Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Hull rail crash, 1927

This is an account of a fatal rail accident in Hull, England, in 1927. Despite all the fail-safes built into the signalling system, one sequence of events allowed disaster to occur.

The crash at Hull Paragon station in 1927

The rail crash that occurred at Hull on 14th February 1927 was one that really should not have happened. That might be said of most accidents, of course, but in this case it would appear that all the systems were in place to prevent two trains meeting head-on on the same track, but there was one small chink in the armour of railway safety and that was enough to lead to the deaths of twelve passengers.

Hull Paragon is a terminus station, from which the lines run westward for about half a mile before branches lead west and north. There are fewer routes from Hull now than there were in 1927, and one of the lines no longer in existence led to Withernsea on the east coast. A train from Withernsea was running into Hull on the morning of 14th February, the engine being driven by Robert Dixon.

Meanwhile, Sam Atkinson was leaving Hull in charge of a Scarborough service. The two trains should have passed each other without incident.

However, as Driver Atkinson ran under the signal gantry at Park Street, still within sight of the station, he had the strange feeling that his train had been switched on to the wrong track. He checked on both sides of the footplate and, once he was certain that this was so, he slammed on his brakes. However, this was not enough to prevent a collision with Driver Dixon’s approaching train.

Once Driver Atkinson had picked himself up and taken stock of the situation, he ran up the steps of the nearby signal box and demanded to know what had happened.

There were three signalmen on duty, and their aim that morning had been not to allow the approaching Withernsea train to delay the departure of the Scarborough train. They therefore set their signals and points in conjunction so that everything should run as smoothly as possible.

What clearly happened at some stage was that a set of slip points was activated that allowed the Scarborough train to get on to the wrong line. These were controlled by lever 95 in the signal box. The systems in place made it impossible for the lever to be moved unless lever 171, which controlled the signal faced by the Scarborough train, was also moved.

While one signalman was dealing with the Scarborough departure, another was controlling the Withernsea arrival. The levers he needed to operate were 96 and 97.

Lever 171 should not have been returned to danger until the whole train had passed it, by which time it would have cleared the slip points, but, in his hurry to speed things up, the signalman in question moved the lever after only the engine and the first few carriages had passed it.

The other signalman then moved what he thought were levers 96 and 97 but must have been 95 and 96. The slip points controlled by lever 95 were therefore moved during the few seconds between lever 171 being moved and the train reaching the points. Disaster was then inevitable.

Both signalmen were therefore to blame, one for moving lever 171 too soon and the other for moving lever 95 in error. This was therefore a classic case of being too hasty, such that the correct procedure was not followed. Had the signalmen taken more care, even if that meant a train being held at a signal, the accident would not have happened.

© John Welford

Monday, 12 December 2016

The Elliot Junction rail crash, 1906

1906 was a bad year for railway accidents in Great Britain, with derailments at Salisbury and Grantham followed by a serious collision at Elliot Junction, in Scotland, on Friday 28th December.
Elliot Junction

Elliot Junction was a station that no longer exists, as the branch line that it served was closed in 1929. The station lay about one mile south of Arbroath, on the line from Dundee (to the south) to Aberdeen (to the north), which is very much open and running at present. In the photo, the station platform was where the car park is now, and the branch line went in the direction of the distant woods.

The weather at the time of the accident was appalling, with winter having set in hard on the east coast of Scotland. Temperatures were well below freezing and ice hung thick on the telegraph wires. Snow-laden winds blew in from the North Sea where the track ran close to the shore. Thick snow lay on the ground.

The accident

On the morning of the accident there had been another mishap south of Elliot Junction when some goods wagons had become derailed, resulting in one of the two tracks being blocked. Single-line working was therefore in operation for this stretch. However, because of problems with the telegraph line this information was not passed to the signal-box at Arbroath, the next main station to the north.

The 07:35 northbound express service from Edinburgh to Aberdeen was driven by Driver Gourlay, who was highly experienced. He was driving locomotive 324, a 4-4-0 of the 317 class. He was an hour late reaching Arbroath, which he did at 10:41, but that was as far as he was able to go as the lines further north were blocked by snow. The train waited for four hours, in the hope of things improving, but it was eventually decided that it would have to return to Edinburgh.

Normal practice would be for the locomotive to be turned on a turntable so that it could be coupled to the other end of the train and run funnel first, as it had on its northward journey. However, this was not done, and 324 was coupled to run tender first, thus giving the driver and fireman no protection from the elements in their open cab.

Another train needed to head south, this being a local train that was returning to Dundee from Arbroath. This was given a sixteen minute start over the returning express, with Driver Gourlay being warned to take special care.

At Elliot Junction the local train was held at the station while waiting for clearance to proceed through the temporary single-track section, about which the driver had not been told before leaving Arbroath. With the telegraph lines being down the only way to ensure that the track was clear was for a man to walk up and back through the affected section, a total distance of three miles.

The stationmaster at Elliot Junction had just decided to allow the passengers off the train to wait in the comfort of a warm waiting room when the express hurtled out of the snowstorm and hit the local train at about thirty miles an hour.

Three coaches of the local train were wrecked as was the leading coach of the express. Engine 324 fell on its side with the wheels still racing until the driver of the local train could crawl into the cab and close the regulator. Driver Gourlay was pulled out from underneath a pile of coal that had fallen on top of him but he was otherwise uninjured. However, his fireman was dead, as were 21 passengers from the two trains.

