Britain’s Worst Rail Disaster – Quintinshill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a forensic examination of Britain’s worst train crash, which happened 100 years ago today. The authors got some material released early from the National Archives and also went through all the contemporary newspaper reports to painstakingly re-evaluate what happened. Their conclusion was that justice wasnt really done, and the normal inquiry process was cut short, probably because of the war. This meant that those truly responsible didn’t face the consequences, nor were improvements in safety implemented as a result.
The situation at Quintinshill was complex, the additional burden of wartime traffic, while still being expected to prioritise civilian express trains made life difficult for the railway signallers. The crash happened because of a number of factors, including trying to manage five trains on a double track with two passing loops, insufficient management oversight of the signallers, a signaller with what appears to be epilepsy (he suffered episodes in the immediate aftermath of the crash, and in all likelihood he failed to act efficiently because of this medical condition).
On the morning of 22 May 1915 James Tinsely was due to relieve George Meakin in the Quintinshill signal box at 0600. An unofficial arrangement between the men meant that Tinsley had a long lie and then came up on a local train from Carlisle which stopped outside the signal box about 0630. Behind the local train were two northbound expresses that were late. In the northbound passing loop there was an empty goods train. At the same time as the local train arrived an empty coal train arrived heading southbound, there wasn’t room for it at its destination and there was an instruction to lodge it in the southbound passing loop. Behind the empty coal train was a troop train, also running late.
George Meakin’s plan, which seems reasonably sound to me, was to temporarily stick the local train on the southbound track, pass the first express through and then send the local train back to the northbound track to be passed by the second express on the next section of track to the north. There would be plenty of time to do this given the ETAs of the various trains. The troop train would then pass going southbound just before the second express came north.
Although briefed to this effect Tinsley forgot to send the local train on after the first express came through. He also seemed to take way longer than he should have to copy the details of the trains between 0600 and 0630 into the train register book (Meakin had written the details on the back of blank telegraph forms). A number of witnesses passed through the signal box in the period, including the fireman of the local train and the guards of both freight trains. All of these men gave evidence at the inquiries, along with the signallers in the adjacent boxes.
What happened was that the troop train, which was using 60 year old wooden rolling stock with gas lighting, came through at speed and hit the stationary local train. This collapsed the troop train into less than half its original length and scatter wreckage across both tracks. Just as the dazed survivors were starting to climb out of the wrecked troop train the northbound express appeared and ploughed into the wreckage, including the locomotive of the troop train. This scattered coals across the area, starting a fire. The fire was exacerbated by the gas cylinders in the troop train carriages.
The suspicion is that Tinsley had some sort of petit mal seizure and simply failed to act for a short period, only coming to his senses after the crash. This prevented rapid reaction to set the signals to danger to stop the second express in time, although it did manage to start braking before it hit the wreckage. The surviving troops did their best to rescue their comrades, and the railwaymen present passed on messages and organised a response, but it was slow to arrive.
Investigations & Inquiries
Where the book really shows value is its examination of the various inquiries and the court case. The authors believe that there was a secret deal done in the background to protect the Caledonian railway company from corporate criticism. Even if this wasnt explicitly done there is a lot of evidence presented to support the contention that the railwaymen in the signal box were unfairly selected to carry all of the blame, and many investigators missed the opportunity to point out systemic errors in the way the railway was being run.
One particular omission is James Tinsley’s epilepsy. There are some references to it in medical notes, and in pre-cognition statements made before the trial. None of these were picked up as a defence, yet it would have got Tinsley an absolute discharge if it had been. This is backed up by the police being unable to arrest Tinsley when they went to do so a couple of days after the crash, he was unwell and a medical examiner was needed before they could move him. Again this is never mentioned at trial, or in any of the official reports (although it is recorded in the official files released by the National Archives).
Another oddity is that the official crash investigation report is typed on Caledonian Railway letterhead. It misses out information reported in the newspapers from the public evidence hearing by Colonel Druitt of the Railway Inspectorate. It appears from the file that Druitt didn’t finish his inquiry and instead the Board of Trade simply adopted the company’s internal inquiry as the official one.
So the thesis put forward by the authors is fairly compelling. Even if it wasnt a deliberate cover up there was certainly not much appetite for doing things properly. Possibly the wider events of 1915 were affecting people’s judgement.