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Southern Aurora Memorial Garden

Southern Aurora Memorial Gardens are situated 184km northeast of Melbourne CBD at Violet Town in Victoria, Australia. Southern Aurora Memorial Gardens came into existence as a memorial for one of the worst train accidents in Australian History. On 7th February 1969, Southern Aurora Overnight Express crashed head on to a goods train approximately one kilometre south of Violet Town. The idea of establishing a memorial garden was first expressed by community members who saw a need to acknowledge the historical importance of the tragedy and to commemorate and thank the volunteers who took part in the rescue operations.

The memorial gardens situated just opposite Violet Town Railway Station was co-funded by Federal Government, Victorian State Government, Australian Rail Track Corporation and Strathbogie Council. The area where the gardens now stand used to be part of Violet Town Railway station goods yard. The yards had been demolished over time and the land was strewn with rubbish. The Garden has a remembrance sculpture, two murals depicting the Southern Aurora tragedy painted by local Benalla artist Tim Bowtell, and a one-kilometre walking track from the gardens to the crash site. The garden was officially opened on the 10th of February 2019 as part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the tragedy.

On 7th February 1969 at 7:02 am, the Melbourne bound Southern Aurora train collided head on with Sydney bound goods train. Nine people died and 117 injured in the crash. Southern Aurora had gone through two warning signals and one stop signal before colliding with the goods train. The train control in Melbourne had already set the signal so that the Aurora departing late from Albury would stop on the running line of Violet Town loop and wait for the goods train to enter the loop. Investigations and post-mortem later revealed that fifty-year-old John Bowden, driver of the Southern Aurora was already dead or was in a coma state due to heart failure at least 10km before the crash. Six of Aurora’s 14 cars were derailed. Three blackened carriages were piled on top of each other, one completely split open by the impact.

Australian Women’s Weekly 26th February 1969

The fireman of the train, Mervin Coulthard didn’t realise the condition of the driver even though the train passed the first caution signal which was a warning to slow down. The fireman cancelled vigilance control warning, acknowledging everything was alright. The guard William Wyer whose responsibility included watching the signals the train passed was sleeping on and off since Albury and missed the signals. He was in a position to stop the train which obviously he didn’t do. Neither the fireman nor the guard noticed the other two signals which warned that the goods train was coming towards them ready to enter the loop.

Investigation showed that there was a time interval of around 54 seconds from the stop signal to the point of crash a distance of approximately 1.7km. Train could have been stopped just 800m from the crash site, but the guard made an emergency application of the brakes when it was too late. Meanwhile the crew of the goods train were frantically flashing their head light to warn Aurora. The goods train fireman Arnfried Brendecke jumped from the engine saving his life. The driver of the goods train, Laurence Rosevear retreated to the rear of the train but couldn’t save himself.

The Coroner H.W.Pascoe made several recommendations to prevent such incidents occurring again. He attached the real blame on to the driver of Aurora, Bowden for continuing a responsibility he was not physically well enough to perform. The coroner maintained that the guard, Wyer’s logbook was a “piece of fiction” and, if either he or Coulthard had been alert, the crash would have been averted. The guard was asleep after the express left Albury. And it was the combination of a dead driver, an insensitive fireman and a somnolent guard that had caused the tragedy. While the coroner said they were extremely negligent in performing their duty, he was not prepared to attach to them the epithets of culpable, criminal, gross, wicked or complete.

The Southern Aurora train was introduced in 1962 as a premier train service between Melbourne and Sydney with air conditioning and sleeping births for 196 people, all travelling first class. Until 1962, travellers had to change at Albury from Victorian broad-gauge to NSW standard-gauge trains. Aurora also served as hotel on wheels, with meals served in luxury with guests being allowed on board to dine before the train left. Southern Aurora ran for the last time on 2nd August 1986.




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      Southern Aurora Memorial Gardens are situated 184km northeast of Melbourne CBD at Violet Town in Victoria, Australia. Southern Aurora Memorial Gardens
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