It was the evening of Monday 8 October 1883. The weather was reportedly fine and dry with little or no wind blowing. Locomotive drivers John Robinson and James Whiteford, their firemen August Hagedorn and John Murray, and guard John Pedlar had commenced duty at Port Augusta to work a sheep train over to Quorn and beyond. Baldwin-built X47 was rostered to haul it, but as the load was too great for a single locomotive, W32 was placed in front as pilot. Robinson and Hagedorn had been put in charge of the W while Whiteford and Murray had been assigned the X class.

Having left Port Augusta around 10:00pm they first went light to Stirling North where the train was loaded and ready for the engines to be attached. A little shunting was performed, then just after 10:30 it departed for Quorn consisting of 22 trucks of sheep and a brake van.

The train had barely reached the ranges when Murphy’s Law began to rear its ugly head with the first of many problems that were to be encountered that night. John Murray was having trouble keeping the steam and water levels up on X47 and when about nine miles (14.5 km) from Port Augusta, progress became very slow due to the pressure dropping back to 90 psi (648 kPa). (Shades of X48’s trial run in July 1881.) As John Murray was not very conversant at that stage with the "Yankee" engines, it was decided that perhaps things may go better if he swapped places with Hagedorn and this was subsequently done.

This photo taken in 1995 shows the location, near the Lattice bridge, of the 1883 accident. (Roger Sallis)

Upon taking over, August Hagedorn discovered that too much coal had been thrown in the firebox of the X causing the fire to become partly suffocated. He asked Whiteford to stop in order to recover some steam pressure and Whiteford agreed. While the fire was being attended to, Whiteford and Murray were kept busy trying to adjust the petticoat pipe in the smokebox in order to obtain better draughting. After several minutes they had the train moving again but this time got only as far as the Saltia crossing where it was found necessary to clean the fire a second time.

Meanwhile a second train conveying contractor’s materials for construction of the line beyond Farina was on its way over from Port Augusta. Working on the time-interval basis, it left the Port at 11:00 p.m. and quickly started to reduce the 40-50 minute headway that the stock train was supposed to maintain. Guard Pedlar was aware that it was coming and stood behind his brake van some distance displaying a red light in an attempt to get the crew’s attention. As the locomotive of that train (W55) approached, there was almost a collision as the driver for some reason did not see the red light. Nevertheless, Pedlar called out and managed to be heard by the fireman just in time.

The second train had no sooner arrived on the scene when Robinson and Whiteford announced they were ready to depart. Steaming on X47 was now under control and the train proceeded at a slow though steady pace to Woolshed Flat where it arrived about 12:50am on the Tuesday morning. Taking water was not normally necessary at this station, but due to the time loss, heavy load, and earlier steaming problems, it was decided to replenish the tenders to be on the safe side.

The watering facilities at Woolshed Flat in those days were situated only at the Port Augusta end of the station and could only be utilised by entering the siding on the camp side of the main line. Normally a train would be pulled right into the yard to avoid leaving it standing on the 1 in 60 gradient and the locomotives would then cut off and run back into the siding to make use of the facilities. On this night however such a move was not possible for there were goods trucks standing in the way of any movement coming from the Quorn end.

Problems were now again about to start. It had been decided in this case to leave the train standing outside the yard and just run the engines in by themselves. Seemingly in a hurry because a lot of time had been lost earlier in the night, John Robinson offered to uncouple but unfortunately did so before properly anchoring the train with hand brakes. (Continuous air brakes had not been fitted in those days.) As the train was brought to a stand on the 1 in 60 gradient the couplings were stretched out, but once the engines had been detached the front vehicles began to run back and bunch the train up. This action caused a jerk which started the whole train rolling back towards Saltia and the guard upon sensing what was happening, immediately applied the brake in his van. The brake van’s wheels however skidded on the skinny rails and the train therefore could not be held stationary. Pedlar then tried to put on more hand brakes on the sheep vans but only managed to pin one down before the rest of the task became impossible. John Robinson also attempted to pin down some at his end but he was too late. He should have put more on before he uncoupled the engines! The train was starting to run away!

