An overnight sleeper train flies off the track at four times the speed limit, scattering carriages across a normally busy station during engineering works.
How did this happen and could it have been prevented? Join us as we try and find out what went wrong.
Yet again I want to start by thanking everyone who has been listening to this podcast, I appreciate every download that I’m getting and some of the feedback that I’ve has really helped to point me in the right direction and improve the quality, a trend I hope I’m going to continue with going forwards.
If you are enjoying the podcast so far and want to support, the best thing you can do is to let other people know about it. If you know other people who you think might be interested, let them know about the podcast, the more listeners the better!
For those of you who would like some slightly more light-hearted Rail scene conversation in-between episodes of Signals to Danger, I would like to recommend The Mess room podcast, I’ve recently stumbled across them myself and those guys are doing a great job, They’re a few episodes in, just like we are, and there’s a pretty good chance there’s some crossover in audience interests. Chances are you can find them where you found us and I’m sure you’ll enjoy what they have to say.
Short introduction this episode, so now it’s time to get going with episode 3.
It was supposed to be a overnight convenience. Going to bed in one city and waking up the next morning as you arrive in another. While you slumber hundreds of miles of rail pass below you, till you wake up to a Scottish sunrise and a breakfast.
If you get that far. If the carriages of your train don’t end up piled up at a station you were never meant to call at. It’s 1975, and this week, we’re going to Nuneaton.
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.
As I have done each episode, allow me to put some context on the era this accident occured.
The year was 1975. January saw the release of the Volkswagon Golf, and in February Maggie Thatcher won the leadership of the conservative party, laying the groundwork for her to become the first female PM four years later. April brough the end of the Vietnam war with the fall of Saigon.
In rail, The london underground had seen the Moorgate crash on the 28th February, not including the 7/7 bombings or some wartime incidents, it is consdidered the worst accident the underground has experienced. We may well come to Moorgate at some point later on in this podcast. In september of 1975 the National Railway Museum was officially opened in York by the Duke of Edinburgh.
This is the first episode we’re doing where we we’re not witin the post privatised landscape of franchised train operating companies. In 1975 we’re still firmly within the period of the national operator, British Rail.
Music sting – Light
On the 5th of June, while most of the days train service was winding up and engines were being put to bed in sidings and sheds, One train was a hive of activity sat in the platforms at London’s Euston Station. This was the 2330 sleeper service from Euston up to Glasgow. Running under the headcode 1 sierra 2 6, the train consisted of 12 sleeping cars, a restaurant car and two bogie brake vans. With driver J Mckay and senior secondman Norman the train departed Euston on time and headed out onto the main line. Norman took the controls.
Now our last two episodes have taken place on the east coast main line, famous for being the main artery for rail travel, headed up the east coast of the UK. Funnily enough, the west coast main line fills the same purpose on the other side, connecting the capital with the cities of Birmingham, Manchester, up through to Carlise and onwards up towards the scottish border. Once into Scotland the line splits at Carstairs, heading east to Edinburgh, and west to Glasgow.
The terrain both lines traverse differs quite a bit. The east coast is home to some straight, level and flat sections of route leading to some signigcant speeds and less severe climbs, whereas the West coast is forced to turn and weave as it climbs through cumbria, This has led to a tough but beautiful route, with locations like Shap and the Lune gorge where the scenery is magnificent but the gradients hard work.
The line had been electrified throughout the 60s, meaning that workhorse electric locomotives such as the class 86 and 87s could haul passenger and frieght services at line speeds of up to 110 miles an hour.
At the head of Sierra 2 6 was one of those locos, a class 86. capable of reliably running at the maximum speed of the line, they were a clear sign of the technological developments taking place on the network at this time.
Except for tonight.
When 1 Sierra 26 reached King’s Langley, just before midnight, the locomotive failed. A second loco needed to be sourced and a second class 86 was brought up from Willesdon and coupled to the head of the train. The original loco was not removed when the relief loco arrived as it would only add extra time on to the delay. After around an hour, at midnight 58, the train started northbound once more, with the first class 86 being dragged “dead” behind the new relief loco. J Mackay took the controls himself following this delay.
