Saturday, September 23, 2017
MEMORIES: Tragedy of railway disasters

MEMORIES: Tragedy of railway disasters

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St Johns, Lewisham The rail-over-rail bridge being removed. The damaged bridge was being cut up to clear the lines and allow the removal of the parts of the train caught under the collapsed bridge Picture credit: Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0
St Johns, Lewisham The rail-over-rail bridge being removed. The damaged bridge was being cut up to clear the lines and allow the removal of the parts of the train caught under the collapsed bridge Picture credit: Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

South London has had it share of rail disasters and the following two examples show their devastation to life and property, writes Michael Badger MBE.

There is a memorial plaque on the lewisham crash but none at Hither Green. On Sunday, November 5 1967 the 7.43pm Hastings to Charing Cross service, consisting of 12 coaches formed by two six-car diesel-electric multiple units travelling at approximately 70 miles per hour, derailed at 9.16pm shortly before the St Mildred’s Road railway bridge, near Hither Green maintenance depot.

The leading pair wheels of the third coach were derailed by a broken rail and ran on for a 1⁄4-mile before hitting points, causing 11 coaches to be derailed and four of those to turn onto their sides.

The train came to rest in 250 yards, except for the leading coach that detached and ran on a further 220 yards. It was a busy Sunday evening and there were passengers standing in the train. Forty-nine passengers were killed and 78 injured, 27 being detained in hospital. Most of the casualties had been travelling in the overturned coaches.

The victims included James Gordon Melville Turner. Among the survivors were singer Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees and his wife-to-be Molly.

The emergency services arrived within five minutes and the first casualty arrived at hospital 18 minutes after the derailment. The last survivor was taken to hospital at 1am the following morning. Residents, the Salvation Army and Women’s Voluntary Service assisted the injured and shocked.

The fast lines were blocked by the derailment and the traction current to the slow lines was turned off to allow the rescue. Traction current was temporarily restored to the slow lines for the Tuesday morning rush hour and returned to traffic at 3.40pm that afternoon. The fast lines were reopened with speed restriction at 6.20am on Wednesday.

The derailment was found to be due to a broken rail at a rail joint, where a fatigue crack through the first bolt hole in a running-on rail had progressively developed and a triangular piece of rail had broken out.

The sleeper at the joint had previously failed and been replaced with a shallower timber replacement. This replacement had not been well packed, was on a shallow layer of clean ballast and the rubber pad supporting the rail on the adjacent concrete sleeper was missing.

After the derailment, passengers commented about trains running at excessive speed, but British Rail routinely monitored this and the number of trains running in excess of the permitted speed was small. Complaints were also received about the rough riding of Hastings line stock and another train of the same class was tested on Southern Region and Eastern Region track.

Although the ride quality was better on the Eastern region track, it was not considered dangerous on Southern Region track. The speed limit for electric multiple units on the track had been raised from 75 mph to 90 mph in July 1967. After the derailment the line was inspected and a temporary speed restriction of 60 mph imposed.

The report found that civil engineering and inspection departments had permitted too low a standard of maintenance on the line and had failed to assess the implications of increasing the speed of the trains.

Maintenance of the line was improved, inspection techniques and jointing methods were revised, and plans for replacing jointed track by continuous welded rail were accelerated. Concrete sleepers were banned at rail joints on the Southern Region.

The other disaster was the Lewisham Rail Crash of 1957. Due to the very dense fog in the London area trains were running late. The 5.18pm Charing Cross to Hayes, comprising electric multiple units totaling 10 cars and carrying nearly 1,500 passengers, stopped at a danger signal at Parks Bridge Junction on the Lewisham by-pass line, under a bridge carrying rail tracks over the line.

Trains were running out of order because of the excessively dense fog and the Parks Bridge Junction signalman wished to speak to the driver by the telephone at the signal to confirm the train’s identity and destination.

At approximately 6.20 pm it was struck from behind by a train from Cannon Street to Ramsgate via Folkestone, consisting of a steam locomotive hauling 11 coaches carrying about 700 passengers and travelling at about 30 miles per hour.

The collision threw the tender and leading coach off the track, dislodging a pier of the bridge, causing it to fall and crush two coaches.

Two minutes later a train due to pass over the bridge stopped short, although its leading coach was tilted. The first emergency response arrived at 6.25 pm with the Fire Brigade, Ambulance and police being assisted by doctors and nurses.

Help was accepted from the Salvation Army, the Women’s Voluntary Service, St John Ambulance Brigade and local residents.

By 10.30 pm all of the injured had been taken to hospital. All four of the running lines under the bridge and the two over it were blocked.

At St Johns station, just north of the bridge, the North Kent line diverges, but this needed to be closed and the traction current switched off during the rescue. An emergency timetable started at 6.10am the following morning, with local trains avoiding the accident, and main-line services diverted to Victoria station.

At 4pm on December 9, the trains and the fallen bridge had been cut up and removed. The track then had to be relaid and the lines under the bridge were reopened at 5am on December 12.

A temporary bridge was built and the overhead line was reopened at 6am on January 13. The inquest declared by the jury majority that the deaths were due to gross negligence but the coroner rejected the verdict and substituted one of accidental death.

The driver of the Ramsgate train was then tried for manslaughter, but the jury could not reach a verdict. He was acquitted at a second trial.

The Ministry of Transport report on the collision was published in 1958. Witnesses were interviewed, the visibility of the signals on the line examined, and tests showed no fault in the signaling equipment.

The report found that the driver had not slowed for two caution signals, and applied the brakes only after the fireman had called to him that he had a danger signal. Although he had poor visibility of signals from the driver’s seat, he did not cross over to see them, or ask the fireman to look for them.

The report said an automatic warning system would have prevented the collision. Although installation had been agreed after the Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash in 1952, priority was being given to main-line routes controlled by semaphore signals.

The poor visibility of signals from the steam locomotive, Battle of Britain was mentioned with a recommendation all such locomotives be fitted with wider windscreens.

The collapsed bridge was replaced by a temporary structure of military trestling that is still in use to this day.

A plaque at Lewisham railway station commemorates the accident.

Courtesy of Michael Badger, MBE

Paul Lagan is a highly experienced journalist with more than 30 years experience in regional print and digital journalism. Paul has worked as a sports reporter, sub-editor, chief sub-editor and production editor at Newsquest South London, overseeing the implementation of their suite of award-winning websites. As well as a specialist sports reporter covering Chelsea FC for the London Weekly News group of newspapers, Paul is also a sub-editor at the South London Press.

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MEMORIES: Tragedy of railway disasters