Berajondo is a town of 61 people (as of 2016) in the northeast-Australian federal state of Queensland, and is located 98km/61mi south-southeast of Gladstone and 63km/39mi northwest of Bundaberg (both measurements in linear distance).
Berajondo is passed by the North Coast Railway Line (NCL), a 1681km/1045mi partially electrified mostly single-track main line. Opened in sections until 1924 the line connects Brisbane in the south of the state with Cairns in the north. The line is used for both passenger and freight services, allowing trains with a weight per axle of as much as 20 metric tons, with some trains reaching as much as 160kph/99mph. The line is built in the 1067mm/42in “Cape Gauge”, a narrow railway gauge found parts Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand as well as in southern Africa, Japan (except for high speed lines), Ecuador and Indonesia. To compare, the general “regular gauge” measures 1435mm/56.5in
The train involved
Service VCQ5 from Brisbane to Cairns was a passenger express service provided by a QR (Queensland Rail, the state’s government-owned rail service provider) Diesel Tilt Train, a 9-car diesel multiple unit introduced in 2003. The Diesel Tilt Train (DTT) consists of a locomotive/power car on each end and seven passenger cars in between. Measuring 196.8m/646ft in length the trains can reach up to 160kph/99mph thanks to each power car putting out 1350kW/1810hp. The first class cars each carry 28 seats, with the second class cars carrying 39 seats. The leading power car is followed by a staff/baggage car followed by second class cars numbered 2, 3 and 4. Car 5 is a service car carrying a kitchen and bar followed by two first class cars.
The power cars each carry two turbocharged V12 diesel engines and don’t have the capability to tilt into corners while the 7 middle cars do have the capability. They can travel on curved rail lines at higher speeds than conventional trains thanks to a special suspension system leaning the body of the train into the turn by a few degrees (commonly compared to someone riding a motorbike), rather than tending to lean to the outside of the turn (comparable to what you feel when you go around a turn in a car). This not only changes the forces pulling on the train but also increases passenger comfort around turns, making them feel less like they may fall out of their seat. Tilt trains have found success in various countries, allowing fast and comfortable passenger services without needing to rebuild/reroute old, curvy rail lines. The DTT is the second tilting train in QR’s services after an electric version based on a Japanese tilting train was introduced in 1997. Running the service on the day of the accident was one of two DTT-units in service at the time, nicknamed the City of Townsville. It carried 150 passengers, five staff members and two drivers for a total of 157 people on board. Both the driver and co-driver were experienced with and certified for the DTT, however, it was later found that the driver had 3 cases of SPAD (Signal passed at danger, running a red signal) on his record from 2000 (2 cases) and late 2003 (1 case). He had received additional training and was subject to ongoing monitoring at the time of the accident.
On the 15th of November at 11:11pm “City of Townsville” is departing Bundaberg station to the north 2 minutes ahead of schedule after a scheduled crew change. The unnamed driver took command of the train at 10:58pm while parked at Bundaberg station, getting a clean report from his predecessor with no defects or unusual defects reported. The driver had brought a carry-on bag containing personal articles including food and bottled water, which was stored under the co-driver’s seat. Leaving Bundaberg behind the train was able to accelerate, reaching speeds of as much as 150kph/93mph. At 11:50pm the train approaches Berajondo as the tracks, which are electrified in the area, run alongside Lowmead Road, behind the town lies a section of track that permits 150kph/93mph starting at kilometer 417.783. A second high speed stretch is located further north, starting at kilometer 420.854. Between the two, at kilometer 419.410 ahead of the town of Baffle, a series of sharper turns demands a reduction in speed to 60kph for the tilting train. Speed boards, bright yellow signs indicating the maximum speed beyond their location, tell the drivers how fast they can go. There is no automatic system monitoring and controlling the speed of the tilting trains (the conventional ones have it). QR instead relies on two drivers observing each other, a deadman’s switch that will activate the brakes if the driver doesn’t respond, and magnets in the track that trigger an auditive warning if the train is approaching a station where greater attention is needed.
During the drive the driver had complained about the poor quality of the coffee offered at Bundaberg station. At 11:51pm the co-driver left his seat and headed to a small vestibule area behind the driver’s cab to brew some coffee for the driver.
