This weeks episode is a tale of travelling post offices and tanker wagons. Two trains collide outside Stafford station in 1996, one postal worker loses his life, and several carriages are destroyed.
What happened which led to this disaster?
Season One – Episode 21 – Rickerscote 1996
Hello again, and welcome back once again to Episode 21 of Signals to Danger. We are now a podcast that could drink in America!
An apology for the delay in releasing this episode is probably needed. My laptop, which I unsurprisingly rely on quite heavily, was subjected to a deluge of liquid a week or two back courtesy of my fiance. Not only was it liquid, it was lucozade so you can only imagine the sticky, syrupy panic I was trying to fight when she told me.
After a week of leaving it to dry out, thankfully we realised it still works! The keys are a bit sticky, and writing this script has been more painful than usual, but it works, the podcast continues. The sound of writing is now more Clickity Clack than Tippity tap, but this is a railway themed podcast. In any case, couple this with a fairly heavy work schedule and I’ll admit I’ve slacked a little as far as you fine people are concerned!
As I do every episode, I’ll open by thanking you for your downloads, shares and likes and your interaction on social media. If you want to join those conversations you’ll find the podcast at @signalstodanger and me at @danielfoxrail.
Dont forget that you can find show notes, the shop and more at signalstodanger.com, as well as being able to find out how to support the podcast. There’s a link there for the Patreon. I would love to take the opportunity to thank Andrew, Joshua, Anthony and Hassan for signing up to the Patreon.
With the intro out of the way, let’s get straight into this weeks episode.
The quiet suburb of Rickerscote had just received a rude awakening. Residents were used to the occasional passing of trains throughout the night, but this time the steady rumbling had been replaced with crashing, scraping and the noise of tearing metal.
As curtains flew open just before midnight, residents were horrified to find the remains of two crumpled trains.
The year is 1996, and the place, is Rickerscote.
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 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, so let’s have a look at 1996.
The year marked the start of chan ge in the UK rail industry, as the two Train operating companies born out of the privatisation of British Rail came into existence, South West Trains, and Great Western Railways.
Once more in these introductions, we’re going to need to discuss the troubles. 1996 was a big year for big bangs, and the first of these was the docklands bomb on the 9th February. 2 people lost their lives and 36 were injured. This explosion not only shattered the heart of the financial district, but also put paid to a 17 month ceasefire.
The next month saw one of the truly darkest days of our countries modern history. On the 13th March 43 year old Thomas Hamilton walked in to the gymnasium of Dunblane Primary School. He then used handguns to take the lives of 16 students, one teacher, and finally his own. The nation reeled at the news, and the debate on public ownership of firearms was dragged to the forefront of peoples minds. Following the massacre, two new Firearms Acts were passed which outlawed the private ownership of most handguns within the United Kingdom.
The 15th June saw yet another Provisional IRA bomb, this time in Manchester. Nobody was killed but the destruction caused unintentionally led to redevelopment and one of the nicer parts of the city centre years later.
The 5th July sees the birth of the first ever cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, and three days later Girl Power well and truely lands on the stage as Posh, Sporty, Scary, Baby and Ginger, better known as the spice girls, launch their debut Single, Wannabe.
And in the last event I’ll pull out of the year, all the safety systems installed in the channel tunnel were put to the test when a lorry on one of the Euroshuttle freight services caught fire. The systems are pretty fascinating, so we may cover that one day.
1996 was an interesting year with some real tragedy. For this episode however, we need to focus on the 8th March.
Where on earth is Rickerscote?
Quite often when we start an episode talking about a location which is quite unknown, we’re referring to a village or hamlet, great heck, connington, grayrigg. In the middle of nowhere compared to other, but close enough to the railway to lend their names to disasters which take place there.
Rickerscote has now been added to the list of places I know about because the name features on the front cover of an accident report, but it’s not quite as remote as some of the others. The name isn’t attached to a hamlet, village or town of it’s own, rather a suburb of somewhere else. Stafford.
