At 1.45 p.m. on Friday 4 June 1943 the Cromwell–Dunedin express, travelling at speed, derailed while rounding a curve near Hyde in Central Otago. Twenty-one passengers were killed and 47 injured in what was then New Zealand’s worst-ever rail accident. The driver was later found guilty of manslaughter.
The train was carrying 113 passengers, many of them bound for the Winter Show in Dunedin or races at Wingatui (it was King’s Birthday weekend). When locomotive Ab 782 left the rails, all seven carriages followed and several were smashed to pieces. Help did not arrive at the scene for an hour and a half, and rescue work continued through the night.
The board of inquiry into the accident found that the locomotive had entered the bend at perhaps 70 miles (112 km) per hour, more than twice the speed limit for that section of track. It ruled that the engine driver had committed a ‘serious dereliction of duty’. He was subsequently found guilty of manslaughter in the Dunedin Supreme Court and sentenced to three years’ reformative detention. Some, though, have argued that Corcoran was a scapegoat and that the Railways Department, operating under great strain during the war years, was only too happy to absolve itself of any blame.
The Hyde derailment remains the second-worst rail disaster in New Zealand’s history. It is surpassed only by the Tangiwai tragedy of Christmas Eve 1953, in which 151 lives were lost.