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100 Years ago...  The blackest day in British railway history
Railway Magazine

100 Years ago... The blackest day in British railway history

Posted Thursday, May 21, 2015   |   3608 views   |   Aviation & Transport   |   Comments (0) A century ago this month, the name of a tiny Scottish farming community became a chilling byword for disaster.

David Stewart-David tells the dreadful story of what will hopefully remain for all time the UK’s worst train disaster – Quintinshill – and touches upon recent allegations of an official cover-up.

AT 6.43am on Saturday, May 22, 1915, a southbound troop train running at speed on the Caledonian Railway main line collided head-on with a local train at Quintinshill, just north of the Scottish border. The 21-vehicle troop train was hauled by McIntosh 4-4-0 No. 121 and its occupants were soldiers of the Royal Scots Regiment heading to Liverpool to embark for Gallipoli.

Just over a minute after the first collision, a sleeping car express from Euston to Glasgow, double-headed by CR 4-4-0s Nos. 140 and 48, ploughed into the wreckage. Almost immediately, fire broke out in the troop train’s wooden-bodied and gas-lit vehicles. Many of the soldiers injured by the force of the impact were subsequently killed in the inferno.

The final death toll has never been accurately established as the regimental roll list was destroyed by the fire, but has been estimated at 227. A further 246 people were injured.

There were few passengers in the two-coach Carlisle-Beattock local train, which had been standing close to Quintinshill signalbox with ‘Cardean’ 4-6-0
No. 907 at its head, and only two of the fatalities came from that train. The robustly built sleeping cars of the down express protected their passengers to some extent, keeping the death toll in that train down to single figures.
It was in the troop train that the vast majority of the deaths took place and a number of bodies were never recovered, having been wholly consumed in the blaze.

Head-on collisions on a double-track main line ought to be almost impossible to occur. We are today used to the phrase ‘an accident waiting to happen’ and it can be said that this was true of the Caledonian’s method of operating trains at Quintinshill.

There, two passing loops had been laid to handle the extra volume of First World War traffic. It was therefore possible to put trains ‘inside’ on both up and down main lines to allow other trains to pass. There was also a trailing crossover near the signalbox, which made it possible, although undesirable, for a northbound train to be reversed onto the up main line. This was a common procedure when engineering work blocked one line, but the Caledonian had also authorised it as a routine way of shunting northbound local trains out of the way so that late-running northbound expresses could overtake.

This was asking for trouble, for although trains stabled in such a way were protected by signals, it made the avoidance of head-on collisions dependent on signalmen following the rules with absolute precision. At Quintinshill they did not.

The shift change at the remote location was supposed to be at 6am, but the signalman who should have started duty then – James Tinsley – had an arrangement with his mate, George Meakin, that the latter would stay on until 6.30, allowing the other to hitch a lift in the cab of the engine hauling the 6.10 local train from Carlisle as far as Quintinshill, thus saving Tinsley a 1?-mile walk or bike ride from his home in Gretna. It is not known exactly how long or how often the two men – who were both aged in their early-30s – had been doing that, but it is thought to have been going on for about two years.

To disguise their subterfuge, Meakin would write the movements and timings of the post-6am workings down on a piece of paper so that Tinsley could copy them into the train register in his own handwriting.

Partly due to heavy wartime traffic, overnight Anglo-Scottish expresses were often handed over from the London & North Western Railway at Carlisle behind time and this was the case on May 22, which was also Whit weekend. Two sleeping car trains from Euston – one to Edinburgh and Aberdeen and the other bound for
The signalman who should have conducted this manoeuvre was Tinsley, who of course had just jumped down from the footplate, so Meakin performed the shunting function for him and then accepted the first northbound sleeper.

When Tinsley entered the ’box, he was almost certainly flustered, possibly because he was a little later than on some of his previous tardy arrivals, and possibly because there were now three trains standing outside with two more imminent.

Meakin duly handed over to him and retired to a chair in the corner to read the newspaper Tinsley had brought with him and to chat with the guards of the two freight trains, who under the rules should not have been in the signalbox at all. Tinsley then set about copying Meakin’s entries into the register.

At this point, the fireman of the local train, George Hutchinson, came into the ’box to fulfil Rule 55 (notifying the signalman of a train’s presence). As Tinsley had already ridden with him on the footplate from Gretna Junction, he did not feel it was necessary to formally report the presence of his train, so merely signed the register and walked back to his locomotive.

The trouble was that Tinsley, absorbed in copying the entries into the register and not having shunted the local passenger train onto the main line himself, had completely forgotten it was still there, even though it was standing in broad daylight just 65 yards away.

At 6.34, one of the signalmen (it was never established who as both men made denials) had sent a ‘train out of section’ code to Kirkpatrick, the next signalbox north, to notify the signaller there, Sawyers, that the empty coal train was safely refuged in the up goods loop. What should then have happened is that a ‘blocking back’ signal should have been sent to Sawyers to notify him that the up main was blocked by the local. No such message was sent.

