Sunshine rail disaster

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Sunshine rail disaster
Date 20 April 1908
Location Sunshine, Victoria
13.5 km (8.4 mi) NW from Melbourne
Country Australia
Rail line Bendigo railway line
Operator Victorian Railways
Type of incident Collision
Trains 2
Deaths 44
Injuries 400+

The Sunshine rail disaster happened at the Sunshine railway station, which is the junction for the Ballarat and Bendigo railway lines, 13.5 km (8.4 mi) from Melbourne, the state capital of Victoria, Australia.[1]

The wreckage on the platform on the morning following the accident

On the night of Easter Monday, 20 April 1908, 44 people were killed and over 400 injured when a Melbourne-bound train from Bendigo collided with the rear of a mail train from Ballarat, which was just leaving the station. Around 1,100 people were aboard the two trains. Almost all of the casualties were from the Ballarat train, as the Bendigo train was cushioned by its two locomotives. A temporary mortuary was set up at Spencer Street Station (Melbourne's regional terminus, now Southern Cross Station), and flags at the station flew at half-mast. The disaster was the worst train crash in Victorian railway history.[2]


Track layout
Is signal on post 25 (Ballarat Line) a Distant or an Outer Home
Is signal on post 27 (Bendigo Line) a Distant or an Outer Home

The Stationmaster on duty that fateful night had 20 years of service, including 20 months at Sunshine, but was alone without relief staff. He had been continuously on duty for 10 hours without relief prior to the accident. This state of affairs was reflected in his having applied repeatedly, without avail, for extra qualified assistance.[1]

Four locomotives were involved in the disaster – three AA class locomotives – AA 564 and AA 544 on the Bendigo service and AA 534 and 'Old A' 202 on the Ballarat train.[3][4]

The Ballarat train was scheduled to arrive at Sunshine at 22.03 hrs, but was struggling to keep time. Upon arrival, it was unable to be fully accommodated at the platform because of the increased holiday consist. After unloading passengers from the front section, it was about to move forward to allow passengers in the rear cars to alight. Whilst these manoeuvres were taking place, the train from Bendigo was due to arrive at 22.30 hrs and was 20 minutes late. As the train from Ballarat prepared to move forward, it was struck from behind by the Bendigo train.[1]


As passengers escaped, they began to rescue the less fortunate. One difficulty was a lack of adequate lighting. Only a few lamps were available, assisted by the unfortunate burning of carriages caused through escaping lighting gas.

Despite the accident occurring at 22.50 hrs, it was not until nearly 01.00 hrs that a relief train, with doctors, nurses and an ambulance corp on board, reached the scene. On the station platform, seat squabs brought from the damaged carriages were used to place bodies, with an additional layer above in an attempt to dignify the mutilations inflicted on the victims. The nearby Sunshine Harvester works was used as a first-aid room for wounded passengers.

The night of the accident had been clear and a 5 km straight line preceded the station on the approach from Bendigo. One person who escaped almost certain death was the Guard of the Ballarat. He had left the van to signal right-away to his train's driver and upon seeing the Bendigo train bearing down, stepped back from the train. The guard's Van and the adjacent four passenger carriages were wrecked. All of the passengers killed were on the Ballarat train, however a total exceeding 1000 were aboard both trains.

The undamaged section of the Ballarat train left for Melbourne at 01.00 hrs, carrying those either uninjured or in a condition enabling them to travel. Other trains were dispatched to the scene and these began the task of taking bodies back to Spencer Street Station where a temporary mortuary had been established and ferrying injured closer to medical attention. It was 03.30 hrs before the last of the injured had been removed and taken to hospital.[5]

Coronial inquiry[edit]

The inquiry began in the following May and did not conclude until July. Conflicting evidence was given as to the adequacy of the brakes on the lead locomotive of the Bendigo train. It was given in evidence that a report had been made the previous January that the sighting of the home signal (protecting a train standing at the platform) was badly placed and its indication could not be seen prior to passing the previous (distant) signal. That report went on to say, however, that the starting signal (at the Melbourne end of the platform) could be seen further out.[6][7]

The driver of the lead locomotive on the Bendigo train had been working for 12 hours and 25 minutes at the time of the accident. He stated that the brakes had been working satisfactorily as far as St. Albans, the prior station. He applied the brakes gently upon passing the distant signal, however about 200 m from the Home signal "the train shot me forward as though the brakes had come off" and "the train appeared to run into the engine". Realising that his train was not going to stop prior to reaching the Home signal, the driver put the locomotive into reverse and opened the steam regulator to apply as much power as possible.[5]

Conjecture exists as to whether the Sunshine Stationmaster had acted in accordance with the regulations then in force in accepting the Bendigo train from Sydenham whilst the Ballarat train was standing at his station.[1]


The Coronial jury found that the drivers of both locomotives on the Bendigo train, together with the Stationmaster at Sunshine, had a case to answer. The charge of manslaughter against the stationmaster was later dropped, however the drivers appeared before the Supreme Court from 24 September on that charge. The trial lasted two weeks.

In his summing up, the Judge addressed the Court to the effect that the Crown case was that the driver of the lead locomotive had deliberately run past the distant signal at too great a pace and, expecting that the passage through the station would be clear, he found the home signal at danger and a train at the platform too late to stop clear. The Judge, however, concluded that not one word of aspersion on a man's character had been suggested. The Jury agreed with the Judge's view and brought in a verdict of not guilty for both drivers of the Bendigo train.[5]

Overlaps, safety margins and safety zones[edit]

In English signalling practice a passenger train is only allowed to approach a station if there is an overlap (also called "safety margin" or "safety zone") between a signal showing a red light and protecting an obstruction such as another train ahead and that obstruction. The diagram is not necessarily to scale, and unhelpfully no measurements are supplied. Victorian Railway's signalling practice was still heavily influenced by British Practice.

The overlap is typically a quarter-mile or 400m. If this condition is not met, then the certain rules have to be applied. Level crossings do not count as obstructions. Conspicuous by their absence in this topic so far are the words "overlap", "margin" or "zone".


The Victorian Railways Commissioners admitted liability and paid claims aggregating £125,000 by way of compensation. In addition, there was another £50,000 damage to rolling stock and tracks, plus the costs of the inquest and subsequent legal proceedings, which were borne by the State.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e The Sunshine Railway Disaster Buckland, John Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, July 1969 pp146-153
  2. ^ "Terrible railway disaster", The Age (Melbourne: David Syme & Co), 21 August 1908 
  3. ^ Cave, Buckland & Beardsell, Steam Locomotives of the Victorian Railways – Volume 1: The First Fifty Years, Australian Railway Historical Society, Vic. Div., Melbourne, 2002, ISBN 1-876677-38-4, p. 179
  4. ^ See VR A-class
  5. ^ a b c Pearce, Kenn (1999), Australian Railway Disasters, IPL Books Davidson, ISBN 0-908876-09-2 
  6. ^ "SUNSHINE RAILWAY DISASTER.". The West Australian (Perth: National Library of Australia). 13 June 1908. p. 11. Retrieved 5 August 2011. 
  7. ^ "THE RAILWAY DISASTER.". The Argus (Melbourne: National Library of Australia). 25 April 1908. p. 19. Retrieved 27 December 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

Coordinates: 37°47′17″S 144°49′57″E / 37.7881°S 144.8325°E / -37.7881; 144.8325