Twice in the history of the UK’s Railways has an accident led to the loss of more than 100 lives. The second took place on Wednesday the 8th of October 1952.
Three trains collide with each other at Harrow & Wealdstone station just outside London. 112 people are killed and 340 injured.
How could this have taken place? Join us to find out what happened and how it could have been prevented.
Signals to Danger
Season One – Episode 17 – Harrow & Wealdstone – 1952
Hello again, and welcome to Episode 17 of Signals to Danger.
Thanks everybody who’s coming back every episode to listen to me tell the stories of these accidents and their victims, and for the likes and shares, and the interaction I’ve had on social media. If you want to be part of that conversation, look for either danielfoxrail or signalstodanger on twitter, or signalstodanger on facebook and instagram.
If you want to see show notes, episode transcripts and some extra bits of info get yourself over to signalstodanger.com. That’s also where you’ll find opportunities to support the podcast, such as Patreon. I would love to take the opportunity to thank
I don’t normally do trigger warnings, quite frankly because I believe that the subject matter of the podcast serves as a bit of a warning in itself, but I will this time for a very specific reason. This accident features a train derailing, and colliding with a bridge. On Saturday evening, the 13th March a Merseyrail train derailed and collided with a bridge. This seems to have been a far less severe affair than what we’re about to discuss, and the details are still very much emerging, but I thought it might be prudent to throw this in here this week.
Nice quick intro this week, it seems as though it’s time for us to get cracking on Episode 16.
The pile of debris was 100 yards long, several tall and consisted of steel, wood, glass and fabric. A piece of a carriage here, a section of bridge there.
In this suburb of the capital rescuers from all walks of live helped to dig through the wreckage to pull survivers free, but they had their work ahead of them.
The pile consisted of three separate trains, and everyone arriving on the scene knew that this, this was one of the bad ones.
The year, 1952. The place? Harrow and Wealdstone.
This is Signals to Danger, A podcast where we look at major rail disasters which have occurred in the UK, explain what happened, how the investigation was carried out, and how each of these accidents shaped the industry going forwards.
I’m Dan, I’m work within the rail industry in my day to day life but today I’ll be the one taking you through this podcast.
We start every episode by briefly revisiting the events which were taking place at the time, and this episode is no different.
The year is of course 1952, and in the history of the UK, it’s fairly significant. Not least because in January we saw our first glimpse of Sooty, a puppet beloved by generations of children, as well as the first TV detector van, to make sure everyone who watched him was doing so within the realms of the law. I think to this day you could walk into any pub and split the room 50 50 as to whether or not those things actually work.
The history of our nation takes a fairly substantial turn in February as God saves the King becomes God saves the Queen. George the sixth passes away at Sandringham and is succeeded by his 25 year old Daughter Elizabeth. There starts a nearly 70 year reign, still going to this date.
In May the first jet airliner, the UK built Dehavilland Comet takes to the skies, a symbol of british engineering prowess, and potentially paving the way for a UK led aviation production system. Well, if I was making this series about plane crashes and not trains let’s just say a comet episode wouldn’t be far off.
September saw 31 people killed as a prototype Dehavilland Sea Vixen broke up over the Farnborough Airshow and the debris landed on spectators, yet again proving that disasters are not just the curse of the railway.
October starts with two bangs, firstly a fairly sizable one as the UK detonates it’s first atomic bomb and 2 days later the end of tea rationing, this had been in place for 13 years and was putting a cramp on a quintisentially english tradition.
All of this brought us to the morning of the 8th October, one of the darkest days of UK rail.
Introduction to Harrow & Wealdstone Station
If you were to look at a map of Greater London, you would see a 1500 square kilometre area, playing the role of home to just under 9 million people. A web of roads, millions of buildings and a swarming mass of people who live, work, visit and pass through the nations capital.
The entire city is criss-crossed with a network of steel rails. Above ground commuter trains rattle into the capital from all directions, bringing people in from the suburbs and surrounding towns. These trains are joined below the ground by the ones on the tube. The london underground, a tourist attraction in it’s own right. In addition to the commuter network in and around the city itself, this vast conurbation is the starting point for most of the countries major railway lines as well.
This is a fact I’m sure will have become clear over previous episodes. These lines spread out like arteries from the heart of the country. The Great Eastern Main Line out to Norwich, The Midland Main Line up to Nottingham and Sheffield, the Great Western out to Bristol and so on and so forth.
Within the city there are points where the main lines, commuter lines and underground lines all coincide. The termini of the main lines, stations like Kings Cross, Euston, Waterloo and Paddington all see the termination of long distance trains, local trains and they also all feature an underground station.
This mix of options isn’t just limited to the end of the line though. As you track out the main lines from the termini, you come across other locations where you find it. One such station is the scene of this tale.
The West Coast Main Line begins at London Euston, and we know it well from previous episodes, tales of Nuneaton and Grayrigg, however we’re focusing a lot further south today than those times. 11 miles and thirty chains from the buffers in Euston you reach the six platforms at Harrow and Wealdstone station.
This station is served by no less than four different operators. Southern Railways commuter offering between Milton Keynes and Clapham Junction, long distance services provided by London NorthWestern Railway and The Watford DC line of the London Overground are joined by the Northern Terminus of the Bakerloo line of the London Underground. And all of this is before you consider the non-stop West Coast Main Line services operated by Avanti.