Found in the west midlands, Stafford is a large town of 68000 people, located between Stoke-on-Trent and wolverhampton. In railway terms this means that we’re back in familiar territory, the world of the west coast main line. Like its counterpart on the other side of the country, the WCML has featured on this podcast several times before. The episodes covering Nuneaton and Grayrigg to name a couple.
The WCML is the arterial route spreading North from London up to Glasgow. Connecting the capital with Milton Keynes, Coventry, Liverpool, Manchester, Preston, Lancaster, the lakes and scotland. With speeds up to 125 miles an hour, the line, like it’s eastern counterpart sees a mix of long distance and commuter services as well as a good amount of freight.
There is one way the two lines differ, and that’s the way the route runs up and down the country. The east coast main line starts at London’s KIngs Cross terminus, and then runs up as one straight route, calling at each station in turn and then reaches edinburgh.
If you were to look at the map of the west coast main line however, there are a few differences. Branches of the route split off the main route, to Manchester and Liverpool and in scotland the route splits in half, with trains terminating in both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
One of the biggest differences however is in the midlands. Instead of one straight route, the line has a big split. As trains from the North reach rugby they can take one of two routes, the first to the west through Nuneaton and the eastern one via Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton. These two branches join up again just outside the station at Stafford.
Less than a mile down the eastern branch, minutes from the platforms of the station, the line passes through the area of the town known as Rickerscote.
The Train and it’s journey
Rickerscote, like so many of these episodes, is a tale of two trains.
The first, was 6M27. There is something different about this headcode to most of the others we’ve seen so far. The number 6.
When we talk about headcodes, the identifying number for each train, there is a reasonable amount of information which is right there in that 4 digit code.
The simplest fact to pull out here is why they are known as headcodes. Headcodes were introduced around 1850 and were shown by oil lamps facing forward on the front of the locomotive. The position of these lamps on the locomotive denoted the class of train, which assisted the signalmen to determine the gaps between trains required in the interval-based signalling system that was used at the time. Which I’m sure you can agree is a wonderfully technical system!
The lamps were lit at night and were usually painted white to assist with sighting by day. On some lines white discs were used by day in the place of lamps.
In addition to the headcodes denoting the class, some routes added train reporting numbers which denoted either a particular train or a line of route a train was travelling on.
In the 60s the current format was introduced where train class, route and reporting number information are combined in four characters. All diesel and electric locomotives and multiple units built after that date were fitted with a roller-blind display that could display the full reporting number, continuing the tradition of the number being shown on the head of the unit, and helping to retain the headcode name.
Anyway, like I said, they give us a lot of info, to start with, the number at the start of code denotes the class of train, and essentially gives a priority ranking as far as signaling goes.
- Is an Express passenger train or a special type of postal or parcels train, or a rescue train, snowplough, overhead line train etc, if they’re off to clear the line.
- Is an Ordinary passenger train, normally more your stopping services.
- Is a Freight train if specially authorised; a parcels train or an autumn-railhead treatment train
- Is Freight train which can run up to 75 mph
- Empty coaching stock train – a passenger train not in passenger service.
- Is a Freight train which can run up to 60 mph (95 km/h)
- Is a Freight train which can run up to 45 mph (70 km/h)
- Is Freight train which can run up to 35 mph (55 km/h)
- Is Class 373 train; other passenger train if specially authorised
0 is a Light locomotive or locomotives, light locos are locos without any carriages or wagons in tow.
The next section, the letter, generally relates to line of route, expresses which pass between regions of the country tend to follow the convention of;
- E: Eastern
- L: Anglia
- M: Midland
- O: Southern
- S: Scotland
- V: Western
But there are then a whole lot of other letters which are used within regions of network rail to indicate other routes, I won’t get into all of this though, or we’ll be here all day!