At 11:52:41pm the leading power car passed over the Berajondo station protection magnet, located at kilometer 415.470 at a speed of 72kph/45mph, about 3kph/1.9mph below the maximum permitted speed. The driver increased power until reaching a speed of 81kph/50mph at 11:53:13. He maintained the speed through 800m/2625ft of track with a 100kph/62mph speed limit and then through a 900m/2953ft section of track from 416.480 km to 417.380 km designated for no more than 80kph/49mph. At 11:54:26 pm the driver gave the train full throttle and quickly accelerated to 105kph/65mph. At 11:55:11pm the power car had passed over the ‘mid-section’ magnet at kilometer 418.995, the driver immediately acknowledged the alarm. A speed of 112kph/70mph was then maintained at a throttle setting of about 60%. At this point the driver saw the speed board for the turns ahead and realized that he was going nearly twice the speed limit.
At 11:55:24, 13 seconds after acknowledging the ‘mid-section’ magnet alarm, the throttle was moved rapidly to zero and within one second was put to full emergency braking. 3 seconds later the leading power car derailed out of the tracks to the right, travelling at 112kph/70mph. The leading power car slid on its right side for 108m/354ft before coming to a stop lying almost flat on its side, the first passenger car dug into the sand and stopped upright behind it with the second car turning 40° to the direction of travel as it derailed, it ran into the rear of the first passenger car as it came to a stop. Cars 3 and 4 jacknifed, folding by almost 180° at the coupler but remained almost upright. Car 5 was dragged out by car 4 and came to a rest parallel to the tracks but 15m/49ft away from it, almost ending up on the adjacent road. Lastly car 6 ended up sitting on the tracks but turned 90° to it, causing the last passenger car to end up to the left of the tracks. The rear motor car remained mostly on the tracks, with just the first axle of the leading wheelset derailing. All the cars except for 1 and 2 tore off each other at the coupler, and suffered severe damage without compromising structural integrity.
The tilt train ripped down the overhead wires as it went off the track, causing a circuit breaker to trip which was reported to the Electrical Control Operator at Rockhampton. The operator on duty forwarded this to North Coast Control (NCC), the traffic control center responsible for the area, at 11:57pm. NCC identified the affected area as the approximate location of the tilt train, trying to reach the crew by radio several times without success. The diesel powered train didn’t need the overhead wires, obviously, but they hoped the driver may be able to give input to what caused the system to shut off. At the same time one of the passengers on the train called emergency services and reported a derailing without knowing exactly where he was, this was forwarded to NCC who, at 12:02am, raised the alarm and sent responders to the site of the accident. The first police officers arrived at the site 40 minutes later, followed by firefighters and ambulances and, eventually, QR’s own recovery team.
In the meantime Mister Pauza, a local farmer, had stumbled upon the scene, alerted by the noise of the crash. The train almost literally crashed through his front gate, figuratively throwing the sleeping man out of his bed. He recalls people stumbling and walking out of the cars “like zombies”, unfortunately some ran right into the barbed wire fence Pauza has put up to keep his cattle from wandering into the path of a train. Pauza ran back to his house and called the emergency services while getting dressed (him running to the scene naked earned him the title “the naked farmer” by the media), it took a while before he was taken seriously. Not wanting to waste any further time he handed the phone to his wife and went back to the wreckage. Pauza’s wife was an experienced nurse, and with her help Pauza and some of the survivors rendered first aid to the more severely injured survivors and triaged them, keeping them from wandering off into the night until professional responders arrived. With professionals arriving Pauza set up a generator for lights so helicopters could see where they could land before going after some of his cattle who had run off in every direction after being startled by all the noise and commotion.
With the overhead wire being shut off responders started rescuing passengers from the stricken train, despite the forces of the collision none of the cars had collapsed in on themselves. All 157 people aboard survived with injuries, 18 of which being listed as severely injured. By 6am all people aboard the train had been evacuated from the site and transported away and QR’s recovery crew had recovered the train’s data logger. Considering the scale of the accident, its remote location and the time of day (or rather night) it was deemed a sufficiently quick and efficient response.
With no technical defect found on the train or track (aside from 120m/394ft of damage caused by the derailing train) attention turned to the train’s driver. It was soon ruled out that he was incapacitated or had left the control desk, as both the throttle lever and the deadman’s switch were operated regularly until the accident. The driver, who was experienced with both the train and line, had entered the turn at almost twice the posted speed limit while being completely in control. The main task was now to find out why. It was a clear night, but also a rather dark one with no visible moon and thus no illumination outside that of the train’s headlights. Being interrogated by the police after the accident the driver claimed to have no memory of the minutes leading up to the derailment, he claimed to recall driving the train near Berajondo and then lying on the embankment by the side of the track as his codriver rendered first aid. The codriver had been in the vestibule at the time of the accident, unable to observe the track, signage or his coworker. Still, judging by his behavior before and after the accident as well as the recordings from the data-logger the investigators soon ruled out deliberate speeding as well as the driver derailing the train on purpose. For the latter, they figured, he would’ve likely sped up further. The train alternated between being on and ahead of schedule and never breached the posted speed limits, at times staying well below them. Based on the statement by the codriver the driver was alone in the cab for three to four minutes before the derailing. The theory that the driver had fallen asleep even shortly was ruled out as he had responded to the ‘mid-section’ magnet alarm just 17 seconds before the train derailed.
