Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Hawes Junction rail crash, 1910

The Settle and Carlisle railway is one of the most dramatic and scenic rail routes in the United Kingdom, as it proceeds from south to north along the spine of northern England, namely the Pennine Hills. The Victorian builders of the line had many difficulties to overcome in keeping the route as level as possible, with long tunnels and high viaducts, but the gradients that trains must tackle are still considerable.

Hawes Junction no longer exists, because the line from Northallerton via Hawes that joined the Settle and Carlisle near Garsdale Station was closed many years ago. However, the Settle and Carlisle still operates, and the scene of the Hawes Junction disaster can still be traced.

This is the highest point of the line, and during the days of steam traction was therefore the point at which banker engines which had assisted trains up to this height from either direction could be released from duty. The normal practice was to turn the locomotives round on a turntable and send them back the way they had come, either towards Carlisle to the north or Leeds to the south.

The disaster unfolds

On the night of 24th December 1910 there were five light locos waiting to be turned, the operations being overseen by Signalman Sutton from his nearby box. The weather that night was awful, with wind and rain lashing the signal-box and making visibility difficult. Two of the engines needed to head north and the other three south. All the movements were witnessed by George Tempest, the driver of one of the locos that was waiting to be turned in order to head back to Leeds.

As Driver Tempest waited he saw the two Carlisle-bound engines, coupled together, move out on to the main line and wait at the signal. By the time that the other Leeds engines had been turned and departed, and Tempest’s own engine had been turned, at least ten more minutes had passed, but the Carlisle engines were still waiting.

When the signal eventually moved to “go” the two engines whistled and started off, but Driver Tempest noticed that the signal did not return to danger. Instead, a few moments later, the night express from London to Glasgow swept through at speed. Tempest knew that this spelled trouble and he went straight to the signal-box to ask Signalman Sutton what was going on.

Sutton was convinced that he had sent the two Carlisle engines much earlier, but Tempest was able to confirm that they had only just gone, with an express train hard on their heels. Despite the terrible weather the two men could see an ominous red glow in the sky in the direction that the engines and the express had gone.

The two engines were not going at any great speed as they passed through Moorcock Tunnel, only a short distance down the line, and on to the Lunds Viaduct. Driver Bath was on the second engine and happened to glance behind him when he saw to his horror the lights of the express emerging from the tunnel. He blew his whistle to alert the other driver and both opened their regulators to increase their speed, but there was no way of avoiding a collision with the express going forty miles an hour faster than they were.

The locomotives remained fairly intact, but the passenger carriages were piled against the side of a cutting and caught fire when their pressurised gas canisters exploded. Driver Bath, despite a badly injured leg, struggled down the line for more than a mile to fetch help, which he got from another driver on a light engine which took him back to the wreck. They did their best to rescue people from the carriages but there were nine fatalities.

Who was to blame?

There was no doubt where the main blame lay, namely with Signalman Sutton who had forgotten about the presence of the light engines that were waiting at the signal, which Sutton cleared only because he was allowing the express through. However, Drivers Scott and Bath were also at fault because they should have followed Rule 55, which requires drivers who are held at a signal for an unexpected length of time to inform the signalman of their presence. According to the inspector who carried out the accident enquiry, the light locos must have been waiting for at least thirteen minutes. It could be that the awful weather made the drivers reluctant to leave their cabs while they hoped that the signal would change “any moment now”.

This was an accident made worse by the use of gas lighting in old rolling stock. Some of the carriages on the express were lit with electricity, and had that been the case throughout the train it is possible that fewer passengers would have died.

Another innovation that would have saved the day was electrical track circuiting which tells signalmen which sections of track are occupied and which are not, thus ensuring that two trains cannot be in a section at the same time. The technology existed in 1910, but it would be some time yet before it was available across the network.

© John Welford