The takeaway I’m aiming for here though, is that you can look at the code 6M27, and understand the type of train this was. The 6 leading the headcode tells us that this was a freight train, permitted to run, or able to run at up to 60 miles an hour. And if thats what you had worked out, then you would be right.
6M27 was a freight train, and had started it’s journey at 1440 at Mossend Yard at Glasgow. Over the course of the day it had made it’s way south, and as the journey had progressed, the makeup of the train had changed slightly. At 2038 the train arrived at Arpley yard near warrington. The train was intended for Willesdon depot in London at around 0330, and at 2152, it departed Arpley to complete its journey. 23 wagons now formed the train, with 13 being tanker wagons containing liquified carbon dioxide gas.
At the head of the train was a pair of class 37 diesel locomotives. Built between 60 and 65, these workhorses can still be found working on the network nowadays. 309 were produced, and their 1750 hp engines were affectionately nicknamed tractors by enthusiasts.
There aren’t 309 out and about now, but lets just concern ourselves with these two for now. At 2309, the driver of M27 passed through Stafford station, and approached the junction outside it. The fast lines to London ran straight, and the lines that ran via Birmingham and wolverhampton curved to the south. The class 37 at the lead of the train took the junction, and 6M27 started on towards Wolverhampton.
As I said earlier though, this is a tale of two trains. The second, was 1S09.
Applying the same logic as before, we know that S09 could only be one of a few things. It wasn’t a breakdown train, they tended to run as a 1Zulu99, so signallers knew how crucial they were. The S in there is a good clue, it denotes a service to scotland, and as a scheduled service it was probably an express. It’s passengers however were not people, but parcels.
As an express mail train the train was given signalling priority over other freight services and stopping passenger trains, allowing crucial, 1st class mail, perishable goods and other parcels to make their way up and down the country.
Departing coventry at half 9 in the evening, the train was due to arrive at Glasgow just before 4am. 9 carriages, a mix of parcel vans, sorting vans and specialised mail storage vehicles, were hauled behind a class 86 electric locomotive.
The mail train is one of the great traditions of our railway. The travelling post office found it’s origins as far back as the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the very first intercity railway in the world. In 1830 an arrangement was made between the railway and the general post office for the carriage of mail on L&MR services. The idea quickly caught on, as post could be transported far, far quicker than by horsedrawn carriage.
By 1838 this had progressed into the concept of the travelling post office. Why waste time sorting the mail before or after the railway journey? The travelling office added clerks onto the train, and the sorting took place on the move. The TPOs were eventually added onto more and more passenger trains.
By the 1860s equipment had been created to pick up and drop off mail without stopping the train, nets were hung out from the side of the train, and bags hung up at the lineside to be collected.
By 1963 there were 49 mail trains in service up and down the country, a mix of dedicated services and a number of vehicles added on to passenger trains. I pick out 63 because one of those mail trains was to fall victim this year to a gang of miscreants. 2.6 million pounds was stolen, however this equates to around 55 million in today’s money. You’ve probably heard of it, it became known as, unsurprisingly, the Great Train Robbery.
During the 80s, British Rail sectorised a lot of it’s work into consolidated business units, and one of these was Rail Express Systems, or RES, dedicated to the running of the mail services.
Finally, when British Rail was privatised, RES was acquired by English Welsh and Scottish Railways, the newly formed freight company.
Which does bring us back to 1996, and todays story, I may have gone a little bit tangent again.
1S09 was driven north from London empty as far as coventry, where mail was taken on board, and 6 employees of the royal mail joined the train. It continued to head north to Birmingham New Street, where more mail and 14 more mail workers joined the train.
From there the train proceeded north to Wolverhampton, the 20 royal mail staff diligently sorting the mail, and the driver bringing the train up to it’s permitted speed of 90 miles an hour. Two trains, one headed north, one headed south, and both converging on the suburb of Rickerscote.
