THE last conversation Peter Klein ever had with his Albury flatmate four decades ago still haunts him to this day.
Mark Wilson had been studying for his engine driver's exam the next day, on June 17, 1982.
Aged 18, Mark wanted Peter to test him the night before his early-morning shift as a fireman working on a goods train.
The son of long-serving Chiltern stationmaster Heinz "Henry" Klein, Peter grew up on the railways and happily obliged.
Among dozens of questions Peter asked of Mark, one turned out to be particularly pertinent.
"The question in the rule book related to the conditions in which a train can proceed on a red light signal," he recalls.
"He knew you stopped at the red light, waited at least 10 seconds and then proceeded at a speed at which you could safely stop in case of obstruction to the track."
Fewer than 10 hours later, Mark would be dead, one of two victims when the goods train he was working on ploughed into the Spirit of Progress passenger train, which was broken down near Barnawartha Railway Station in pea soup fog at 7.46am.
Engine driver George Sandford, 49, also perished when the goods train slammed into the Spirit of Progress guard's van about 100 metres north of the station.
The train guard jumped clear just seconds before impact, which crushed the goods train cabin beyond recognition.
The Spirit was shunted 25 metres.
The Border Morning Mail (June 18, 1982) reported that Mr Sandford and Mr Wilson had applied the brakes and stayed at the controls until the point of impact.
Insp Bruce Wallace, of Wodonga police, said it appeared the goods train was travelling "fairly slowly" when it hit the Spirit.
Although the goods train's 11 carriages were unladen, the sheer weight of the rolling stock had pushed the engine into the stationary Spirit like a battering ram.
Miraculously, there were no fatalities on the Spirit carrying 130 passengers but a worker was scalded with water from an urn.
A VicRail inquest at the time pinned much of the blame on Mr Sandford.
Eight years later The Border Mail reported that Mr Sandford and Mr Wilson were doomed the moment they boarded the goods train in Albury bound for Melbourne because of a litany of errors that morning.
The Spirit of Progress driver picked up the wrong engine from the yard in Wodonga (one that was to be towed to Melbourne and not used as a lead engine); he was told to proceed when he reported the mistake. The Spirit was already running an hour late.
The Spirit driver and guard had no way to communicate about the breakdown.
Finally, Spirit guard, Richard Swale, failed to make the train safe by laying warning detonators on the track at Barnawartha.
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A dye chemist at Macquarie Textiles in South Albury working the night shift, Peter had gone to bed at 8am on June 17 before a police officer came to his door about noon to inform him of Mark's demise.
Still hearing that last conversation with Mark on a loop in his head, Peter was in deep shock and utter disbelief.
He knew his mate had encountered the very situation they'd discussed the night before.
"He probably would have talked about that with George when they came to that warning light the next morning," Peter says.
"I drove out to Barny and saw the trains getting pulled apart; I was horrified!
"Later I went and saw Dad. The rail authorities were sitting around the kitchen table at Chiltern with him.
"When I heard there was no communication between the driver and the guard (on the Spirit of Progress), I lost my nut.
"I said: 'It's 1982, how can we not have radio communication between the driver and the guard?'.
"I was angry and I'd lost my mate because there was no radio communication!"
With the benefit of hindsight, the Barnawartha train crash was an accident waiting to happen on myriad levels.
When the Spirit of Progress driver, Keith Venville, mistakenly took the wrong engine from the yard in Wodonga to pick up the Spirit carriages in Albury, it set off a lethal chain reaction that morning.
With the passenger train already running an hour late, VicRail Wodonga told Mr Venville to continue on to Melbourne with that ill-fated engine.
On their way out of Wodonga, Mr Venville and Mr Swale saw a goods train was following them when it used a loop in Wodonga to allow them to pass.
An experienced train guard who had worked on the railways since 1945, Mr Swale had no idea why the Spirit stopped at Barnawartha soon afterwards.
He sat in his guard's van for 18 minutes, none the wiser.
In 1990 Mr Swale told The Border Mail he did not place detonators on the track for fear of being left behind or hit by a train. He was once left clinging to the outside carriage rail, his hands frozen to the steel bar.
(While the VicRail inquiry found Mr Swale didn't have time to lay detonators, Mr Swale, himself, argued that wasn't the case some eight years later.)
Mr Venville and his fireman Kevin Jones had failed to contact Mr Swale about why they were stopped and the guard made no attempt to contact them.
Mr Jones even assured VicRail Traffic Control in Melbourne that Mr Swale was laying detonators to protect the train.
In 1982 there was no driver to driver radio on the Sydney to Melbourne line.
The Spirit was a sitting duck.
The signalman assistant at Barnawartha station, Peter Scurrah, had assumed the Spirit was made safe when he frantically began organising repair workers.
When Chiltern stationmaster Henry Klein was informed about the situation, he urged Mr Scurrah to confirm the train was made safe as a priority.
The driver of a third train travelling towards Wodonga ignored Mr Scurrah's direction to proceed through Barnawartha station. Had he done so, he may have even averted the tragedy by warning Mr Sandford of the Spirit disabled in heavy fog.
Four minutes after Mr Klein alerted the chief train controller in Melbourne of thick fog at Barnawartha, the broken down Spirit and the impending goods train, Mr Scurrah called in the crash at 7.55am.
"The goods has cleaned him up."
Driving from Chiltern to Barnawartha in his VW on hearing that development, Mr Klein topped 30kmh, such was the poor visibility that morning.
The goods train guard Colin Ray, who was thrown on to the floor by the impact, immediately ran back to lay detonators.
The Spirit's guard van had been in fog but Mr Ray reported further back the line was clear: "The Spirit's van was sitting on the edge of a fog patch which had engulfed the hollow at the Barnawartha station."
Mr Scurrah (The Border Mail, June 16, 1990) said the goods train was going 45kmh and was slowing when it hit the Spirit.
Mr Scurrah believes Mr Sandford and Mr Wilson had obeyed signals before the crash.
He said Mr Sandford had stopped his train for the required 10 seconds and then proceeded with caution.
"If Mr Sandford had been travelling at full speed, there would not have been any survivors on the Spirit," he said.
Lachlan Valley Railway Society rail safety/chairman director Ross Jackson said the 40th anniversary was a timely reminder.
"Remembering the tragedy and the lives lost in this disaster also serves as a reminder of how far we have come with safety management in the railways today," he said.
"I certainly think about it, and other accidents that result in loss of life. The railways have grown into one of the safest transport industries in Australia, but we should never forget how we got here."
"Neither Mark nor George abandoned ship. They had enough time to jump but they didn't want to; they stayed on board, applying the brakes and blowing the hell out of the whistle!"
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