With a late running of 75 minutes, he did all he could to make up time, driving at the maximum permitted speed. All of the coaches were rated for 100mph running, and the loco was more than capable, however the brake vans were only allowed to run at 90. On a normal day, non of this would be a problem, timings for these sleeper services normally only required running of 80mph to help maintain comfort levels, so it wasn’t unrealistic that on a journey of this length, 343 miles.
And so the train was driven hard, being brought up to 90 wherever possible, although it was made more difficult by the already heavy train being suplemented by an aditional 81 tons of failed loco.
As the train travelled between Rugby and Nuneaton Mr Mackay followed his ususal process, he took power off as the train travelled down the bank from Shilton.
Briefly rewinding to the night before, this very same driver had taken a train up the same route, from London as far north as Crewe.
On that journey he had travelled north without incident. By the time he was on the appoach to Nuneaton he had dropped down to 80mph. This was due to the fact that he was expecting to see the advance warning signs for a temporary speed restriction slightly further down the line through Nuneaton station. Just outside the station was a second sign which marked the start of the actual limit and by the time the train reaced this sign the speed had been reduced to the 20mph needed to safely traverse the temporary trackwork in Nuneaton Station.
On the morning of the 6th Driver McKay and his locomotive rounded the corner to be faced with the point where the advance warning signs should have been. He told the inquiry into the accident that he was conciously looking out for the sign at this point, as he left his brake in the initial setting, slowly bleeding speed off.
He passed a green signal, telling him the line head was clear, and shortly after he saw the advance warning signs on the down slow lines which had just branched off to his left. (As we know from previous episodes, down means away from London, as our train was travelling, and slow describes the use of the lines, normally for stopping or slower services. Our train, an express, was routed on the Down Fast lines northbound).
He realised at this point that he had seen nothing of the restriction sign on the Down Main, which should have been present before the line split into a fast and a slow. He surmised later that he had considered the lights could have gone out but he assumed he would have seen the outline. He thought that the boards absence must have meant that the speed restriction had been lifted, and that he was able to continue at line speed for the area.
There was a slight downhill gradient, so Driver Mckay released the trains brakes fully. With no power applied and the slope downwards the 749 ton train maintained a speed of around 80 miles an hour as it approached Nuneaton station.
The tracks through the station were undergoing a major relaying and rationisation. The alignment was being changed as part of a system of improvements. To facilitate this, one of the junctions between the fast and slow lines had been replaced with a section of plain track. While it would later be replaced with a new crossover, the plain line had been laid to conform with the new alignment. What this did mean is that between the existing up fast and the relaid track there had been laid short sections of sharply curved track. These were perfectly safe when traversed at the design speed of 20 miles an hour, with a margin for error. In fact a permanent way supervisor responsible for the wotrk stated that over the 10 previous days of the restriction, he had seen a number of trains exceed the limit, but not by more than around 5mph.
No reasonable margin for error would allow for the circumstances in the wee hours of the 6th however. As Sierra 2 6 approached the station at 01:54 the driver saw another sign directly ahead. A backlit number 20. This was the commencement sign for the temporary speed limit over the transition to the new track.
The driver immediately put the train into emergency braking, but it was too late. As the lead loco hit the curved section of track it derailed almost immediately. In fact the report said that there was virtually no chance of it remaining on the line.
Yards after entering the realigned section the track had been burst by the locomotive, freeing the rails from the sleepers and eliminating the gauging. The first locomotive derailed, and the second, being dragged dead, joined it as it encountered the burst section or track. As each vehicle of the train reached this point in turn they followed the locos into derailment, all except for the very rear vehicle of the entire train.
The locomotives quickly became detached from the train and indeed from each other. The leading loco housing the driver skidded forwards till it ended up halfway through the station in the ballast between the 2 running lines.
The second locomotive began to slew to the side, impacting and damaging around 150 feet of the platform for the Down Fast. It eventually mounted the platform and came to rest with the leading cab wedged under the station canopy as it rested on the platform surface. This image of a train on a platform would be eerily echoed nearly 27 years later at Potters Bar, which we covered last time.