The Accident & Aftermath
When the driver of 6M27 drove his train through stafford he noticed nothing unusual about it, both locos at the lead were working fine, and the train left the main line, and proceeded down the line onto the up fast line towards Wolverhampton.
On leaving the junction the driver opened up the accelerator, under clear signals, headed south. A short ways down the line, the driver realised that something had gone wrong, the brakes of his train had applied themselves automatically. The train quickly pulled up on the Up main, and as it came to a stand he became aware of another train headed in the opposite direction.
1S09 was also running under clear signals on the approach to stafford. On the northbound run from Birmingham, the mail train had been running quite comfortably at 90 miles an hour. On the approach to the junction at Stafford, the driver of the mail train started to reduce his speed towards 60 miles an hour, the restricted speed needed to safely get though the junction. At this point he saw another train, on the up line. This train was either stopped, or travelling very slowly. It is clear to us now at this point that 6M27 was the other train, and both trains were in the same area. Rickerscote.
Very shortly after seeing the other train stopped, the driver of the mail train became aware of a large, dark coloured object on the rail in front of him. Nothing could be done to prevent the collision.
At the head of the southbound freight, the driver knew something was up. As he camr to a stand following his unsolicited brake demand, he looked back along the line out of his cab window. He saw the wires of the overhead lines bouncing around. This wasn’t supposed to happen, the wires are supposed to be kept in tension.
He alighted, and walked back along the train to inspect it. Both locos and the first wagons seemed to be the condition he expected. But that was the problem, only those 8 were there to inspect. The remaining 15 wagons of his train were somewhere out there in the darkness. He stared back along the line and became aware of a hissing sound, and realised he could see the rear of another train, on the line adjacent to his.
At this point training kicked in, and he made his way to the nearby signal, lifted the handset on the telephone there and spoke to the signaller at Stafford number 4 box. The emergency services were requested, and the lines blocked. The message the driver relayed was that his train was divided, partly derailed and that he needed the help of the emergency services. He then returned to the cab of his train and placed another emergency call, this time from the cab radio. He then placed detonators and track circuit operating clips, which trick the systems into thinking a train is there, onto the opposite line to protect the other train, and walked back to the rear. By this point, the emergency services had arrived on the scene.
The driver of the mail train was far more aware that something had gone wrong. For a start, he remembers coming to, which means he lost consciousness. He was still at the controls, though they were at an angle. He crawled from the side window of his cab, and became aware of what had taken place.
His locomotive was laid almost straight across the tracks, it’s leading end up the embankment at the left of the track. Its front buffer beam was feet away from the end of a row of terraced houses.
Behind the loco the next 4 vehicles of the postal train had absorbed the brunt of the impact, and had concertinered across the tracks themselves.
The leading brake van was laid alongside the loco, it’s front end heavily damaged in the impact with the rear of the loco, and its rear end destroyed by the forces of collision with the next vehicle, one of the sorting vans.
The leading end of the sorting van mustered second in the train suffered little damage as it had overridden the brake van, but the rear end was a different story altogether. The impact between the rear of the second and front of the third vehicles, both sorting vans, had caused massive damage to the rear of the coach. The solebar, the horizontal beam running along the base of the bodywork, had been bent upwards with the toilet area at the rear of the carriage compressed to almost nothing . The body was severely damaged from this end of the vehicle. Luckily nobody had been in the toilet area at the time of the crash.
The third coach in the train, another sorting van, had carried 9 royal mail employees at the time of the crash. Only 3 had been working, most on a break, but many had been thrown around the carriage and received injuries due to the accident, whiplash, cuts and bruises.
This vehicle ended up diagonally laid across both tracks, as did the stowage van directly behind it.
The remaining vehicles of the mail train actually ended laid in line, and still on the tracks, although staff travelling in them were still thrown about and endured injuries.
