Australia

Granville: The rail disaster that changed Australia

Australia's Granville train disaster killed 83 people in 1977 Image copyright Blue Mountains City Library
Image caption Australia's Granville train disaster killed 83 people in 1977

Wednesday marks 40 years since a Sydney train derailed in a deadly accident that horrified Australia. It left enduring lessons, writes Jamie Duncan.

Australia's worst rail disaster took only seconds to happen but was a decade or more in the making.

The Granville train crash on January 18, 1977, claimed 83 lives and injured 213 others.

Granville revealed gross inadequacies in New South Wales (NSW) railway maintenance and taught the emergency services a lesson about the welfare of workers like those who raced against time to free survivors on that hot January day.

How it unfolded

The 06:09 train from Mount Victoria, in the Blue Mountains, to Sydney had at least 469 passengers aboard by the time it left Parramatta station in the city's west.

At 08:10, its electric locomotive derailed on an 80km/h (50 mph) curve in a deep cutting at Granville and speared into the supports of the Bold Street bridge above the tracks.

The locomotive tipped on its side and dragged the first two carriages off the rails.

Eight people were killed in carriage one, which tore open as it hit a power stanchion. Everyone survived in the second carriage.

Image copyright Blue Mountains City Library
Image caption The train derailed and hit a bridge, forcing it to collapse

The bridge, with four cars on its deck, teetered for a few seconds, then rained at least 470 tonnes of concrete and steel on carriages three and four.

The weight crushed the roof of the wooden-framed carriages to within 60cm (24 inches) or less of the floor. Some areas were crushed to floor level.

Within minutes, a vast rescue assembled - police, firefighters, ambulance crews, doctors, nurses, engineers, railway workers among them.

The cutting hindered initial access until ladders, then stairs, could be erected.

The accident drew civilian volunteers, some just teenagers, to lend a hand but many ghoulish sightseers turned up.

Police forced to control crowd

By 08:50, 1500 people lined the cutting. The crowd spilled onto the tracks. Some disguised themselves as rescue workers and climbed onto the unstable bridge wreckage for a closer look, risking the lives of trapped passengers and their rescuers beneath.

Doctors, nurses and police rescue crews crawled into tiny spaces to reach the injured, with rubble above likely to shift and further compress the carriages.

In one instance, a police rescue officer was lying prone in a 35cm gap from floor to roof, clambering among victims' bodies to get to an injured man.

A doctor had to amputate the arm of a dead woman to aid the rescuer but, without warning, a slab shifted above and compressed the carriage another 5cm, injuring the officer's back.

Police were diverted from the rescue to control the crowd.

Image copyright ABC News
Image caption Rescuers were praised, but subsequent investigations found problems

Gas was leaking into the carriages, preventing the use of oxy-acetylene cutting equipment.

Power lines had to be cut one by one before cranes could begin lifting pieces of the collapsed bridge.

The stifling heat sapped the rescuers. Compressed air did little to ease the sweltering conditions. Emergency lights strung through the carriages added to the heat.

Seven trapped passengers suffered potentially lethal crush syndrome - in which potassium, acids and other toxins built up in a person's trapped limbs can be released quickly once they're freed, causing life-threatening heart, respiratory and kidney issues.

Three died from it. Nevertheless, Granville became an object lesson in treating crush syndrome.

'This will never go away'

One policeman used a knife to cut through seats and remove springs to ease pressure on trapped passengers.

The last living person was freed around 18:15 but died in hospital. The last body was extracted 31 hours after the crash.

Tina Morgan, the youngest survivor of the disaster, said the scars from that day will never heal.

"It will never go away. For thousands of people involved, this will never go away, it's major trauma," she told the Australian Associated Press.

Ms Morgan, then 14, was trapped for at least five hours with her back injured and a piece of timber piercing her chest.

Image copyright Seven News
Image caption The incident led to improvements in the response to crash disasters

Of the 77 passengers in carriage three, 44 were killed. In carriage four, 31 passengers out of 64 were killed.

The efforts of emergency workers were praised following the disaster, but a debrief a month later showed there were some problems.

In some instances, there was too much help on hand, crowding the scene.

A disaster simulation conducted near Granville only weeks earlier had prepared medical teams well, but the review found too many medicos came to the scene and could have been better used if directed to nearby hospitals.

Crucial lessons

Volunteers sometimes complicated things. At one stage, up to 30 people were observed trying to carry single stretchers.

Importantly, there was no plan for psychological support for emergency workers traumatised by the appalling scene.

In all, one-quarter of emergency staff at Granville reported symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia a month later.

The National Association of Loss and Grief was established in 1977 in response, and commenced work with workers adversely affected by the disaster.

Psychological and pastoral care became more available to emergency service workers.

Image copyright Blue Mountains City Library
Image caption At least 469 passengers were on board shortly before the crash

An inquiry headed by then NSW District Court chief judge, Justice James Staunton, began in February 1977.

It revealed that the Bold Street bridge had been struck by derailments on the same section of track twice before - by a locomotive in 1967 and a loaded coal wagon in 1975.

The track there was in a "very unsatisfactory condition", poorly fastened and badly aligned. The tracks had spread wider than standard gauge.

On the morning of the crash, this caused the locomotive's front left wheel to drop inside the track and sent it careering into the bridge supports.

Changes and apology

The defects should have been identified and repaired, with failures reaching into the highest echelons of the Public Transport Commission (although no-one was held directly accountable) and exacerbated by a high turnover of track inspection staff in the months before the disaster.

Budgetary constraints were also a factor. The Public Transport Commission ran at a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Among his recommendations, Justice Staunton called for senior emergency personnel to be trained in disaster management and that more general training in crisis intervention be provided in crisis management for health and welfare workers in traumatic events.

Image copyright ABC News
Image caption Roses are dropped from the Bold Street bridge in a ceremony each year

The Wran government, which only came to power months before the accident, announced an immediate A$200m (£122m; $151m) railway improvement plan.

Forty years on, the response continues. Ahead of Wednesday's anniversary, Transport Minister Andrew Constance said the government planned to apologise to victims' families.

"It's a tragedy which no-one would ever get over and it's hard for a lot of us to imagine the grief that people experience life-long because of the very nature of that happened," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Each year since the Granville disaster, survivors, rescuers and loved ones of those killed gather on the Bold Street bridge on January 18 for a memorial service, dropping 83 roses to remember those lost.