Denver train collision repeats Orlando disaster

The Denver train collision on 28 April 2015, repeats many details of the Orlando railway disaster of 1949.

Health and safety management relies on incidents, statistics, probability, and history, yet the Denver train collision repeats the Orlando train disaster.

The relationship between health and safety incidents and continuous improvement remains largely theoretical, writes Mabila Mathebula.

People, organisations and cultures tend to learn a little in their youth, then maintain the behaviour that they found to be acceptable. Deja vu, that feeling of ‘we have been here before’, are rare flashes.

The good and bad examples of history are blurred by supposed new technology and pressing business competition in every sector, including railways.

History is often relegated to the background in favour of new engineering solutions, but as history teaches, and as we are slow to learn, there are always heavy prices to pay for ignoring the many lessons of history.

South Africa is not strong on history, and for good reason. We had many painful moments and few glories.

We must not merely know, but understand the past, or we will be prone to repeating old mistakes, and other people’s, organisation’s, or coutnries’ mistakes.

As Raymond Parsons said; “Tragedies and disasters usually teach valuable lessons, though they may not always have good students” (Business Day, 11 April 2012).

Denver train collision scene 2015. ENCA.

Denver train collision scene 2015. ENCA.

Denver train collision scene 2015. The Citizen.

Denver train collision scene 2015. The Citizen.

Most ‘new’ safety risks are historic

According to the researcher Pfeiffer (1997), leaders gain three benefits from a deeper understanding of history;
[] Fresh perspective from seeing that most of what looks new, is really old;
[] Fuller appreciation of the hidden costs of ‘new’ improvements. By the time we learn, we become case studies.
[] Understanding of appropriate steps needed to sustain a competitive advantage and avoid being swept up in fads and fashion.

On 28 April 2015, two passenger trains were involved in the Denver train collision station, leaving a guard fatally injured, and 240 people injured, including a female driver.

The Denver train collision happened during the morning peak hours. Many South African will be surprised that the morning of 28 April 1949, or 66 years ago, was the date of the Orlando Train Disaster that claimed 67 lives.

The driver and the guard of the third train in 1949 were fatally injured, and 141 passengers were injured.

The incident was a rear end collision involving three trains, between Mlamlalankuzi halt and New Canada station. Two trains were stationary when the third one collided.

According to the investigation, “…the driver of the third train failed to observe instructions applicable to the operating of trains in sections controlled by colour light signalling, in that he did not proceed cautiously after having stopped at an automatic signal at danger”.

Now, 67 years later, many similar details are emerging, including the role played by signals.

The Orlando Train Disaster 1949 accident scene was superbly managed; “…Immediate arrangements were made for medical and nursing aid to be concentrated at the scene”.

The injured were taken to Baragwaneth hospital “where medical attention and accommodation were hurriedly arranged in advance”. The medical fraternity, Johannesburg City Council, police and railway rescue workers worked hand in hand.

Dreams and visions of safety improvement
Martin Luther King Junior’s speech of August 1963 was remembered, because his famous dream did not exist in the vacuum; “…It is a dream rooted in the American dream.”

Thomas Jefferson’s Solomonic wisdom served as a firm foundation to Luther’s dream. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

The bright moments of history are inspirational, but it is all too human to forget the bad parts. Sheq managers have to learn to remember, and to gently remind other managers.

Among the 67 passengers who died in the Orlando Train Disaster in 1949, was Bishop Lazarus Nku, first Bishop of St John’s Apostolic Church, one of the first Southern African independent churches.

History is generous with its lessons. On 15 November 1949 at Waterval Boven, 55 people were fatally injured and 118 others injured in transit.

Here are some recommendations for raising a culture of Sheq learning;
• The Orlando Train Disaster should be commemorated every year by railway and transport stakeholders and families of those who died untimely.
• Other industries should choose disasters to commemorate and learn from.
• A church such as St John’s Apostolic Church should partner with the railways to raise awareness about railway safety.
• Other churches should partner with industries to raise the study and understanding of our moral obligation to reduce error and suffering.
• Each industry should build a library of its disasters and incidents, to serve training providers and investigators.
• Political, labour and business organisations, such as taxi associations, should become more involved in health and safety loss prevention. Every organisation have lost some leaders in preventable incidents. Chief Albert Luthuli was killed by a train.

Mabila Mathebula is a senior researcher at the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) of South Africa. He writes on health and safety culture in his private capacity as a former consultant.

