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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 June 2007, 06:42 GMT 07:42 UK
Australia crash highlights safety concerns
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

train carriage, 6/06/07
This was the worst rail disaster in Australia in 30 years
"They would have thought a bomb had gone off like it did in London - it's that sort of devastation."

Those were the words of Acting Inspector Michael Talbot after Australia's worst rail crash in 30 years.

At least 11 people died and many others were injured when a truck hit a passenger train on a level crossing near the town of Kerang in Victoria on Tuesday.

"You just wonder how anybody got out," said survivor Sue Fyffe.

She walked away from an accident that almost obliterated one of the carriages and tore it away from the rest of the train.

Three investigations will examine the crash, but already some people are pointing the finger at a problem that has long plagued Australia's rail networks - inadequate level crossings.

"The railway system in Australia is stretched to breaking point," said accident prevention expert Eric Wigglesworth from Monash University.

Dr Wigglesworth
In 20 years time, for example, the problem won't exist. We'll have satellite control of both road and rail
Dr Wigglesworth
"At some point something has to give. Unless we do something quite fundamental it will happen again."

"We now have in Australia 9,000 railway level crossings, of which 6,000 have got no lights, no booms [barriers], no bells - nothing except a little sign," Dr Wigglesworth told the BBC.

This may well turn out to be the critical factor in the Kerang tragedy. There the crossing was equipped with bells and lights but no safety barrier.

In 2005 and 2006 there were more than 50 collisions between trains and road vehicles at level crossings in the state of Victoria alone.

No-one is quite sure how many near misses there were in the same period.

Costly safety procedures

This week's accident at Kerang is the third fatal level crossing accident in Victoria in just over a year.

Victoria State Transport Minister Lynne Kosky says that installing boom gates, or barriers, might not be the answer.

"It would be a very, very costly exercise," she told Australian radio.

"But before we even consider that, we need to look at why this tragic accident occurred, and then look at what can be done in order to prevent such occurrences in the future, whether it is boom gates (or) other safety features."

truck next to crossing sign, 6/06/07
The crossing, like many others in Australia, did not have barriers
Experts say the current system of level crossings was designed in the 19th Century for horses and carts and not cars and lorries.

Dr Eric Wigglesworth wants an independent, science-based committee to look at modern solutions.

"In 20 years' time, for example, the problem won't exist," he said. "We'll have satellite control of both road and rail so if there is the likelihood of collision the technology will intervene and apply the brakes."

"Now that sounds like science fiction, and in today's terms it is, but if we go back 40 years things like iPods would also be science fiction."

Previous disasters

Australia's worst railway disaster happened in the Sydney suburb of Granville in January 1977. Eighty-three people were killed when a crowded train was derailed and smashed into a concrete bridge.

In 2003 seven people died when a commuter service crashed in the Royal National Park south of Sydney. Investigators blamed poor safety standards.

Four years on and pressure groups have insisted there is still much work to do.

"Clearly more needs to be done in the area of rail safety," said Daniel Bowen, the president of the Public Transport Users Association.

"Rail in general has a good safety record in Australia," he said. "It's five times safer than travelling by road."

"But it's inevitable that without upgrades and better driver education, there will be more crashes," he warned.

The aftermath of the crash

Australia rail crash toll rises
05 Jun 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Australia's outback train derails
12 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Train crashes in north Australia
16 Nov 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Inquiry into Sydney train tragedy
31 Jan 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Australia
09 May 07 |  Country profiles

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