Thursday, 10 March 2016

The Darlington rail crash, 1928

Darlington Station, on the former London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) between Newcastle and York, is aligned in a rough north-south direction, with the station platforms in a loop on the western side, allowing through trains to pass on the lines to the east. This general pattern, which can be seen in the accompanying photo, is the same today as it was in 1928, when driver error caused the deaths of 25 passengers and serious injuries to 45 others.

Driver Bell was not a regular driver of passenger trains, but a “passed fireman” (aged 32 at the time) who was qualified to drive but had not yet been upgraded to full driver status. His normal work was running light engines between sheds and driving local freight trains.

On the evening of Wednesday 27th June 1928 he was asked to drive a regular passenger service from Newcastle to Darlington which would then continue as a parcels-only service to York. This was to deputise for the regular driver who was unavailable for duty on that particular day.

Driver Bell had only driven the route once before, although he knew it well from his previous service as a fireman. However, he was not familiar with the particular operation that he was called upon to undertake when he reached Darlington.

In order to convert from a passenger service to a parcels one, the train had to pick up some extra vans that were to be added behind the third van. These vans were waiting for him on a siding that was known as the “middle road”, a stretch of track between the platform line at the south end of the station and the main through line. The middle road joined the platform line at a set of points which was only 48 yards from the points that linked to the main line.

When Driver Bell’s train reached Darlington at 22:45, Shunter Morland was waiting for him. He disconnected between vans three and four, leaving the train with a total length that was too long to clear the points to the middle road without the front being driven beyond the points that connected to the main line before the whole train could be reversed.

There were two signals that controlled this operation. One was the number 8 signal that allowed a train to advance as far the number 18 signal that protected the main line. With the number 8 signal in his favour, Driver Bell moved forward.

However, he clearly believed that this signal gave him permission to drive all the way forward on to the main line before reversing back on to the middle road. On this occasion the main line was being held open for an 11-coach excursion train from Scarborough to Newcastle that was due to pass through. The number 18 signal, on a gantry of three signals, was therefore at danger, but Driver Bell ignored this and carried on.

Shunter Morland was riding on the third parcels van and realised that Driver Bell had run past the number 18 signal. He applied the brake, not so much to stop the train as to give a warning to the driver. When he heard a whistle he assumed that the warning had been noted and was being acknowledged.

However, the whistle was not from Driver Bell’s engine but from the approaching excursion train, the driver of which had seen the line blocked by the shunting train which was still moving forward with the engine now completely on the main line. When Shunter Morland realised his error he applied the brake fully and had nearly stopped his train when the excursion train hit it.

The signalman in the box just south of the points in question was not aware the Driver Bell had run through the number 18 signal until he heard a strange noise that was caused by a train running against points that were closed to it. His immediate reaction was to throw all signals to danger, but this was too late to prevent a collision as the excursion train hit Driver’s Bell’s locomotive head-on at about 45 miles an hour.

Driver Bell’s engine was forced backwards along the main line for about 60 yards but stayed upright on the rails, although the vans behind it were completely destroyed. The engine of the excursion train, driven by Driver McNulty, fell on to its side but the carriages were not derailed. Most of the casualties were in the second carriage and were caused when the underframe of the third carriage sliced through it.

Although both drivers and the fireman were seriously injured, the luckiest crewman was Shunter Morland, whose van was demolished around him without causing him serious injury.

Most of the victims on the excursion train were women, fourteen of them being on a Mothers’ Union outing from Hetton-le-Hole, a mining village between Durham and Sunderland. The effect on the community was similar to that of a mining tragedy, but with grieving widowers instead of widows.


The enquiry, conducted by Colonel Pringle, could only reach one conclusion, which was that the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of Driver Bell for not taking note of signal number 18 at danger. The point was made that even if he had known which of the three signals on the gantry applied to him, the fact that all three were at danger should have alerted him. He should also have sought advice from Shunter Morland if he was unsure about the signalling system in place, as this was a strange yard to him.

There were mitigating factors, one being that the positioning of the gantry to the left of the track as Bell approached it, as opposed to the number 8 signal which was on the right, might have given him the impression that none of the signals applied to him. Other drivers in the past had commented that this arrangement was confusing. One of Colonel Pringle’s recommendations was that colour light signalling, with one three-aspect signal for each line, should be installed. This was eventually done 11 years later.

The inspector also had some words of criticism for Shunter Morland, who should have applied his brake fully when he first became aware that Driver Bell had overrun signal number 18. In Morland’s defence, he would not have known that an excursion train was due at any moment and so would not have been aware of the imminent danger. He knew the regular timetable backwards, and would no doubt have told Driver Bell to expect to wait for a scheduled service to pass, but that was not the case that evening.

1928 was a very bad year for railway accidents in Great Britain, with a total of 57 fatalities in 13 accidents. Darlington was the second of three accidents within a six-month period that involved mistakes made while shunting, all of which could have been prevented with the use of Automatic Train Control, but that would not be generally applied for another 30 years.

© John Welford