The biggest worry now was where it would end up. Though the material special had staggered its departure from Saltia by 35 minutes, it was now within hearing distance. Robinson was left with only one alternative, that being to try and recouple the engines in an effort to stop the sheep vans running any further. Whiteford was thus signalled to bring the engines back but for some reason never managed to get close enough—as if he was too timid to do so—and so the train continued to roll unchecked.

The crew of the material special, being aware that the sheep train could have stopped anywhere, proceeded cautiously and blew the whistle at nearly every corner and cutting. One of the men on X47 meanwhile tried to warn the others by sounding his whistle too, and for a while there must have been quite a commotion as W and X class chimes disturbed the normally tranquil atmosphere of the Pichi Richi Pass. For the second time that night, John Pedlar found it necessary to try and stop the material train by displaying a red light. This time his only option was to scramble up to the top of the sheep vans and hope that if the other crew saw him in time, they would either stop and jump clear or attempt to reverse their train back towards Saltia. He did manage to get on top of the vans but unfortunately it was all in vain. The inevitable was about to happen and at around 1am it did.

What a mess! The W class engine of the material special had just passed over the lattice bridge when the sheep vans ran headlong into it. Reports say the noise of the impact was heard quite some distance away. W55 had become derailed, Pedlar’s brake van had rammed itself up against the engine’s wheels, and there were sheep vans and animals suffering varying degrees of injury scattered everywhere. The crew of W55, Charles Byard and James Hokin, were scalded in the accident (Byard rather badly) but managed to survive their injuries. Pedlar though had avoided serious injury by making his way to the Woolshed Flat end of the sheep vans just in time. A drover who was travelling in the brake van also managed to jump out some distance back.

The material train upon coming to an abrupt halt then created another small problem. The rebound on the couplings caused one to snap some five vehicles in front of that train’s brake van. After rolling backwards for about half a mile (875 metres) the other guard, John Oehlmann, fortunately was able to bring the vehicles to a stop. Other damage to the material train was limited to broken window panels and doors on carriages that were positioned near the front of it, while it is believed some of the materials being carried fell off on to the side of the track.

John Oehlmann walked up to inspect the scene and upon seeing the condition of his crew, suggested they try and walk back to his brake van if they were able to. This was achieved and they were made as comfortable as possible with a stretcher and blankets. Byard had been burned quite badly on both legs and right arm and as well as having received a blow to the temple, was reported as suffering certain injuries. Jim Hokin was a lot luckier in that he only copped a bruise below one eye and was a little burned about the body.

Oehlmann arranged for some of the permanent way men travelling with him to finish putting out the fire on W55 and for one to go back to Port Augusta on a tricycle to get help. He had also suggested that Pedlar go across to Quorn on one of the other engines and Pedlar agreed. Oehlmann then went to the rear of his consist and waited for a relief train to arrive to assist with the clean-up.

Meanwhile the crews working the sheep train, having heard the collision and noticed the vans had stopped rolling, went down to have a look for themselves. Robinson was quite concerned for the safety of the material train’s crew but, upon seeing they had survived and were being adequately cared for, set off for Quorn while Whiteford and Murray remained at the scene.

The relief train left Port Augusta at 4am and had on board the Traffic Superintendent, Mr H. E. Forwood, as well as some fifteen or so labourers. Once the collision site had been reached, a concerted effort was then made to clear the line as soon as possible and Mr Forwood determined what tools would be needed while a Mr Hunter (Loco Superintendent, Port Augusta) supervised the men. Other officials in attendance were Mr Thow (Loco Engineer, Adelaide), his assistant Thomas Roberts, and Alex Moncrieff (Engineer for the Northern line).

In clearing away the mess, the vehicles that were not derailed were apparently removed to Saltia and Woolshed Flat. A hand operated crane mounted on a wagon was then used to clear the remaining sheep vans and get W55 back on the rails. Once this was done all that was left was to repair some damaged track and the line was able to be reopened for through traffic on the Tuesday night.

