Foul play ruled out in major Australian train crash

A high-speed passenger train ploughed through trees and dirt “like a bulldozer” after it mysteriously derailed in north-east Australia on Tuesday, injuring nearly all 163 people on board, rescue workers said.

As a major investigation was launched, ambulance officials expressed amazement that no one aboard the City of Townsville express was killed, although six were airlifted for treatment and another 29 driven by ambulance with spinal, pelvis and other serious injuries.

The Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB) sent a team of top investigators to the scene near the coastal town of Bundaberg, about 300km north of the Queensland state capital, Brisbane, while officials insisted the train was considered safe and the tracks had been checked on Monday.

“Thank God no one was killed,” said Queensland state Premier Peter Beattie, as he toured the scene hours after the crash. “When you look at the site, it is in fact a miracle that no one was.”

Emergency services described the crash site as “a complete mess”. Witnesses said trees were taken down by carriages, one of which ended up embedded in the ground, and the flying train itself narrowly missed a major trunk highway running parallel to the line.

An ambulance service spokesperson described the train as “just a twisted wreck”.

“The train has ploughed through the dirt like a bulldozer,” the spokesperson said.
“It’s taken out trees, anything that was in its path has gone.”

The “tilting train” is Australia’s fastest train and was on a trip from Brisbane to the northern city of Cairns when it derailed just after midnight (2pm GMT on Monday).

Passenger Frank Houdini said he was woken as the train left the tracks.

“The next thing I know, I’ve gone through the front door and there’s no more train,” Houdini told national radio.

Queensland Rail employee Helen Anderson suffered burns when a hot coffee machine landed on her in the train’s galley.

“The lights went off, went on, went off, then just bang. Total darkness,” Anderson said from a hospital bed in Bundaberg.

There was initial confusion about the number of injured, but the Queensland ambulance service said it had treated more than 160 people.

Bob Scheuber, chief executive of Queensland Rail, said the tilt train involved in the crash could travel at speeds of up to 160kph and derailed on a section of track designed to handle speeds up to 150kph.

“We don’t know yet what speed the train was doing, but there is a black-box recorder on the train and of course that will be one of the key pieces of information that the ATSB will want to look at in determining the cause,” he said.

Emergency services took several hours to free about 50 passengers trapped in one of the derailed carriages.

Beattie said the black box will be the key to determining the cause, and said the service—only introduced in 1998—is the fastest in the world on a narrow gauge.

An ATSB official said foul play has been almost ruled out as a possible cause.

“There is no foul play as we understand,” said Kit Filor, an investigations official with the agency.

Prime Minister John Howard and Governor General Michael Jeffery prayed for the victims of the crash at a service in Canberra.—AFP