On Saturday 28 March 1914, number 14 Up train to Quorn left Port Augusta at 4:05pm. At the head of the train were two South Australian Railways locomotives, Y161 leading and Y103 trailing. The train consisted of 26 fully loaded wagons of coal and a composite brakevan.

This train would have left from the SAR station in Commercial Road, not the current station. The initial grade out of Port Augusta is close to level, before an average 1 in 110 up grade on the approach to the Stirling Road crossing. After the crossing, there is a 500 yard downhill section, again an average gradient of 1 in 110. At the bottom of this gradient after Stirling Road, approximately 1¾ miles from Port Augusta, the grade levels out as the track extends across Bird Lake (then known as the swamp). It was here on Saturday 28 March 1914, soon after 4:30pm, that the boiler of Y103 exploded.

Commonwealth had taken control of the Great Northern Railway in 1911, which terminated at Oodnadatta. The Commonwealth Railways (CR) was formed in 1912 with the commencement of construction of the Trans Australian Railway, but did not operate any trains on the Great Northern Railway. The operation of trains remained with the SAR until 1926, when the CR took over and introduced the NM class locomotives and larger rollingstock, and ultimately extended the line, renamed the Central Australia Railway, to Alice Springs in 1929.

Overturned and wrecked Y class locomotive (photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, B 31180)

In charge of the first locomotive (Y161) of train No. 14 was driver Edward (Ted) Rogers with fireman Joseph Smith. The second loco (Y103) was being driven by W. Marston with fireman A. G. Smith. By all reports, the drivers were cautious drivers and the load was close to the maximum of 270 tons. The load of coal had likely come by ship from New South Wales and was destined for coaling points including Quorn, Hawker, Beltana, Farina, Marree, William Creek, Edwards Creek and Oodnadatta.

The explosion was heard in Port Augusta and an immense column of steam and smoke was visible. Y103 was thrown clear of the track on its side, the coupling between the engine unit the tender breaking, as did the couplings between the first and second locomotives.

Rogers, driver of the first loco with “commendable presence of mind”, opened his regulator wide in order to keep clear ahead of the rest of the train only to stop 100 yards later on account of a derailed tender.

The tender of the second locomotive, having detached from the engine unit, continued for a further 20 feet before it too ended up on its side, “turned turtle”, resulting in a pile up 15–20 feet high of 16 loaded coal wagons.

Marston, driver of the second locomotive was thrown clear, however fireman A. G. Smith was not so fortunate. He was carried forward with the tender before being consumed in the pileup. The rest of the train crew, including guard T. Yates and one passenger, immediately rushed to the aid of the crew of the second locomotive. Marston was found dazed but otherwise unhurt almost 40 feet from the engine unit of Y103. A frantic search commenced for fireman A. G. Smith, who was later found buried underneath dirt, coal, sleepers and debris. Only his sleeve was immediately visible.

Miraculously, he was alive but unconscious. Mr Digance (presumably a local or passer-by) carried A. G. Smith a mile to the Port Augusta hospital, where he was attended to by Dr Pellew.

The guard of the train, Yates, proceeded back to Port Augusta station where he advised Mr Gitsham, the stationmaster, of the incident. Gitsham, with the assistance of the traffic officer for the Commonwealth, G. Vardon, promptly mobilised support for cleanup and other assistance as required.

A narrow gauge locomotive and train with gang under Ganger Robbins proceeded to the scene from Port Augusta, arriving by 6:30pm Saturday evening. The locomotive was a Commonwealth locomotive, most likely ex-Queensland Railways B13 class no. 51 (reclassified as NG10 in 1917). Built in 1884 by Dubs and Co. in Glasgow, it was transferred from Queensland and entered service with CR on 9 July 1913 as the Port Augusta shunt engine for building works on the TAR. This was the only narrow gauge CR locomotive in Port Augusta at the time. The B13 class were similar to the Y class in size and power.

Trucks and carriages were arranged to transfer passengers from the Adelaide train, which arrived at the scene soon after at 7:45pm. The Adelaide passenger train pulled up about half a mile short of the scene. Passengers, luggage and mail were transferred to a Commonwealth train and arrived in Port Augusta at 8:45pm.

By the time the Adelaide passenger train arrived, an accident train from Quorn was already on site under charge of Traffic Superintendent P. B. O'Malley, District Foreman James Cook and Locomotive Foreman J. J. Dalgleish. At this time the SAR operations were based at Quorn, with Port Augusta being a terminal station with minimal facilities.

After conveying passengers and mail to Port Augusta, the Commonwealth-hauled train returned with sleepers and equipment, before heading back to Port Augusta with seven trucks of coal. It once again returned to the scene of the incident to standby.

Word of the accident had also got back to Petersburg (renamed Peterborough during WWI). An accident train soon departed Petersburg carrying a gang, equipment, Locomotive Superintendent W. H. Hill, Resident Engineer C. B. Anderson, Rollingstock Inspector H. Benfield and Locomotive Inspector W. Johnstone. The train arrived at the scene at 1:15am Sunday morning, “being conducted by Pilot from Stirling”.

The Petersburg and Quorn crews set about constructing a deviation to allow the Adelaide train to pass, which eventually arrived in Port Augusta eight hours late.

A gang of approximately 50 started clearing on Sunday, working until 6pm. The tender of first locomotive was re-railed and the wreckage taken to Quorn. The activity at Cudmore Hill caused much excitement amongst locals; large crowds gathered to watch the cleanup activities.

