Catastrophic Crumble: The 1977 Granville (Australia) Derailment

Background

Granville is a suburb of Sydney, Australia, with a population of 15332 people (as of 2016), located 19km/12mi west of downtown Sydney and 140km/87mi east-southeast of Bathurst (both measurements in linear distance) in the federal state of New South Wales (from here on referred to as NSW).

The location of Granville in southeast Australia.

Granville lies on the Main Western Railway Line, an up to six-tracked largely electrified main line opened in sections between 1855 and 1868. The line is a major traffic-corridor in NSW and carries everything from commuter trains and freight services to high speed services and tourist-oriented tour-trains, allowing speeds of up to 80kph/50mph by 1977 . The line terminates at Granville station, with trains leaving the station eastbound now running on the Main Suburban Line taking them from Granville into downtown Sydney.

Just before it reaches Granville station the Line is crossed by the Bold Street Bridge, a two-lane overpass reaching across 4 tracks between Railway Parade (southern side) and Bridge Street (northern side).

The site of the accident seen from above today, with the train’s eastbound path drawn in.

The train involved

The 6:09am service from Mount Victoria to Sydney was a standard eight-car commuter train provided by the New South Wales Public Transport Commission, the state’s public transport agency at the time. On the day of the accident the train was pulled by NSW Class 46 4620. The Class 46 is a six-axle multipurpose electric locomotive introduced in 1956. They were built by Metropolitan-Vickers in England specifically for main lines in NSW, which had just been electrified. 40 units were made between 1956 and 1958, each one measuring 16.44m/54ft in length at a weight of 113.8 metric tons. They have a top speed of 113kph/70mph, enough for any demand the railways in NSW had at the time. On the day of the accident the train consisted of eight four-axle passenger cars, carrying a total of 278 passengers.

NSW Class 46 4634, identical to the locomotive involved, photographed in 1982.

The accident

In the mid-1970s the railway system in NSW was in a run-down condition, with the administration struggling to maintain popularity among constant delays and unmaintained, even uncleaned trains. Commuters on the service from Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains into Sydney consistently complained about outright filthy trains, often carrying tissues to wipe down any surface they touched or would sit on. The service from Mount Victoria enjoyed a certain priority in the scheduling at least, as it connected a number of rather remote towns, all of which the local government was interested in keeping happy. Dispatchers were advised to constantly shuffle trains around to let the Mount Victoria service stay somewhat on time, running the train with an error-margin of just 3 minutes to avoid a 30 minute delay if a slower train would get in front of it. Part of the efforts involved the speed limit of the long right hand curve into Granville station, which was placed 10kph/6.2mph higher than that of any comparable curve in the state.

On the 18th of January 1977 the service had left Mount Victoria at 6:09am, expecting to drop off its passengers 126km/78mi away at 8:23am. By 8:07am the train was approaching the curve into Granville, preparing to slow down for a 20kph/12.5mph speed limit due to construction taking place east of Granville station. The train made about 3/4 through the curve when, at 8:10am, it derailed at 78kph/48mph, going almost straight ahead instead of following the turn completely. The Bold Street Overpass was just 46m/151ft ahead, standing on two supports who carried the road on eight stanchions. The locomotive left the track with the leading two cars, causing the coupler between them to split, and collided with the northern supports of the overpass, ripping away its stanchions. It ground along the supports as it passed under the overpass before crashing through a support pole for the overhead catenary, leaving it hanging from the overhead wires. After this collision the locomotive fell onto its right side, sliding to a stop some 70m/230ft past the overpass.

In the meantime the free-hanging support pole impacted the side of the leading passenger car, ripping it open like a can-opener as it sheared off the entire wall. The second car, disconnected from cars 1 and 3, passed the overpass and ran into the northern retaining wall some distance past the locomotive and first car. Cars 3 to 8 came to a stop upright and largely on track, with the rear of car 3 and the front of car 4 stopping under the overpass just as the remaining supports became overwhelmed with their load. About 2/3 of the bridge’s span, estimated at 570 metric tons, came crashing down on the two stationary train cars moments after they had come to a stop. The train cars stood no chance, being crushed to as little as a few inches high in some places. An estimated 50–60 passengers had been killed by this point with around 300 injured. The two train drivers and several motorists, including a motorbike rider, who had been on the bridge escaped with minor injuries.

