Fatal Wallan derailment: Australian Rail Track Corporation and NSW Trains plead guilty to duty breach

Two government rail organisations have pleaded guilty to criminal charges after a deadly high-speed train derailment in Victoria.

The XPT train service between Sydney and Melbourne derailed on February 20, 2020, near the regional town of Wallan with 155 passengers on board.

The train driver, John Kennedy, 54, and his co-pilot, Sam Meintanis, 49, were killed in the crash, while 61 passengers and five staff were injured.

The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) and NSW Trains each appeared in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Friday, pleading guilty to a breach of duty under the Rail Safety National Law.

The court was told the train had been diverted along a secondary track, entering at more than 100km per hour when the speed limit was just 15km per hour.

This caused the lead power car to roll and all five passenger cars derailed in a “concertina effect”.

Lawyers acting for each government-owned organisation acknowledged they had breached the law and spoke of the “deep regret” felt.

Outlining the cause of the crash, Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator prosecutor Sally Flynn KC said the derailment was an “objectively serious example” of the organisation’s breach of their duty.

She called for Magistrate Brett Sonnet to impose a “substantial fine” on each organisation – the maximum penalty being $413,000, the court was told.

The court heard 17 days before the derailment, central traffic control systems on the line had been taken offline after a truck struck overhead cables.

Backup systems imposed while repairs were underway caused “significant delays” to passenger and freight rail traffic, leading the ARTC to impose an alternative safety system.

Under the system, a qualified worker would board the train between Kilmore East and Donnybrook, and advise the driver of issues along the line.

However in the days before the crash, the ARTC made a number of changes to the safety system and procedures.

One of these changes, implemented on February 19 would divert the XPT train service along a secondary 1.5km line from 2.30pm the following day, however the information was not passed along to Mr Kennedy or NSW Trains.

The court was told Mr Kennedy had driven the route eight times between February 6 and 20, with this being the first time he was diverted.

“There was a failure to provide critical information to Mr Kennedy,” Ms Flynn said.

“The driver was not aware of the changes that had taken effect.”

She said an inadequate risk assessment had been undertaken and other safety measures such as speed boards along the line were not used.

Mr Sonnet interjected to say it was “perplexing” why portable signs had not been erected.

Ms Flynn told the court the ARTC had a higher “culpability” compared with NSW Trains, saying NSW Trains failed to have an effective system to obtain information from the ARTC and inform their own drivers.

Victim impact statements from 13 people were provided to the court, including passengers, staff and the partners of Mr Kennedy and Mr Meintanis.

Jenny Kennedy said her family had endured a “horrendous journey” in the four years since she lost her husband at work.

“I’ve learnt it was completely avoidable,” she said.

“I do remain unforgiving for an organisation that allows poor safety practices to kill a man.”

Mr Meintanis’ partner, Naomi Bruce, said any mention of Wallan brings her back to that “horrific and brutal” day.

“I felt like the world was spinning and my life had stopped,” she said through tears.

“Our dreams and plans for the future were no longer ours. I was on my own.”

Mr Sonnet adjourned the case to April to hand down his judgement on the appropriate penalties.

Read related topics:Melbourne

Leave a Comment