Inner East Review

Years of anguish for train driver's widow after crash

By Tara Cosoleto
Updated April 3 2024 - 2:35pm, first published 2:33pm
Jenny Kennedy says the four years since John's death have been emotionally exhausting. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)
Jenny Kennedy says the four years since John's death have been emotionally exhausting. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

Jenny Kennedy was at home with her daughter when the first message came through that her husband might have been in a train accident.

It was about 10pm on February 20, 2020, when she received the text from her friend, prompting her daughter to quickly search for John's name online.

She found a story saying he had been killed in a derailment at Wallan, north of Melbourne.

Mrs Kennedy immediately contacted NSW Trains, who John worked for as a driver, seeking answers.

But it took hours and multiple calls before the tragic reality was confirmed by a knock on the door from police.

"I was the last person to know," Mrs Kennedy told AAP.

"I'll never forget that night - it was a horrible night."

John Kennedy had been driving the NSW Trainlink XPT passenger train from Sydney to Melbourne when it came off the tracks at Wallan soon after 7.30pm.

He was killed alongside 49-year-old rail worker Sam Meintanis, while eight passengers were seriously hurt and another 58 sustained minor injuries.

The train had been diverted through the Wallan loop track because the signalling system had been down on the normal route's straight section, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau found.

Instead of entering the loop section at the required 15km/h, the passenger train was travelling at speeds of between 114km/h and 127km/h.

Mr Kennedy had only been given a piece of paper advising him of the new route and there was no process requiring him to confirm he understood the changes, the bureau found.

NSW Trains and the Australian Rail Track Corporation have since pleaded guilty over the incident, admitting they breached Victoria's rail safety laws.

The organisations were sentenced in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on Wednesday, with Australian Rail receiving a $375,000 fine while NSW Trains was ordered to pay $150,000.

Mrs Kennedy says the past four years have been emotionally exhausting - first dealing with the immediate grief and John's funeral and then speaking to investigators and solicitors.

"It's been like a rollercoaster," she said.

The questions from investigators were invasive and the court hearings were protracted.

"I've found the legal system to be both disappointing and at times traumatic," Mrs Kennedy said.

"People might think I'm angry - and they're right.

"Nothing can bring my husband back but no other family should have to go through what our family has due to the poor safety standards of two government bodies."

Mrs Kennedy knows the sentences handed down to NSW Trains and the ARTC don't reflect the loss of her husband.

She hopes there will be changes but says the organisations have put more time into defending their behaviour rather than fixing the underlying safety problems.

"John's been let down," Mrs Kennedy said.

"No amount of money will change anything but there needs to be something more than the $150,000 and $375,000 fines to show their lives mattered."

Mrs Kennedy wants people to remember John as an experienced, loyal and well-loved train driver, who was very close to his children and grandchildren.

"He loved the family stuff - Christmas Day, cricket in the backyard, fishing, caravan trips, barbies with friends and too many beers," she said.

Mr Kennedy was also a "bloke's bloke" and a man of his word, she said.

"He had a weird sense of humour but I think, in my experience with the last four years, a lot of train drivers have a weird sense of humour," she laughed.

"He was the joker - he loved people, he loved to help people."

A NSW Trains spokeswoman told AAP the operator's sadness over the tragedy would never diminish and its thoughts were with the victims' families.

The operator was also focused on reducing the risk of such an incident from happening again by refining its systems and training, the statement read.

An ARTC spokesman also expressed condolences to the families, telling AAP it had implemented additional operational controls to ensure the rail network was safe.

Australian Associated Press