In 2019 Harrow was the start or end of over 8 million journeys a year, over half of them on the underground, as people make their way in to jobs in the capital or on their leisure travel. Because of this platforms full of passengers are a regular sight, or rather, they were precovid.
Make no mistake, 69 years ago this was already a busy station, and when the morning rush hour came around hundreds of people flowed from the platforms at Harrow on to services into the heart of the city. The station on the morning of Wednesday the 8th October 1952 was becoming as busy as any other as the city of London started to awaken…
The Trains and their journey
We know that the events at Harrow took place on the 8th October, but to really tell the narrative we actually need to wind the clock back almost exactly 12 hours from the moment everything went wrong.
At 8 15pm on 7th, the night before, a sleeper service drew out of Perth in Scotland and started it’s long journey first to Glasgow, and then it turned south and started down the West Coast Main line to England, through the picturesque countryside of the lake district, over Tebay and Shap, down through the Lune Gorge towards Carlisle, although, in the dead of night there’s not much to be seen be the glow of the fire from the cab. The 7th turned into the 8th as the train continued southbound.
While travelling through the North of England the weather started to turn, and fog became a slowing influence on the express. When it arrived at Crewe at around 20 past four in the morning it was already 13 minutes. There wasn’t time to be made up here unfortunately, as a 16 minute station duties time was all that had been allocated to change the locomotive and get the train set ready to depart. The locomotive being coupled on to the front of the Perth Express was no slouch.
Number 46242, City of Glasgow was based out of Camden depot in London. A prime example of the coronation class, built by the London Midland and Scottish in 1940, this 161 ton, 73 feet long living, breathing, well, beast, was capable of hauling heavy express trains at express speeds without breaking a sweat. Streamlined when it left the shop, this was one of the LMS’s premier locos, instantly recognisable as one of the western cousins to the LNERs A4s, the best known example of course being Mallard itself. Indeed the Coronation class and the A4s had a little jostling at one point for the speed record ultimately set by the LNERs Mallard.
In the late 40s the streamlining was removed to decrease weight and increase efficiency, and it was this more traditional looking version which was coupled to the front of the Perth express at around half 4 in the morning. On her spacious footplate was a crew of two, the driver, R.S. Jones, and his fireman, C. Turnock.
Jones had been driving trains for 4 and a half years, although he’d been a fireman for the 11 years prior and other roles “on the job” for the 10 years before that. Both men had worked this route before and had brought the loco north from the capital on a down express.
When the station clock ticked to 37 minutes past four, City of Glasgow drew out of Crewe with Jones’s hands at the control, 32 minutes late, but with one of the most powerful locomotives in the country at the head of the train there was a hope not much more speed or time would be lost.
The locomotive led 11 vehicles over the pointwork outside the station, a milk van, a brake van, four passenger carriages, four sleeping carriages and a final brake van. 525 tons of train in total, slowly building up speed as it started to head southbound.
<small musical interlude>
It wasn’t only expresses setting out on the railway this morning, as City of Glasgow was working it’s way south, past Stafford, Nuneaton and Rugby and the sun was rising, another train was starting it’s day.
At 0731 a local train was just departing the town of Tring in Hertfordshire. This was a prime time commuter service, all stops to Watford, then though to Harrow and on to Euston, booked to arrive at 0827. Exactly the right time for a short walk to the office, or a change to the tube, or a bus.
With 53 year old Driver A.W Payne at the controls, supported by his fireman A.R.Hind, the train left Tring, and continued South towards London. Led by 42389, a tank engine, the 332 tonne train consisted of 9 compartment carriages, put together for mass transportation of the morning masses. Which would come in handy this morning. Due to some fairly extensive track and signalling work ongoing at Euston some other trains had been cancelled to alleviate pressure on the infrastructure. This meant that passengers were not going to be in short supply.
Unfortunately, the fog was prominent in this area too, and by Watford the local was already down by around 5 minutes, understandable considering the circumstances, but probably of some frustration to the hundreds starting to fill the 74 compartments of the train.
<continuation of musical interlude>
11 miles to the south of Harrow station was yet another train that we must concern ourselves with. The 8am departure from Euston was not a local train, nor was it hauled merely by a tank engine.
The Liverpool express was to run North at speed, delivering passengers to the port city without delay. 17 vehicles long, 11 of them passenger carriages, both third and first class. In addtion there were 4 brake vans on the train to provide additional luggage and goods space. But neither of these were the impressive thing about this train, that came at the front.
The Liverpool express was hauled by not one express passenger locomotive, but two. Heading up the train was number 45637, Windward Isles. 133 tons in weight, this LMS Jubilee Class Steamer was one of the workhorses of the West Coast, and it wasn’t alone on this journey.
Behind her was 46202 – Princess Anne. Princess Anna had started life as the Turbomotive, an expiremental loco which replaced the pistons with turbines, although in 1949 the turbine had failed, and a post war Britain didn’t really have the pennies to replace it, or rather it was considered uneconomical in the environment of austerity.
In 1952, two months before this date, a rebuild of the turbomotive had led to the creation of Princess Anne, a far more conventional Princess Royal Class, 159 tons heavy and 74 feet long and sitting in the lineup of a Down express.
The liverpool express tipped the scales at 737 tonnes, 293 of them at the very head of the train in the two locomotives, and at 5 past 8 in the morning, 5 minutes late, every one of them started to steam out of Euston’s platforms on the way north
Three separate trains on three separate journeys. One approaching it’s end, one just starting out and one everyday commute in full swing, all making their way up and down the West Coast Main line, all making their own way towards Harrow & Wealdstone.