The story of what happened to the coaches showed the force of the collision, as each vehicle became involved in the derailment. The leading coach, a brake van, remained upright but damaged beyond repair. The second, a sleeping car was upright with severe damage and the third, which was also a sleeping car, had turned onto it’s side and seen it’s bogies stripped away. This three vehicles remained coupled together and almost formed a zig zag shape with it’s leading end at the entry to the space between the platforms.
The next two carriages had derailed more spectacularly. Both were sleeping cars, and both had ended up perpendicular to the track, laid across it at right angles. The worst part of this is that they had actually crushed the trailing end of the third vehicle, as they had been forced up onto it by the force of the crash.
The remaining 10 vehicles of the train remained coupled together and more or less in line, the leading one, 6th overall, on its side but the remaining 9 upright and all derailed except the rearmost brake van, the damage progressively decreasing towards the rear of the train.
When all was said and done, four people had been killed in the derailment, two passengers and two attendants from the sleeping cars. They were joined by a further two passengers who succumbed to their injuries later in hospital.
Normally at this point in my podcasts I would list the names of those who sadly lost their lives. The issue is that they are rarely, if ever, listed in the official reports. I have found them from contemporary news articles or other sources such as the coroners court transcripts. The further back you go the harder some of that data is to find. So, there will be times, such as this I’m unable to name the victims of the incidents. One thing I will say, is if anybody does have access to that information get in touch and I’ll add it into the intro of the next episode.
- Music Sting – Light –
The alarm was raised almost immediately by the signalman on duty at Nuneaton power signal box, located just to the south of the point of derailment. He and a supervisor also present witnessed the crash and the immediate aftermath. The emergency services were contacted and attended with what was described as “commendable speed”.
The damage to some of the vehicles was excessive, people had been trapped and rescue was made difficult. There are videos of firefighter atop the wreckage using an acetylene torch to cut into the side of an overturned sleeper car. Although the crash occurred at 6 minutes to 2 in the morning, it was 0709 before the final injured person was removed from the train, and just under another 10 hours till the final body was removed at 1728. In fact, the search for other victims continued until 1145 the next morning, as the train was so damaged in places it took that length of time for rescuers to be sure they hadn’t missed somebody.
When everyone was accounted for, 38 passengers had been taken to Nuneaton’s Manor Hospital, 10 of whom were admitted and detained for further treatment.
One thing I’d like to say here is that we always think of certain organisations turning up to accidents and forming the emergency response. The police, the fire brigade etc. The report into Nuneaton, which in this case was published by the Department for Transport in 1976 and written by the Rail Inspectorate, specifically a Major Rose, made specific reference to the assistance provided by other organisations. He wrote how through the long hours of the rescue operations valuable help was given by the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, who set up an emergency centre, and by the Salvation Army and other voluntary groups. In fact this is not particularly unusual. The presence of support organisations and voluntary groups at these scenes support the efforts of the hundreds of peoples who end up descending on the sites. Teas, coffees and sandwiches can go a long way in these terrible circumstances.
So if you’ve listened to the episodes before this, you’ll know that this is the point that I list the factors that the investigation needed to ascertain, and if that’s what you thought, you’d be right.
While the root cause of the derailment wasn’t really under dispute, a train went over a piece of track at four times the speed needed to do so safely. Track designed for 20 miles had a devastating effect on the 80 miles an hour sleeper service.
What the investigation needed to explain was the factors that led up to this.
- Why did the driver of the train, J Mackay, not decrease the speed of his train to a level sufficient for safe passage?
- Were there any failings in the rules and safety systems surrounding temporary speed restrictions which led to this derailment taking place.
- Did the equipment which could have prevented the accident operate as it should.
One of the other things that these reports normally contain, is recommendations for preventing further accidents going forwards.
Before we go any further it’s time for me to go into this episode’s “101” , something that has become somewhat of a feature on these episodes.
To understand accidents related to speed on the railway it can be quiet helpful to have a basic understanding of how speed “limits” work on the UK rail network.
