Sunday, 7 July 2013

Crossing The Line: Boronia’s forgotten killer intersection

The crossing today and early 1950
Most long time residents of Boronia, in fact anybody who had to drive through the area will remember the notorious bottleneck that was the Boronia/Dorset Road intersection prior to the upgrading of the train crossing. I remember my first time trying to navigate it; I was living in Croydon and had to go to the Angliss Hospital. Being new to the area I took what I thought was the most direct route along Dorset road. I managed to get confused at which lane I was meant to be in, then a train came and I ended up heading down Boronia road towards Wantirna. After that nightmare, I quickly learnt of ways to avoid the intersection.
In 1998 the Kennett Government had the whole thing straightened out and the train crossing buried under the road . This not only stopped the separation of Boronia but brought close to an era of one of the most dangerous level crossing in the countries history
It was a history of death and misery spanning decades.

The Age June 27 1926
The first recorded incident in 1926 was the worst of its kind in Australia to that date. Nine people were killed and fifteen injured when a bus carrying picnickers returning home to the city after a day out at Ferntree Gully. The accident was also a watershed moment for the Scout movement who were praised for their courage and bravery. On the train involved in the collision were several troops as well as some from Boronia district who were near the crossing as it happened. These young men  helped carry the dead from the site and move the injured to a nearby garage where six local doctors treated them. The dead were transported back to Flinders St where in those days platform one had a siding that was used to take coffins and mourners to Springvale Necropolis. By the time the bodies arrived back to the city news has travelled and crowds had gathered to witness the result of the carnage.
 It was reported that the reason the bus driver (who survived) didn’t hear the trains whistle was because the passengers were singing too loud. The quiet little village of Boronia was thrust into the national spotlight, the ensuring inquest was more of an investigation of who was at fault; had the bus driver been drinking? Was the train driver going to fast or not paying attention? It was concluded that neither party was at fault. The Coroner Mr. Berriman expressed the opinion "that the crossing, upon which five roads converged, and at which portion of the rail track was hidden scrub, was very dangerous" There was no recommendation to install warning precautions.

The Argus Oct 30 1944
There is another less reported incident in 1944 where five people were killed late in the afternoon when a train ploughed into their car. They also were on a day trip and the accident was overshadowed in the papers at the time by war time stories.
The collision of June 2nd 1952 was to be the worst rail crossing accident in the Melbourne area, the State record was eclipsed when Victoria's (and Australia's) worst rail-road crash happened on May 8 1943 when a bus carrying soldiers hit a train near, Wodonga. 25 people died in this appalling collision.
The year earlier on August 7 1951, nine were injured at the Boronia crossing and two more , this time locals, on October 22.
At this stage the crossing was still only guarded by a solitary rail crossing sign.
It was still decided by “experts” that the crossing didn’t need signals.

But it wasn’t until the aforementioned 1952 disaster that things came to a head.
At 8.45PM on Sunday the 2nd June a bus carrying a church group of 32 teenage bible students back home after a day trip were slammed into by a Melbourne bound train – Stories vary, initially it was declared 13 dead and nearly 20 injured (the Age and Argus June 2, some reports had seven dead and 22 injured (Adelaide Advertiser) but in later reports it settled at nine dead and 22 injured (The Age & Argus June 3) One of the few to survive without any injury (mental scaring withstanding) was the 40 year old driver.
The crash site was a nightmare and reports cite Boronia residents ferrying the dead and wounded to Angliss hospital because of the long delays between ambulances, even though six were sent to the scene on first response.
Excerpt from Knox Leader 2001 via Richard Coxhill's excellent History of The Basin

The accident was so horrific it appeared on the front pages of major papers all over the country. This appalling loss of life demanded action being taken after 31 people losing their lives and 54 injured at the crossing in the last 28 years. When one considered how many died, you can only imagine how severe some of the injuries must have been.
The Age and The Argus both wrote editorials calling for the need of action, not just for the Boronia crossing but all crossing state wide. An inquest into the accident was commissioned and a jury empanelled within hours of the disaster by the Coroner J.R Bourke, a move he later regretted due to what he felt was impartiality of the jury and dismissed them in early August and conducted the enquiry by himself. Mr Burke  tabled his findings on September 2nd , it was once again front page news a. He said no one had been
criminally negligent but the Railway Commission could have done more to prevent accidents especially a crossing with such a tragic history. Funds were allocated and work on new signals for the crossing started immediately . Reports of up to nine legal cases against the Railway Commission were being considered as soon as the inquest read its findings. . Come early October flashing lights were installed and working much to the joy of Boronia residence. Which in time was forgotten and turned to frustration as the suburban sprawl reached Boronia and the car population multiplied accordingly. Resulting in the traffic snarl that led up to the eventual revamping of the intersection. The sinking of the rail line and straightening of the intersection benefited Boronia greatly, not only because of flow of traffic and ease of congestion, it meant new shops could be built on reclaimed land to boost the economy. The intersection now barely resembles the bad old days of the dangerous crossing with its deadly past, the memories of the many tragic accidents have faded much the same as the frustration of the stalled traffic from only a few year just gone.

Three photos of the crossing The first one was taken around about the time of the 1952 incident. All photos are from the well documented ROSE Series.
Lovely old composite pic from the 1950s

Some interesting notes:

  • Because a rail crossing incident is not a train crash if you visit the VicRail History site or the Rail Museum web site, neither mentions any other serious accidents at Boronia other than the 1926 tragedy.
  • In news reports of the times, in two incidences it is remarked how the accidents resulted in train delays. One in 1951 where two people were injured and another from 1944 where 5 people died the delays were 40 minutes and 30 minutes respectively. Compares this to today’s rail network when a branch over overhead lines can stop large sections of track for nearly the whole day.
  • All collisions happened in the evening late in day and on the week end. From what information I can gather, none of those killed were locals.
  • Boronia rail crossing had the dubious title of worst accident in Victoria and then the worst accident in Melbourne.
 This article previously appeared in the Boronia Basin Community News Issue 213 July 213
References National Library archive
Richard Coxhill -History of The Basin 1992
The Argus 2+3+4 June 1952, 27 April 1926,  October 22 1951,October 31 1944
The Age 2+3 June 1952, April 27 1926
Adelaide Advertiser 3 June 1952
Sydney Morning Herald 3 June 1952
Launceston Examiner 2 June 1952
Western Australian 30 Oct 1944
Barrier Miner (Broken Hill) 3-Sept-52
Lismore Star 2-Sept-52
Canberra Times 2-Sept-52
Townsville Bulletin 2 Sept-52
 Facebook page photos and recollected stories from: Lost Melbourne, Past2 Present and Dandenong Historical Society

PTUA webpage