I ran into friend and blog commenter Andrew W on the train last week, and we were chatting about the Dandenong South crash. I noted that the design of the train hadn’t really been remarked upon in coverage of the accident, and being the knowledgeable person that he is, he was able to tell me a bit about it.
In short, the horrific sight of carriages scattered across the accident scene is the result of deliberate design decisions about what should happen in a high speed crash with something big and solid like a truck.
The couplings, as well as strengthened supports at the ends of carriages (in the Comeng fleet, on either side of the end-of-carriage doorway; on others including the carriage corners as well) are designed to absorb the impact and maintain the overall structure of the carriage, because the last thing you want is carriages “telescoping” (passenger cabins coming apart from the undercarriage, and collapsing), crushing large numbers of people inside.
The door from the driver’s cabin into the passenger area is there so that if necessary the driver can evacuate the cab, which is likely to take the impact of a head-on crash (though I wonder under what scenario the driver is likely to have the time to evacuate).
Newer carriages in Melbourne’s fleet, the X’Trapolis and Siemens, have similar design features, and have improved on them somewhat, though you wouldn’t want to be between the carriages on any of these trains in the unlikely event of a crash — that places you outside the protection of the carriage structure.
In the case of Dandenong South, of course, multiple safety precautions had already failed. The level crossing warning signs, flashing lights, ringing bells, and boom gates across the road hadn’t prevented the collision.
The death of one passenger (of about thirty on-board) is a tragedy, but it obviously could have been so much worse. Andrew made the comment that if it had been a bus (or any other kind of motor vehicle, for that matter) colliding with the truck, the probability of survival would have been much lower.
Along with the fact that the previous death of a passenger in a train accident on the Melbourne suburban system was back in 1946, I think it helps underscores that train travel is extremely safe.