I put a bit of unusual emphasis on limits, because I really want to differentiate it from how speed limits work on the railway, and specifically how they differentiate from what you find on the road.
The maximum speed a train can travel on a section of track is referred to as the permissible speed. First and foremost this is dictated by the characteristics of the track, features in the area and the signalling system, among other things. If there is lots of curvature in the area or you’re approaching stations, complex pointwork etc etc, those speeds will be lower. That speed is also affected by the rolling stock, the trains and carriages, that are being operated. The train on this date for example, was only permitted to run at 90mph maximum, but the line speed was higher than that at times.
The main difference between speed limits on the road and permissible speeds on the railway, is that on the railway, that;s the speed drivers are expected to drive at, unless specifically instructed otherwise. This has come up a lot in the post Carmont media conversation. If a train is travelling on a line with 75mph line speed, he is expected to drive at 75 unless instructed otherwise. In fact, the timetable and associate train timings will be written expecting that speed from the service.
The other thing that’s quite important is that train drivers don’t go out and look to see what speed the signs say, then react to them, like you do on the road every day. Those signs serve as more of a marker to show where the boundary between speeds is. In fact each route that a driver signs, they are expected to know the permissible speed of each section of the entire route. It’s an integral part of their training, and the ongoing management of their competency to drive those trains on that route.
In short, if the speed of the track decreases, the trains will normally be down to more or less the right speed before the signs even become visible.
This knowledge of the route, and the fact that drivers tend to drive the same area most days means that when those limits change, it’s really important to make sure that it’s made abundantly clear to avoid anything being missed.
Depending on how much advance notice is given of the change depends on how that notification is given.
If track-workers find a fault on the railway, emergency speed restrictions, or ESRs, can be implemented. Train-crew are notified of the restriction by a notice which is sent to their depots where they start work. These are known as late notices, and they’re put up in a special, late notice case, which every member of train-crew are obliged to read when they sign on for duty. Signallers can also contact drivers to make sure they’re aware of them.
ESRs are a short notice solution, with a little more planning you get TSRs, Temporary Speed Restrictions. That is what we had at Nuneaton. These are quite often used in support of works, and preplanned in as part of them. This preplanning gives an additional opportunity to make sure drivers are aware of the change.
Each week train-crew are provided with a printed document which lists all of the alterations being made in the area. At this present time, these are called Weekly Operating Notices. They list temporary speed restrictions, permanent way operations, signal alterations, and certain special instructions applicable to the routes they’re provided for. These existed back in 1975 too, but they were called Weekly Engineering Notices.
The Weekly Engineering Notice provided to Driver McKay had contained the details of all of the speed restrictions on that part of the West Coast Mainline, including the 20 mph at Nuneaton.
The last way that drivers can be informed of speed restrictions is through physical signs adjacent to the track, although there’s a little more too them than just slapping up a lower speed limit sign next to the worksite.
TSR signage in 1975 consisted of at least 3 signs, one placed in advance of the restriction, and the other two at the start and end.
The sign in advance is the warning sign. In 1975 these signs consisted of a yellow board with a notch at one end and point at the other, forming an arrow, with two white, gas-lit lights within it. Above this arrow was a back lit indication of the speed the restriction was for, so 20 if the restriction was to 20 miles per hour.
The warning board is usually placed an appropriate braking distance from the restriction, so if it took a mile to brake from the line speed to the restriction speed, the warning board would be placed a mile back.
At the point where the TSR actually starts, you’ll find the commencement indicator. This used to simply be a backlit letter C, but by the mid 60s this had been changed to the actual limit in numbers. So just outside of Nuneaton station on the 6th of June, a backlit 20, marked the commencement of the restrictions.
The last sign, the termination sign, marks where the restriction ends. This is vert simply formed of a black background with a white capital T on it. This sign was again illuminated and once the rear of the train had passed it, it could accelerate back up to line speed.
So, in answer to the questions posed by the investigation, the response to one of the questions led directly to the answers to another.
