NZ’S TRANSPORT Accident Investigation Commission has highlighted KiwiRail’s systemic safety issues in a new report about a train derailment in stormy weather near Te Puke, Bay of Plenty, in January 2023. 

TAIC says KiwiRail needs to fix problems with its systems and training for responding to foul weather and stay up to date with how well third parties maintain their waterways in the rail corridor.  

A KiwiRail freight train was travelling from Kawerau to Tauranga on the East Coast Main Trunk line with 39 wagons in the early hours of 29 January after heavy rain with flooding. The train drove at about 60km/h along a section of track with floodwater crossing it, the emergency brake activated automatically and the locomotive stopped.

Only five wagons were behind the locomotive, of which four were uncoupled, and the remaining 34 wagons were 100 metres back down the track. Eleven wagons had derailed and lay strewn, some overturned, with disgorged freight in a chaotic pile across fields on either side of the track.

Chief Investigator of Accidents, Naveen Kozhuppakalam, said the accident happened because heavy rain and consequent volume of floodwater overwhelmed the drainage system around and under the rail corridor. 

“At the accident site, water levels rose about 3.5 metres and washed out the stone and gravel support for the tracks. The fully laden train passed over the unsupported tracks, pushed the rails out of shape, wagon wheels lost contact with rails, and the wagons derailed. 

“The train was cleared to travel on this section of track, but it shouldn’t have been. The previous day, the same train crew told Train Control that they saw high water at what became the accident site, but they did so unclearly and the track inspector inspected the wrong location. 

To avoid similar accidents in future across NZ, a lot of elements need to come together, Mr Kozhuppakalam said.  “KiwiRail should have Triggered Action Response Plans in place. And staff should be adequately trained to identify when and where parts of the rail corridor are vulnerable – like this one, which was flood prone and there was reported high water after forecast rainfall. 

“If the right plan is in place and staff are trained and correctly equipped, then proactive rather than reactive track inspections or closures are more likely.

“KiwiRail should have good awareness about how well third parties – landowners, councils and the like – are maintaining waterways that they own in the rail corridor. There’s more risk of flooding if third parties don’t adequately maintain their streams and culverts. So KiwiRail needs to satisfy itself that all those waterways, have effective and up-to-date maintenance programmes.”