“The RTBU is deeply saddened by the tragic accident that has taken the life of two rail workers and unnecessarily injured many more,” the union said.
V/Line chief executive James Pinder said the section of track was a “particularly complicated part of the infrastructure” because V/Line trains run alongside XPT trains.
“There are separate signalling systems for the different tracks,” he said.
Mr Pinder said V/Line was operating on the track on Thursday, before the Sydney to Melbourne service derailed.
V/Line had warned earlier on Thursday that the service to Albury was delayed because of a rail fault.
The Border Mail also reported on Thursday that north-east train travellers were being asked to allow an extra 60 minutes for trips after a signal hut at Wallan was destroyed by fire earlier this month.
The Victorian and federal governments late last year announced a $235 million upgrade to the line would begin in 2020.
Public Transport Minister Melissa Horne said she had written to the Australian Rail Track Corporation to continue with works on lines in the region after a freight train derailed at Barnawartha three weeks ago.
Victoria Police officers were stationed at either end of the stretch of 600 metres of train line around the crash site.
Emergency crews, including from CFA and SES, scoured the tracks and surrounding scrub in grey, blustery weather conditions until about 10am.
The train has not been moved from the position where it derailed, with the front locomotive carriage remaining on its side. Orange tarp is now covering the overturned driver’s compartment.
Rail safety investigators from several agencies have been deployed to the site, with the cause to be probed by the National Rail Safety Regulator, Australian Transport Safety Bureau, WorkSafe and Victoria Police.
Greg Hood, Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said a preliminary report would be released within 30 days.
The train, which had left Central Station in Sydney at 7.40am, was running more than two hours late when it crashed about 7.50pm on Thursday on the way to Southern Cross Station in Melbourne.
A triage service was set up at a nearby petrol station car park and 11 people were hospitalised in a stable condition with minor injuries. A man in his 60s was taken to the Royal Melbourne Hospital, seven people were taken to the Northern Hospital and three went to Kilmore Hospital.
About 20 people remain unaccounted for, with police urging anyone who evacuated before emergency services arrived, or who had a booking but did not travel, to contact authorities to list themselves as safe.
Several passengers said the train was gaining speed at the time of the accident after being stopped due to a signalling issue.
Passengers described being thrown violently around inside the train as the diesel locomotive and at least four carriages careered off the tracks.
Passenger Rob Jennings said travellers were tossed around the carriage during the approximately minute-long period from when the train began to derail to when it came to a halt.
“It just veered off, and all the carriages smashed into one another,” he said. “People were tossing around … there was some screaming.”
Passengers said the driver had told them over the public address system that he would try to make up time for earlier delays.
Leon, who did not want his surname used, said the the train was stopped minutes before the crash, with staff saying a signalling issue was causing delays.
After the accident Leon, who has experience in rail transport, said he walked back to where he thought the train had derailed.
He said the tracks, which police said were badly damaged following the crash, were set to divert the train onto an adjacent parallel side track. Leon said signals should have alerted the driver to slow down to be able to move into the side track, but he did not notice the train slowing prior to the derailment.
“If the driver knew that, and the signalling told him that, there’s no way he would have been travelling at the speed he was travelling at,” Leon said.
“You have to slow down at that point … And this train didn’t.”
Acting Inspector Peter Fusinato, of Victoria Police, said on Thursday night it was too early to say whether signalling faults or any other factor played a role in the accident.
He said the investigation would look into the train’s speed and braking data, as well as signalling information.
“[With] 153 passengers, the outcome was probably far better than what you would have anticipated … we’re very fortunate,” Inspector Fusinato said.
Responding to reports a first responder shattered his hand trying to free the driver from the driver’s cabin, Inspector Fusinato said “heroic” acts of bravery would emerge from the incident.
One man on scene said people were helping others off the damaged carriages while some ran to try and free the driver.
“The train workers and conductors were pretty frantic trying to get into the locomotive. Everyone was trying to smash the window but it’s designed not to break,” he said.
At 11pm, almost all passengers had either been transferred to hospital, picked up by relatives or friends, or taken back to Melbourne on three buses.
Police will prepare a report for the coroner.
All Seymour, Albury and Shepparton V/Line services were suspended until further notice and the nearby Catholic school will be closed on Friday. Police said it may take days to clear the tracks.
Federal Transport Minister Michael McCormack and his Victorian and NSW counterparts Melissa Horne and Paul Toole released a joint statement saying they were “working closely to support all those involved in the incident”.
“Our thoughts are with all those involved and their loved ones,” the statement said.
The NSW rail authority is responsible for the management of the train involved, while the Australian Rail Track Corporation manages the rail line.
An ARTC spokesperson said services were suspended until further notice to allow emergency services to respond to the train derailment.
“We are working hard to support emergency services, NSW TrainLink and investigators to respond to this tragic accident,” the spokesperson said.
A freight train also came off the tracks in Wallan in 2017 and last month a passenger and freight train crashed at Barnawatha near Albury, but no one was hurt.
In December, Infrastructure Australia knocked back a proposal to have an upgrade of the line from Melbourne to Albury placed on the nation’s priority infrastructure list.
It found the Australian Rail Track Corporation’s business case for the $198 million project “materially overestimated” the community benefits from the works.
The business case noted that V/Line had a self-imposed speed limit of 15km/h on the 82-kilometre stretch between Broadmeadows and Seymour, which includes Wallan, due to “poor track quality” such as mud holes and tight rail alignments.
Timna Jacks is Transport Reporter at The Age
Ashleigh McMillan is a breaking news reporter at The Age. Got a story? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul is a reporter for The Age.