Railway accidents can be dramatic, causing serious damage and disruption, and sometimes killing and injuring crew, passengers and other people at the scene. However, in 2008 rail travel was the safest form of land transport in New Zealand. Compared with road deaths and injuries, far fewer people are killed or hurt each year on the railways. This has been the case since road toll statistics were first collected in 1921.
Rail deaths and injuries are caused by train crashes and derailments, but also by shunting mistakes, level crossing collisions, and trespass and vandalism.
The number of people killed or injured in railway accidents was higher in the years when more people were travelling by train. The 1920s to 1940s were the peak years for rail travel – and for deaths and injuries. Occasionally a major railway accident, such as that at Hyde in 1943, caused a spike in the statistics.
Former New Zealand representative cricketer Chris Cairns has worked to raise awareness of level-crossing accidents through the Chris Cairns Foundation. His sister Louise was one of three people killed in 1993 when a concrete-mixer truck failed to stop at a crossing, crashing into the Southerner express train at Rolleston near Christchurch.
From 2000 to 2007 there were between 11 and 29 deaths each year, and between 34 and 75 people were injured. There has been a slight downward trend in the total casualty rate.
The high rate of level-crossing accidents caused concern in the early 2000s. Between 1998 and 2004, level-crossing accidents caused more than a third of all railway deaths. Numbers of accidents fell in 2005, but then rose again.
During Rail Safety Week in 2007 a ‘Police in Cabs’ scheme was run in the Auckland area. Police officers travelled in the cabs of trains, ready to arrest level-crossing offenders and trespassers on the line.
Every year there are a number of railway accidents causing death or injury, and railway ‘incidents’, which do not cause death or injury. The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) tries to establish their causes so they can be prevented from happening again. Accident investigations, along with research and improved technology, have led to the introduction of new safety measures.
Various agencies are responsible for rail safety. These include:
Railway accidents occur for a range, and sometimes a combination, of reasons.
Faults with modern locomotives pulling trains are uncommon, but parts can become worn or broken. Overheated axle bearings have caused derailments, and brake failure has led to some accidents, such as one that killed four people and injured 22 at Rakaia in 1899. A train approaching a station in heavy rain smashed into the rear of another train while trying to stop. After this tragedy Westinghouse airbrakes were fitted to all locomotives, and to rolling stock like carriages and wagons.
High standards of track construction and maintenance are vital to safety. Many of the sharp curves and steep gradients once common on New Zealand railways were corrected in the 20th century.
Signals could also be substandard in early days: this was another factor in the 1899 Rakaia crash. Over time signal failure became rare. However, missing or misleading speed warning boards, which show speed restrictions for different sections of track, were a cause of a 1981 crash. The Silver Fern railcar travelling from Wellington to Auckland went too fast around a curve, and rolled over, killing four people and injuring 16.
From 1880, when the Railways Department was established, track maintenance was improved to the level where it was described as first class. After the privatisation of railways in 1993, maintenance standards slipped. Remedial work was needed when the rail network was bought back by the government in 2004.
Accidents often occur when the driver, shunting or station crew make errors of judgement. Speeding, not following procedures, missing or ignoring signals, falling asleep and drunkenness are some examples. Sometimes tight timetables or inexperience lead to mistakes. This was the case when a driver wrecked the Picton to Christchurch express in 1948. He had less than 18 months’ experience, and was speeding to meet a tight timetable. Six people were killed and 43 injured as the result of what he admitted was ‘a terrific error’.1
Much of New Zealand’s landscape is unstable, and the weather can be fickle. The combination can lead to floods and subsidence that destroy sections of track or make them treacherous. When curves block the driver’s view ahead, collisions with slips are hard to avoid.
Weather alone can cause disasters. A gust of gale-force wind blew a train’s carriages off the Remutaka incline in 1880, resulting in three deaths and injuries to 21 people. Thick fog covered a trackside speed restriction board in 1938, causing a Wellington to New Plymouth passenger train to derail. This accident killed six people and injured 40.
People or farm stock on railway tracks can be killed, and cause damage to trains. Often human trespassers are suicidal, or affected by alcohol or drugs. Some are using tracks and tunnels as a short cut. Occasionally people deliberately put objects on tracks to try and derail a train, or throw objects at trains.