The Accident & Aftermath
As the local train approached Harrow from the North it traversed a crossover from the Up Slow line to the Up Fast line. This directed it into platform four, full of passengers waiting to board the train for the journey into the city. Many of them were railway employees themselves, off to work in the Midland region offices close to Euston station, taking advantages of the service BR operated to get them into work.
As I said earlier, the next train was cancelled, so plenty were waiting for them on their arrival. Payne expertly brought the engine to a halt at the far end of the platform, his 9 carriages just accommodated. Almost immediately the compartment doors were opened, and people flooded on to the trains carriages.
The guard, Mr Merritt had been travelling in the brake compartment in the third coach from the rear of the train. With such a busy platform he walked forwards a little along it, and directed passengers to even board in the brake compartment. Both Payne and Hind on the footplate were conscious at the front that they had been stood a little longer than normal, but chalked it down to the heavy loadings. By the time they had been stood a minute or so, there was around 800 people in the 74 compartments of the local train. Next stop Euston. The brakes of the train were released anticipating the guards signal and the departure of the service.
Merritt started to walk back to the two carriages behind his brake compartment to close his doors, and that is when he heard something that filled him with dread.
From the Fog to the north he heard the Perth express approaching, at speed.
As soon as he saw it burst out of the fog he took cover under the coping stones of the Down Platform on the opposite side of the island platform. This quite possibly saved his life as Britain’s worst ever peacetime rail disaster started to take place.
At somewhere between 50 and 60 miles an hour the leading buffer beam of City of Glasgow slammed into the drawbar of the last coach of the local service. The 525 ton sleeper service played the part of the unstoppable force, the local an almost immovable object.
Because the brakes had been released the local train was actually pushed forwards around 20 yards, but this didn’t even remotely come close to absorbing the energy of the Sleeper. This was taken care of by the timber construction of bodies of the rearmost two carriages of the local. The underframe of the 9th coach was thrust up and over that of the 8th, and under that of the 7th. All three carriages were compressed into a space the length of one of them, and their underframes were pushed up onto the platform to the left of the train. By some miracle however the other six carriages of the train were pushed forwards, and for the most part undamaged.
This sudden collision hadn’t just devastated the rear of the Local train however, and as the locomotive of the Perth Express had come to a sudden stop the tender had slewed around to the left, riding up against the frame of the cab and, damaging severely the footplate area. It ended up to the side of the wreckage of the local train, on the Down fast line, just under the station footbridge.
Behind that, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th vehicles were piled up behind, and above the loco, and their distorted underframes and bogies, together with some of the bogies of the local train, were compressed into a mass of wreckage about 100 ft. long covering the Up and Down Fast lines between the platforms.
This pile would have been difficult to unpick and to attribute the origin of each piece of wreckage would have been nigh on impossible. The bodies of the two leading two vans of the sleeper were of timber construction and rapidly became splinters as they rammed up against the tender of the City of Glasgow. The following 3 were dealt with equally as forcefully, and saw comprehensive damage as each slammed into the wreckage of the one before.
Further back than the sixth carriage of the sleeper though, damage became very minor and superficial, fixtures and fittings not critical damage.
And had everything stopped at that time, this would probably been one of the worst accidents that the country had ever seen. The forces involved, two busy trains, the time of the accident. It certaibly would have been remembered.
But a third part of the jigsaw fell into place almost immediately after the city of Glasgow collided with the rear of the local train at 60mph. 737 tons of the Liverpool express.
The leading locomotive of the Liverpool Train, Windward Isles, travelling at 60 miles an hour, collided with the City of Glasgow underneath the footbridge. She was diverted left and up, starting a terrifying journey over the island platfom separating the down fast and the up electric line, eventually coming to a rest lying on her left hand side on the up electric line. Princess Anne, the second locomotive was dragged along the platform at the same time, also ending up on her side on the very edge of the up electric platform. In total nearly 300 tonnes of loco had smashed across a passenger platform, and that’s without even considering the carriages behind.
The force of the collision had severely damage both engines, but Windward Isles to a whole different level. Except for the boiler, she was practically reduced to scrap. The bogie was wrecked and its component parts scattered, and the buffer beam and the frames were folded back as far as the leading coupled wheels. There was also very heavy damage at the rear end as the tender was driven into it. The report features a photograph of her, and you can’t help but wonder where the rest was.
The leading brake van followed the locos on to the platform, but it’s right hand side was ripped out by the underframe of the next carriage, the body of which was destroyed. The third vehicle also ended up here, but the fourth took a different path altogether.
As this one piled in to the wreckage of all the others, it was diverted to the right instead, up and over the wreckage of the local and the sleeper. The greater part of its roof at the rear was torn away and left behind as it was forced upward against the footbridge girders, and the brake and luggage compartments occupying the rear half of the coach were wrecked, and the carriage eventually came to a stand on the Up platform.
The fifth vehicle had its steel body crushed and lay near to the footbridge, but the next two, the 6th and 7th carriages ran straight ahead, over the wreckage rapidly piling up above the Up Line, coming to rest on top of it, the momentum of the impact carrying them over. One of these vehicles which ran under the bridge latched onto and pulled away one of the girders, ridding the bridge of some substantial components.
