Rail safety investigations & reports

Derailment of freight train 9821 near Charters Towers, Queensland, 30 December 2020

Investigation number:
Status: Active
Investigation in progress


The ATSB is investigating the derailment of train (9281) near Charters Towers, Queensland on 30 December 2020.

At about 0016, a fully loaded fertiliser train (9281) travelling between Phosphate Hill and Townsville derailed after encountering a 'washout' (a breach in a railway track caused by flooding) between Charters Towers and Sellheim on the Mount Isa rail system. The two hauling locomotives and the first two wagons of the train passed through the washout, however the following 13 wagons derailed on their sides spilling fertiliser along the rail corridor. The remaining 20 wagons remained upright on the tracks.

On the previous day (29 December) at about 1615, the local area was subjected to rain that delivered about 84 mm over a 45 minute period. The water runoff funnelled towards a rail culvert that had limited capacity to control the overflow, consequently the ballast supporting the railway tracks was washed away leaving the sleepers and rails exposed. The washout went undetected until the incident about eight hours later.

The driver stated that they noticed debris across the track as the train approached, but could not stop the train. As the weight of the lead locomotive travelled through the washout it lurched and dipped. After stopping the train and assessing the damage, the driver reported their findings to the network control officer at Townsville control centre.

As part of the investigation, the ATSB will:

  • interview the train crew
  • analyse event recorder data
  • review track maintenance records
  • assess weather monitoring system information and requirements
  • review relevant recorded communication and other areas of interest.

The investigation is continuing, with a final report released at the conclusion of the investigation. However, should a critical safety issue be identified during the course of the investigation, the ATSB will immediately notify relevant parties, so that appropriate safety action can be taken.

General details
Date: 30 December 2020   Investigation status: Active  
Time: 0016 EST   Investigation level: Short - click for an explanation of investigation levels  
Location   (show map): near Charters Towers   Investigation phase: Evidence collection  
State: Queensland    
  Occurrence category: Accident  
Report status: Pending   Highest injury level: None  
Anticipated completion: 2nd Quarter 2021    

Train details

Train details
Line operator Queensland Rail  
Train operator Aurizon  
Train registration 9281  
Type of operation Fertiliser  
Sector Freight  
Damage to train Substantial  
Departure point Phosphate Hill  
Destination Townsville  
Last update 04 January 2021