It wasn’t just the postal express which had sustained substantial damage at Rickerscote, the freight train travelling in the opposite direction had too. It’s leading 8 vehicles had remained safe and railed behind the loco, and to walk back along the line from them you wouldn’t find any more of the train until you reached the wreckage of the mail train. At this point we find the next 8 vehicles of the freight train, 7 of which were CO2 tankers, and leaking. These 8 were strewn about, mixed in with the wreckage of the other train. A line of wagons were laid to the side of the tracks, others wedged in and around the locomotive.
The last few wagons of the southbound freight did not actually derail, but they suffered quite substantial damage due to overriding each other, and the buffers locking together.
Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service received an emergency call via 999 at 2311. Two appliances and a rescue tender were dispatched and arrived at the accident site at 2315; only minutes after the accident occurred. Officers of the Staffordshire Police Force were however the first to reach site and together with bystanders made initial attempts to tend to the casualties on the postal train.
They ran into difficulty due to the presence of leaking gas from the ruptured rail tank wagons that caused breathing difficulties for those undertaking these initial rescue attempts.
Fortunately the leaking gas was nothing more toxic than carbon dioxide.
The Fire Service gained access to the accident site from The adjacent road, but couldn’t initially determine the extent of the accident because visibility was seriously impaired by the presence of the gas cloud.
Further rescue attempts were made by fire officers either wearing breathing apparatus or taking appropriate precautions for their safety. Despite this though, a bystander who had been involved in the initial rescue had lost consciousness and been reported missing, he was found and received medical attention.
In total, 19 workers from the postal train and the driver were rescued and transported to hospital. But sadly the collision at Rickerscote was not without any fatalities. One member of the postal team crew appeared to have been travelling between the 1st and second vehicles of the train at the time of the collision.
57-year-old postal worker John Thompson did not survive the impact – he was found in the gangway area between coaches one and two, which had suffered the worst degree of compression. In fact he wasn’t released from the wreckage until 6 the next morning.
As the nation woke on the morning of the 9th March, they saw images on their television screens of the crumpled wagons, concertined carriages and the emergency services swarming all over the scene. Yet another tragedy had befallen Britain’s railways
<Musical Interlude sad/dramatic – Reprise?>
Introduction to the Investigation
Whenever accidents take place, it’s obvious that the emergency services, the railway companies involved and the operator of the network, Railtrack at this time, are informed straight away. But those whose responsibility it is to investigate these incidents are also informed in those early stages. Normally while the rescue work is still being undertaken.
This case, is not any different, at half past midnight on the morning of the 9th, less than 2 hours after the accident, Her Majesties Rail Inspectorate was informed of the collision, and 3 hours later an investigator arrived on the scene.
As ever, inspectors were on scene with the express aim of answering the questions that everyone needed answering.
Firstly, What had caused the incident, what had the mail train collided with?
Secondly, What had led to that obstruction being in place?
finally, when that cause was ascertained, were any opportunities missed to prevent the accident taking place?
What had been in the way?
When we approach that first question it would be quiet easy to make an assumption. Two trains were involved in this collision, so surely what the driver of the postal express saw in his path, must have been the other train?
Its not an unrealistic assumption, and the likelihood is incredibly high, but its not really in the nature of the industry to make assumptions, and so it must be proved to be the case.
The first factor that supports this as the course of events is timing. When the driver of the southbound freight brought his train through the junction from stafford, he accelerated and the train started to pick up speed. He then received an unsolicited brake demand, and this took place as the train passed over a set of points, where three lines to and from Stafford, turned into the double tracked line to Wolverhapton.
The important thing is that after the brake demand, as the freight was coming to a stand, that is when the driver of the southbound service saw another train heading north, and this is corroborated by the driver of the postal train, because he said he passed a stationary train on the Up line, shortly before the collision.
Both drivers storys sat together well, and it’s clear the freight had already almost come to a stand before the collision. And the reason why is easy enough to corroborate as well. When the driver walked back along his train, he found 8 wagons and nothing more connected to his locos. This would explain why he received the brake demand.