Passenger services were able to be maintained while the line was blocked. The regular 6:45am train from Port Augusta ran almost to the accident site where passengers transferred either on foot or by horse and trap to another which had been specially run from Quorn to Woolshed Flat. The Adelaide and Farina trains ended up leaving Quorn three hours late while at 7:15pm an extra ran from Port Augusta to the crash site to connect with the service from Adelaide.

An inquiry was begun on the Wednesday with Mr Thow interviewing the crews of the sheep train in Quorn. The following day Mr Pendleton (General Traffic Manager) similarly interviewed John Pedlar in Port Augusta. The crew of the material train were examined at a later date to allow time for them to recover from their injuries and a report was expected to be made to the Commissioner of Public Works at the end of the month.

In considering the evidence, one of the most concerning details was the behaviour of James Whiteford on the Monday night, for when Robinson and Hagedorn returned from Quorn they were certain Whiteford had got himself drunk. John Murray had come to the same conclusion yet nobody recalled having seen Whiteford consume any drink, nor could they work out where he would have got any. There was certainly none available at Woolshed Flat and it was not noticed if he discreetly went over to the Saltia Hotel while they had stopped near there earlier on. The only possibility was that he may have had some on the engine with him but if so, it was not conspicuous to any of the others. John Robinson pointed out that supposing Whiteford was not actually drunk, he was at the least very muddled and it may have been the shock of the accident making him a bit anxious. (Was there a cover-up? The truth may never be known.)

When James Whiteford himself gave evidence he denied being drunk yet could not remember a lot of the important things that happened on the night. Among the items he was expected to recall was the occasion when Thomas Roberts took him by the coat and insisted on being allowed to smell his breath.

The Railway Department concluded there had been some impropriety and want of care on the part of some of the men working the sheep train and that James Whiteford, who had already been suspended, was assumed as being under influence of liquor at the time. They also announced that of the fifteen sheep vans damaged, four or five of them would need to be replaced. As for the others just needing repairs, it was estimated that along with rebuilding W55, the cost should amount to around 2,000 pounds ($4,000).

The Commissioner of Public Works, James G. Ramsay, later read the reports and evidence then resolved that the accident was largely attributable to Whiteford’s apparent condition and want of promptitude when the trucks began to move. It was recommended that Whiteford therefore be discharged from the railway service while John Robinson however was fined 5 pounds (ten dollars) and allowed to keep his job. On the other hand it was considered that guard John Pedlar should be commended for his action in getting on top of the sheep vans and attempting to warn the crew of the other train.

Mr Ramsay also insisted that immediate attention be given to installing additional watering facilities at the northern end of Woolshed Flat yard so no train may ever again be caught in the same circumstances. The response to this latter request was instantaneous by the Engineer-in-chief and a new water column appeared in a matter of weeks.

In some ways the crews involved were no more to blame than they were victims of circumstances. There are always a lot of ifs and buts with accidents of this nature and it may have been possible for Whiteford to keep his job were it not assumed he was drunk at the time of the disaster. After all he may have intoxicated himself only after the event but the authorities for some reason did not take this into account. To some extent the S.A. Parliament of the day and the Railway Department should wear some of the blame. Had they not built the railway so cheaply and also provided better watering facilities at Woolshed Flat, this may never have happened. The Westinghouse air-brake was already available in Australia at the time and if such had been fitted to the train, the degree of safety would have been a lot higher.

Later innovations such as train control (only introduced to the SAR in 1924) and the use of two-way radios on the locomotives could have also prevented disaster. If either of these had been thought of and implemented in 1883 the material train would never have been permitted to leave Saltia. The only good thing about the incident was the lesson that was learnt from it and the application of the old saying "No accident is so bad but what it might have been worse."

The above article is derived from information given to an official inquiry and newspaper reports of the day. As details tended to vary in certain aspects, it is possible there may be some small inaccuracies in this text. The author apologises for any that may be present.

This article by Roger Sallis was published in Pichi Richi Patter Volume 23 No. 2 Summer 1996 and Volume 23 No. 3 Autumn 1996, and erratum in Volume 23 No. 4.