Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Ditton Junction rail crash, 1912

On 17th September 1912, a late afternoon express train, packed with holidaymakers returning to Liverpool from Chester, left the rails just to the east of Ditton Junction railway station and crashed into the brickwork of the bridge that carried Hale Road over the railway. Thirteen passengers were killed, although a horse had a very lucky escape.

Ditton Junction

Ditton Junction (near Widnes, Cheshire) no longer exists as a station, although the lines from Crewe and Warrington to Liverpool still run past the abandoned and overgrown platforms that were witness to the accident.

The problem at Ditton Junction was that three double tracks approached from the east, to be squeezed into two double tracks before opening again into three doubles as they passed through the station, these being a fast line, a slow line and a goods line. Trains approaching from Crewe, having recently crossed the Runcorn Bridge, would normally proceed along the fast line to Liverpool, but could be switched to the slow line via one of two crossovers that were placed within a hundred yards of each other.

Drivers would be warned that they were about to be crossed by means of signals as they approached the station. There were two distant signals, placed side by side, one for the fast line and the other for the second crossover (crossover B), but nothing for the first crossover (crossover A). Just before crossover A was a gantry with three home signals, for the fast line on the right, the crossover to the slow line (via crossover B) in the middle, and the goods line via crossover A on the left. The confusion for a driver who was unfamiliar with the signalling arrangement was that he could assume, being on the central track of the three as he approached the station, that the central signal applied to him. If it was clear, he might think he was clear to proceed along the fast line at speed if he was not stopping at the station. This was the error that Driver Hughes seems to have made.

The accident

Railway rules stipulated that drivers must be familiar with the route they were using, which included knowledge of all the signalling arrangements they would encounter. However, that cannot be said of Driver Hughes, who had been called in specially to drive this extra holiday express. He told the “arranger of engines” at his home shed that he was “all right for Liverpool”, but that was stretching a point. Most of his runs along this line had been as a fireman, and he had only driven a train through Ditton Junction on ten occasions in four years, and had never been switched to the slow line when doing so.

The train in question consisted of seven coaches headed by “Cook”, a somewhat elderly 2-4-0 Precedent class locomotive with a rigid 15-foot wheelbase that allowed no play in the leading wheels. There were also two horseboxes on the train, between the loco and the first passenger carriage, each carrying one horse and its groom.

Driver Hughes therefore had no suspicion that anything was amiss as he approached Ditton Junction at about 60 miles an hour. However, his train was being switched to the slow line to allow a London express to take the fast line. The first awareness he would have had that anything was amiss was when his locomotive was thrust violently to one side as it reached the crossover at a speed far greater than it could have been expected to negotiate safely.

“Cook” left the rails and slid on its side into the side of the bridge, with the cab and firebox torn completely away from the boiler. Driver Hughes was killed instantly and his fireman died later in hospital. One of the horseboxes was projected all the way over the bridge and landed on the station platform beyond. The horse jumped out, completely unscathed. However, the other horse was not so lucky as its box was cut in half, although the groom survived.

The leading carriages piled up under the bridge and against the station buildings. Nobody survived in the first two carriages, although the passengers in the rest of the train were much more fortunate. In total, thirteen passengers were killed and fifty were injured. Fire broke out in the wreckage, caused by the gas lighting system, and the blaze could not be extinguished for two hours. The dead bodies were therefore burned beyond recognition, but the victims had died as a result of the initial impact.

Who was to blame?

The enquiry was conducted by Lt-Col Yorke, who criticised the signalling arrangement which was inconsistent in having a distant signal for one crossover but not the other, followed by home signals for both crossovers. He also recommended that there should be a speed restriction sign for the fast-to-slow crossover.

The inspector was also critical of the decision to allow an inexperienced driver (of the route) to drive the train. He should have taken on a pilot at Chester.

Such an accident would have been far less likely in later years, partly because of improved signalling and also because the crossover was rebuilt with a much gentler curve. Later steam locomotives would have been better able to survive a sudden lurch to the side, especially those built with a bogie for the leading wheels.

The human cost of the accident, which brought a fun day out for many to such a traumatic end, was summed up by a newspaper reporter who commented: 

“The charred luggage lay in heaps, together with hats, caps, fur boas, luncheon baskets, fruit, sweets and holiday literature”.

© John Welford