Why did trains crash in the night?

When a cattle train and a goods train collided in the early hours of a Saturday morning in 1901 near Orroroo, South Australia, the driver of the train responsible blamed dew on the rails.

The Walloway Railway Incident. Image State Library of South Australia

However, the Railway and the Coroner’s reports conflicted on the cause, and there was much debate both publicly and in parliament, about the incident.

The goods trains, loaded with flour and copper ore, was on its way to Port Augusta.

The cattle train, with 168 beasts on board, was meant to pull onto the siding of Walloway Station, about eight miles north of Orroroo.

But the brakes failed to pull up the train. The runaway train’s guard hung out his danger lamp, but a cutting and curve prevented those on the goods train seeing the signal.

Moments later, the “cattle train engine was thrown on its side down the embankment, and every part except the boiler was dreadfully twisted and battered”.

“Only two truck-loads of cows suffered damage. These trucks were splintered to atoms, and the cattle were mangled horribly. Although some were killed outright, others lingered on until they were shot on Saturday morning.”

The engine of the mixed train was not completely derailed, but the tender and four trucks piled upon it.

The rest of the train broke loose from the couplings, and slipped back for half a mile to Orroroo before coming to a standstill.

Ironically, the Commissioner of Public Works, RW Foster, was in that train’s one passenger carriage.

“At first they were unaware that the collision had occurred, and Mr Foster said, when the impact was felt “It is only some rough shunting. We are moving again.”

But they soon discovered their mistake.

The firemen of both trains had been killed and the driver of the cattle train badly injured, but no passengers were badly hurt.

Fireman Samual Eager is buried in Peterborough cemetery, South Australia.

Cattle train fireman Samuel Eager died instantly, although his body was not extricated for five hours.

Goods train fireman John Brodie, however, “met a most distressing death”, imprisoned under his tender and the four trucks, with one leg severed at the thigh and hanging outside the train.

“His removal was a difficult and painful task, but Brodie displayed wonderful fortitude, raising himself up on one leg and conversing with his rescuers.

“He lived for over two hours, conscious to the end.”

it was reported

 Driver Pennington, 47, of the cattle train, suffered an “ugly scalp wound and lost sight in both his eyes through steam burns”. Three years later a committee of his friends and workmates raised 176 pounds to help him out. The government also paid his medical expenses and gave a 300 pound gratuity.

No-one could decide who was at fault. Public interest was aroused to the point that the newspapers published the Coroner’s report and the railway Board’s conflicting verdicts, and called for an independent inquiry.

There was conjecture about whether the rails were wet from dew or rain, made slippery by grasshoppers or cow urine, whether Pennington had enough experience (he had travelled that particular route six times), and about the visibility of the train’s headlights. The Railway Board wanted to blame inexperience on the part of Pennington.

A monument has been erected by the Orroroo Goods Shed Heritage Group near the site to mark the centenary of the incident. It lays the blame on brake failure and gives some more details of the incident.

“Flour, ore and dead bullocks were scattered and mixed with smashed rolling stock. The injured stock were shot by Trooper Beinke of the Orroroo Rifle Club. Two young girls Nell and Bridget Kain, ran from their home nearby to give first aid and comfort to the injured men. Each of the girls later received a gold watch and chain from the South Australian railways in recognition of their brave and humane action”.



Petersburg Times, Friday 13 December 1901 p 3

Border Watch,  Wednesday 20 November 1901 p 2

The Register, Friday 24 March 1905 – Page 4

If you are into poetry, here is an account of the incident, published in the Adelaide newspaper the Herald.


The following lines are taken from the Railway Standard, and are written by MJ O’Hair, of Quorn :—

The train sped into the darkness

That was as black as the depths of hell.

And the driver, blinded by-lightning flash.

The road could scarcely tell.

“We’re booked to cross at Walloway,

O God! what an awful night.

The rails are greasy, the bank is steep,

And there’s never a sign of a light.”

” Pull up! pull up! Good God !We’ve passed

And Haines is nearly due;”

Brave Eager struggled his train to stop,

But madly on she flew.

” Hang out your lamps.” What puny lights,

On such a night as this;

For a curve is lying between the trains.

As along the road they hiss.

With a roar like thunder, they come, they come,

Till they meet with a shuddering crash;

O God above! what an awful sight

Is a midnight railway smash.

Poor Eager lies dead, with his brake In hand.

And Brodie is pinned below;

With his leg cut off by the shattered wreck,

And stunned by the awful blow.

Poor Pennington is badly hurt,

And scalded by the steam;

While Haines knows nothing, so dazed is he.

That it seems like a hideous dream.

They sent for assistance, ’twas miles away.

And Brodie was dying fast;

“Oh, say good-bye to my darling wife.

For I soon must breathe my last.

” Tell her to watch my brother dear,

His parents both are dead;

They died together, when he was still

A baby with golden head.”

They laid him down, for his short young life

Had ended at Duty’s call;

Then they brought him home to his weeping


O God ! protect us all

Think of the cry of the widowed wife,

Think of the orphans’ call;

Think of the mothers who loudly wail

For their darling sons who fall.

Heaven protect us from a death like this,

On a dark and dreary night,

Out on a plain, in a lonely land,

With never a friendly light.

Out of your sorrow be kind, be kind

And pray for guidance from Heaven above

To the sufferers with weary load;

To the Men of the Iron Road. Nov. 19, 1901

Published by Sharyn Moodie

Travelling around Australia for work, I've found so many amazing headstones. But what is more amazing is the stories behind some of these deaths, and the way newspapers of the day reported them.

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