For a long time, brakes on trains were a fairly primitive affair. Trains would be stopped by the brakes on the locomotive and tender, assisted by additional brakes in brake vans throughout the train. The footplate crew would apply the locomotive brakes, and a guard in the brake van would apply his brakes when signalled to do so by the driver.
This obviously created issues, and as you can imagine many accident reports discuss these practices from the early days of the railway.
The idea that the footplate crew should be able to control all of the brakes on a train was always the ideal, but with trains becoming heavier, and faster, it eventually moved from being a preference to a necessity. Various systems were developed, a chain which ran under the length of the train, hydraulic systems, even a complex mix of rotating rods and conical springs all entered the mix. The ingenuity of british inventors was prevalent in the battle against this issue, but one idea proved better than all of them. Air brakes.
Well air or vacuum brakes, but the principle of both is very similar.A system of pipes and reservoirs run along the train. With air braking, a compressor on the locomotive builds up pressure within the pipes, and this pressure holds the brakes of the train off. With vacuum brakes, it’s the vacuum which pulls the brakes off the wheels.
When a driver wants to apply the brakes he operates a lever which reduces the air pressure by venting it out of the system, or allows air into the vacuum, reducing it. Essentially, both systems work due to a managed air pressure.
The best thing about air powered brakes however is that you can build a fail-safe into the system. If one of the pipes, or other components is damaged, the system cannot maintain the pressure needed to hold the brakes off, and therefore they are applied again. A small leak somewhere might be managed by the compressor, but a big leak, brakes come on. And that is what happened here.
Between each wagon of the freight train there were a number of connections, the coupling, connecting the wagons together is an obvious one, but there will also have been at least one air hose, by which air was moved around the braking system. When trains are being put together and split up, caps are fitted to the hoses to maintain pressure in the system, but if they were split unexpectedly, well, the air will vent to the atmosphere, the pressure in the system cannot be maintained, and the brakes come on automatically. Exactly like they did at Rickerscote.
The brake pipe between the 8th and 9th wagons had severed, and this brought the train to an emergency stop. This happened before the leading ends of the trains passed each other, which tells us that the division of those wagons was not an outcome of the accident, but happened before it.
The factor that provides the largest clue about what 1S09 hit on that night is the placement of the wreckage.
When investigators arrived on the site, they found the locomotive of S09 up the embankment and it’s following carriages jacknived. THe wreckage of M27 was found predominantly derailed to the left, as far its direction of travel is concerned, to the opposite side of the track, or along the line of the up fast. With the notable exception of two tanker cars, they were found wedged up against the trailing end of the class 86 loco on 1S09. Fouling the Down line. One of these, the one closest to the loco, was the large object the driver of the postal express saw, just before his journey ended abruptly.
What investigators needed to understand now, was what had lead to these wagons fouling the opposite line.
What derailed the freight wagons?
What started the accident at Rickerscote then was a derailment, something had led to wagons being off the tracks and in front of another train.
The evidence here, as in most other cases, started with what was left behind by the process of derailment. Last episode we spoke about witness markings, scatches and dents found on tracks, sleepers etc after an accident.
Investigators walk the scene of an accident, and the approaches to the wreckage to find evidence of what took place there. Rickerscote was no difference, so the walks took place here as well.
800 metres back from the two locomotives of the freight train, answers were found.
A point of derailment was located on the Up Fast line. The damage to track was examined from this point to the collision site. Marks on the rail head showed that at this point a wheel on the west side (or right hand side in direction of travel) of a vehicle had fallen from the rail
head into the space between the two running rails which we call the ‘four foot’.
It had then ridden over the track fastenings on the inside of that rail for 323 metres, damaging and breaking most of them. From this point there was similar damage to the track
fastenings on the inside of the other rail and a mark on the rail head to indicate that a wheel
on the left hand side had dropped into the ‘four foot’.