The 8th vehicle of the Liverpool express contacted the rest of this wreckage next, but it was the last vehicle to do so, the energy of this disaster was finally dissipating. It was wedged under the footbridge (see photograph 10) with its leading end resting on a heap of five or six bogies and other debris, but its trailing bogie was still on the rails.
The final 7 vehicles of the Liverpool train came to a stand in the platform of the Down fast, undamaged, especially when compared to the rest of the train.
Finally, all three trains had come to a complete halt. Steam vented from destroyed boilers and wreckage began to settle. The time of the impact had been recorded for all to see, as the forces involved were so great it had stopped the station clock. 0819 AM. The echoes of the impacts began to fade, and they began to be replaced with moans and cries for help. These three trains had suddenly and violently come to share one section of track, and now the task of rescue and recovery needed to begin.
<Musical Interlude sad/dramatic>
Immediately following the accident, telephone calls were made by station staff, suddenly confronted with the horrifying site which now covered half of the station platforms. The central location of the station in the town of Harrow meant that the emergency services weren’t far away, and the first ambulance arrived within three minutes of the accident. The numbers of ambulance men, doctors, and fire-crews only increased as the time ticked on. Railwaymen who had already started swarming over the wreckage were quickly joined by the prefessionals, including a medical unit from a nearby US airbase.
The first loaded ambulance left the site at 8.27 a.m. From that point there was a continuous stream of them heading to nearby hospitals up until 10.30 a.m., and by 12.15 p.m. the great majority of the injured had received first aid attention and had been conveyed to hospital.
Two further seriously injured cases were removed at 2.30 p.m., but it was not until 1.30 a.m. on the following morning, 9th October, that there appeared to be no chance at all of anyone being found alive in the debris of the coaches.
157 people were transferred to hospitals once they were rescued from the piles of debris which covered the fast, slow and electric lines at Harrow. 84 of them detained with many of them seeing very serious injuries. In total 340 were injured once the tally was completed.
It should come as no surprise that these were not the only people who fell victim to this disaster. The driver and fireman of the Perth express, R.S. Jones, and C. Turnock, and the driver of the leading liverpool engine all lost their lives. Unfortunately, they were joined by 7 passengers who had been travelling in the liverpool train, 23 from the Perth Train and then 64 from the local train.
There were 14 other deaths who couldn’t be attributed to any of the trains, but the horrifiying truth is that it is probable that some passengers who were waiting on the island platform between the Down Fast and Up Electric lines, and that they were caught by the derailed engines of the Liverpool train.
No less than 36 of the passengers who were killed and many of the injured were members of the Railway staff who were travelling to work in London, for them this was a normal commute to the offices, for so many of those who lost their lives this was just a normal journey.
For only the second time in the history of railways in this country, a death toll measured in three figures was returned by the accident at Harrow & Wealdstone station. That number?
One Hundred and Twelve lives lost.
<Musical Interlude sad/dramatic – Reprise?>
Introduction to the Investigation
The death toll of 112 puts Harrow & Wealdstone in a firm second place for the deadliest train crashes in the UK, second only to Quintinshills 226. There were a number of differences between these two, and we will do an episode on Quintinshill at some point, we really need to cover it. One notable difference however was that Quintinshill took place in 1915, during the second world war, the railway was stretched to help fulfill the war effort and indeed one of the trains was a troop train, taking soldiers from Scotland to Liverpool to ship out. Harrow and Wealdstone took place under a normal timetable, without the additional stresses of war traffic. So how had a disaster on this scale taken place?
That was the question that the investigators needed to answer, but to achieve this they needed to break it down into several other questions.
Firstly, What had led to the Perth train colliding with the rear of the local. What protections had been in place to keep these two trains separate, and how had they failed?
Once the first collision had taken place, was there any manner in which the second, the one involving the liverpool train could have been avoided?
Had the differing construction of the coaches contributed in any way to the survivability of the crash?
Finally, had technology existed elsewhere which could have prevented, or reduced the severity of this accident if everything else had happened in the same way.
Why did the Sleeper Collide with the Local train?
To best understand the reasons that two trains had ended up on the very same section of track, we need to look at the way the railway was being worked at this time. It’s also worth bearing in mind that there was nothing wrong with the route of the Liverpool train, and had the down line not been fouled by wreckage it would have steamed through Harrow at speed and continued north without incident.
With regards to the local and the sleeper however, it was clear that they were both on the up fast. The line that ran through that platform at Harrow, and that they were there at the same time. This was very much against the basic principle of signalling, one train in one section at any one time. So what had gone wrong?
Harrow and Wealdstone Station had 6 lines which ran through it, the up and down electric, the up and down fast line, and the up and down slow. Which lines trains travelled on depended on the jounreys they were planned to take. Express trains with minimal stops were routed onto the fast lines, stopping or goods trains were routed via the slow, and the electic lines played host to the DC electric multiple units.
The Perth Express was very easy to categorise. It was an express service, travelling long distances and not calling at local stations. Due to this fact it had run on the fast lines wherever they were present. It was pathed to pass through the Up fast platform at Harrow and continue on the line past Wembley and down to Euston, so there was no question as to whether or not it was meant to be on this line.
How about the local train? This was a regularly stopping passenger train from the outskirts of greater London, and it had called at all stops before reaching Harrow. SO you would imagine it was to run through the station on the slow line, especially since it was stopping there and other services would not be.
