Rail safety investigations & reports

Derailment of freight train near Julia Creek, Qld on 27 December 2015

Investigation number:
Status: Completed
Investigation completed

Final Report

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What happened

On 26 and 27 December 2015, the rail traffic crew of trains 9E56 and 9T92 encountered wet weather as they travelled toward Julia Creek. The Bureau of Meteorology had issued a series of localised severe thunderstorm warnings for the North West forecast district, which was normal during the wet season. The Network Control Officer (NCO) at the Queensland train control centre in Townsville was monitoring information on the BoM website and had received some information from the rail traffic crews who were travelling along the section. The NCO acted on the information available by arranging track inspections of the relevant sections of track west of Julia Creek.

As these inspections were occurring, train 9T92 continued travel toward Julia Creek from the east. Shortly after passing through a section of track where floodwaters had previously overtopped the track and receded, the crew of train 9T92 encountered another area where floodwater had overtopped the track. At this location, however, the floodwater had scoured the ballast and compromised the integrity of the track.

The driver became aware of the washout only moments before the locomotive impacted and derailed, causing the locomotive to tip on its side. After sighting the washout, the train crew could do nothing to prevent, or lessen the impact of the incident.

What the ATSB found

Scouring of the ballast and formation adjacent to the 617.190 km point by floodwater meant that the track could not support the weight of train 9T92 as it passed over the affected area. The resulting deformation in alignment of the track initiated the derailment. Reporting procedures implemented by Queensland Rail and Aurizon provided insufficient guidance to the NCO or rail traffic crew to identify and respond to potential hazards from a wet weather event.

What's been done as a result

Queensland Rail has issued Safety Alerts to improve the effectiveness of the current network rules in relation to managing hazards associated with weather events. A review of weather monitoring services and the upskilling knowledge of relevant personnel on interpreting meteorological information has also commenced. Queensland Rail has commenced a review into the feasibility of adopting the Australian Standard AS7637 Railway Infrastructure – Hydrology and Hydraulics.

Aurizon has introduced respiratory protection masks for train crew on trains transporting acid. Additionally Aurizon continues to reassess the emergency evacuation procedures, locomotive windscreens and secondary communication opportunities/options.

Safety message

Rail infrastructure managers must implement adequate operational procedures and training programs to ensure the timely identification and management of a hazard to the integrity of their rail infrastructure, such as a weather event. Rolling stock operators must ensure that their training programs include relevant operational procedures enabling consistent assessment, reporting and response by train crew to conditions that may adversely affect the integrity of rail infrastructure or trains.


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The occurrence


Safety analysis


Sources and submissions


Preliminary Report

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Preliminary report released 21 April 2016

The information contained in this Preliminary report is released in accordance with section 25 of the Transport Safety Investigation Act 2003 and is derived from the ongoing investigation of the occurrence. Readers are cautioned that new evidence will become available as the investigation progresses that will enhance the ATSB's understanding of the accident as outlined in this Preliminary report. As such, no analysis is included in this report.

Events prior to the derailment

In late December 2015, a tropical low embedded on an active monsoon trough extending across the tropical north of Australia. This weather system brought heavy rainfall to northern Australia and caused moderate rainfall in the northwest, northern, and southern areas of Queensland.

At about 0245[1] on 27 December 2015, the Queensland Rail (QR) Network Control Officer (NCO) for the Townsville far-west train control board received an intermittent alarm from the Rail Management System. The alarm indicated a high water level at the Holy Joe Creek located at the 681 km point, west of Julia Creek (Figure 1).

About the same time, the crew of Aurizon train 9E56, travelling toward Julia Creek from the east, contacted the NCO to report encountering heavy rainfall around Nonda, located at the 561.340 km point, east of Julia Creek. The NCO recorded details of the alarm and the report from 9E56 on the train control graph.[2]

Figure 1: Locations, Mount Isa railway, Queensland

Railway connecting Townsville and Mount Isa, including the branch line toward Phosphate Hill. Train 9E56 was travelling west and was about 4.5 hours ahead of train 9T92. Train 9T92 was travelling from Townsville to Phosphate Hill but derailed about 20 km east of Julia Creek. Source: Geoscience Australia ©. Annotated by ATSB

Also at about 0245, the Aurizon crew involved in the derailment commenced their shift at Hughenden. The crew was to operate Aurizon train 9T92 (loaded with sulphuric acid) from Hughenden through Julia Creek to Cloncurry. Following the arrival of 9T92 from Townsville, the crew took control and after receiving authority from the NCO, departed for Cloncurry at about 0330 that morning. Train 9T92 was following about 4.5 hours behind the preceding train 9E56.

