Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The St Bedes Junction rail crash, 1915

1915 was a terrible year on Britain’s railways, with no fewer than eight accidents in which lives were lost, the worst being the Quintinshill disaster in which more than 200 people died. The accident at St Bedes Junction was the final fatal crash of that year, occurring early in the morning on 17th December. It was similar in nature to the Quintinshill accident, but with far less serious consequences.

St Bedes Junction was on the line from Newcastle Upon Tyne to South Shields at Jarrow, on the south side of the River Tyne. Today the line forms part of the Newcastle Metro; there is a “Bede” station but no longer a junction at this point.
The junction was to a short double-track branch to Tyne Dock Bottom, along which freight trains passed to the Jarrow docks. The gradient was as steep as 1 in 49 at one point, so it was regular practice for heavily laden trains to be assisted up to the junction by a “banker”, which was a small tank engine that pushed from behind.

The normal procedure was for the tank engine to carry its signal lamps the wrong way round, displaying a green light at the back and a red light at the front. This meant that, when the train it was assisting had moved off up the main line, the banker would be correctly lit when it reversed back down the branch line to be ready for its next task.

Having crossed over the junction and run past the signal box that controlled the points and signals at this location, the engine would move up the line for about 90 yards, where it would wait beyond a crossover point and a signal bridge. With the points and signal changed, the engine would chug off down the branch line.

At 06:50 on the day in question it was still dark and there was a “Tyne fog” that made visibility worse. Tank locomotive 2182 helped a train of 21 loaded and 10 empty wagons up the branch line and then waited at the usual place on the “up” line, having given a whistle to tell the signalman that the engine was clear of the points.

However, another train was signalled to proceed along the opposite track (the “down” line) and on to the branch line, so Driver Hunter asked his fireman to switch the engine’s lamps round so that they would be correct during the short time that they would be forced to wait.

The signalled train came and went, after which Driver Hunter whistled again, but still there was no response in terms of the points changing and the signal moving. All that happened was that another signal moved on the gantry to indicate that another “down” train was on its way.

Driver Hunter now realised that he would have to apply “Rule 55”. This stipulated that, when a train or light locomotive was stationary on a line due to a stop signal, and the sounding of a whistle brought no response, a crew member must walk along the track to the nearest signal box to tell the signalman in person. This was to guard against the possibility that the signalman was not aware that the line was obstructed. The rule stated that, in clear weather, this must be done within three minutes of the stoppage, but immediately if there was fog.

As Fireman Jewitt approached the signal box he could hear the rails beside him “singing”, which was a clear indication that a train was approaching. He rushed up to the box to attract the signalman’s attention. Signalman Hodgson immediately threw the signals to danger and Fireman Jewitt waved his red lamp, but they were too late to prevent the 07:05 passenger service from South Shields to Newcastle hurtling past the signal box at thirty miles an hour.

Driver Hunter heard the train approaching behind him and desperately tried to get moving again, blowing his whistle as he did so. However, he had hardly got started when the collision occurred. The impact knocked him unconscious and the next thing he knew he was standing in a field at the bottom of a 20-foot embankment.

Meanwhile, a train on the down line, consisting of empty passenger coaches, had passed a distant signal at danger and was slowing down when it hit Driver Hunter’s tank engine, which was now obstructing the down line.

All the crewmen survived the crash, although several were injured, but not all the passengers were so lucky. There were 18 fatalities, most of them in the front coach of the passenger train in the first impact, which had then been hit by rolling stock from the second impact. Fire broke out (from the fractured pipes that fuelled the gas lamps on the passenger train) and this destroyed the front carriage and spread to the second. A railwayman who was travelling as a passenger helped a number of people to safety and performed first aid on others.

The driver and guard of another train, which was waiting to proceed down the branch line, rushed across and had the presence of mind to uncouple the undamaged carriages and push them clear before the fire could spread.

The enquiry into the disaster was conducted by Lt-Col Von Donop, who was highly critical of the North Eastern Railway Company’s practice regarding banking engines. The problem was that bankers were not always used, so that a signalman could easily overlook the presence of one that was waiting to return to base. In this instance, Signalman Hodgson had neither seen the engine as it passed his box, not heard its whistle in the dense fog.

The inspector’s recommendation was that the bell code used between signal boxes should be changed so that it would be known whether a train had a banker or not. However, Signalman Hodgson should have been aware that a banker might have been used on this occasion, given that this was standard practice on at least 50 percent of trains coming up the branch line.

Driver Hunter was held to be the most culpable person on the day, for his long delay in activating Rule 55. As noted above, he should have done so almost immediately, given the foggy conditions, but it was seventeen minutes before he sent his fireman off to the signal box, by which time the passenger train was already bearing down on him. Given that the Quintinshill crash, which involved a train running into another which had been “forgotten”, was fresh in the memory of all railwaymen, it seems extraordinary that Driver Hunter should have been so lax in not taking steps to prevent a repetition of those circumstances.

The inspector also stressed the importance of switching train lighting from gas to electricity, as this had been a contributory factor in the deaths that occurred. However, the country was at war in 1915 and this was a reform that would have to wait. Fires caused by gas would be a contributory factor to rail fatalities in Great Britain as late as 1928, when the last such occurred.

© John Welford