Soon after this, damage was found to the sleeper ends, outside of each rail, in addition to the damage to track fastenings on the inside of the rails. This appeared to be caused by sliding metal contact from the axleboxes of one of the wagons.
425 metres from that initial point of derailment, debris was found from one of the wagons of M27. A handbrake lever and suspension components were found, but that’s not all that was in this location. This is the point where the three lines became two. Where the two sets of rails converged, there was evidence of components from a derailed wagon becoming trapped in between the converging rails. Beyond this point, major track damage was found, and this is the point the wagons became derailed en masse.
So, we know where the derailment started, but we need an instigating event. What caused it to actually happen?
The clue was one of the components found in the wreckage at rickerscote. A wheelset from one of the wagons.
A wheelset is a cohesive assembly, consisting of the axle shaft and the wheels. It’s easiest to think of it as one solid piece, incredibly strong and one of the most crucial components of a train, which is why it was so surprising that this one was found in two pieces.
It was matched back to the 9th coach, the one that had fouled the down line and been collided with by the postal service.
The next factor was had this axle been been broken by the accident, or had this fracture caused the derailment? The answer to this could be found in the markings found on the track so far back. There was evidence of wheels dropping into the 4 foot from both sides. The wheels should not have been able to both fall in, with an axle keeping them spaced apart.
This meant that a mechanism of derailment could finally be established.
The initiating event was the complete fracturing through of the leading wheelset fitted to the
ninth wagon in 6M27. At the initial point of derailment, the right hand wheel dropped into the
‘four foot’ and may at this point have stopped rotating. Subsequently the other wheel also dropped into the ‘four foot’ and from this point the marks on the sleeper ends showed that the axleboxes securing the broken wheelset to its underframe had been sliding along causing metal contact.
When the right hand axlebox assembly jammed between the converging rails at the points linking the Up Fast and Slow Birmingham lines it was ripped off the vehicle together with the handbrake lever. Major track damage then ensued and the wagons behind then derailed. Most wagons derailed towards the left hand side in direction of travel, but the ninth and fourteenth wagons in the formation of train 6M27, derailed towards the right hand side and therefore foul of the Down Fast line. This was directly in the path of train 1S09.
At some stage the through brake pipe was severed causing the brakes on the train to apply automatically. This may well have occurred when the 10th wagon in 6M27’s train, impacted against an electrification mast, that caused it suddenly to come to rest. The shock of the sudden stop was probably the cause of the overriding suffered by the rear 5 un-derailed wagons.
As the front, un-derailed portion of 6M27 was coming to a stand, train IS09
approached and collided with the 9th wagon of the train. The impact caused the locomotive
hauling train 1S09, to jack-knife and the rear of the locomotive then pushed wagon
The 9th wagon back along the track impacting against the 14th, the other wagon that
had derailed to the right. As we know, the loco ended up lying on the banking to its left hand
side with the following 4 coaches askew behind it, many injuries were caused, and one man lost his life.
What could have prevented it all?
So now we had you answer, the reason for the accident. Well, an explanation, the leading wheelset of one of the tanker wagons had fractured. But it doesn’t answer the question of why that took place. It’s clear that this shouldn’t happen, especially not when this component is on a train in service.
The two parts of the wheelset were examined by British Rail Research in their laboratory in Derby, and what they found was the axle had the correct dimensions and complied with
the design specification in place when the axle was constructed in 1970, so this wasn’t the issue.
There were defects found in the metal however, most prominently corrosion pitting, small, shallow holes in the metal caused by corrosion.
Unfortunately, in considering the reason for the failure of the axle a significant difficulty arose. This was that when the fracture occurred, the axle ends suffered considerable mechanical damage destroying much of what evidence there may have been to explain the fracture.