This wasn’t quite the case though, up until Harrow the local service had run on the slow lines, stopping at each station, but on it’s approach to Harrow it was planned to cross over from the up slow line to the up fast line, to stop in platform 4 at the station. This was all as the timetable was booked, and not a decision that was made on the day.
There was a reason for this, I appreciate that it might seem a little unnecessary. From Harrow the local train was non-stop into Euston and unlikely to cause any delay or conflicts with other traffic. Running it via the fast lines also left the slow lines free for other movements, specifically in this case empty stock movements from willesdon depot. As an interesting aside, any booked move where passeger trains are running without being in passenger service are know as ECS moves, or empty coaching stock, even when they’re multiple units, not coaches persay. There headcodes also start with a 5 under numbering conventions but I’m getting on a little bit of a tangent here. The important thing is that we understand that the local train was booked to be transferred to the fast line here, and had just as much a right to be there as the express.
So we know that they were both booked to be there, it was clear however that it wasn’t supposed to be at the same time. Next steps? To understand what was in place to separate them.
The very basic answer was timetables. Both trains couldn’t pass though the same section of track at the same time, so the timetable wasn’t written that way. Even now, in theory, you could pick a section of rail and through the magic of timetables see exactly what trains were meant to be on it, at what time and in what order. This is even true of the most complex pieces of track, outside of the largest terminus stations.
Because of this, the timetable was planned so that these trains were going to pass at different times.
The perth express had been due to pass through Harrow at around 7am, the local at around 0815. Very nicely seperated from each other, but that only works if the rest of the world plays along.
Weather did not play ball on the morning of the 8th. The local service left Tring on time, but fog slowed it down somewhat. By the time it left Watford it was 5 minutes down, progress slowed by the weather. This meant that it arrived at Harrow a little after 0815, crossing over from the slow lines into the fast.
The problem here was that the express was also affected by the weather and delayed. 13 minutes late arriving at Crewe, 32 minutes late leaving there. It then ran southbound to Watford, where it was slowed at Watford Tunnel by a 15mph speed restriction, well rather waiting for another train to transit the tunnel at that speed, and then to pass though itself.
By the time the sleeper reached Harrow, it was around 80 minutes late. This is what put it in platform 4 at 0819 in the morning, at the exact same time as the local service.
In the early days of the railway, a lot of the separation of services relied on this method, but, I’m sure you can see the problem, the weather, disruptive passengers, engineering issues and an ever lengthening list of potential issues means that relying soley on timetables would be nigh on impossible.
Which is why it’s a good point we blatantly don’t rely on this now, and they certainly didn’t in 1952. Delays brought the trains to the same place at the same time, but there are measures in place which should have meant that they didn’t physically try to share a piece of track.
Trains are signalled, they are provided signals from the lineside which instruct them whether or not they can proceed along, whether or not they need to take caution and be prepared to stop, amongst other things.
This is the case almost everywhere now and was the case outside Harrow. The method of signalling in October 1952 was absolute block.
We’ve covered Absolute Block a couple of times now, so I’ll give you the very pared down version. Each signal box is responsible for a section of track, they are offered trains by the next box down the line, and they can only accept them if their section is clear. They then offer their train on to the next box, and so on, and so forth.
To look after their sections, signal boxes are provided with signals, although this probably comes as no surprise.
A bog standard absolute Block system typically features a distant signal, at least one home signal and a starter. Home and Distant signals can only show clear or danger, and the distants can only show clear or caution. If either of the home signals are at danger, the distant must be at caution. This way a driver who sees the caution knows to slow down and be prepared to stop at the home signal.
This section of the west coast main line was controlled under absolute block, specifically from the Harrow Number One box. This box was responsible for signals on the up and down fast and slow lines, and the signals which controlled them.
Speaking of signals, a train approaching Harrow platform 4 on the up fast would see the following sequence;
2100 yards before the start of the platform was the up fast distant signal, a colour light signal which shows yellow for caution or green for proceed. 1400 yards further along the track was a semaphore signal, the Up Fast Outer Home, followed 450 yards later by the Up Fast Inner Home, directly before the crossover from the slow to the fast lines.
Once the train passed through the platform there was the Up Fast Starter and the Up Fast Advanced Starter controlling trains leaving the platform and handing them off to north wembley box. As you can see, quite an advancement on the very basic level, especially when you consider this is multiplied over two sets of up and down lines.
Which means we now need to ask a very important question, had the signals been set correctly? With the local train in platform 4, the signals should have been set to protect it. Because the local had crossed over from slow to the fast line at Harrow The Perth Express should have steamed on towards Harrow and seen a .caution aspect at the distant, and slowed in preperation to stop at the outer distant.
It’s clear it didn’t, nor did it stop at the Inner distant, so were the signals set correctly?
To clarify this most important of questions, the investigators started down a couple of lines of enquiry, and arguably the most important was talking to the signalman responsible, a Mr Armitage.
He told investigators how he had run trains through his section that morning. He;d been working since 6am, covering the box as a relief signaller, and at around half past had instigated fog working.
This knowledge was important, weather, visibility and what part they played were a really big consideration for this accident. We know that fog was a big part in how the trains were brought together, did it play a part in signals not being seen?
Under fog working trains must be kept two sections apart and of course this means less trains can run, especially in busy areas where it’s not unfeasable that every consecuitve section for a length of track could be occupied, it does however mitigate the risks of a signal passed at danger. Signalmen will impliment fog working when visibility means that they are unable to see their fog object.