Investigators set up the theory that the driver got confused about his exact position, suffering a momentary lapse of concentration. There is a similar section of track, a longer straight followed by a left hand turn a few kilometers further towards Baffle, where the speed limit for the tilt train is 110kph/68mph. This theory was supported by the driver’s reply to a question in the second interrogation:
Police: “Can you recall what the speed sign is for this bend?”
Driver: “I thought the sign indicated 110 over 90. 110 for the tilt train and 90 for the freight train.”
Investigators saw themselves confirmed in their theory, the driver had “gotten lost” on the track despite his experience. Ther was nothing but darkness outside the small beam of the headlights, the driver’s cab was dark except for the illuminated instruments. There were no radio conversations recorded leading up to the derailment and the driver had left his mobile phone at home with his wife, so texting and driving or an involving radio conversation could be ruled out. It was assumed that the driver most likely acknowledged the alarm but thought it was one located after the sharp turn and, thinking the difficult part of the track was behind him, went to get his brought food from his bag or something from the small fridge located directly behind the codriver’s seat (which, remember, was unoccupied at that point) to go with the coffee he knew was coming. The report states:
It is natural for food and beverage to go together and it is quite possible that the association caused the driver to desire a food pack. He could not access his bag and/or the food pack without leaving the driving seat. If the driver left the seat for sufficient time, just a few seconds and resumed his driving position the train would have been very close to the 60 km/h curve.
This would explain the panicked response to the speed board well after it could do any good, the driver was just getting back to his seat when he saw the board whiz by. The theory was supported when investigators found a bottle of water and two packed store-bought sandwiches loose in the driver’s cab.
At the time of the accident it wasn’t required for the codriver to call out significant changes in the speed limit, only signals. Neither was it forbidden for him to enter the adjacent vestibule area. With that the investigation could present their findings, blaming the accident on the driver getting confused about his location and likely momentarily distracted due to a false sense of control/safety in connection to his perceived location. There were no legal consequences against the driver, his error was considered to not be sufficient to establish criminal negligence. The cost of the accident, excluding medical bills and connected costs (salary replacement, therapy, etc) was estimated at 35.5 million AUD/26.7 million USD/22.5 million Euros. 30 AUD of that went into the repair of the train, which included a 50-head crew from 5 countries. QR couldn’t go without the train, so it was repaired by its manufacturer, Downer Rail, and eventually returned to service. The report closes with a list of recommendations, including the introduction of advance speed boards (rather than having just one announce a drastic change in speed several should warn of the approaching limit), banning the codriver from leaving the cab while the train is in motion, reviewing the possibility of giving passengers a safety briefing similar to those found on airliners, and QR was to evaluate the introduction of a speed control system on tilting trains which could have avoided the accident. QR was also advised to respond to each of the recommendations, however their response, if it happened, was not made public.
In the early 2010s the DTTs were refurbished, and an additional unit started service in 2014. They are still an important part of QR’s passenger services, alongside their electric siblings. The new train is signifficantly longer, consisting of 12 middle cars.
A few months after the accident one of the survivors passed away from a brain haemorrhage, while some, including Mister Pauza, are convinced that this can be tracked back to injuries suffered in the derailment the death was never officially acknowledged as being caused by the accident. Mister Pauza found himself hailed a hero for his actions during the night of the accident, being presented with several medals and awards including a certificate of Appreciation by the Queensland Ambulance Service. He has remained humble on his part in the response, repeatedly pointing out that he followed his wife’s advice for much of the rescue attempt. he says his doing was a normal human response, dismissing his actions by saying “If people need help, I think those who can, should.” He still maintains his farm adjacent to the site of the accident (at least as of 2014), even a catastrophic flood in 2013 couldn’t drive him away despite spelling near bankrupcy for the uninsured man. The tilt trains still go past his property several times a week, and in a 2014 interview Mister Pauza said that he can still hear the deafening noise, can still smell the strange metallic burning stench.