1995 Werribee derailment

On 2 September 1995 a West Coast Railways train bound for Warrnambool derailed at the Werribee Street level crossing in Werribee. The derailment was caused by a handbrake left on, resulting in damage to carriages ACZ260, BS 203, damaged electrical overheads, and the death of a woman in a car waiting at the level crossing.

The Age article


From The Age, 10 September 1995.

One family grieves, another has a close escape

Murray Mottram

Lou Sgambaro is the luckiest of the lucky ones. Moments after 7pm last Saturday, he pulled up at the level crossing just past the Werribee train station in his wife's Hyundai Excel. Hearing the racket of the alarm bells, his three-year-old daughter, Angela, stood up on the seat beside him. "Where is the train?" she asked.

In front of them, Mrs Robyn Phillpott, with daughter Sheena beside her and son Michael in the back, had resisted the temptation to steal across the track before the boom gates came down. "If she had put her foot down she would have made it across but she was cautious," Mr Sgambaro, 45, said. "She did the right thing slowed down and pulled up at the white line. " Seconds later, Mrs Phillpott, 32, was dead.

A few hundred metres up the line, the Melbourne-Geelong express was hurtling towards the crossing at almost 115 kilometres an hour. Mr Sgambaro said: "I looked across and saw the train about 200 or 300 metres away and I thought, `This train's really moving'. "Then the carriage behind the engine bounced out and I could see all the side and front of it. "I thought, `My life is over, this is going to hit us.' I threw my daughter onto the floor and ducked. I was looking through the windscreen. "There was this massive spark and then girders started to come down. I was waiting for it to fall on us but it just seemed to hang there."

When he sat up, he could see why. One of the massive steel gantries that holds up the signal lights over the track had been knocked down by the derailed carriage on to the roof of Mrs Phillpott's Fairmont, crushing her. "I thought, `Thank God, I'm alive'," Mr Sgambaro said. "I ran up to the car on the driver's side. The roof was folded in and had separated from the back door." Mr Sgambaro reached through the gap to offer his hand to 7-year-old Michael Phillpott. "I said, `Take it easy, take it easy.' Luckily a guy came up who was an off-duty ambulance officer and he took over, saying all the right things." Mr Sgambaro went to the passenger side, climbed on to the roof and reached down to open the door. But he could see Mrs Phillpott was impossibly trapped.

Mr Mario Ballan, who had pulled up beside Mr Sgambaro on his way home from church, was second on the scene. He helped 12-year-old Sheena out of the crushed car and tried to calm her down. "All she wanted to do was try to help her mum," said Mr Ballan, a Werribee butcher. "I couldn't let her go back there."

As a crowd gathered from the Racecourse Hotel across the road, Sheena gave her home phone number to a woman with a mobile phone, who called her father, Mr Geoff Phillpott, with the news his wife would not be coming home from a trip to the local shops for a takeaway dinner. Mr Sgambaro cuddled his daughter, counting his blessings. "I was very lucky. If she had have gone through (the crossing) it would have been me."

In the days that followed, as the 190 passengers on the West Coast Railway service considered their fortune - only 14 of them were injured - it emerged this had been Victoria's third passenger train derailment in five months.

On 21 April, a Warrnambool-Melbourne service - run by West Coast, one of two private operators in Victoria - came off the tracks near Deakin University. West Coast's operations manager, Mr Michael Menzies, said a joint Public Transport Corporation-West Coast investigation had found the cause to be an undetectable fault in a carriage wheel, which had fractured. Neither West Coast nor the PTC would release the report last week. A spokesman for the PTC, Mr Ray Wilson, said it was an internal department document and would not be available to the public.

In State Parliament on Thursday, the Opposition spokesman on transport, Mr Peter Batchelor, revealed that a V/Line service from Albury to Melbourne had derailed near Violet Town on 1 August. Mr Batchelor accused the Government of covering up the incident, saying the inquiry into last week's crash should examine the impact of transport cuts on the level of safety and maintenance in the system.

Mr Wilson said there was no connection between the Violet Town derailment, which was due to a "hot axle box", and the two other accidents. The PTC regional manager for the area, Mr Bruce Fremantle, said a board of inquiry report on the derailment had not been finalised. Mr Nick Maher, a spokesman for the Transport Minister, Mr Alan Brown, said a broken wheel had been found on the carriage that caused the Werribee derailment but it was not known whether this had happened before or after the accident. Mr Menzies said the carriage that caused last week's accident was not one of West Coast's but had been hired from V/Line because it was a busy weekend.

Sergeant Geoff Exton, who is heading the police investigation for the coroner, said it could take a year to finish the inquiry. "We have to get metallurgists and all sorts of experts to check everything," he said. "It is some sort of mechanical failure with the train. The signalling and boom gates worked perfectly." The Department of Transport is conducting its own investigation into the Werribee derailment.

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Alan Brown in Hansard


On 5 September 1995 Minister for Public Transport Alan Brown addressed the Legislative Assembly in regards to the derailment.