At Harrow, the fog object was the Up Slow Home Signal, and at ten past 8 in the morning, Armitage decided he could see the signals and a way past them, the fog had thinned. 9 minutes before the collision he telephoned his control and sent the message, fog off, so visibility had lifted.
Jut prior to this, armitage had been offered two trains, a delayed express from Glasgow on the up fast, at 0758, and the local train, on the up slow at 7 minutes past. He accepted both into his section as both his fast and slow lines were clear. Two minutes later he received a signals to tell him the Glasgow express was entering his section, and at 11 minutes past 8 it steamed in on the up fast, past his box and through platform 4. Chillingly Armitage recalls the platform looking quite a bit busier than usual. Around the same time two other things happened. He received a signal to tell him the local train was approaching, and then he was offered the Perth express from the next box north.
Alot happened very quickly after this point, and this isn’t that unusual because this was a relatively busy section of line.
At some point here, but the couldn’t recall exactly when, Armitage set the crossover for the Local train from the Up slow to the Up fast. This was because a concious decision had been made that the local train was going to take precedence over the sleeper bearing down on the station, despite the fact the local was stopping here.
This might seem counter intuitive, and sort of goes against our instinctive feeling that expresses should probably be given priority. But, there was nothing wrong with this decision, in fact Armitage did exactly the right thing. Local instructions were given to provide priorty to local trains in this area instead of late running expresses from the North, and it makes sense really. Firstly, this local train was now running straight through to Euston, as was the express, but the express was 80 minutes late already. This local train would have additional workings throughout the morning and to delay that would have a greater affect on the timetable as a whole. And so armitage reversed the crossover to allow the local train to access the up fast, expecting to hold the sleeper at his outer home, which was set to danger.
With the outer home set to danger, the distant on the Up Fast showed caution, so 2000 yards along the track Driver Jones would see a yellow light, brake his train and hold it at the signals outside the station.
At 0814 Armitage received train entering section for the local train and offered it forwards to Wembley. He cleared the home signal on the slow line to allow the local train to approach the crossover and enter the up fast platform, this move protected by the Up Home signals and he also cleared the starting signals on the Up fast, to allow the local train to leave the platform. After the local passed the Up Slow signals he put them back to danger and recorded that the local arrived at the platform at 0817. Exactly in line with the time that he received a signal to tell him that the Perth Express, with City of Glasgow pulling hard at the head, was leaving the last section and entering his.
Armitage told how a minute or so later he was astonished to hear the sound of the Perth express approaching at speed, and he said that when he first saw it it was ” coming out of the mist and passing my Outer Home signal on the Up Fast ” (this signal is nearly 600 yards from the box, so it does tell us that visibility had improved somewhat).
He saw that it was making no attempt to stop so he took some swift action to try and stop the disaster he already knew was certain.
He threw a leaver which automatically placed three detonators on the fast line, these were later found to have exploded, but clearly hadn’t had much of an impact.
He also knew at this stage that the last thing he needed was another train entering this area, so he threw back the signal against the Liverpool express, which he knew was very much on it’s way. When he did so he heard the buzzer which warned him that the liverpool train was already occupying the track circuit he was trying to protect.
He recalled that the two impacts happened almost at the same time, he recorded the time in his log book and sent the signal to boxes either side. Obstruction. Danger.
Those who spoke to Armitage immediately afterwards said that he was shaken. In fact the stationmaster at Harrow went up to the box around 10 minutes after the collision. He found him to be ” deathly white ” and very upset, and he helped him out of the box to sit on the steps to get some air.
Although Armitage was clearly horrified by what he saw, his account was clear, he carried out his role as he saw fit, and to the rules of the position. Unfortunately the same account could not be obtained from the footplate crew of the perth sleeper, as neither survived the accident.
Without their version of events, and about 50 years too soon for forward facing CCTV, it was up to the instruments themselves to either prove or disprove Armitages account.
Within minutes of the accident taking place signalling engineers who had been traveling on the local train had been up to the box and recorded the position of the levers and before half an hour had elapsed, a lineman had been sent to go see what the signal positions and lights were showing.
Another later a telegraph inspector arrived, he checked the aspects each signal displayed, the repeaters in the box and the equipment within the box.
All of these reviews were unaninmous, the signals were showing as Armitage said they would have been, which led the investigation to come to the conclusion that no blame could be laid at his feet.
Which unfortunately meant that the report concluded that the fist collision resulted when Driver R. S. Jones did not reduce the speed of the Perth train in obedience to the Harrow No. 1 Up Fast Distant signal at caution, and subsequently passed the Outer and Inner Homes at danger.
The problem here was best worded by the report itself.
“Owing to the very regrettable death of the two men on the footplate, it is only possible to speculate on the circumstances of the human failure which brought about the first collision. Driver Jones was an engineman of considerable experience and mature age with a good record, and it appeared that he had been driving with proper caution during the journey from Crewe in the fog”
The investigation yet again turned towards visibility. The Harrow Up Distants are only 1,300 yards beyond Hatch End box, which Jones will have known he had passed, but by all accounts the visibility at these signals was not nearly so good as it was at Hatch End. It may have been 100 yards or less, and at 50 m.p.h. they would have been in a driver’s view for about four seconds only.