At about 0400, a shift change of the NCO for the Townsville far-west train control board occurred. The incoming and outgoing NCO’s performed a handover to provide a brief on the status of relevant train running information for that control area.

At about 0520, the crew of 9E56 reported more heavy rain on their arrival at Gilliat, located at the 664.260 km point, west of Julia Creek. Train 9E56 remained stopped at Gilliat to enable a QR track inspector to access the track at Cloncurry and travel to Gilliat. The track inspector’s task was to examine the track for flood damage through to Gilliat, and to investigate the high water alarm at Holy Joe Creek before train 9E56 traversed the area.

The track inspector left Cloncurry at about 0645. The inspector made several reports to the NCO enroute to Gilliat, noting the presence of floodwaters at the locations that had triggered alarms. At about 0905, the track inspector completed the inspection to Gilliat; advising the NCO that the inspected track was fit for service — and the departure of train 9E56.

After crossing train 9E56 at Gilliat, the inspector obtained an authority to continue the inspection toward Julia Creek. The NCO gave authority to continue to Julia Creek and advised the track inspector that a cross was to occur with 9T92 at Julia Creek.

The derailment

While the track inspection was occurring to the west of Julia Creek, train 9T92 continued to approach Julia Creek from the east. At this time, there had only been a report of heavy rainfall in the area east of Julia Creek.

At about 0839, the crew of 9T92 reported to the NCO that they were approaching Nelia, located about 49 km east of Julia Creek. They reported there was plenty of water everywhere, and that they experienced periods of rainfall during the 212 km between Hughenden and Nelia. The NCO advised that the previous train 9E56 had reported similar conditions. As train 9T92 passed over Alicks Creek, located about 42 km east of Julia Creek the crew noted that there was a substantial water flow along that waterway. This area was known to Queensland Rail and the train crew as a flood ‘hot spot’.

At about 0900 as train 9T92 approached Spellary Creek (about 32 km east of Julia Creek), the crew observed floodwaters pooling adjacent to the track formation ahead. The driver slowed the train; stopping about 815 m before Spellary Creek. The train crew noted light debris over the track, indicating that floodwater had overtopped the track formation at some time, before receding.

While stationary, the train crew changed drivers. Following the crew’s assessment of the conditions ahead, the driver proceeded at a low speed through the affected area. The train crew had no immediate concern in proceeding as they could see the track and ballast, and the water adjacent the track was not flowing and appeared to be receding.

After traversing the affected area, 9T92 continued toward Quarrels. The train crew contacted the NCO at about 0920 to report ‘water lapping ballast’ at Spellary Creek between the 605 and 607 km points. They also reported their observation of light debris over the track, and that the floodwaters appeared to be receding.

In response to the floodwater report from the crew of 9T92, the NCO commenced arrangements for a track inspection from Richmond (behind 9T92) toward Julia Creek. The Queensland Rail Transit Manager at Townsville had also commenced arrangements to notify rail operators of the potential for service disruptions due to closing the track west of Richmond for the inspection.

At about 0926, the crew of 9T92 again contacted the NCO to report they were approaching Quarrels. The NCO acknowledged the communication and gave authority through Quarrels. After passing through Quarrels, the driver reduced speed to around 20 km/h to traverse a short section of track with a 25 km/h speed restriction. After clearing the speed restriction, the driver started to increase the speed of 9T92 toward the posted maximum track speed of 60 km/h west of the Quarrels loop. The track between Quarrels and Julia Creek was not an identified flooding hot spot.

At about 0933, with 9T92 travelling at about 51 km/h, one of the train crew saw a washout[3] about 45 m ahead and called out a warning to the rest of the crew. The driver immediately moved the throttle to idle and moved the brake handle to the emergency position. Shortly after, the locomotive entered the washout. The crew felt the locomotive bounce and saw water splash on the windscreen before it derailed and began to tip over. As the locomotive tipped, the diesel engine shut down.

The pitching of the locomotive while traversing the washout and tipping, ejected the train crew from their seats. All crewmembers sustained minor injuries (cuts and abrasions) from contact with structures within the locomotive cab.

Events post-derailment

Train 9T92 had travelled about 2.6 km from Quarrels before encountering the washout. The locomotive came to rest on its side to the north of the track, about 68 m past the washout (Figure 2). The locomotive was laying in about 600 mm of pooled floodwater. All of the 26 trailing tanker wagons had also derailed to the north of the track and were laying in the pooled floodwaters.