On Saturday, 2 September at 7.05 p.m. all the carriages of the 6.35 p.m. Melboume-Warrnambool West Coast Railway passenger train derailed behind the locomotive in the vicinity of the Werribee Street level crossing. The locomotive itself did not derail. The derailed carriages struck and dislodged a signal gantry which fell onto a stationary motor vehicle at the level crossing. Tragically the driver, Mrs Robyn Phillpott, was fatally injured. Her 12-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son sustained minor injuries. I know all honourable members will join with me in expressing deepest condolences to Mr Phillpott, the children and other family members at this sad time.

A number of factors combined to make the accident a million-to-one tragedy. I am most thankful that none of the train's passengers was killed or seriously injured. Following the derailment of the bogey of the front carriage and the remaining carriages, the train came to a stop beyond the level crossing. Notwithstanding damage to 600 metres of track, due to the strength of the carriages and the fact that they remained coupled together, the train stayed intact and upright.

I place on record my thanks and appreciation for the efforts and cooperation of the Victoria Police, ambulance and fire officers, the State Emergency Service and other emergency services and volunteer agencies, as well as the staff of the PTC and West Coast Rail and those members of the public who all helped at the scene of this tragedy to assist, treat and comfort passengers. I visited the site on Sunday, and I thank the railway staff and the many contractors who were working hard to clear the scene and repair the track to restore normal services at the earliest possible time.

The cause of the derailment is not yet known and it may take some weeks to determine. Detailed scientific analysis and reconstruction of the damaged components is required. However, there is no evidence at this stage to suggest track, signalling operations or maintenance faults. The leading carriage under which the rear bogey was the first item to derail was on short-term lease to West Coast Rail from the PTC. Three weeks ago as part of normal rail maintenance procedures that same carriage had its wheels inspected and reprofiled on the underfloor wheel lathe at the Newport Workshops.

Today I announced the appointment of a board of inquiry to be chaired independently by Mr Kevin Mason. Mr Mason is a retired magistrate; he was appointed a magistrate in 1973 and was the city coroner between 1979 and 1983. He was also appointed by the former Labor government to undertake an independent review of safe working procedures for rail within the PTC. Mr Mason is a man of impeccable integrity and vast experience. It is with that background that Mr Mason and the board of inquiry will conduct a thorough investigation into the cause of the derailment. In the meantime I caution against speculation about the cause of this tragic accident.

All aspects of this tragedy will be fully investigated by the properly constituted board of inquiry. Honourable members will appreciate that, because the accident involved the death of Mrs Robyn Phillpott, a separate coronial inquiry is being conducted.

I assure the house the government will take the recommendations from those inquiries with the utmost seriousness because of its commitment to safety and the integrity of Victoria's public transport system.

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Board of inquiry


From The Age, 20 December 1995.

Mother's death due to brakes on train

Bruce Tobin

A passenger train derailment in Werribee, in which a mother of two was killed, was caused by a handbrake on a carriage being left on, a board of inquiry has found. The handbrake had overheated a wheel, leading to its fracture and the train leaving the rails, according to the report of the inquiry released yesterday.

The train uprooted a steel railway signal gantry, which crashed on to a car waiting at a crossing, killing the driver, Mrs Robyn Phillpott, 32. Her two children, also in the car, were not hurt. The train, operated by West Coast Railway, was travelling from Melbourne to Warrnambool when the accident happened on 2 September. About 190 passengers were on board, and 14 people were hurt.

Mrs Phillpott's husband, Geoff, last night claimed the accident was caused because of "sheer negligence", claiming the carriage wheels were not properly checked before the train left. "My own heart tells me the wheels were never checked. My wife was an innocent victim." Mr Phillpott said there should be a warning system to alert the train driver that a carriage handbrake remained on. He was also critical he was not allowed to give evidence to the inquiry panel. Today, Mr Phillpott will take his two children, Sheena and Michael, to his wife's home in the New South Wales town of Manilla for Christmas. He said the children were coping well after the accident.

The board of inquiry, headed by a former coroner and magistrate, Mr Kevin Mason, found that a carriage handbrake had been left on while the train was running earlier in the day, causing a wheel to overheat. The wheel fractured on the carriage immediately behind the locomotive, which led to the derailment. A carriage struck the steel signal, tearing it from its concrete mounting, which struck a stationary car at the Werribee railway crossing.

There was no evidence of underlying systematic deficiencies with the rail network, the report found. A materials failure analyst, Mr Gary Martin, said in the board's report "the failure of the wheel occurred because the hand- brake was applied for a substantial time during the operation of the train".

The report says a train examiner checked the train before it left Spencer Street station for Warrnambool. Although the train was operated by West Coast Railway, the drivers were employed by the Public Transport Corporation.

After the accident, Mr Phillpott said he would consider suing the PTC or the private railway company if either was found liable for the accident. Last night, he said he would not stop fighting for justice for his wife. The Minister for Public Transport, Mr Brown, said last night that since the Werribee derailment the PTC had reviewed all safety procedures to ensure all operational procedures were fully complied with.

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