This is not a long time, but the colour lights are well sited and focused for observation from the left hand side of an engine, and two other drivers, who were travelling at much the same speed, had no difficulty in seeing them a few minutes earlier.
There was a question as to whether or not a train which passed shortly before may have left a pall of smoke in the vicinity of a bridge nearby, but such happenings are in the ordinary run of a driver’s xperience and if Driver Jones had been keeping the close and continuous look out which the conditions equired, he could hardly have missed an intense colour light which is so conspicuous at short range and was presented so close to his line of sight…
When the report was published, investigators could only suggest that Driver Jones must have relaxed his concentration on the signals for some unexplained reason, which may have been quite trivial, at any rate during the few seconds for which the Distant signal could have been seen from the engine at the speed he was running in a deceptive patch of denser fog. Having thus missed the Distant he may have continued forward, still expecting to see the colour light and not the Harrow semaphore stop signals which were at a considerably higher elevation. He may have suddenly
realised that he had missed the Distant when the signal box and the surroundings of Harrow station came into his view.
Without the ability to talk to Jones, or to see what he saw, we can’t really answer this question any more fully than that, but this was our reason the root cause for the first collision. Jones did not stop his train in response to the signals that had been meant to protect the local service.
Could the second collision have been prevented?
This second of the questions unfortunately had already been answered.
Under the set up of the signals here in North West London, there was no way that Armitage could have known that the Perth Sleeper had blown through the distant signals until he saw it, and by that point not only was there no chance of stopping that first collision, the liverpool express was already in the section and past any signals which could have slowed or stopped it.
Even if fancy automated signals or warning systems had been in place, the only point at which the Liverpool was in any danger was after the collision, when the wreckage of the other collision had strayed into its’ path.
Even if we transported this 60 or 70 years into the future, and added a GSM-R radio into the cabs, and Armitage was able to send a railways emergency call? It probably wouldn’t have made a difference. The time between the to collisions was so short that I don’t believe that there would have been an opportunity for any meaningful brakeing to take part. At one point in the report it states that it couldn’t be guaranteed that the Perth engine had completely come to a stand on the down line before the Liverpool hit it.
Once the pieces were in place, this accident was happening, and it was going to involve all three trains.
Survivability of the coaching stock
In previous episodes we’ve talked about survivability of coaches following an accident, and here at Harrow the question was quite prominent. This accident took place at a point where some changes were being made in the construction of carriages on the network and the changes can be seen in the mixture of coaches involved in the crash.
There were a number of vehicles with an all timber body involved, the leading two vans of the Perth express were a perfect example, as were the rear two vehicles of the local train.
There were also a large number of carriages with steel panels and roofs, but timber framing, a bit of a middle ground, but very standard for the era.
The last type involved was only found on the Liverpool service, an all steel construction. Steel panels but with steel frames all welded.
As I’ve said in the past, although we’re comparing the performance of different types, it’s really worth baring in mind the fact the scale of this accident. As it says in the report;
An exceptional disaster such as this, in which enormous destructive forces were applied to a large
number of vehicles from different directions, can give no firm grounds for conclusions on the merits of different types of carriage construction from the safety point of view. I think, however, it is fair to say that the comparatively modern composite coach body, with sheet steel panels and roof and hard wood framing, is not in itself a great deal stronger in structural resistance to collision forces than the older all-timber construction.
The heavy steel underframes which have been adopted for all main line stock in recent years can sometimes give considerable protection against the crushing of the vehicle as a whole, but if overriding takes place their resistance is not brought into full play, and in these circumstances a heavy underframe may even add to the destruction by the well known telescoping effect.”
This is something we’ve seen before, the relative looseness of the chain and link coupling means that a greater amount of vertical movement is available, and during collisions coaches can be forced on top of each other, the underframes riding over other bodies.
The all-steel body shell mounted on a normal underframe was an improvement and has proved its value more than once in collisions where conditions were less severe. WE know that some coaches of the liverpool train which were of the all steel construction, however, the report continures to say that “no carriage body for service in this country can be built, even in steel, to withstand the very violent shocks which must have been received by the 5th coach of the Liverpool train.”
The other point that could have been influencial is not only the types of carriages, but the way that they were marshalled, or laid out in the train.
A prime example of this is the Perth Train. The leading two vehicles were a milk van and a brake van. The presence of these two bogie vans at the front of the train undoubtedly saved serious damage to the passenger coach marshalled 6th and to the following sleeping car.
The industry already recognised the value of such protection and instructions were issued to all Regions in 1948 that a brake van or vehicle with a brake compartment at the leading or trailing end should be marshalled at the front or rear of passenger trains wherever practicable.
<Musical interlude Longer?>
Could the accident have been prevented?
One of the biggest parts of any investigation, which will have become abundantly obvious in the past, is how best the industry can prevent reoccurrences.
Harrow was horrific. Only the second time in our railways history that a death toll ran to triple digits. Preventing a third was incredibly high on British Railways agenda, as well as that of the railway inspectorate. To work towards preventing this, part of the report included recommendations.
These recommendations have always been a part of these reports, and they still are, every RAIB report today has a recommendation section.
They could be a suggestion to retrain staff on a particular issue, or to redesign a process or a practice. They could be that the infrastructure operator needs to redevelop a system of work or revise maintenance regimes, you get the idea.
