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THE third serious accident in five years involving central Australia's passenger express The Ghan yesterday raised fresh concern about level-crossing safety.
The train, carrying 163 passengers and crew, had almost completed its two-day journey from Darwin when it smashed into a septic tanker truck near Two Wells, 40km north of Adelaide.
While the truck driver was rushed to hospital with a crushed chest, only three of the train's passengers required treatment for minor injuries - a let-off for emergency services that had braced for disaster.
The collision, however, invoked memories of the June 5 accident at Kerang, northern Victoria, in which 11 people died in one of the nation's worst level-crossing smashes between a train and truck.
Yesterday's accident happened on a straight stretch of track that should have made the oncoming express, travelling at an average speed of 80km/h, visible for several kilometres as it approached the level crossing.
This was marked with stop signs and an alert to drivers to look for trains, but no warning lights or boomgates.
But witnesses to the crash said it was possible the local truck driver's view of the crossing had been obscured by trees and vegetation overgrowing its northern approach.
After turning right off the main road running parallel to the tracks, on to a dirt access road crossing them, the truck was broadsided by the train when partly across the line.
The force of the impact ripped the driver's cabin from the chassis and sent liquid from its ruptured tank showering 50m into the air.
"We felt the ground shake," said train spotter Matthew Stewart, who was preparing to video The Ghan passing a northbound freight train at the time of the accident.
"It was just like a tremendous bang ... like a big bag of water exploding.
"I'm surprised that the truck driver is alive. If the train had been going faster it could have had worse consequences."
Mr Stewart said it was "unacceptable" for thick growth to be so close to the crossing.
"There is not enough clearance," he said. "The truck just went straight across. He didn't even give way, he just went straight though."
The Australian Road Track Corporation, Australian Transport Safety Bureau, Transport SA, and South Australian police will investigate the crash.
Police superintendent Ferdi Pit said it was difficult to believe no one was killed in the accident.
"If you look at the truck, it's completely destroyed," he said. "It is a miracle that the driver of that truck is not dead."
The driver, a member of the local Country Fire Service, remained conscious and talking as fellow volunteers pulled him from the wreckage.
Ray Bryant, group officer of the Light CFS, said the man had a family with three teenage children and was well known in the community.
"He's an average sort of a bloke, trying to make a buck," Mr Bryant said. "This is a busy track, so if they're locals they should know that trains are going up and down all the time."
In October 2002, four people were killed when the Ghan collided with a bus at a level crossing at Salisbury, in Adelaide's north.
Last December, the train crashed into a semi-trailer at a level crossing at Ban Ban Springs, 130km south of Darwin, derailing several carriages. A person on the train was critically injured.
Tony Braxton-Smith, chief executive of Great Southern Railways, which operates The Ghan, said he was "concerned" that there had been another crash at a level crossing, but would not go any deeper into safety issues ahead of the results from the investigation into the causes of the incident.
Australasian Railway Association chief executive Bryan Nye said it was not possible or feasible to protect all unprotected level crossings in Australia and warned that "engineering solutions" would not eliminate crashes in any case.
"Even when you have flashing lights and boom gates, why is it we still have half the fatalities when they are in place?" Mr Nye said.
By Pia Akerman and Jeremy Roberts
Additional reporting: Andrew McGarry
August 07, 2007 01:00am
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