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Mabila Mathebula

Mabila Mathebula (BA North West University, BA Hon UNISA, MBA Milpark Business School, Post Graduate Diploma in Advanced Project Management at Cranefield College), is currently engaged in a PhD study in construction health and safety management.
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About the Author

Mabila Mathebula
Mabila Mathebula (BA North West University, BA Hon UNISA, MBA Milpark Business School, Post Graduate Diploma in Advanced Project Management at Cranefield College), is currently engaged in a PhD study in construction health and safety management.

7 Comments on "Denver train collision repeats Orlando disaster"

  1. Yes, it seems that the only lesson we learn from these events is that we don’t learn from these events!
    Some radical recommendations from Mabila but they certainly have merit. Who will take up the banner?

  2. Unfortunately none of them would be able to do something. At the end all is about money and no one wants to spend it, safety or no safety. People are not willing to learn anything as long as it is for free, you must charge them and if they forget you charge them again.
    Safety initiatives from taxi organisations? Let’s not make a joke of a disaster. Taxis, busses and many trucks are operated by mentally ill people and it looks like its now sneaking into railways. There are very simple ways to avoid a situation like this whereby the train (not the driver) will stop automatically to avoid collision. Also the same for speed regulation.
    Look at our road situation, it could take me only 12 months to sort out those problems and reduce the fatality and accident rate by 90%, the last 10% would then be not driver stupidity, but real accidents.

  3. PORTIA XOLISILE MATSHAKATINI | 14 May 2015 at 06:51 |

    little did I know that chief albert Luthuli was killed by a train nor Bishop Lazarus Nku was killed in a train collision, as an apostolic myself, I had little knowledge about the foundation of st John, to me mme Ma-Nku was the founder. that is the perception I got as I was growing up.having personally met Mr Mabila Mathebula, is a great honour, may he continue to shine. Coming back to the matter at hand, it’s sad to acknowledge that when such incidents happen, we always on the lookout for somebody to blame and never coming up with solutions of preventing them in ever happening again. just as stupid as it may sound, is it possible to come up with a train that automatically won’t move when it is over loaded, wether be it people or goods because I believe that also causes problems when collisions happen and innocent lives are lost; safety and health adherence beggins with me as an individual,we as humans tend to worry more about getting to our destinations on time without considering the condition of the mode of transport you will be travelling inn- a typical example would be metro cops taking unroadworthy taxis off the road and we the pasengers are quick to blame them for shortages of taxis and put behind the motive of such road blockages and our own safety.let’s unite in practising arive alive on a daily basis and not only during easter and festive holidays.

    • Mabila Mathebula | 15 May 2015 at 05:29 |

      Portia thank you very much for your comment. It should be understood that rail safety is not only the responsibility of the railway industry ; all of us (schools, churches, municipalities and communities) should club together for the collective good of rail safety. If you want to know more about Chief Albert Luthuli, check the article on this website titled “Machel and Mandela foundations could promote rail safety”. In South America they have a programme they call Operation Life Saver where the rail industry reaches out to schools and communities and educating them about railway safety. They believe that safety could only be achieved when the 4Es (Education, Enforcement, Engineering and Elimination) are in full swing.

  4. silas mulaudzi | 4 June 2015 at 06:37 |

    I am in they field of safety, just two years now, I want to lean more, if you have free workshops please inform me.

    ==== Former editor notes; Visit the article on Health and Safety Conferences, all the upcoming events are listed there. Use the Search button on the home page, and just enter the word Conferences there.
    The chemicals industry offers some free workshops, and sometimes the DOL does too, but you should complete some training courses first.

  5. Eric Khosa | 19 July 2015 at 11:49 |

    Thanks Mabila for the safety inputs. Another incident had occured in Booysens. Does Prasa investigate these incidents properly or they just jump to recommendations and close them without finding a root cause?
    Are the train drivers tested for alcohol and if so, how are they monitored that they are always sober.
    Are the signal controllers monitored for their competency.
    How often are they observed that they still understand the basic principles.
    Railway safety regulator /government should look at the train incidents in both eyes as they are escalating tremendously and multitudes of people use trains as they are affordable.

  6. Paulus Rapulana | 20 August 2015 at 14:13 |

    I agreed with Eric Khoza. Who are responsible for random testing and ensuring that train drivers are always sober, and again those persons keep records of alcohol testing, maybe [then] it will be terminated. Train incidents completely, because we will still lose our brothers, sisters, parents. Government could look at that very seriously, if someone is found guilty of any horrible incidents.

    === Edmond comments; Policing and fixing blame are necessary elements of management, but they are only small parts of activating a Sheq culture. Used in isolation, they do not reduce incidents.

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