The site of the accident seen from above, the train cars are connected below the concrete.

Aftermath

With the central location of the site responders were on site almost immediately, being met with survivors disembarking the second and rear cars on their own. Responders at the site were immediately faced with a problem, finding themselves unable to have a crane remove the larger pieces of the collapsed road as the segments were too heavy for any available crane. At the same time LPG from gas-canisters meant for heating the train cars was leaking from the destroyed tanks and lines, not only creating a fire-risk if any cutting-tools were used but also starving some of the trapped passengers of oxygen. With the fire department continuously spraying a film of water onto the wreckage, trying to hold a balance between preventing fires and risking to drown trapped passengers, rescuers slowly picked the wreckage apart, accessing victims and survivors at a painstakingly slow pace.

The train’s locomotive resting on its side in front of the wreckage.

Several rescuers found themselves (sometimes literally) facing trapped survivors, who were conscious and lucid, talking to the responders, only to die within seconds or minutes once the piece of debris pinning them was removed. This horrifying phenomenon was traced to the so-called “crush syndrome” (also referred to as traumatic rhabdomyolysis or Bywaters’ syndrome). It is caused by severe if not fatal damage to skeletal muscles due to violent compression, breaking down muscle tissue and producing myoglobin, potassium and phosphorus. Morbidly, it is the weight of the debris that keeps the victim alive as they are trapped. Once the compression is released the re-established blood flow causes these chemicals to overload the kidneys, causing near-immediate fatal kidney failure. Crush-Syndrome can be treated different ways and certainly isn’t always lethal, but rescue with survival can involve field amputations and often involves permanent muscle loss. The high fatality-rate comes from overeager responders releasing the compression without proper preparation, in part due to the phenomenon having no really obvious symptoms (especially for untrained responders). The rapid change from conscious, with pain-management possibly even seemingly happy, to dead has given the condition the nickname “smiling death”.

Responders pull a passenger from car 3 (I blurred them out of respect) as others work on moving debris.

As the collapsed section of the bridge kept slowly compressing the train cars responders were soon called off the wreckage, moments before the main span settled another 5cm/2in, trapping two responders and crushing a generator “like butter”. Meanwhile more and more police officers had to be moved from actively helping to keeping a crowd of approximately 5000 disaster-tourists out of the way as they both hampered the rescue-operation itself and blocked surrounding roads needed by ambulances. Eventually as many as 250 officers were tasked with nothing but crowd control. Despite that presence various rescue-tools and at least one victim’s personal belongings were stolen in the hours after the accident.

Responders kept inching through the unstable wreckage in a race against the time, pulling the last survivor from the wreckage 10 hours after the derailment. It wouldn’t be until 3:20pm the following day that the wreckage could be declared empty. At that point the accident had claimed 83 lives, with 213 people being officially listed as injured, 31 of which required hospitalization.

Workers looking down at the wreckage as the bridge is removed off the train.

Investigators initially suspected that the locomotive crew had been speeding, trying to not lose too much time due to the upcoming construction-site. However, not only did both men insist that they were below the speed limit at the time of the derailment but the damage to the locomotive also didn’t match an impact at excessive speed. As construction equipment was brought in to break up the bridge so it could be hauled away investigators examined the remains of the train as well as the tracks. Both the train cars and the locomotive, which had been involved in a previous derailment in 1965, showed no sign of a pre-existing defect, again aligning with the train crew’s statements. Only once the investigators examined the tracks did they figure out what had happened, and it immediately removed any shred of blame from the train crew. The rails had been replaced at some point prior to the accident, and had only been insufficiently attached to the sleepers. This allowed them to slowly move apart over time as train over train exerted significant forces on the outside rail, pushing it outwards as trains went around the curve. On the day of the accident this defect, which had gone unnoticed by maintenance crews, allowed so much independent movement by the right hand rail that the locomotive’s left hand wheels came off the rails as the right hand wheels followed it, taking away crucial guidance and allowing the train to divert from the intended route.

