Monday, 9 May 2016

The Salisbury rail crash, 1906

The fatal rail accident that occurred at Salisbury, Wiltshire, on 30th June 1906 had an obvious cause, namely excessive speed leading to a catastrophic derailment, but the mystery as to why the train was going so fast is unlikely ever to be solved.

Salisbury is on the line, then belonging to the London and South Western Railway, that runs from London Waterloo to Exeter and Plymouth. The train in question was a night boat express from Plymouth that was planned to run with only one stop, that being at Templecombe in Somerset to change engines. The train only had five carriages and 48 passengers, who had landed at Plymouth on the liner “New York”.

The engine that was coupled to the train at Templecombe was an express engine under the charge of Driver Robins and Fireman Gadd. The driver was highly experienced and knew the line well. With a powerful engine and a light load it was clearly going to be possible to make a fast run, but Driver Robins was well aware that drivers who arrived too early at their destination were likely to be disciplined. He even said as much to two other railwaymen at Templecombe before he set off.

However, the train was some four minutes behind schedule when it reached Dinton, about two-thirds of the way to Salisbury. It was at this point that Driver Robins started to pile on the speed, averaging 70 miles an hour over the next six miles.

Although the line contains many straight stretches and fast curves, this does not apply through Salisbury itself. The line bends sufficiently sharply for 30 mph restrictions to apply on both sides of the station. However, the signalman in the Salisbury West box was horrified to see the express hurtle past with the whistle screaming.

The train managed to hold the less severe west curve but, having roared through the station, had no hope of staying on the track on the much sharper east curve. The train jumped the rails and ploughed into a milk train that happened to be passing on the other line.

The force of the impact was catastrophic, with the result that half the passengers on the boat train, plus both enginemen, were killed, as were the guard of the milk train and the fireman of a light locomotive that was standing on a passing loop. The track was ripped up for 40 yards and a trench gouged in the track bed to a depth of three and a half feet.

The crash was estimated to have happened at 1.57 a.m., which meant that the average speed of the train since passing Dinton must have been 72 mph.

The question that arose, not surprisingly, was what did Driver Robins think he was doing? He knew about the speed restriction through Salisbury, so why had he ignored it by attempting to pass through the station at more than double the permitted speed? The engine was remarkably unscathed by the crash, and there was no evidence that the regulator had stuck open – indeed, it was actually closed.

One possibility might be that the regulator had indeed stuck open, and that was why Robins had blown the whistle for several hundred yards to the west of the station. Perhaps he had been able to free the regulator just before the crash but had had no time to apply the brake.

There was some speculation at the time that Driver Robins had taken a bet to break a speed record for the journey, or had been tipped by the passengers to make a fast run, but no evidence was found to substantiate this. As noted above, Driver Robins knew all about the consequences of arriving early at Waterloo, so why would he deliberately risk a reprimand and loss of pay by breaking the rule?

As mentioned earlier, this was an accident the cause of which was always going to be difficult to find, given that the people who might have supplied the answer were dead. Any guesses as to the cause, such as the one suggested above, or a sudden medical emergency, will have to stay as guesses.

After the crash the speed limit for trains leaving Salisbury station was reduced to 15 mph. This limit is still in force, as shown in the accompanying photo.

© John Welford