Nineteenth-century Dunedin lawyer Alfred Hanlon recalled a near miss when as a child, he and an adult took a short cut through a tunnel just before the express steam train passed through. Pressed back against the wall ‘the almost irresistible pull of the draught, the roaring darkness, the fumes of smoke, and the wet kiss of steam and flying embers from the engine stack combined to comprise an experience I have never forgotten’.2
Level crossings, where roads intersect with railway tracks, are a common accident site. Accidents happen when drivers fail to look, or underestimate the speed of the oncoming train.
With the increase in motor vehicles from the 1920s, level-crossing accidents became more of a problem. Warning bells, flashing lights and barrier arms were gradually installed at major crossings, but cost and engineering difficulties mean many remain uncontrolled.
Even warning devices do not always prevent accidents. A couple died and their five-year-old daughter was orphaned when their car collided with a freight train at a level crossing at Ōhingaiti, Rangitīkei, in 2007. Reports suggest the family were temporarily blinded by sunstrike, and in their confusion ignored bells and lights.
The worst railway accidents for numbers of people killed and injured were:
In early July 1923 heavy rain fell, swamping the country around Ōngarue, north of Taumarunui. As the Auckland–Wellington express approached near dawn on 6 July, a landslide engulfed the line. The train rounded a corner and ploughed into the slip. There was major damage to the first three carriages, and at least 12 passengers were killed instantly. In the third carriage a gas tank exploded, and the fire that broke out threatened the lives of trapped passengers. Fortunately another slip put out the flames before rescuers arrived. Seventeen people were killed or died of injuries, and another 30 were seriously hurt.
On 4 June 1943 the Cromwell to Dunedin express was heading along the Central Otago railway with 131 passengers, most bound for the Dunedin winter show. The train was travelling at high speed – it turned out that the driver was drunk. Near the township of Hyde, the train approached a sharp corner at about 112 kilometres an hour instead of the recommended 48. The engine rolled and all seven carriages were derailed, the first four piling into each other. Many passengers were thrown out, but others were trapped in the wreckage. Twenty-one people were killed, and many others were injured. The driver was later convicted of manslaughter.
The worst railway disaster in New Zealand’s history occurred on Christmas Eve 1953, at Tangiwai, north-west of Waiōuru on the North Island main trunk line.
A wall of the crater lake on Mt Ruapehu breached, and around 2 million cubic metres of water surged downstream, collecting rocks, silt, trees, chunks of ice and other debris along the way. The phenomenon, known as a lahar, swept away a pier of the railway bridge over the Whangaehu River at about 10.17 p.m., minutes before a train approached.
A Taihape postal worker, Cyril Ellis, later said he signalled the driver of the north-bound Wellington–Auckland express before it reached the damaged bridge. Although the driver tried to slow down, he could not stop, and the weight of the train caused the rest of the bridge to collapse. The engine and first five carriages plunged into the torrent, and many passengers were thrown into the murky water or trapped in submerged carriages.
Following the Tangiwai disaster of 1953, lahar warning devices were installed on railway bridges across all rivers between Waiōuru and National Park. In 2003 a sophisticated alarm network was also set up on Mt Ruapehu, and engineering works were carried out to lessen the effects of another major lahar. The system worked perfectly when there was a lahar in March 2007.
A passing motorist, Arthur Bell, was able to rescue passengers from one carriage stranded on an embankment. The sixth carriage teetered on the brink of the ruined bridge, and Ellis and the train’s guard, William Inglis, entered it and urged the passengers to get out – but too late. It broke away from the last three carriages, toppled into the water, and was washed a distance before it came to rest. Ellis, Inglis and a passenger, John Holman, helped the occupants out a broken window and they clung to the rocking carriage until the waters abated.
Rescue workers found a scene of devastation, and the task of finding and identifying victims took several days. Of the 285 people on the train, 151 died. Twenty bodies were never found, and another 21 could not be identified initially; this number was eventually reduced to eight. Queen Elizabeth II, who was touring New Zealand at the time, awarded Cyril Ellis and John Holman the George Medal, and William Inglis and Arthur Bell the British Empire Medal for their bravery.
Atkinson, Neill. Trainland: how railways made New Zealand. Auckland: Random House, 2007.
Churchman, Geoffrey B. Danger ahead: New Zealand railway accidents in the modern era. Wellington: IPL, 1991.
Conly, Geoff, and Graham Stewart. Tragedy on the track: Tangiwai and other New Zealand railway accidents. Wellington: Grantham House, 1986.
Watson, James. Links: a history of transport and New Zealand society. Wellington: Ministry of Transport, 1996.