘King of the Railways’ sound magical. The shoe polish service is priceless. You’d never get anything like that these days.

      Regards

      Sarah

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