At 0901 Eastern Standard Time on 14 July 2017, the Spirit of Queensland (tilt train V976) departed Cairns bound for Roma Street station in Brisbane. The train travelled largely on schedule apart from some minor delays at Tully, Townsville, Bowen Junction, Proserpine, and Mackay.
At about 0047 hours (about 8 minutes ahead of schedule) on 15 July 2017, the train approached the intersection of Denison and William Streets, Rockhampton at 21 km/h (below the posted train speed limit of 25 km/h). Both of the train’s drivers identified that the intersection and its approaches were clear. When the train was in the intersection, both drivers heard a loud bang and a jolt to the power car cab. The operating driver immediately applied the brakes and the train stopped after travelling about 40 m. The driver alighted from the train and found that the train had struck a road vehicle, a white Toyota Camry (Figure 1).
Source: Queensland Rail
The train struck the driver’s side of the vehicle causing it to spin and collide with the right-hand side of the train in the direction of travel.
Shortly afterwards, the Queensland Police Service (QPS), Queensland Ambulance Service (QAS) and Queensland Fire and Emergency Services attended the scene.
There were four occupants in the vehicle, two females and two males. The three passengers were conveyed by QAS to Rockhampton Base Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. The vehicle’s driver was breath tested by QPS and returned a reading below the blood alcohol concentration limit. The vehicle driver also underwent drug testing returning a zero reading. The QPS issued the driver of the road vehicle with a traffic infringement notice.
Both train drivers underwent a QPS breath test for alcohol at the scene, and were also tested for alcohol and other drugs by an authorised Queensland Rail (QR) tester, at Rockhampton station. All tests returned zero readings.
The vehicle involved was a white, 2015 Toyota Camry rental vehicle. A suitably licensed driver was operating the vehicle. The driver did not live in Rockhampton but visited regularly for work. The driver had previously used another active level crossing over Denison Street but had never used the passive William Street intersection.
According to the driver, the vehicle’s windows were open at the time of the incident. Its occupants were actively engaged in conversation and none of them heard the train’s horn. The driver stated that the vehicle was slowed almost to a stop as it approached the intersection before accelerating to cross it. Neither the driver nor the passengers noticed the train until immediately before the collision.
Train V976 was the QR-operated tilt train passenger service travelling from Cairns to Roma Street station, Brisbane. The train consisted of two power cars and seven passenger cars, in a push-pull configuration (that is, power car, seven passenger cars, power car). It had a gross mass of 448 t and a length of about 200 m. The train was carrying 148 passengers, with six QR on-board personnel and two drivers.
The train was fitted with a forward-facing video camera and a data event recorder. The video camera footage (Figure 2, sequential frames as identified) showed that the:
A. Train entered a clear crossing with no signs of approaching traffic.
B. Vehicle (indicated by the red arrow) entered the crossing from William Street, ahead of the approaching train.
C. Vehicle continued across the intersection.
D. Vehicle continued with no indication of slowing.
E. Vehicle moved in front of the train, just prior to impact.
F. Train collided with the right-hand side of the vehicle (the smashed glass from the vehicle sprayed over the train windshield).
The data event recorder from the train records various parameters, including time, speed, horn, and lights. The recorded data confirmed that the train’s:
- speed was 21 km/h (below the limit of 25 km/h)
- driver used the horn in accordance with the rules and procedures, including the approach to the William Street intersection
- headlight was on and the flashing visibility lights were activated
- driver reacted immediately by applying the brake.
Source: Queensland Rail, annotated by ATSB
The level crossing
The level crossing at William Street, Rockhampton was a public level crossing located at the 639.805 km mark on the North Coast Line, Rockhampton. The North Coast Line at this location consisted of a single bi‑directional track, which runs between and parallel to the two vehicle carriageways on Denison Street. The designated maximum track speed was 25 km/h. There were about 28 train movements per day on this section of the track. The majority of those movements were freight.
The intersection of Denison and William Streets was a level crossing with passive controls (stop and warning signs), Figure 3. Queensland Rail defined passive control as:
Control of the movement of road vehicles or pedestrians across a crossing by signs and devices, none of which are activated by the approach of a train and rely entirely on the road user / pedestrian observing the signs and detecting the approach or passage of a train by observation.
Source: Google Maps
There were warning signs on William Street situated appropriately along the road in the approach to Denison Street (Figure 4). The designated speed limit on Denison Street was 50 km/h and 60 km/h on William Street. Queensland Rail found the approach signage was serviceable and appropriate.
Source: Google Maps
Additionally, the required sighting distances met the minimum requirements for the type of protection and road rail approach speeds. The intersection of Denison and William Streets level crossing had undergone regular inspections and maintenance by QR.
Source: Google Maps
At 0225 on 23 February 2012, the southbound tilt train collided with a vehicle at the intersection of Denison and William Streets. Three occupants of the vehicle suffered non-life-threatening injuries. The circumstances of that past incident were very similar to this one in 2017.
Following that occurrence, on 22 March 2012, QR surveyed the intersection using the Australian Level Crossing Assessment Model (ALCAM). The survey identified several minor non-conformances with sighting distance and signage. Queensland Rail and the Rockhampton Region Council resolved these issues by March 2013.
Level crossings are the physical interface between road and rail traffic. Both modes of transport operate as separate entities and have different rules, procedures, characteristics and operational limitations. Most importantly though, neither vehicle has advance knowledge of when the other will be encountered at the crossing.
Level crossings with active warning devices are intended to provide road users with a higher level of safety. Even at crossings with active devices (for example, flashing lights and bells), however, the warning of an approaching train is available to the motorist at, not in advance of, the crossing.
Passive control level crossings control the movement of vehicular or pedestrian traffic using signs and devices (such as Give Way and Stop signs), none of which are activated during the approach or passage of a train. These controls rely on motorists (and pedestrians) detecting the approach or presence of a train by direct observation. There are more than 6,000 passive level crossings in Australia. This type of protection is generally used where the volume of road and rail traffic makes the risk of a collision relatively low.
Stop sign traffic control is used at level crossings where the sighting distance is such that a motorist is unable to see an approaching train in time to stop before its arrival at the crossing. This traffic control method requires a motorist to stop at the crossing, visually look in both directions and, if no train is seen or heard, then safely proceed. If a train is seen or heard, the motorist must remain stationary at the Stop sign until it is safe to proceed. Motorists are required to have this knowledge for a driver’s license and drivers encounter Stop signs routinely and follow the same process of stop, check, and wait/go. Despite that requirement, there have been many accidents at Stop sign-protected crossings because of the motorist’s failure to stop.
These findings should not be read as apportioning blame or liability to any particular organisation or individual.
- The driver of the road vehicle did not see or hear train V976 approaching the level crossing and drove in front of the train immediately before the collision.
Whether or not the ATSB identifies safety issues in the course of an investigation, relevant organisations may proactively initiate safety action in order to reduce their safety risk. The ATSB has been advised of the following proactive safety action in response to this occurrence.
Queensland Rail has advised the ATSB that the Manager, Road Rail Interface will conduct a review of the level crossing at the intersection of Denison and Williams Streets, Rockhampton.
This incident is a reminder that all road vehicle drivers using railway level crossings equipped with passive controls need to be vigilant, observe road-warning signs, obey road rules and look out for trains.
For more information about level crossing safety, see the ATSB publication Railway Level Crossing Safety Bulletin.