Explosions cut Sydney – Brisbane rail tracks days after wild storm

In year 10 of peaking oil production and rising tensions in the Middle East, governments should be busy upgrading their rail lines. But look what’s happening here in Australia.

Fig 1: Quarry creek culvert. James Bond or terrorists?


We see the bitter consequence of an under-designed culvert, a weak embankment built 100 years ago, general neglect in rail and an East coast storm. Mother nature has intervened. She has exposed an embarrassing weakness in Australia’s intercity rail infrastructure.

It all began on the 21st of April 2015

Sydney weather: driving rain, damaging winds to batter NSW for second day


Damaging and destructive winds, heavy rainfall and damaging surf are ripping through the metropolitan, mid-north coast, Hunter and Illawarra on Tuesday evening.


What are Sydneysiders worried about? Traffic jams, bus queues, train delays, ferry cancellations, fallen trees and power poles, damaged houses and cars, power cuts and beach closures. Few will think about the main rail line from Sydney to Brisbane in the flood prone Hunter valley.

Fig 2: Rail line between Sydney and Brisbane (960 kms)

The rail line is now cut between Maitland and Dungog as a result of embankment slips and culvert wash-outs. The destiny of a bridge is not yet known to the public.

The single tracked line was built between 1905 and 1932  but never re-aligned nor duplicated, not to mention electrified. Decades of neglect. That’s how it looks like:

Fig 3: Rail line Sydney – Brisbane (Hilldale Rd crossing)

No, this is not a branch line to a remote town in the Australian bush (as beautiful as the landscape may be) but the MAIN TRUNK LINE SYDNEY-BRISBANE. All container trains and long distance trains go through here.

There is no alternative route as the Armidale – Tenterfield line was abandoned in 1988.  So all we can expect are quick repairs. But whether the line will be made more resilient for future flood events is another question altogether.

Fig 4: Rail line Maitland – Paterson

The Australian Rail Track Corporation informed the public in several media releases that:

  • There are 22 sites with significant washaways and landslips
  • Just one slip includes an embankment 8 m high and 75 long
  • Reinstatement work is delayed as access to 14 km of track between Telarah and Paterson is still hampered by flooded roads


Let’s zoom into the above map and pick one of the most critical sections:

Fig 5: Alignment between Quarry and Webbers creek

Extract from an article in Newcastle’s TheHerald   22/4/2015

‘‘It’s like something out of a movie,’’ says chief pilot Michael Earp, pointing at a railway bridge suspended in mid-air over Webbers Creek.

Apart from a slight kink in the middle, the bridge remains intact, defiant against the cyclonic storm that washed away its supports only 24 hours earlier.” 

Fig 6: Webbers creek, flooded rail line and sunken bridge

Fig 7: Embankment between Webbers and Quarry creek


Webbers creek is a tributary of the Paterson River, South of a small town of the same name.

Fig 8: Dungog LGA (grey) map showing Paterson and Williams rivers


Webbers creek can be a beautiful place, not far from the Tocal agricultural college

Fig 9: Webbers creek


Watch this video

“Steam Locomotive 3830 past Tocal going to Paterson, NSW Australia”


recorded by a rail enthusiast (roustus66) in 2013. It was taken from the Tocal homestead, strategically located on a hill.

Fig 10 Steam heritage train passing over Webbers creek bridge (here South bound)

The length of the bridge (7 span beams) gives an idea how much water can come down the creek.

Fig 11: Close-up of Webbers creek bridge (google earth)

To the left the rail line runs on an embankment, to the right along the foot of a hill, in a cutting. In due course, we will be getting pictures of what exactly happened to this bridge when repair or reconstruction work starts.

Fig 12: Tocal landscapes


The North Coast rail lines passes through the Tocal property.

So what disturbed this picturesque setting? Let’s have a look at weather records.

BOM archive mean sea level pressure  http://www.bom.gov.au/australia/charts/archive/index.shtml

Fig 13: Barometric chart showing 2 East coast lows


Nothing dramatic in terms of low pressure (not even in the 900s) but…

Fig 14: Weather radar between the 20th and 21st of April 2015

Heavy rainfalls passed over the Paterson – Dungog area several times as the low pressure system tried to organise itself as a cyclone. This can be clearly seen in this animation:


Climate statistics are published by the Bureau  of Meteorology, here for Paterson


Fig 15: Water levels at Paterson rail bridge

Data are from here: http://www.bom.gov.au/fwo/IDN60232/IDN60232.561032.plt.shtml

The website of the Tocal college http://www.tocal.nsw.edu.au/farms/Tocals-e-farm  contains a chapter “Floods, drought and the Southern Oscillation Index”


“Flooding mostly effects the rich river flats which may be covered by four metres of water in a big flood. Floods have a huge impact on the operation of the property as they make large areas of the property unusable and hinder stock movement (a problem made worse in 1911 by the establishment of the railway line). While floods cause a lot of inconvenience to farm operations the sediments left behind as the flood recedes are an important factor in the fertility of these flats.”

Fig 16: Flood map of the Tocal college property. The rail line passes through the flood area North-West of the Tocal homestead (see Fig 12)

“The area in blue indicates the land that lies below the ten metre contour, this is the land most prone to flooding

Tocal can be flooded from three main sources:

  • Webbers Creek and its tributaries
  • Paterson River flow
  • Paterson River water backed up by tides or high flows, or both, in the Hunter River.

Often, much of the property is inundated due to flooding from Webbers Creek and its tributaries before flood warnings are issued. The main indicator for floods at Tocal is the measurement gauge at Gostwyck. A level greater than 13 metres indicates that a major flood is underway.”


And that brings us back to the beginning of the story:

Fig 17: Quarry creek looking North



Mother nature has given governments a lesson in what can happen if rail is underfunded over many decades. Imagine what would happen if there were a big bang in the Middle East tomorrow, resulting in diesel shortages. Fuel efficient rail would help, but only if rail lines meet the standards.

To be continued


Related link:

XPT Sydney-Coffs Harbour vs. Pacific Highway Upgrade