To add insult to injury, one of the locomotive’s right hand wheels was worn past its replacement-condition, making it even easier for the train to continue derailing. The excessive wear had been pointed out by railway staff, but budget constraints forced the maintenance to be delayed, causing the wheel to stay in service for more than 50 thousand kilometers/31 thousand miles past that point. But even without the damaged wheel the train was irreversibly doomed before anyone aboard had any chance to know something was wrong.

At that point the accident could have still had a less severe outcome, if it weren’t for the bridge and its history. Not only had it been constructed with supports between the tracks, investigators also found that it had been constructed with insufficient precision, ending up 1m/3.2ft below the road-level. Workers decided to just pour layer after layer of concrete onto the bridge until they could lay the road across it at a level with the street on either side of the overpass, adding significant weight to the span. Had the bridge remained in the original design the compression of the largely wooden train cars might have been less violent, and obviously it wouldn’t have happened in the first place had the bridge not had any supports between the train tracks. A replacement-bridge was constructed once the rail line was repaired, which has no supports on the track. Other bridges of a similar design had their trackside supports reinforced if they could not be redesigned/replaced.

The new bridge spanning the site of the accident, photographed in 2014.

After the accident funding for the railway was increased, improving maintenance of tracks and trains along with introducing stricter checks before new or replaced tracks are opened for service, avoiding a repeat of the accident. A few years after the accident a memorial-garden was opened across the street to the south of the site, featuring several flowerbeds along with a large black stone wall listing the names of the victims. Surviving relatives were understandably upset when they found several names to be spelled wrong, an error only fully corrected by 2017.

Survivors and relatives also founded the Granville Memorial Trust, which organizes an annual memory-ceremony and a march to the site. In recent years the group expanded to include responders. The group represents the victims and survivors in various matters relating to the aftermath of the accident and has repeatedly campaigned for improvements to railway safety. In 2017, on the 40th aniversary of the accident, they also successfully campaigned for the official death-toll to be raised to 84, recognizing the unborn child of a pregnant victim as an individual fatality.

The group, now renamed the “Granville Train Disaster Association”, also had a memorial plaque installed at the new bridge in 2007, marking the efforts of the responders.

Mister Pedersen, then 103 years old, checks if the name of his dead son (26 years old at the time of the accident) is spelled correctly after the memorial was overhauled in 2017.

The accident not only improved Australian rail-safety forever, it also led to advances in disaster-related field medicine, making the crush-syndrome more widely known and advancing the development of strategies to increase the chances of survival including the use of intravenous hydration with certain medication. This vastly improves survival-chances, since other options (field amputation or restriction of blood flow with a tourniquet) are not always an option, especially if the crushed areas involve not just limbs but the torso. It is obviously still rather counter-intuitive to not free trapped survivors as fast as possible, which is why it helps to make the phenomenon more well known.

The official memorial for the accident, photographed in 2021. Coordinates are -33.831906, 151.009768.

The Class 46 locomotive was completely withdrawn from service in 1996, with all but 5 surviving units being scrapped. Nowadays the line is largely serviced by electric multiple units belonging to “Sydney Trains”, the local suburban passenger rail operator. An exception are the Central West XPT high speed trains, which are based off the British Intercity 125-trains.

A surviving Class 46 photographed ata museum in 2015.

History repeats

The accident bears similarities to the 1998 ICE-Derailment at Eschede (Germany), where a faulty wheel caused a high speed train to derail. There, the derailing train took out a bridge’s trackside supports, causing the bridge to collapse onto part of the train, crushing several cars. The accident, itself one of the worst in German history, claimed 101 lives. One is left to wonder how the accident at Granville would have played out had the train been struck by the bridge before it became stationary.

The accident at Eschede was actually the very first write-up posted in what became this series and can be found right here.

The aftermath of the 1998 ICE-Derailment at Eschede (Germany).

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Max S

Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.

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