The fracture faces did however show what appeared to be the fracture face of a ductile overload fracture covering about a quarter of the axle cross-section. The remaining area of the axle cross-section was almost certainly a fatigue crack. In simpler terms, this means that there were pieces of evidence that a crack had formed inthe metal where the axle fractured.
The past experience of investigators meant that they came to the conclusion that it was reasonable to conclude that the failure of the axle fitted to the 9th wagon occurred from a fatigue crack which propagated from a corrosion pit.
So there we have it. Traced right back to the reason for the failure, Rickerscote was explained.
The last point we need to hit then. Was there an opportunity to capture this before it took place. Could the damaged axle have been caught prior to the complete failure?
A few times before on the podcast we’ve spoken about the pragmatic and realistic view that things break. It’s not a dirty concept, nobody expects engineers to have developed the fantabulous unobtanium of television and movie fame.
Metal tracks, copper wires, light bulbs and wheelsets, they all have a shelf life, a maximum amount of times they will light, or rotate or heat up before they stop working. And this is OK, because when we create these pieces of equipment we tend to have this lifespan as a known quantity, and we can monitor the components, examine them and check them for signs of wear and tear. This means that we can capture any faults, failure or damage before they become fatalities.
Wagons like this are supposed to be subject to safety inspections, normally timed in a specific number of miles travelled. A number of different railway group standards actually mandated the frequency with which these wagons were meant to be inspected.
One of the things that was different about this wagon as opposed to those of the passenger franchise companies, is that it was privately owned. It belonged to a company call CAIB, who used it for the transport of carbon dioxide in liquified form.
Because the wagon is privately owned, it needed to be maintained by the company who owned it, in line with the instruction and standards of the railway.
When all of the maintenance records were examined, however most were completely in order. What did become apparent, is that the timescales of inspections required by private owners, differed somewhat from that undertaken and required by railtrack. In fact the standards of maintenance, design and operation that apply to private owner wagons differed somewhat to those applied to rolling stock owned or leased by railway operators on the Railtrack system. Inspection intervals were not the same, and Railtrack, as the operator of the infrastructure therefore had less knowledge of the safety of stock on the network than it realistically needed.
Episode Conclusion – Memorial and poignancy please.
Most of the recommendations leveled as part of the investigation into Rckerscote related to the systems surrounding the systems of maintenance of wagons.
NUmber one, the most important, was that Railtrack should harmonise the standards (including requirements for the keeping of records) so that all railway vehicles in service on the Railtrack system are subject to the same system of standards and that these standards are based firmly on risk control criteria.
The others built on this recommendation and how it could be implemented.
Given the pivotal role of Railtrack, as infrastructure controller, in securing safety on its network and the fact that it cannot be satisfied that risk control measures are adequate if it cannot be sure that rail vehicles do not bring unacceptable risk on to its system, there didnt seem to be any other body within the industry that couldact as such co-ordinator.
It was therefore recommended that Railtrack should lead and act as co-ordinating body, in meeting recommendations with other bodies being obliged to participate as appropriate.
Rickerscote is a prime example of an accident which the fault was not to be rectified by wholesale introduction of new control measures, nor was it the fault of a major breach of procedure by someone violating the rules.
This was an accident which required a review of existing procedures, development of the processes currently used to try and prevent a recurrence of the scenes which took place in a sleepy suburb.
Methods of checking wheelsets for fatigue cracks were improved over time, enhanced ultrasound techniques were developed, and the regime for maintaining wheelsets and the maintenance intervals all saw development for the better, but unfortunately non of it took place early enough to save the life of John Tompson.
If you were to take a drive to stafford, head south from the station and take a few turns, you would find yourself on the russetts. An unassuming street, with garages and terraced houses. At the end of the row of terraces there is still an embankment, and the main line still runs below it, with freight and passenger trains a constant part of the soundscape.
Like the site of many accidents, no evidence remains, no lingering damage or debris… just a row of houses that suffered a very rude awakening, 25 years ago.
Thank you as for tuning into episode 21, 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!