Desperados waiting for a train

No one to follow and nothing to teach

Except that the goal falls short of the reach

Leonard Cohen – The Goal 1

imageAny research or discussions regarding transport disasters across Australia will inevitably recall the horrific but often forgotten bus crashes that occurred on the northern coast of News South Wales almost thirty years ago. The Grafton bus crash on the Pacific Highway near Cowper in the Clarence valley on 28th October 1989 claimed 21 people and left another 22 passengers injured. Almost two months later in the Macleay valley two Denning Landseer tourist coaches were involved in a head on collision at Clybucca, north of Kempsey. The coaches were both travelling at 100 kilometres per hour and the impact snapped many seats from their anchor bolts. It remains the worst road accident in Australia with the deaths of 35 people, which included both drivers and another 41 passengers were injured. 29

The Grafton crash occurred a few hours before dawn when a southbound semitrailer carrying a load of tinned fruit careered across the undivided highway into a northbound tourist bus carrying 45 passengers. Its driver’s side was ripped open like a can of peaches, which killed many of its sleeping occupants and their remains and belongings were strewn across the highway. The truck driver died instantly and subsequent blood analysis revealed an extremely high concentration of ephedrine. The use of stimulants to remain awake was prolific amongst truck drivers, especially on long haul journeys to meet unrealistic demands and delivery schedules. 1014

The Kempsey crash occurred on 22nd December 1989 and the subsequent coronial inquiry found the driver of the southbound McCafferty’s coach fell asleep at the wheel. The vehicle was approaching a left hand curve on an undivided stretch of the Pacific Highway when it continued straight ahead and collided with a northbound TransCity Express bus. The McCafferty’s coach driver had not dimmed the vehicle’s headlights or applied its brakes. Neither of the buses exceeded the speed limited and both coaches were mechanically sound. 1517

The coroner recommended upgrading the Pacific Highway to dual carriageway between Hexham and the Queensland border although an estimated completion date of 2006 was never achieved. Almost three decades later the Frederickton to Eungai dual carriageway, which bypassed Clybucca was officially opened. Other initiatives have included establishment of the National Transport Commission with a responsibility for developing, monitoring and maintaining nationally consistent regulatory and operational reforms covering road, rail and intermodal transport. This is supported by the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator, a statutory authority pursuant to the Heavy Vehicle National Law. 1824

More recent research, especially into the Grafton bus smash at Cowper indicates the SunLiner Express coach was unroadworthy. It left Kempsey some two hours earlier with several defects, which included a broken driver’s side headlight and fractured lens cover with malfunctioning night and clearance lights. Deteriorating road conditions with potholes and crumbling shoulders may have caused the southbound truck driver to straddle the white centre line to avoid wear and tear from excessive vibration and jolting of the vehicle. 2528

From a distance, the oncoming northbound bus with its defective lights may have been mistaken for a motorcycle and the truck driver suddenly realised it was a tourist coach. This was evident following examination of the prime mover that was subject to a hard left lock on impact, which is consistent with a truck driver’s impulsive reaction to avoid an approaching vehicle. Almost a year later a SunLiner bus driver recorded a high range blood alcohol reading on the outskirts of Port Macquarie with 49 passengers aboard the coach. 2931

Several anomalies suggest both bus crashes were not solely attributable to human error, which is more often a consequence than the elusive cause. Indeed, a former associate engineering professor called for the state coroner to reopen the inquest. Extensive critical analysis of the coroner’s report, which was delivered within one month of the disasters, implies that blatant political interference produced a predetermined outcome. Following a Booz Allen Hamilton report, north coast rail services were considered commercially unviable and brutally slashed. This was exacerbated by widespread redundancies throughout country rail operations to recoup a burgeoning $1 billion annual debt. It left a much maligned goat track as the only transport link between north coast towns and the consequences soon emerged via the Cowper and Clybucca disasters with the horrific deaths of 56 people. 3240

All this occurred under state premier, Nick (I don’t remember) Groaner, another crepuscular and fiscally conservative neoliberal acolyte. Some two years before the appalling bus smashes his partner, the daughter of a Commonwealth Bank executive, was acquitted of a mid-range drink driving charge. It followed a lunchtime o’booze at a business function, which left the Kirribilli princess feeling rather tired and emotional. The coronial report into Australia’s worst road disasters predictably blamed the drivers although it is curiously unavailable on the state coroner’s website and a book containing a summary of the investigation is now out of print. Indeed, official investigations into both of the crashes remain as enigmatic as the White River Timber tax records, which surreptitiously went up in smoke following a frantic Judᴂan-Hungarian stocktake. 4153

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