On the first question, why had the driver disregarded the speed restriction? The answer wasn’t found buried beneath layers of intrigue or behind walls of silence. It was quite simply explained by Driver McKay when he was interviewed as part of the investigation.
As I said a little earlier, he had driven this section of track the night previous without incident and the speed restriction had been in place then, so there wasn’t any immediately apparent reason why he shouldn’t have achieved the same on the 6th.
When he was interviewed by Major Rose, he told how he was consciously looking out for the Warning Board as he approached the location it should be and shortly afterwards he saw, away to his left, the lights of the Warning Board on the Down Slow line. This was located after the two lines had branched and so he should have passed the indicator board already. He realised that he had seen nothing of the Down Fast Warning Board and he decided that the restriction must have been lifted and accordingly released the brakes of the train.
This testimony explains the basic reason the driver acted in the way he did, but it also identifies some failings in the equipment, the board should have been quite clearly visible due to the 3 lights, but it wasn’t, we’ll get into that in a little more detail soon.
The decision making process described by driver McKay doesn’t really tally with the training and rules around how TSRs are managed.
As I described earlier, he had received a weekly engineering notice, in fact he agreed when interviewed that this was the most important part of the system and that the signage only formed a small part of that system.
The most recent Weekly Notice that Driver McKay had received covered the period between 24th May and the 6th June. This notice had listed clearly the restriction at Nuneaton and referred to it as Until Further Notice.
In addition, we can also start looking at point 2 of the investigations questions here, there were rules in place that should have removed the ambiguity. Rule T.21.1 states that;
in the event of a speed restriction being eased or withdrawn earlier than shown in the printed Notices the Warning Board will be left in place and the speed indication altered to show the higher speed at which trains may run.
That means that if the restriction had been lifted, the sign would have been left in place and the 20 replaced with 100 to signify the change in permissible speed. The one thing driver McKay should have been more concerned about was the complete lack of signage, in fact, after the accident took place, he and his second-man had a brief conversation where they came to the conclusion that the lights must have been out.
In the conclusion to the report Major Rose confronts the fact that Driver McKay claims to have consciously assessed the situation and decided that the restriction must have been listed. Perhaps unusually his comments in that section give the driver more credit than that. He wrote;
Driver McKay, claimed that he was keeping a careful watch out for the Warning Board and that when he saw no sign of it he decided there and then that the speed restriction had been lifted and therefore allowed the train to continue towards Nuneaton at speed. If he did consciously make such a decision it was this that led directly to the derailment. I am not however entirely convinced that it was a conscious decision that led him to continue at speed that night. Driver McKay was, and is, a very experienced driver. As such I would regard it as completely out of character for him to have made a deliberate and reasoned decision to carry on at speed merely because he had not seen the lights at the Warning Board. He had seen the Warning Board in position and correctly lit on the previous night: he bad seen the nature and the extent of the work on the Down Fast line at Nuneaton: he knew that the temporary speed restriction concerned was, according to the printed Notice, supposed to remain in force “until further notice”: he knew that, if the restriction had been lifted prematurely, the Rules required the Civil Engineers to show the new permissible speed limit at the Warning Board and not to remove the Board completely and without warning: and on his own admission he realised that it was possible that the lights might for some reason have failed. In the light of all this it seems incredible that a driver of his long experience and undoubted competence should have come deliberately, even on the spur of the moment, to such a completely unjustified conclusion. It is of course possible that he did so decide and I cannot say that he did not: only that I consider it unlikely.
And that sums it up. Driver McKay was realistically too experienced to make such a wrong call when confronted with the evidence on the day. As far as I’m aware, he didn’t ever change that testimony.
One point of note is that the rules which could have prevented this incident from happening didn’t only involve the incident train. Between 2223 on the 5th and 2 minutes to 1am on the 6th there had been 15 trains passed through the restriction and all of them had done so at the correct speed. 6 of those trains, the crew reported back that the light which sat behind the speed indication, the top light behind the “20”, had been out when they passed. Of the other 9, there was more or less a 50/50 split as to whether the light was dimly or brightly lit. All of the crews had believed that the 2 lights in the horizontal yellow bar had been lit when they passed.