The cause of the crash

The blame for the crash lay firmly with Driver Gourlay, whose behaviour had clearly been reckless. For one thing, he was travelling “all stations”, which meant that he should have been preparing to stop at Elliot Junction and not proceeding at speed as he approached the platform. Furthermore, he had been instructed to drive under “caution” conditions which meant that the signalling system was not to be relied upon (due to the snow conditions) and safety was ensured by sending trains off at timed intervals and travelling at similar speeds, with drivers keeping a sharp lookout for obstacles on the line.

In any case, the driver’s visibility was severely curtailed by the conditions under which he was driving, with snow and coal dust blowing straight into his face with the engine running in reverse. This should have made him take extra care, not less.

Another question is why, having passed the obstruction of the blocked line on his way up the line earlier that day, he did not think to mention it to the station staff at Arbroath or the driver of the local train. After all, he did have four hours to kill before starting off back down the line.

Driver Gourlay defended himself at the subsequent enquiry by saying that he thought he had an all-clear signal as he approached Elliot Junction. However, the reason for the signal being slightly depressed (it should have been at a 45 degree angle for the all-clear) was that snow on the controlling wire was weighing it down. On the other hand, when driving under caution conditions, as mentioned above, a signal purporting to show all-clear should itself have been an indication that all was not well, given that all signals should have been in the “stop” position.

He also complained that there was no fog warning at the outer signal. In this he was probably correct, because this was standard practice in poor weather conditions, but it was pointed out that it was hardly reasonable to expect a fogman to stand in a blizzard with a warning lamp when there had been no trains between 09:00 and 15:30.

However, what pointed the finger of blame straight at Driver Gourlay was the fact that, while waiting at Arbroath, he had been “entertained” by a friendly passenger at the Victoria Bar on the station platform. He said that he had only had a single “nip” of whisky and had refused other offers from passengers, but Inspector Pringle, who conducted the enquiry, did not believe this. His conclusion included the words:

“The lack of intelligence, or of caution and alertness, displayed by Driver Gourlay were, in part at all events, induced by drink, the effects of which may possibly have been accentuated after he left Arbroath by exposure to the weather.”

Following the inquiry, Driver Gourlay stood trial and was found guilty by a majority verdict. He was sentenced to five years in prison but this was later remitted.

The inspector also had criticisms to make of the practices employed on the railway at the time, which had become slack under the joint ownership of the Caledonian and North British railway companies, who did not get on well together. The accident would have been avoided had the blockage on the line south of Elliot Junction not occurred, and this was due to an avoidable act of folly by a railway employee.

Under modern signalling and communications conditions, as well as Automatic Train Control, an accident such as that at Elliot Junction is extremely unlikely these days. However, outbreaks of human error and stupidity are always possible, so drivers still need to be aware of their responsibilities, one of which is staying well clear of the station bar!

© John Welford

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Tsarina who moved a comma and saved a life

Students are often told to be careful how they use punctuation when writing, but this story - which is supposedly true - is an example of how a comma in the wrong place can make a huge difference to a person’s life.

Tsar Alexander III of Russia

Tsar Alexander III ruled Russia from 1881 until his death in 1894 when he was succeeded by the last tsar, Nicholas II. Alexander came to the throne when his father, Tsar Alexander II, was assassinated. Alexander III ruled as an absolute monarch and was constantly aware of the threats he faced from real or imagined opponents. He was determined not to give an inch in terms of social or political reform.

Given the fate of his father, it is hardly surprising that he sought to clamp down hard on the various protest movements that bedevilled Russia at the time. Punishments were harsh; those anarchists who were not executed were exiled to Siberia, from which only a handful of them ever returned.

Among those executed for an attempt on his life was Alexander Ulyanov, whose younger brother, Vladimir, would in later life take his revenge on the Russian monarchy under his nom-de-guerre of Lenin.

Tsarina Maria Feodorovna

The Tsarina, however, was a very different type of person.

She only became Alexander’s wife by default, in that she had been “bequeathed” to him by his elder brother Nicholas. Nicholas died in 1865 at the age of 21, when he was engaged to be married to Maria, who was a Danish princess (originally named Dagmar). On his deathbed (he appears to have died from meningitis) he expressed his wish that Maria should marry Alexander instead, which she duly did. She therefore became Tsarina, as originally intended, but as the wife of the “wrong” Tsar.

Maria clearly had much more humanity in her than did her husband, who was noted for his dour and cold personality. The episode of the comma would seem to show just how different she was.

The changed comma

The famous event occurred when Maria happened across a document that Alexander had signed. This was a list of supposed traitors and criminals whose fate lay in Alexander’s hands. Against one of the names Alexander had written “Pardon impossible, to send to Siberia”. Maria saw her opportunity to save the life of an unknown prisoner and quickly scratched out and re-inserted the comma. The line now read: “Pardon, impossible to send to Siberia”.

But is it true?

This story is often told, mainly as an object lesson in correct punctuation, but is it really true?

To my mind there are several problems with it. For one thing, who told the story? The change of the comma would have been done in secret, with only the Tsarina knowing that it had happened. She would hardly have let slip at the time that a prisoner had been freed by her action and against the will of her husband. So at what point would she have told the story, and to what end? Granted, she lived a long life (she died in her native Denmark in 1928 at the age of 80), so there might have been other opportunities for telling the tale, but what purpose would she have had in so doing?

Another factor is that the document would have been written in Russian and not English. I have no idea whether a change of comma in the equivalent Russian sentence would work as neatly as in does in English, so that is another question mark against the story.

My own feeling is that it all sounds a bit too contrived, as though somebody had realised that this was a sentence that would illustrate the grammatical point at issue, and the story was written around it as one that would fit the known facts and be believable as it stood.

That said, it is a good story. Whether true or not, it does make very clear that a misplaced comma, whether the error is the result of carelessness or deliberate action, can make a huge difference to somebody’s life!

© John Welford