The strongest recommendation by far from the report into Harrow & Wealdstone actually revolved around a safety feature that could have prevented the accident. This technology? Automatic Train Control. As the report said; The way to guard against the exceptional case of human failure of the kind which occurred at Harrow does not lie in making the regulations more restrictive, with consequent adverse effect on traffic movement, but in reinforcing the vigilance of drivers by apparatus which provides a positive link between the wayside signals and the footplate.
We have this technology now, a system which reacts in this way and sends signals to the drivers based on what the signals say, AWS. The automatic warning system.
Back in October last year I released a bonus episode which covered AWS, going into the history a bit, feel free to go back and have a listen, but I’ll briefly run through some of it now.
The system works like this. Before each signal, there is a piece of equipment between the running rails in the space called the AWS ramp.
These AWS ramps consist of at least a few components. A sloped piece of metal, a permanent magnet which is constantly magnetised, and an electromagnet , which can be turned on and off.
The principle of the system is known as set/reset. As the train passes over the permanent magnet, the system is set. As the train continues it passes over the electromagnet, which resets the system.
This electromagnet is only energised if the attached signal is showing a proceed aspect to the driver, and when the system is reset in this way the AWS sounder in the cab will make the bell sound.
If the signal is showing a caution, or a danger aspect, the electromagnet will not be energised. This means that when the train passes over the permanent magnet, the system is set, but isn’t reset within the required time frame of one second. At this point a warning horn sounds in the cab, after which the driver has 2.75 seconds to press a button in the cab to acknowledge the alarm, and if they don’t, the trains brakes are automatically applied, in a full emergency setting and the train will be brought to a stand. This is the thing that is of real relevance in this episode. Had AWS been in existence at the time of this disaster, then when Jones blew through the distant at yellow he would have received a horn, warning him of the adverse aspect. This would have given him ample time to slow the express for the home signals.
What a shame that this system wasn’t available.
Except, if you’ve heard that bonus episode, you’ll know that it was.
It first appeared in the form of Automatic Train Control, installed by GWR and fitted along it’s routes in the south of the country. This earlier system was reliant on physical contact between track and train ,and not magnets and was found from as early as 1906. A physical ramp would make contact with a shoe underneath the locomotive at Distant signals fulfilling the same purpose as the magnets I’ve just mentioned.
This fact was not lost on the investigators, and virtually two whole pages of the report tell the story of the history of automatic train control, pointing out that the Great Western Railway had 1300 miles of route covered by the system. It also makes reference to trials with a system known as thr Hudd System, an adaptation of the system using magnets. Sound familiar?
The report detailed the progress being made on this technology “After some small scale comparative trials early in 1948, and discussions with the Inspecting Officers, the Railway Executive put forward tentative proposals for a programme to extend Warning Control on main line routes. They considered that it should be initiated as soon as circumstances would allow, and envisaged an expenditure of some £6 millions staged over six years.” Now credit where it’s due, this was no small proposed expenditure. This 6 million pounds is closer to 173 million today.
BR continued trials on the system, trying to perfect it over the next two years, and by August 1952 a final design had been put together, planned to be fitted to the first locomotive on the 17th October.
9 days before this installation, A passenger express passed a signal at danger and led to the lives of 112 people.
Changes to the system going forwards
The tragedy at Harrow & Wealdstone led to a real surge in the implimentation of Automatic Train Control, and the new system, dubbed AWS, was finally approved by the ministry of transport in 1956. From that point installation increased and spread out further and further. Distant signals in absolute block areas were fitted with them, and when colour light signals were introduced they were fitted there too.
We know as an industry that AWS has gone a long way to saving lives, and there are many incidents that have become training opportunities, or near misses that could so easily have been, well, episodes for this podcast.
The idea was taken further in the 90s, with Train Protection and Warning System, TPWS, which can automatically apply the brakes based on the speed a train approaches buffer stops, signals, or even just operate as an overspeed sensor anywhere on the network.
Yes, in an ideal world it would be great to just trust that humans will never make errors, but sadly, we know that it’s simply not the case, mistakes happen, so it’s so important to have these safety nets, nobody wants to see another Harrow.
Musical interlude into credits?
Episode Conclusion – Memorial and poignancy please.
The sheer number of lives lost at Harrow is what makes this such a significant disaster. 112 people.
It’s difficult to imagine it isn’t it? I for one can say I never want to open a newspaper and read double figures from a train crash again. However I don’t know that we will always be that lucky.
Carmont took the lives of three last year, but in a world where passenger numbers were down around 90%. I dread to think what that number might have been in a normal year.
We can put all of the protections in place, the best rolling stock, but sometimes the forces involved can surmount all of that. If we were to duplicate the circumstances at Harrow with modern stock? I certainly don’t know that we would be lucky enough to come away with a single digit toll.
The terrible October morning in 1952 was commemorated with a memorial, the North entry to the station was adorned with a stone plaque, this was unveiled 50 years after the accident, in 2002, which really seems like some time, but it makes sense to remember it in this way. It was also commemorated as part of a mural adorning the wall alongside the station, dedicating it to the memories of those who lost lives, and in gratitude to those who saved them. These memorials allow for a moment of reflection for the millions of people who enter the station each year, starting a daily commute into the city, a normal, everyday journey, in exactly the same way as so many others did 70 years ago.
Thank you as for tuning into episode 17, Once again, please like, share and review, come interact with us on social media, twitter or facebook, just search for Signals To Danger or Daniel Fox Rail.
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Until next episode, Travel Safe!