Next, the investigators spoke to to the crew of the three trains which passed the board between 0059 and the incident train. The first had been another sleeper service which had departed Euston 15 minutes later than the Glasgow service but overtaken it when they had failed Kings Langley. Driver Ireson of this train realised that the speed indicator light on the advance board was extinguished.
After Iresons train followed a Driver Sharpes, hauling a motorail train to Stirling, running late due to a weaker locomotive being provided for the service than normal. When he approached the speed restriction indicator, he couldn’t see it. He eventually caught a glimpse of it in the dark as they passed, but it was clear at this point that all three lights were extinguished. He was under no illusions as to whether the limit remained in place, so he continued to slow for the restriction.
The last train to cross the restriction had been a Willesden to Runcorn freight, driven by a Driver Turner. Now his testimony was a little more, well, ambiguous.
At the railway internal inquiry, Driver Turner said that possibly the right-hand of the two horizontal lights might have been out, but when it came to the Inspectorate’s investigation he gave an account that he had passed the Down Fast Warning Board at approximately 01.45 and that all three of its lights were then illuminated. He told me that the left-hand of the two horizontal lights was more brilliant than the one on the right and that he saw the indication of the speed, the 20 numerals, which were “quite bright”.
All of this despite the fact that the train that had passed before him had given testimony that all of the lights had been out. In fact he even suggested that the vibration of driver Sharpes train passing may have somehow caused the lights to burn more brightly.
In the end, it was a moot point, as Driver Turner had, put simply, lied. On 5th January 1976 he submitted, at his own request, a signed statement to the Railway Officers in which he withdrew all the evidence he had given at both inquiries about the warning board. In his new statement he said that in this area it had occurred to him that he might have forgotten his hand lamp and he therefore bent down to see if it was in his bag. When he looked up again the train had passed the Warning Board. He had seen nothing of the Warning Board or its lights. He admitted that all the previous evidence he had given in respect of the condition of the Warning Board on the night of the accident had been false but he was not prepared to say why he had not previously told the truth.
The thing about all of these passing trains which observed issues with the lights on the warning board that could have prevented the accident is as follows. Rule T.25.5 stated that a driver who saw issues with the lights on these signs was to stop and report the issues. Non of them did so.
If they had, the signaller at Nuneaton would have arranged for the lamps to be relit and the warning sign could have been restored to visibility, preventing Driver McKays poor judgement from ever coming into play.
The last point that investigators really needed to understand was how the warning lamps ended up not being lit. There was an adequate supply of gas provided for the lamps that they remain lit for around a week. Two 42 pound bottles were provided and a valve connected them to the lamps, when both bottles had their valves open, this meant as soon as one bottle was exhausted, the supply switched over to the second automatically and the lamps remained lit. As the bottles were checked by patrol men, the empty bottle could then be swapped for a fresh one.
In theory. In fact this is the correct procedure with a standard warning board, but not what was taking place.
During the investigation it was discovered that in the Nuneaton area the practice had actually been to only open the valve on one bottle, and then rely on patrol-men to check and manually switch the bottles over when exhausted. In fact this had been the method of work in this area since the as lit boards were introduced nearly a decade earlier. Although no instance of lamps becoming extinguished in this way had been reported prior, there existed a risk that was created by the ignorance of the correct operating instructions. It was an avoidable set of circumstances.
The investigation firmly placed the bulk of the blame with Driver McKay, in fact he ended up appearing in Birmingham Crown Court a year after the accident, on six counts of manslaughter, although he was found not guilty.
Major Rose did however stress that blame and responsibility must be shared by others, as he said in his conclusions “All those who failed to use the Warning Board propane gas equipment as it should have been used, or who condoned its misuse, must share some of the responsibility. Those drivers and secondee (and included in these there must be some who were not prepared, as others were, to admit to what they had seen) who saw lights, out in the Warning Board and who look no action must share a larger proportion. And in all probability, Senior Second man Norman failed to give his driver his full support in observing signals and lineside features.
