Off the Rails


tags: Crash investigations, train crash, NSW Police Force, Waterfall,

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Off the Rails  – The Waterfall Train Crash
By David Neal
APJ Issue - June 2008 (Vol. 62, No. 2) - pp.80-87.

A Summer’s Day

Friday 31 January 2003 started as many other days did that week in Sydney; a balmy morning with the promise of hot and humid conditions. Indeed the temperature was predicted to reach 34ºC, which although hot, would be almost a pleasurable relief from the previous day which had reached a stinking 42ºC.

At 6am Train Guard William Van Kessel walked into the meal room of Sydney’s Central Railway Station. There he saw 53-year-old veteran Train Driver Herman Zeides doing a crossword puzzle. The two had worked together the day before and Van Kessel looked up at the indicator board and said to Zeides, “the same stops as yesterday”. Zeides nodded and resumed his crossword. The driver was a large man weighing 116kgs and like many people in the community, he was taking medication for blood pressure and cholesterol issues. Zeides may have suspected that he had other health problems but there is no evidence to suggest that he was aware that he had many of the symptoms associated with advanced coronary disease.

At 6.24am the outer-suburban four-car ‘Tangara G7’ train left Central Station for the journey south down the Illawarra line through Wollongong to Port Kembla (known within the railways as run C311). It was a run that both men were familiar with. After conducting the mandatory inspection checks on the train before departing (including brake testing in the guard’s cabin), Van Kessel settled into his cabin at the rear of the train. As the driver, Zeides was in the front of the first car.

The train progressed without incident, stopping at the various scheduled stations and collecting 47 passengers who were either going to work, home or to Wollongong University for Orientation Week. The weather was beautifully clear. Views were enhanced as the train travelled alongside and through parts of the Royal National Park in the Sutherland Shire.

The Journey

At 7.12am the train left Waterfall Station for the winding scenic journey south through the dense bush towards Helensburgh. After overseeing the train’s departure, Van Kessell settled into his chair knowing he could relax for a while before the next stop. The train gathered speed on the bends out from Waterfall Station and then continued to gather speed along a 900-metre straight section of track. At a point about 1.9km from the station the train reached a speed of 117km/h. Some passengers made comments to each other that the train was going unusually fast, others shot worried glances at each other and many held onto seats and handrails.

At 7.14am as the train entered a 60km/h section of track leading into a left hand bend, it failed to brake. The train tilted to the right and launched itself off the ‘down line’, across the ‘up line’1 and into a sandstone embankment, impacting with two metal stanchions on the way through. The stanchions and sandstone wall tore and crushed the roof of the first car and the front section of the second. When the front two cars impacted the wall, they drove up onto it before landing upright, back down on the tracks. The train’s third and fourth cars overturned onto their right sides and slid along the tracks, coming to rest relatively intact beside the embankment.

When the dust settled seven people lay dead, including the driver. The majority of those who survived were injured to varying degrees, including Van Kessel.

First Response

About the same time that City Rail Operations Control noted that the power had been cut on the Illawarra line south of the Waterfall Train Station, a muffled ‘000’ emergency telephone call was made by one of the train’s passengers.

At 7.21am a call came over the police radio of a train derailment 100-metres south of the Waterfall Train Station. I heard this call as I was heading south towards a suspected arson at an Engadine School not far from the scene. I had just taken over as the on-call Crime Scene Investigator for the southern area of the city that morning. Patrols ‘Sutherland 36’ containing Constables Butterfield, Smede and Robinson and ‘Sutherland 37’ containing Senior Constable Wicks and Constable Mann headed towards the scene. When Sutherland 36 arrived at Waterfall Station they could not see the train. Using local knowledge of the fire trails in the bushlands surrounding the station, Sutherland 37 was able to find the train after a few minutes of searching. At the same time the members from Sutherland 36 were making their way along the tracks, joined later by other units that had come from Miranda Police Station.

Later, Senior Constable Wicks told the Police Service Weekly (10 February 2003) that;

“I remember seeing people walking out of the bush and stepping over bodies to get to the injured. It was horrific. At first it came over the radio as a train derailment. We expected the train to have gone off the track and passengers would be sitting there saying they’d be late for work. Instead we got there to absolute carnage. It looked like the train had run into a truck. There were powerlines down on the track and part of the train so we were unsure if it was safe.

There were deceased people between the rockface and the train and we had to walk past them into the carriage to get to the injured. Then we had to carry the injured past them to safety. Inside the carriages the passengers were very quiet, waiting for help to arrive. When we got there they started getting panicky, so we went through the train assessing and reassuring them. I told them the ambulances were on the way and to hang on. Then ambulances and everyone else turned up, it seemed like an eternity.

Police did a tremendous job under the circumstances. A lot of the junior police who arrived were fantastic. It just goes to show that the training we do clicks in when there’s an emergency.”

1 In the NSW Rail Network a ‘down line’ is any track heading away from Sydney’s Central Railway Station. Conversely, ‘up lines’ are those used by trains travelling towards Central.

waterfall graphic




















Graphic based on one that appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 2 February 2003. The numbers are the approximate locations where rescuers located the deceased. The driver was number two.

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