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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