Kempsey bus crash: 50 years on and the pain’s still there for some
Six children were killed after a train ploughed into a school bus south of Kempsey on December 9, 1968. (Supplied: Lorraine Fischer (O’Donnell))
Judith Coleman still remembers the day 50 years ago when her school bus was hit by a train — but she knew nothing of it at the time.
Unconscious for 10 days, she woke up in the Kempsey Hospital.
December 9, 1968, was the day four of her school mates were killed — a week before the Christmas school holidays.
Two more died in the days following. Fifteen children and two adults were also injured in the crash.
Ms Coleman was on the local school bus carrying children from Kempsey High School and Kempsey Convent School, driving over Middleton Street railway crossing, when it was hit by the North Coast Daily Express train travelling from Sydney to Grafton.
According to a newspaper reports at the time, “the Daylight Express ploughed into the rear of a bus of Cavanagh’s Bus Service and spun it off the track on to an embankment beside the line”.
“I remember I was sitting on the single seat near the door of the bus and we stopped and let two boys off because the gates were open,” Ms Coleman said.
“So the driver went through and then after that I don’t know what happened.”
Ms Coleman had suffered a fractured skull, broken bones and “scars everywhere”.
“My mother heard the bang and she thought they were blasting [building works] out along Crescent Head Road until somebody came and told her there was an accident.”
The schoolgirl didn’t know what had happened until her mother told her.
“All I know is my father said that they should have put that tunnel there 20 years before the accident happened.
“There was always somebody there to man the gate and we were early and the train was running late. That’s why the gates were open.
“The train spun us and left us on a 10-foot high embankment.”
Ms Coleman was in hospital for the entire six-week Christmas break and returned to school a week after it had started.
“Everybody just got on with their lives. I refused to cross over a railway line there for a long time.”
Soon after Ms Coleman dropped out of school. “I said ‘I can’t do this anymore’.
“I think it was when the trauma started to really set in.”
Reports on the dangers of the crossing featured in newspapers. (Supplied: Lorraine Fischer (O’Donnell))
Previous near misses
John Barnett’s little sister Margaret was killed and he remembers a number of near-misses before that when he travelled on the school bus.
“We were coming across there one day and we nearly got hit with that train,” Mr Barnett said.
“We’d cross there each afternoon and it was only that I’d finished high school that I wasn’t on the bus on the day.”
Mr Barnett recalled that the bus would always pull up just before the line to let a couple of kids off.
“The bus driver would be looking to the right, which is facing north, to pull into the line of traffic.”
He said the Daylight Express was always coming from the south at that point.
“In the past, I had thought how am I going to stop him and alert him to the train coming?
Margaret Barnett was “just having a lovely time as a young girl growing up on a coastal farm” says her big brother John Barnett. (Supplied: John Barnett)
“I was usually standing in the bus because it was crowded at that point in time and I thought I’d just jerk on the alarm cords and sing out.
“Anyway I didn’t need the action plan because I wasn’t there.
“But I often wonder what would happened if I was there. It [the crash] wouldn’t have happened. So it’s one of those things.”
Bus driver survived
Mr Barnett recalled that he had been away visiting people in the Tweed, then south to Newcastle for a job interview.
“I hadn’t seen my sister probably for three weeks or more,” he said.
“Mum and Dad were driving with me because I had my P plates and I said, ‘I might go and pick up Margaret. I haven’t seen her for a few weeks and dad said, ‘no we’ll go home and start the dairy, she can catch the bus home’.
“It was a huge change in everybody’s life and not only that it was compounded with five other kids in the community that were killed as well.”
An article in the Macleay Argus newspaper from a scrapbook belonging to Lorraine Fischer (O’Donnell) (Supplied: Janet O’Donnell)
The driver of the bus, Tony Hudson, survived the crash but he passed away some years later.
His daughter, Janine King, was four when the accident happened.
“I can’t believe it was 50 years ago. You don’t think it was that long ago,” Ms King said.
Memorial to lost students
The memorial garden in Kempsey, where six conifers represent the six children who were killed. (Supplied: Monument Australia)
A memorial service is planned in honour of the children who lost their lives.
“I think this is the first time there has ever been a memorial for it since it happened,” Ms King said.
“It never has been brought up in the town over the years.”
The Memorial Garden on Middleton Street in South Kempsey in honour of those who lost their lives. (Supplied: Monument Australia)
Ms King said her mother would mention the accident every now and again.
“I feel for the families that lost somebody in the accident and you feel for anyone that was on the bus because it probably never got out of their minds.
She said she was pleased the community had created the memorial garden
“It’s just good for the community to come together for the people that passed away,” Ms King said.
Ms Coleman said a lot of people just didn’t talk about the crash.
“I always tell people and they go ‘what accident’? I say the bus and train accident. ‘Never heard of it’. Well, there you go.
“It was very tragic but then the accident happened at Granville after that  so they went off ours.
“It’ll always be a part of me. I’ll never have closure. It will probably help but I’ll never forget it,” Ms Coleman said
Level crossings still an issue
According to the Independent Transport Safety Regulator, collisions between vehicles and trains at level crossings remain one of the biggest safety risks for rail operations, accounting for about 30 per cent of rail-related deaths over the past five years.
In New South Wales, the transport authority said it was committed to achieving zero-harm on its networks by 2056.
In 2013 it launched the “Don’t rush to the other side” campaign in regional NSW to raise awareness of the safety risks at level crossings and to educate drivers.
The Level Crossing Improvement Program (LCIP) was established in 2000 to accelerate upgrades to priority level crossings, fund safety education campaigns and enforcement initiatives, and promote new technologies to improve safety at level crossings.
The NSW Government has allocated $7.3 million a year for the LCIP to 2025-26
Since 2011, the LCIP has funded more than 50 major upgrades of level crossings in NSW.
During 2017-18 in the state, there were four incidents of a train colliding with a vehicle at a level crossing but no fatalities.