The signals for the Edinburgh-bound sleeping car train (which had been accepted by Meakin as Tinsley entered the box) were then pulled off and it passed at 6.38. What Tinsley should have done next is allow the local train to run back onto the down main so that it could follow that sleeper as far as Kirkpatrick, where it would once again be set aside to allow the second sleeper to pass. Instead, he pulled off the down signals for the Glasgow-bound express and, at 6.42, was offered the troop train from the north, sending back a code to accept it. Four minutes later, he acknowledged Kirkpatrick’s ‘train entering section’ signal for the troop train and offered it forward to the Gretna Junction signalman, who accepted it.

He then pulled off all the up signals that had been protecting the local train – the very one on which he had just travelled!

The catastrophe that followed was horrific.

At 6.49, the troop train, travelling at an estimated 70mph on a falling gradient, smashed violently into the heavy ‘Cardean’ – and the majority of its 21 vehicles (more than half of which were of timber construction) telescoped and splintered, reducing the length of the train from 213 yards to just 67.

The driver and fireman of the troop special were killed instantly by the impact as coaches cannoned into their engine, some vaulting across the top and landing in front of it. The local train was hurled backwards by 40 yards and the coupling between the loco and the two coaches broke, sending the latter back 136 yards and throwing the tender sideways onto the down main line. The engine of the troop train fell onto its side, straddling both main lines.

In the signalbox, the off-duty Meakin, who had been oblivious to what his mate was doing, was just on the point of going home when the smash occurred. Seeing that Tinsley had ‘frozen’ with shock and was doing nothing, he rushed back to the frame and threw all the signals to danger, screaming to Tinsley to send the ‘Obstruction?Danger’ bell codes to G
When he went to the signalbox to perform Rule 55, he should, under the terms of that rule, have ensured that Tinsley or Meakin had placed metal lever collars on the up main signals, thus preventing their use and protecting his train. Neither signalman had bothered to use them but if the fireman had been more conscientious or safety-conscious, he would not have left the ’box at 6.46 to return to his engine but would have stayed until he’d ensured that the collars had been placed.

Many thousands of words have been written about Britain’s worst train crash in the ensuing years, many concentrating on the cause of Tinsley’s incredible loss of memory. It has recently been suggested that he might have been suffering from some kind of condition, perhaps sleep apnoea, but there is no real evidence to bear this out. It is far more likely that with five trains and a register forgery to deal with in a crowded signalbox containing five people, he was distracted by the more hectic-than-normal situation and simply forgot.

The psychology of confusion and disorder under stress is today far better understood, thanks in part to aircraft ‘black box’ cockpit recordings, but that was not the case in 1915. 

It is, however, surprising that Tinsley should have forgotten about the local on that particular morning, for the ‘Cardean’ that had unusually hauled it was one of the Caley’s biggest and most prestigious types – an express passenger engine that had been diagrammed for this humble duty as an ex-works running-in turn.

The inspecting officer who prepared the accident report was Lt Col Druitt. He was, as might be expected, severely critical of the two signalmen, but made few adverse comments about the Caledonian Railway. Yet the company had contributed to the accident in two other ways apart from authorising the practice of berthing down trains on up lines.

Firstly, it is virtually certain that the stationmaster at Gretna was aware that Tinsley was in the habit of cadging a lift on the 6.10 and that he therefore must have been falsifying the train registers. Yet he turned a blind eye. More importantly than that, however, the CR had neglected to enforce the routine use of signal lever collars, a fact that emerged at the inquiry.

It became clear after the accident (which at the time was referred to as ‘the Gretna disaster’) that very few signalmen bothered to use collars on the CR at that time and that the rules concerning them were lax. They were provided, but not routinely used.

That underlying culture of sloppy operation can perhaps be partly attributed to the great burden of extra wartime traffic the Caledonian was carrying while, in that first full year of the conflict, still trying to cater for holidaymakers and commuters as though there had been little change from peacetime. But such pressures cannot justify unsafe practices.

It is now thought by some historians that the Caledonian, with the implicit backing of the hard-pressed wartime Government of the day, came to a prior agreement with the two signalmen to ensure that they took full blame in return for short prison sentences and guaranteed employment afterwards, thus deflecting criticism away from the railway company.

Tinsley and Meakin were both charged with culpable homicide and were sentenced in September 1915, Tinsley to three years penal servitude and Meakin to 18 months’ jail. However, both were freed after just 15 months and were immediately re-employed by the CR, albeit as a lamp man and goods guard respectively. Hutchinson, the fireman of the local train whose duty had been to implement the vitally important Rule 55, was also charged but was acquitted on the instruction of the judge.

Relatively recent research into the archives has raised the possibility that the Caledonian’s management covered up the shortcomings of its policy, safety regime and supervision,

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