Rail safety investigations & reports

Runaway of freight train within the Whyalla Steelworks, South Australia, on 31 July 2019

Investigation number:
Status: Discontinued

Discontinuation notice

Discontinuation notice published 13 November 2019

Section 21 (2) of the Transport Safety Investigation Act 2003 (TSI Act) empowers the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) to discontinue an investigation into a transport safety matter at any time. Section 21 (3) of the TSI Act requires the ATSB to publish a statement setting out the reasons for discontinuing an investigation.

The ATSB commenced an investigation into a train runaway operated by Genesee & Wyoming Australia (GWA), which occurred on 31 July 2019. The train was operating within the Liberty Primary Steel complex at Whyalla, South Australia.

Within the steelworks, GWA operated trains using a single driver. The driver controlled the locomotive through a combination of cab controls and remote control equipment depending on the task (transiting, loading, unloading).

At about 0815 (Central Standard Time) on 31 July 2019, a driver was connecting a pair of locomotives to an empty rake of wagons using the remote control equipment. The driver was in the process of transferring control from the remote control to the locomotive cab. At about 0824, while in the locomotive cab, the driver noticed that the train was beginning to move backwards, towards the steelworks. At that time, the removable locomotive control handles were not in their normal location, so the driver was unable to operate the train’s airbrakes. The driver attempted to stop the train by applying the mechanical handbrake outside the locomotive cab, but this had no effect. With the train accelerating, the driver chose to jump off while the train was moving at low speed, and alert train control.

For about 11 minutes, the empty train rolled through the steelworks yard, reaching a maximum speed of 51 km/h over track with a permitted speed of 15 km/h. The train passed over eight level crossings and crossed a railway track used to move rail wagons carrying molten iron. As the track levelled out, the train slowed by itself and stopped on the steelworks balloon loop. The train travelled about 6 km without a driver in control.

Initial information from GWA suggests that while transferring control from the remote equipment to the locomotive cab, a pneumatic connection was closed before the brake pipe had been exhausted. This condition, combined with an undetected fault on one locomotive, resulted in all brakes releasing and the subsequent train runaway.

The Government of South Australia funds the ATSB, through a charging agreement, to undertake safety investigations for incidents that occur on intra-state rail networks in South Australia. At the time of this incident, the funding agreement had expired, although the Government of South Australia is committed to working with the ATSB to draft the terms for a future agreement. While the ATSB initiated a safety investigation under the TSI Act, the Government of South Australia informed the ATSB that they considered additional investigatory effort would not provide any increased understanding of the root cause of the incident, and had decided not to fund any ongoing activities. Consequently, the ATSB has discontinued this investigation.



The information contained in this update is released in accordance with section 25 of the Transport Safety Investigation Act 2003 and is derived from the initial investigation of the occurrence.

General details
Date: 31 July 2019   Investigation status: Discontinued  
Time: 0824 CST   Investigation level: Short - click for an explanation of investigation levels  
Location   (show map): Whyalla Steelworks    
State: South Australia    
Release date: 13 November 2019   Occurrence category: Incident  
Report status: Discontinued   Highest injury level: None  

Train details

Train details
Line operator Genesee & Wyoming Australia  
Train operator Genesee & Wyoming Australia  
Type of operation Bulk minerals  
Sector Freight  
Damage to train Nil  
Last update 13 November 2019