It was time to once again board the Southern Aurora and head north.
Violet Town is a small Victorian country town that under many circumstances you’d blink and you’d miss it. It’s a pretty place, as many country towns are, with a railway station and level crossing. It’s reason for existence was purely as a stop on the rail line to Melbourne.
But in 1969 all that changed. On 7 February at just after 7 am, the Southern Aurora collided head-on with a goods train at an estimated combined speed of 172 km/h. Nine people were killed and 117 were injured. Both drivers were among the dead. The fireman of the goods train jumped clear at the last minute. The locomotive of the Southern Aurora and several of the leading goods carriages became airborne. Spilled fuel caught fire and added to the problems. It was an appalling mess.
Immediately afterwards, volunteers got busy searching for survivors, setting up communication and transport and providing what assistance they could.
The Southern Aurora had gone through three red signals and should have been stopped on a siding waiting for the goods train to pass. Instead, it sailed through without a pause.
What happened? It took a while to work it out, but it appeared that the Southern Aurora driver had a heart attack and was either unconscious or dead at the controls. But there should have been a back-up — the fireman and the guard should have been watching the signals in case the train disobeyed them. The fireman should have alerted the driver and/or the guard, and the guard had the ability to independently stop the train.
The inquest laid the blame with the Southern Aurora’s driver, fireman and guard. A bit unfair on the driver, since he was determined to have been dead at his post before the first signal was missed. It was believed the fireman had been boiling the kettle instead of checking on the alertness of the driver when the Vigilance Control alarm went off (after the train went through the first signal to stop) and the guard was claimed to have been dozing on and off and not watching the signals reliably. Other possible problems were not openly criticised but perhaps should have been. The doctor who cleared the driver to work even with a pre-existing heart condition. The Vigilance Control system should have been automated. The means for the guard and fireman to watch the signals needed cleaning and was difficult to monitor. And perhaps the relationship between the driver and the guard — the driver was in charge, the fireman may have been reluctant to challenge him or take control. That might have caused sufficient delay and confusion in the fireman’s mind, to allow the disaster to play out.
Following the inquest a number of improvements were made, notably to the Vigilance Control system, which now requires both driver and fireman to cancel it once triggered. The various factors which contributed to the Violet Town crash have been analysed and are no longer possible. Train travel these days is much safer as a result.
Due to the length of the train, it was unable to simply drop us off at Violet Town and wait. Instead, we were dropped off at Euroa railway station and took buses to Violet Town to have a good look at the Southern Aurora Memorial Garden there. We were met by local officials who explained what they have done here by creating the Southern Aurora Memorial Gardens.
The Gardens have a theme of Helping Hands, to honour all the people who stepped forward to offer assistance. Staff, passengers, injured, whole, locals, travellers — people just stepped up. The paths at the Memorial Garden are embedded with positive words reflecting the best of the human spirit. Courage. Hope. Generosity. Kindness. Love.
A central feature of this memorial is a sleeper carriage from a similar set to the ones involved in the accident. There are murals around the park, depicting various scenes from the 1969 incident.
The gardens are a place of peace, remembrance and recognition of what we all can do together when we step up to meet needs.
This is a small town where something big once happened. People came together to help under horrific and extraordinary circumstances and this should always be remembered.