Figure 2: Derailed train 9T92

The derailed locomotive 2814 and 26 trailing tanker wagons of 9T92 laying to the north of the railway about 20 km east of Julia Creek. The floodwaters present at the time of derailment had receded, however pooled water is visible in the drainage channels from culverts under the Flinders Highway leading toward the washout of the track formation. Source: Queensland Police Service

Immediately after the derailment, floodwater entered the cabin, before receding to a depth of about 600 mm. To escape the cab, the train crew attempted to break the front windscreens using the emergency hammer (Figure 3). After repeated strikes, they were unable to open an escape route through the windscreens, so the crew decided to climb up and out of the locomotive’s side window.

The first crewmember, on exiting the locomotive, saw an acid plume rising from the derailed tankers about half way along the train. The plume extended to the north for about 200 m over the Flinders Highway.

The train crew did not have any breathing apparatus on board and given the presence of the plume, decided to evacuate the area urgently before the wind changed direction. The crewmembers assisted each other to climb from the locomotive cab before walking along the track formation towards Julia Creek.

Figure 3: Derailed locomotive 2814

Derailed locomotive 2814 situated on the northern side of the track. The damage to the inside surface of both windscreens was from numerous strikes using the supplied emergency hammer. The train crew were unable to break out the windscreens. The train crew escaped from the locomotive through climbing up and out the sliding side window. Source: Queensland Police Service

The floodwaters and saturated ground provided limited opportunities for the train crew to access the Flinders Highway. About 800 m from the locomotive there was a small rise that allowed the crew to cross to the highway.

During the derailment, the radio handsets had fallen into the water and the train crew had no other serviceable communications equipment available to them. The train crew waited on the Flinders Highway until a motorist travelling along the highway arrived at their location. A crewmember borrowed a mobile telephone from the motorist and contacted the Aurizon Team Leader at Cloncurry to advise that train 9T92 had derailed. The Team Leader also telephoned the emergency services.

At about 0950, the Team Leader contacted the Aurizon Service Delivery Supervisor to relay information of the derailment.

Around the same time, the NCO had expected train 9T92 to have arrived at Julia Creek. Unaware of the derailment, the NCO had commenced a series of radio and telephone calls in an attempt to raise the crew of train 9T92 and establish its location. At about 1022, the NCO received advice from the Aurizon Team Leader that train 9T92 had derailed about 20 km east of the Julia Creek township.

About 20 minutes later, emergency services arrived to attend to the train crew and take control of the derailment site.

The QR rail transit manager reported the derailment internally and contacted representatives of the Incitec Pivot[4] emergency response team at Phosphate Hill. Due to the closure of the Flinders Highway due to flooding, the emergency response team was unable to respond immediately to the incident.

At about 1815, the emergency response team arrived at Julia Creek and commenced preparations to assess the damage to the tanker wagons, the extent of product leakage and arrangements for its containment. The presence of floodwaters across the Flinders Highway and saturated soil conditions at the derailment site restricted ready access by Queensland Rail, Incitec Pivot and other response teams. Assessment and recovery operations continued for several weeks following the derailment.


  1. The 24-hour clock is used in this report to describe the local time of day, Eastern Standard Time (EST).
  2. A diagram showing operational information for a train control area.
  3. The washing out of earth by water from an embankment by heavy rain or a freshet.
  4. Incitec Pivot Limited owned the GTAX tanker wagons and the sulfuric acid consignment.
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Preliminary findings

Safety actions

Safety Issues

Go to RO-2015-028-SI-01 - Go to RO-2015-028-SI-02 -

Hazard identification and assessment by rail traffic crew

The Queensland Rail General Operational Safety Manual (MD-10-107) contained insufficient guidance for rail traffic crews to ensure the timely identification and management of a potential hazard (resulting from a weather event) that might affect the safe progress of the train.

Safety issue details
Issue number: RO-2015-028-SI-01
Who it affects: All rail transport operators working rolling stock on the rail network
Status: Adequately addressed

Operational rules and procedures

The Queensland Rail network rules, procedures and safety manual provided insufficient guidance to identify the magnitude of the potential hazard from a weather event, or define the response when encountering water that had previously overtopped the track and receded or was pooled against the track formation or ballast.

Safety issue details
Issue number: RO-2015-028-SI-02
Who it affects: All rail safety workers conducting work on the rail network
Status: Adequately addressed
General details
Date: 27 December 2015   Investigation status: Completed  
Time: 0933 EST   Investigation level: Systemic - click for an explanation of investigation levels  
Location   (show map): near Julia Creek    
State: Queensland    
Release date: 09 December 2016   Occurrence category: Serious Incident  
Report status: Final   Highest injury level: Minor  

Train details

Train details
Line operator Queensland Rail  
Train operator Aurizon  
Train registration 9T92  
Type of operation Freight  
Sector Freight  
Damage to train Substantial  
Departure point Townsville, Qld  
Destination Phosphate Hill, Qld  
Last update 03 April 2020