Like so many of the incidents we’re going to cover in this podcast, Nuneaton was avoidable and quite simply did not have to happen. 6 lives lost again due to a lack of following procedures put in place to specifically prevent these situations.
British Rail started to look at ways of improving the safety of Temporary Speed Restrictions shortly after the accident.
While the system of engineering notices was examined as art of the investigation, it was deemed that they were perfectly adequate for the job in hand, like I said earlier, they still exist today in the form of Weekly Operating Notices, or WONs.
BR took a great deal of interest in assessing the signage involved and options for improvement, and from 1976 electrically lit warning boards were trialled around the southern region. These were eventually also trialled with flashing lights.
Remember where I said that if a limit was withdrawn early they replaced the speed with the line speed? Well in 1983 this was permanently replaced with what was known as SPATE indicators, standing for Speed previously advised terminated early. This served to further remove ambiguity about TSRs.
Nowadays, a large number of signs used for Speed restrictions actually just have a reflective coating, and two white circles in lieu of the lamps. The modern headlights coupled with the coating make these boards far more visible than in the 70s. But it’s also supported by the biggest change related to the installation of TSRs isn’t related to the signs themselves.
In the 1950s BR had introduced AWS, or the Automatic Warning System. This system of magnets and other equipment had been developed in response to safety concerns and accidents in the past.
We’ll definitely cover this in more detail in a later episode, but the short version is that magnets were set up at signals and various other pieces of infrastructure and the system has the ability to sound a warning tone inside the cab of an approaching train.
The biggest move towards safety was that from 1977, a temporary AWS magnet was placed at the advance warning board of most TSRs. This means that if the signage related to the signal wasn’t visible for some reason the driver would still receive an AWS alert and know something was wrong. If he couldn’t see the reason for the alert he would be obliged to bring his train to a stand and contact the signaller.
The information provided in the WONs, the signage, the route knowledge and the AWS equipment all combined together, should make an incident like this very unlikely to occur again. Travelling over a speed limit at four times the limit should be a thing of the past. Except it isn’t quite.
In October 2018 a London North Eastern Railway travelled through a 20 mile an hour speed restriction at Sandy South Junction, Bedfordshire. It’s speed? Around 120 miles per hour. 6 times the limit and 40 miles an hour faster than the discretion at Nuneaton.
The speed restriction had been in place for around a day at the point the driver approached the warning equipment. It had been implemented due to the discovery of a crack in the rails of a set of points. The restriction had been communicated to LNER but they hadn’t passed it along to their drivers .
Through a variety of factors, including some distraction and misinterpretation of warnings, the driver didn’t realise that a speed restriction applied to him until he saw the commencement board and applied the trains full service brakes, bringing the train down from 125 to 121 miles an hour.
The watchman at the points reported the incident and the cogs began to turn on that investigation.
Although no injuries, damage or death occurred as a result of this infraction, the potential was certainly present, which is why an incident that lasted a matter of seconds start to finish resulted in a full RAIB investigation, with 5 recommendations to the industry attached. I suppose it does go to show that there is always room for error, as well as improvement.
The last thing I like to let you know about is the fact that Nuneaton Station features a memorial to those who lost their lives in the accident. The plaque was unveiled 40 years after the event, and was funded by Nuneaton Memories, founded by Mark Palmer.
Unveiled on the 9th August 2015, the plaque reads;
Remembering those who lost their lives and those who were inured in a crash at this station on June 6th 1975. We acknowledge the work of the emergency services and all those who helped with the rescue operation.
Though the network moves on and systems change and develop, more often than not, these incidents leave lasting scars on the communities where they occur. The fact that even 40 years after the morning driver McKay drove his train into disaster this plaque was funded and unveiled is testament to that fact.
Thank you yet again for tuning in to Signals to Danger. I’ve been, and always will be, Dan. We’re now a fortnightly podcast so that means that the next episode will be released at midnight on the 28th September in time for your Monday commute.
Once again, please connect with us on Social Media, we’re on Twitter and Facebook, share with your friends or colleagues, anybody you might think will be interested. I’ll always be grateful for very single listener but I’d be happy to welcome even more of you!
Till next time, travel safe!