A. G. Smith, fireman of Y103, regained consciousness on Sunday but had sustained heavy injuries. He had bruised, lacerated and burned legs, broken ribs, a bruised temple and a fractured skull. Smith had worked in the Quorn sheds two and a half years prior and was “well liked, thoroughly respected and a good sport”.

The Friday 3 April edition of the Petersburg Times notes that after the accident there was confusion in Quorn as to which Smith suffered injuries, and notes “every Smith at Quorn was put forth as the injured man...”. This is reflected in inconsistent reports at the time, made worse by the fact that the firemen on both locomotives were named Smith.

When word got back to Quorn of the accident, despite confusion of who had been involved, firemen, drivers and traffic staff alike left their weekend sports of cricket and quoits to offer assistance. The Petersburg Times somewhat poignantly noted, “Differences are sunk in a crisis such as this and the Men of the Iron Road (unconsciously perhaps) are drawn closer together into the bonds of brotherhood”.

The first load of debris arrived at Quorn on the Sunday night. The single long whistle of a train on the Port line would see people from across Quorn rushing to meet the train, hoping to hear further news of the incident and to inspect the debris. The last of the debris was cleared from the scene on Thursday 2 April—five days after the accident. The on-site assessment saw damages estimated at £6,000.

An initial inspection of the boiler noted a fracture between 4 and 5 ft long extending clean along the first line of rivets above the firebox on the left-hand (driver's) side. It was speculated that there was a defect in the portion of the plate at the centre of the fracture.

Fireman Smith was found buried in the centre of this photograph—halfway between engine unit and tender (photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, B 31182)

Reports at the time indicate that it was freely stated by the SAR that the boiler design of the Y class was weak. The Y class was introduced in 1885, with Y103 entering service in 1890. By 1914, it had been relegated to Port Augusta for shunt duties. It had not been modified to become a Yx class and did not have a Belpaire firebox. [Many Y class locomotives were rebuilt to increase the tractive effort of the fleet.]

Despite being relegated to Port Augusta as a shunt locomotive, Y103 had been used on the preceding Thursday's passenger train from Port Augusta to Quorn. Only a few days after this, the boiler exploded, and much commentary at the time asked the question "What if this tragedy occurred on a passenger train?". The Register in particular reports on page 5 on Thursday 2 April that the accident is causing much unrest in the minds of citizens. This was not only because it could well have occurred on a passenger train, but also because a similar explosion occurred on 2 February 1914 in Mount Gambier. The midday goods was about to depart for Wolseley, under charge of driver D. O'Brien and fireman W. Taylor, both of whom were in the cab awaiting the departure signal. Only moments before departure, the boiler of locomotive Wx 17 exploded. They were both thrown back but received only minor injuries. An entire boiler barrel plate underneath the dome blew off, and pieces of steel weighing up to half a ton were found 200 yards away. It was also noted in the "Current Comment" section of The Mail on Saturday 4 April that “narrow gauge locomotives in South Australia appear to be adopting the Japanese 'hari-kari' idea and blowing themselves up”.

In 1914 there were reportedly 500 locomotives owned by the SAR that were all under the supervision of one boiler inspector. Whether or not this account is accurate is unclear. Representatives from the Enginemen and Firemen's Association had previously met with the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the SAR (B. F. Rushton) asking for more regular boiler inspections, but they received no satisfaction.

Another contributing factor to the scale of the destruction was that trains on the GNR at that time were not fitted with Westinghouse brakes, which would have undoubtedly reduced the damage caused. The only braking power available to the crew in 1914 was on locomotives and brakevans, as well as the “lever brakes” on the trucks. It was policy at the time that they were only to be “put down” at Summit, and then released at Stirling North. Because there was no braking ability on the loaded coal wagons at the time of the incident, and the small window of opportunity for the guard to apply any brakes, the full momentum of the train ensured as chaotic a pile up occurred.

It had been previously stated some time before the accident that all “northern trains” were to get Westinghouse brakes, and the Port Augusta council had in fact approached the SAR to undertake the work there, but nothing had progressed. The need for Westinghouse brakes (on the Broken Hill line) had been discussed in Parliament in November 1913 when funding for improvements across the SAR was requested.

Some weeks after the incident, a memorandum from Alfred Day, secretary to the Railways Commissioner Alexander Bain Moncrieff CMG (who coincidently was resident engineer for the construction of the GNR from 1880 and later Engineer-in-Chief of the SAR from 1888) was received by the Daily Herald, explaining the cause of the explosion. The official report states the explosion was caused by breaking of side casing of the firebox along the lower row of rivets of the double-riveted longitudinal joint with the crown plate. The failure originated from the inside of the joint and was probably due to the method of preparation of the plate during construction, resulting in star cracks on the sides of the rivet holes. This is inferred given that exhaustive tests of the plates indicate it is of good quality. The boiler, constructed in 1897, was completely overhauled in 1901, 1906 and 1912. These inspections revealed no faults in the ruptured joint nor were any weak points disclosed. The hydraulic test was 50% in excess of working pressure.

Based on available records, Y103 was rebuilt and transferred to Port Lincoln in 1923. It was condemned in November 1939.

The devastation following the accident is evident in these photos (photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, B 26369)
Crowd control and public safety concerns were different to today's expectations (photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, B 26380)

This article by Simon Thompson was published in Pichi Richi Patter Volume 41 No. 3.