Central Australia cattle station suffers heavy stock losses following collisions with trains

A cattle station owner in Central Australia claims at least 20 head of cattle are hit by trains each year.

Umbara station, 300 kilometers south of Alice Springs, is crossed by 138 kilometers of unfenced railway line and its secondary station Idracowra.

Almost every week, owner and manager Angus McKay says he is alerted to cattle being hit somewhere along the line.

“It happens quite often,” he said.

“Sometimes you have a week like this where you lose three, then you can go a few months with nothing, then you’ll have another two or three.”

The McKay family have been in contact with One Rail for almost 12 months. (ABC Rural: Hugo Rikard-Bell)

The track between Adelaide and Alice Springs traverses many different terrains, and between the boundaries of Umbara and Idracowra there is a diverse landscape.

The McKay family found that strikes are less common in spinifex and desert country, but are much more prevalent in overgrown and brushy areas.

“In some places it’s so thick that they [trains] won’t see the cattle until they’re on it,” McKay said.

At current livestock prices, livestock deaths from rail collisions cost the family more than $40,000 a year.

Mr McKay tried to negotiate with One Rail, Australia’s largest rail freight service provider, which operates the track.

He said there had been few responses and he was concerned about the growing animal welfare issues the train strikes were causing.

“We’ve been talking to operators for almost 12 months to try to get things moving,” McKay said.

dead cow
A euthanized cow with a broken leg. (Provided: Umbara Station)

A violent death

Most cattle struck by trains are killed instantly, but if they survive they suffer serious injuries and can often be unable to move for days.

The animal becomes stressed, dehydrated and often left to the elements until it dies from its injuries or is found and euthanized by the pastor.

“We have found [one] probably two or three days at the edge of the line with a broken leg – he had been there for a good few hours, struggling,” Mr McKay said.

Who is responsible ?

The rail between Adelaide and Alice Springs was built in the 1970s.

Today the Corridor, a strip of land about 200 meters wide on which the rail sits, is owned by the Australian Rail Track Corporation and sub-leased to One Rail.

One Rail contacts the McKay family when they know they have run into one of their animals, with approximate coordinates for the rail strike.

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The Ghan traveling through central Australia.(ABC News)

However, sometimes the conductor may not realize when a cow has been hit, so Mr McKay suspects 20 head a year is a conservative number.

“We have 130 kilometers along the railway… we are already driving east [side of the rail] and we can’t see what’s on the west side,” he said.

In a statement to ABC Rural, One Rail said it was ‘investigating alternatives to reduce cattle strikes’ and said ‘this should be a joint responsibility with the landowner’.

One Rail also confirmed that it had “been in contact” with Mr McKay and “a representative of One Rail will meet them on site” in the coming week.

The rain makes the cattle stray

Burrows, originally dug so that the earth could be used for building the rail, are scattered along the line within 100 meters of the track.

“They [burrow pits] capture rainwater…they are [cattle] attracted to the water along the rail,” McKay explained.

Mr McKay does not want to fence off the rail as it would impact the entire disposition of his family’s property.

“We mainly want the line to be clear so at least the train can see the cattle… whoever is driving the train has the ability to honk their horn to scare the cattle away,” Mr McKay said.