April 2008

The Nation Reviewed

If those trains had only run …

By Robyn Annear
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

God works for V/Line, the Victorian country rail service. Actually, it's God for short; full name Godfrey, he's an ex-conductor now employed on station duties. "Pass us that stapler, God," you'll hear a colleague say to him. But not even having God on the payroll could, in all probability, have averted the disaster that befell the Ballarat and Bendigo ‘up' trains on Easter Monday 1908 at Sunshine, 12 kilometres from Melbourne.

The outlying industrial settlement of Braybrook Junction had been renamed Sunshine after the sprawling Sunshine Harvester Works relocated there from Ballarat, two years earlier. Many of the implement-maker's workers had followed their jobs thence and, under the bullying patronage of the works' owner, HV McKay, Sunshine was taking shape as a model working-class community.

Its location made Sunshine the ideal place for McKay's enterprise to thrive. Railway lines from the north and west converged there, and Melbourne, with its port, was not far distant - far enough, though, for the Harvester Works to be exempt from restrictive metropolitan labour laws. But in 1907 the new Arbitration Court refuted McKay's claim that the wages he paid were "fair and reasonable". The ruling in the Sunshine Harvester case established the principle of the minimum wage in Australia, based on "the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human being living in a civilised community".

On the night of 20 April 1908, a hundred years ago, upwards of a thousand people were packed aboard two trains hurtling towards Sunshine. It being the end of a four-day holiday, extra carriages had been borrowed from the suburban lines, making the trains twice their usual length. Even so, they were stuffed beyond capacity, with 12 passengers squeezed into six-seat compartments and yet more standing in the corridors. Families, cricket teams, even wedding parties had been scattered through the trains, some finding seats fore, others aft.

There ought to have been 27 minutes between the two trains, but both were running late: the Ballarat train by 41 minutes, the Bendigo by half as many and gaining. Neither train that night was designated an express, but Leonard Milburn, the Bendigo driver, had instructions to make up time by driving as if for an express, speeding through stations unless there were passengers to put down.

The Ballarat train arrived at Sunshine first, at 10.47 pm. A good many passengers were getting off there, refreshed and ready for work after spending Easter in their old home town. The train being so long, the driver stopped with the front half alongside the platform, leaving the rear carriages dangling back around the curve, where the Ballarat track diverged from the main line. Once passengers for Sunshine had unpacked themselves from the front carriages, the driver eased the train forward, "in order that ingress and egress from the rear carriages might be facilitated". But before he could bring his charge to a standstill, the Bendigo train ploughed into the back of it, concertinaing three first-class carriages, one second-class and the guard's van. In a moment, all were reduced to matchsticks and splintered glass. Then they caught fire.

In the circumstances, it seems miraculous that only 44 people died that night. Of the 400-odd injured, nearly all were aboard the Ballarat train, the portion not crushed having been thrown forward by the collision. Victor Eddy, dozing in the third car from the rear, was lucky to have been thrown clear through the window, and escaped with both legs broken. "It was a terrible funny sensation," he told a reporter. "I can't describe it. Like nothing else I ever knew." On the Bendigo train, most passengers were aware of nothing more than a sudden stop. One of the few who "got a bump" was Robert Marshall, seated near to the engine. "The young man in front of me butted me in the chest with his head. I lost my hat. Someone laughed. I do not know what for." He sounded bewildered at the banality of it.

One eyewitness to the carnage likened it to a battlefield, only worse. "Events like these," said a medic at the scene, "take six years off a man's life" - if they didn't end it altogether. Besides cries and moans, there were people calling out, "Have you seen Jack?" and "Archie is all right!"

A big room at the Harvester Works was put to use as a makeshift hospital. The dead were laid out along the platform at Sunshine, in the waiting room, and even on the bare plain where the station stood. "One young woman lay near the north end of the platform," reported the Argus. "She was dressed in white, and a hatbox was beside her. The box was torn asunder as though it had been pulled to pieces by horses. A handkerchief was placed over her face."

"It is awful! Awful!" was the first reaction of Premier Thomas Bent. His next was, "There seems to have been a blunder somewhere."

Fewer than 36 hours after the crash, the finger of blame was pointed at Driver Milburn, known (said the Argus) as "Hell-fire Jack", "a name given to drivers famed for fast, and sometimes reckless travelling". One of Milburn's colleagues was quick to correct that definition. Far from signifying rashness, he said, the nickname was bestowed as an honour to crack drivers of the passenger expresses, of whom Milburn was one.

"What is ‘wicked'?" asked the foreman of the jury at the inquest, seeking to clarify the coroner's definition of the term "culpable negligence" ("It must be criminal, wicked negligence"). "Does it mean a form of malice?"

"Not in the world," the coroner replied. "The most innocent man does a thing of this kind."

Over 12 weeks, the inquest heard a great deal about isolating cocks and "fouling the line" and glasses of shandygaff taken with dinner, besides the problem of sticky triple valves in the supposedly indefectible Westinghouse brake. On 10 July 1908, three of the "most innocent" men - the two drivers of the Bendigo train and the Sunshine stationmaster - were found responsible for the accident and charged with manslaughter. Their wickedness having amounted to a combination of human error and institutional complacency, though, all three were eventually acquitted.

After more than 30 years as a driver, Leonard Milburn claimed to "know nearly every sleeper on the Bendigo line". The one-time Hell-fire Jack was shattered by the crash, his nerves completely unstrung. Giving evidence at the inquest, he sobbed - "a broken-down man", his counsel called him. He never drove again.

A dirge commemorating the disaster, set to the tune of ‘If Those Lips Could Only Speak', ran: "If those trains had only run / As they should, their proper time ..." Time and trains, of course, have been indivisible for as long as there has been rail travel. Before railways connected them, towns obeyed a local, mutable version of time. Timetables made time fixed and unforgiving, synchronicity the thing. (Factories, too, with their steam-whistles and clocking-on, helped make time a tyrant. In Sunshine now, where the Harvester Works' former acreage is overrun by shopping mall, multiplex and car park, subsumed by Melbourne's sprawl, all that remains of the factory is its clock tower. Hard by the railway line, it stands forlorn, still marking time.)

Yet in 1908, the inquest heard that the Bendigo train ran late on 135 out of 147 trips. Now, as then, being a regular train passenger (sorry, ‘customer') is like taking instruction from a Zen master. You cannot hurry: if a train's late, it's late. Approached in the right way, rail travel fosters stoicism and a capacity for reverie. Besides, for any month that V/Line fails to meet its punctuality targets - and that's every month - my quarterly pass entitles me to compensation. I fill in the claim form at my local station and receive one day's free travel. A gift. From God.

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

Cover: April 2008

April 2008

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