Horror on the XPT - An eyewitness account

By Simon Ruppert

Thursday was a normal day for "Kim" - who has asked that we do not use her real name.

She was staying with friends in Benalla, as she often does before an appointment in Melbourne, and had planned to get into the city Thursday evening - in good time for her Friday appointment.

Being a regular passenger on the north-east line, it was no shock when, upon arrival at 4.30 pm, she was told the train was delayed by about 90 minutes.

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“The station master had an app to check what time the train would arrive, which he showed us, and recommended getting back about 5.10 pm,” she said.

“It was a bit annoying, but not out of the ordinary for a small delay.

“As I work in the regions and I prefer to use public transport, I will often head to an appointment in the city the evening before, just in case there is a delay.”

Once on board Kim picked a seat on the aisle in carriage D and got comfortable.

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“One of the XPT staff, a conductor. was handing out complaint forms because I suppose is the protocol when there's been a delay,” she said.

“I had a look at the form and then went to the buffet car to get something to eat.

“The train had stopped a few times along the journey.

“Again this was not out of the ordinary for a Benalla-to-Melbourne train, so I didn't think much of it.

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“We had been warned that there was work on the track happening between 7.30 pm and 9.30 pm and it was getting close to that time, but we hadn't seen any train workers outside the windows.

“Then all of a sudden, I guess we were approaching Wallan, there was an almighty jolt and the train lurched to the left then the right.

“There was a man sitting next to me, by the window.

“I turned to him and we both arched our necks to see outside.

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“There was lots of banging.

“We all knew the carriage had left the track - you could just tell.

“It was swaying from side to side, it was sliding and you could see and hear the rocks being thrown up.

“Suddenly it jolted again and it was as if it was raining suitcases and luggage inside the carriage - things were falling everywhere.

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“That went on for what seemed to be about a minute, but might have been much less.

“In that time all I was wondering if I was going to live or die.”

When everything became still there was silence.

“Even when it stopped we didn't know if it was over,” Kim said.

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“I thought there would be a lot of screaming, but there was nothing, it was very quiet.

“I think, like me, most people were in shock.

“No-one ran for the exits, we just sat there.

“But all sorts of things were happening outside the carriage

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“I don't really recall making the decision to get out, but suddenly people did start to exit the train.”

Standing on the side of the track the gravity of the situation was beginning to overcome the initial shock.

“All of a sudden I noticed a woman screaming - she was holding a small baby,” Kim said.

“There was a petrol station up the hill with a track leading to it, and people were starting to move away from the wreckage.

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“And there was police, ambulances, SES and CFA on the scene very quickly.”

Still on the side of the track Kim text her friends and family to let them know she was safe.

A sling on a crane is used to move part of the XPT train that derailed in Wallan North, 45km north of Melbourne

“It had been a pretty rough experience even though our carriage was still upright,” Kim said.

“It didn't have seat-belts, which isn't a complaint.

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“I don't think I would have wanted to be strapped to the train whilst it was crashing.

“Most, if not all, of the people in my carriage were still sat in their seats and hadn't been thrown out.

“When I eventually looked down the track and saw some of the other carriages I was in shock.

“I had seen a signal pole on the ground through the window, from inside the train - but I didn't expect to see any of the other carriages on their side.

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“I guess that's when it hit home just how serious it was.

“I don't think anyone in carriage D thought the train had jack-knifed, and when I saw the engine crumpled up, I was worried that the driver might not have made it.

“We were up at the petrol station when we got the news that someone had died, and on the bus to Southern Cross when we heard on the ABC that a second XPT worker had passed away.

“And I want to make it clear that I do not blame the driver or his co-driver for the derailment in any way.

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“Some people had said the train was going a bit fast, and the politicians were quickly passing blame around.

“But we don't know what happened.

“We do know there has been a lot of work on the north-east line for more than a decade.

“We do know the drivers do a difficult job and often don't know the condition of the track or if there will be replacement buses until they get to work.

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“And with both drivers having passed away seeking to assign blame is wrong.

“I know I've done my job for nearly 40 years and I take great pride in my work.

“And I assume that is no different for our train drivers, so I have found some of the ‘spin’ coming from politicians quite unsettling.”

Kim said she wanted to thank all the emergency services workers who did a great job and said this would not stop her catching trains in the future.

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“The reason I catch a lot of trains is that my father was in an accident, with a truck, on the road about 10 years ago, which put me off driving,” Kim said.

“But you can also read or use your laptop on the way to an appointment, which is helpful, so I will still use trains more often than not.

“I just hope the issues on the north-east line can be addressed before they cost more lives.”