THE driver of a derailed train that was saved by trees from plunging 50ft down an embankment said yesterday he had spotted "two huge rocks" on the track in front of him.
• Engineers inspect the derailed train as it hangs precariously above the road and Loch Awe near the Falls of Cruachan after the crash, which saw 60 people rescued and eight taken to hospital. Picture: PA
Willie Dickson slammed on the emergency brakes but it was too late to prevent the Glasgow-Oban train with 60 passengers on board from crashing off the line.
Eight people were injured in the collision shortly before 9pm on Sunday, just west of Falls of Cruachan station in Argyll.
British Transport Police (BTP) confirmed a report in The Scotsman yesterday that boulders falling on to the track had been the likely cause.
But, ironically, the rocks fell from below a 120-year-old trip wire system installed on the steep mountainside above the line to protect it from landslips.
The train caught fire following the derailment, possibly from diesel fuel, but the blaze was quickly put out with extinguishers.
The incident left the front carriage of the two-car train perched over the side of a steep embankment above the A85 road, which is expected to remain closed for several days.
The rear carriage was raised above the single-track line but remained upright.
A factor that may have helped prevent a far worse incident was the fact the train had been travelling at low speed, according to a passenger.
This was because the driver had just slowed down to check for any passengers waiting at Falls of Cruachan station, which is a request stop.
Mr Dickson, 60, who has been a train driver for 18 years and suffered bruising in the crash, said he had led passengers to safety.
He said: "I stayed at the controls until the train came to rest. I then entered the front carriage and tried to calm passengers down before taking people by the hand and leading them off the train.
"My colleagues were brilliant – as were some passengers who helped others on board. It was a real team effort."
Conductor Angus MacColl, 54, who was in the rear coach when the train came to a halt, calmed passengers before helping them from the train.
He said: "I shouted 'calm down, calm down', and it worked. I got people out the back before going into the front carriage where passengers were also being taken off the train."
Hospitality host Drew Hinde, 38, who used his catering trolley to steady himself after the impact, said: "My initial thought was it was surreal, but we immediately helped all passengers leave the train."
ScotRail managing director Steve Montgomery praised the staff. He said: "This incident could have been more serious but for their actions. They did a tremendous job in difficult circumstances."
One passenger, Paul Gibson, described the temporary mayhem aboard the train. He said: "It felt like it was a few minutes or so, but it must have been only about 20 seconds.
"Bags and shelves seemed to sort of start flying across the carriage. And then all of a sudden, on the outside, big balls of flame managed to come across us."
Victor MacKay, another passenger and a former train driver, said: "One second we were on the move and the next we were bouncing about the railway, heading down the bank."
He said it was fortunate the carriage had derailed at a section where trees helped to secure it, adding: "Otherwise, the carriage would have been down on the road – and the back one as well. There was a lot of panic – you couldn't blame them – but a few were calm. There was one woman who crawled along the train passage, she had a stick. A man had a bump on his nose."
Iain MacKinnon, an Oban Coastguard station officer who helped take passengers to a visitor centre at Cruachan power station, said: "The people were clearly shocked and upset but very, very grateful it wasn't more serious.
"There were young and old, there was even a babe in arms."
The crash is being investigated by Network Rail, BTP and the Department for Transport's rail accident investigation branch (RAIB).
David Simpson, Network Rail's route director Scotland, said: "Our engineers are on site assessing the derailment and how best to recover the train from the line. Early indications are the cause of the derailment was a rock fall, however, we are working with the RAIB to fully investigate the incident."
While the A85 remains closed, traffic is being diverted on to the A83 via Lochgilphead, adding about an hour to journeys. Roadworks on the A83 have been suspended as a result.
ScotRail said the operation to remove the train from the tracks could take days, and that no firm date had been set for reopening the line.
Buses are replacing trains on the line, with direct services between Glasgow and Oban and a Crianlarich-Oban link via Ballachulish.
'PIANO' FAILED TO WARN OF DANGER
A UNIQUE Victorian warning device installed to protect trains from rockfalls in the Pass of Brander, beside Loch Awe, was unable to prevent Sunday's crash.
Despite guarding the railway track on the steep hillside below Ben Cruachan since 1882, the intricate system is located some 20ft above where the landslip occurred.
Network Rail said the rocks which fell some 50ft on to the line had not been considered a sufficient landslide risk to be covered by the trip wires.
The stone signals are known as Anderson's Piano after their inventor, John Anderson, and the humming sound which the wires make in the wind.
They comprise up to 14 thin wires, strung horizontally 10in apart, between posts across four miles of the hillside around Falls of Cruachan station.
If a rock hits a wire it should break it and trigger one of a series of 17 special trackside signals which turn to danger and halt trains before a collision. These old-style "semaphore" signals, placed every quarter of a mile along the track, are entirely separate from the electronic signalling used to control trains on the line.
The system was installed after a train was hit by a falling boulder in 1881, a year after the line opened.
It was devised by Mr Anderson, the secretary of the Callander and Oban Railway, and extended in stages until 1913.
Network Rail continues to maintain the system to keep it in working order.
However, elsewhere it uses other methods to cut the risk of rockfalls, including covering exposed rock faces with netting.