January 31st 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: More surprises likely in Queensland poll

EDITORIAL: The dark side of the Internet

TRANSPORT: Waterfall crash report indicts NSW State Rail Authority

CANBERRA OBSERVED : Vultures circle wounded Democrats

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Paper children / The peripatetics / The serious people we are losing

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Mixed outcome on same-sex bill

ECONOMY: Amend Trade Practices Act to protect small business

Super rethink needed (letter)

Population: quality, not quantity (letter)

Upgrade our rail system (letter)

FAMILY: Fatherhood and marriage - a vital connection

COMMENT: Castro's legacy: the New Left

TAIWAN: March election a key issue in China

TRADE: NAFTA - lessons for Australia

BOOKS: DIGNIFIED AND EFFICIENT: The British Monarchy in the Twentieth Century

BOOKS: A NEW CITY: Photographs of Melbourne's Land Boom, edited by Ian Morrison

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Waterfall crash report indicts NSW State Rail Authority

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, January 31, 2004
An interim report into the crash of a NSW commuter train at Waterfall, south of Sydney last year, which killed seven people and injured many more, blamed a culture of complacency for the crash.

The report was conducted by Judge McInerney, a retired judge of the NSW Supreme Court. Justice McInerney also conducted an inquiry into the Glenbrook rail accident in 1999, in which a train careered through the Blue Mountains outside Sydney before crashing into the back of the transcontinental Perth-Sydney Indian Pacific, killing seven people and injuring many more.

In his report into the Glenbrook crash, Justice McInerney found train drivers regularly ignored warning lights on the tracks, because these were frequently in error. On this occasion, it led to the collision.

Hexham crash

The Waterfall crash was followed, not long after, by a crash between a commuter train and a derailed coal train at Hexham, north of Newcastle.

An inquiry into this crash by the state's rail regulator, Kent Donaldson, reported that a major track failure had forced the freight train, pulling 74 empty coal wagons, off the rails, and sending 24 carriages down a separate line.

After the derailment, which took place in near-darkness, the freight train's driver immediately alerted authorities, but his warnings were not conveyed to the passenger train driver, as it headed for the freight train at 115 kmh.

The inquiry into the Waterfall crash concluded that it had probably been caused by the failure of an automatic brake to operate, after the driver suffered a heart attack. However, people in the NSW public transport system believe that there are other possible explanations. Reports released immediately after the accident said that the train's brakes were in the emergency position, suggesting that they had been applied, but had not worked.

Others have pointed to the fact that the dead man's brake is next to a foot heater, and that the heaters on all Tangara trains were relocated away from the dead man's brake shortly after the Waterfall accident.

In his report into the Waterfall accident, Justice McInerney concluded that the train driver, Herman Zeides, who had a history of heart trouble, had suffered cardiac arrest, and had collapsed over the controls, while the weight of his leg was sufficient to prevent the deadman's brake from being activated.

Justice McInerney also found that the guard had not activated the emergency brake because he was used to trains going faster than the permitted speed limit.

He found that the State Rail Authority had known of this problem with the emergency brake for at least 10 years, but did nothing about it.

Even after the accident, the rail authority denied any responsibility, showing there was a culture of denial in the administration of the rail system.

While NSW Premier, Bob Carr, on behalf of the Government, accepted "full responsibility" for the accident, he refused to concede that either the Transport Minister, Carl Scully (who was Transport Minister at the time of the Glenbrook crash), or senior executives of the State Rail Authority, were responsible. The subsequent decision by the Government to sack two executives of the authority seemed like scapegoating.

Mr Carr said that he would insist that officials of the rail system would become safety "fanatics".

It is curious that Mr Carr, whose father was a train driver, seems unaware of the culture of complacency which has been revealed in each of the recent crashes.

The culture of denial which pervades the NSW rail system apparently reaches all the way to the top.

Mr Carr seems unwilling to bring to account those in his administration who have presided over a succession of serious accidents in the NSW rail system, on which hundreds of thousands of people travel every day.

The Government's response to the Waterfall accident, following its responses to earlier crashes at Hexham and Glenbrook, gives little confidence that its planned amalgamation of the State Rail Authority and the Rail Infrastructure Corporation into Rail Corporation New South Wales will work.

Unless major changes are made, Sydney commuters would seem to have little reason to believe the causes of the serious accidents in the state rail system have been addressed.

  • Peter Westmore

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