Northumbria plays host to one of the most infamous curves on the whole network. At twenty to one in the morning the sleeper from Aberdeen spills off the tracks and into the nearby gardens.
With a curve so infamous, why wasn’t it avoided? And what’s the shocking cause behind the whole accident?
Hello and welcome back to Signals To Danger! We’re now up to episode seven, and thanks to everyone who’s still here and tuning in, and welcome to all of you who are just starting to listen to the podcast.
Lets start today with a couple of announcements like we have done previously;
First and foremost; In the interest of remaining factual and transparent, I need to apologise for something I said in error in the Hatfield Episode. After writing the script for the episode I blindly read out a typo and didn’t catch it in post production.
When I was describing factors that the RAIB looks at when investigating an accident, I was, at one point harping on about casual factors. This was pointed out by Heedfan on the RailUK forums. I would like to list a correction at this point. Factors which caused the accident are in fact, and of course, Causal factors.
Secondly, is that we’ve now created an opportunity to support the podcast if you want to. We’re set up on Patreon, so if you want to help contribute to the costs of creating the podcast, hosting, editing software , equipment etc you can do. As it stands we only have a general support option, at £3 a month.
I might look at adding some reward tiers in the future, but I want to stress I won’t be limiting the content available right now to anybody, we’ll still be releasing an episode a fortnight and they’re going to be freely available. If anybody can think of ideas for reward tiers going forwards, please get in touch!
I’d like to thank our new Patron, Julia for the support. Thanks Julia!
If anybody else wants to have a look into it, you can find our page at www.patreon.com/signalstodanger
Last but not least, I gave Ben and his Steel Wheels podcast a bit of a shout last time. Well he released his first round of episodes last week and I’m not ashamed to say I hammered my way through all three in a day.
Steel Wheels is a podcast of three parts. Released in threes, one episode covers the history of the railway, one covers a technological aspect, and the third covers, much like I do, when things go wrong. Available now is a fascinating history episode on the ancient Greek railway you probably didn’t know about. Technology’s first episode was part one of a number on the living, breathing machine, the steam engine. And if you still haven’t had your fill after that, There’s an episode on the Norton Fitzwarren accident of 1940.
Each branch of the podcast has all the hallmarks of being fantastically well researched, Ben’s delivery clearly explains complex issues and I personally found the who experience very enjoyable. Can’t recommend it enough.
Steel Wheels is available at Anchor, Pocket Casts and Spotify, although more and more locations are going to becoming available going forwards.
Announcments out of the way, lets get moving into todays episode.
The sleeping train swayed to the left and right through the night as it powered down the country. Lights blur past in the darkness, signs and signals unseen to those who lay sleeping in their beds. The last passengers to board, over an hour ago had drifted off, trusting the man at the front of the train to watch get them safely to their destination.
But some carriages of this train didn’t make it as far as Newcastle, Instead they found themselves in the gardens of houses just next to the track. It’s 1984, and we’re visiting Morpeth.
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’ll start, as ever, by putting hersrlf in the time of the incident. George Orwells distopian vision of 1984 hadn’t quite come to fruition, although the year wasn’t without it’s negative memories. In March a year of industrial action began in the UK coal industry, and April saw the tragic death of WPC Yvonne Fletcher at the hands of a gunman from inside the Lybian embassy in London.
It’s not all bad news though, Bruce Springsteen released Born In The USA, his 7th studio album this year, June sees Ghostbusters and Gremlins hitting the silver screen, and live entertainment is improved forwever as the company Circque du Soleil was founded.
The back end of the year saw the space shuttle discovery Discovery take it’s maiden voyage and in aa defining moment of the troubles, the Provisional IRA attempted to assistinate Margret Thatcher as they boldly planted a bomb in her Hotel at the party conference in Brighton.
But as much as actually happened at this year, we need to focus on June, specifically the 24th.
Most episodes we start our tale with a headcode. The identifying number of the train involved. This week we’re dicussing 1E48.
217metres long, the train consisted of 7 sleeping carriages, top and tailed by brake vans and pulled along by a class 47 locomotive. It only ran on a Saturday and would allow for people to travel all the way from the North Sea Oil town of Abderdeen to the capital of the UK, London. This train was one of British rails fleet of sleeper trains which ran at the time.
In 2020, your choice of sleeper services within mainland Britain is restrictive, to say the least. You have a choice of a grand total of two options. If you want to venture from Capital to Cornwall you could take advantage of Great Western Railway’s Night Riveria, and if the highlands draw your desire you can jump aboard the Caladonian Sleeper from London up to fort William, Aberdeen or Inverness. Both of these services are looked on more as a romantasised relfection of the golden age of rail travel, something to start a holiday with, a jounrey to take or the journey’s sake.
The modern day Caladonian is a stand-alone Franchise, operated since 2015 by Serco, but it holds it’s heritage much further back. As early as 1873, the North British and Caladonian railways had attached sleeping cars onto mail trains, charging the princly sum of 10 shillings a berth. I think that’s just shy of 40 pounds in new money.
Sleeping services developed into specific trains, specific stock and nightly named services. They ran up and down the east and west coast main lines, until 1988, when the East coast services were stopped. Of all these routes, a stallwart was the Abderdeen to London services. Between the years of 1927 and 1971, they had become known as “the Aberdonian”. Around an 11 hour journey when Hauled by Deltic locomotives, this was a fairly popular service, and although the name was dropped in ’71, the services continued onwards. 1E48 was, in all but name, the Up Aberdonian, heading south to the capital.
The first leg of the journey brought the train down from Aberdeen and down to Edinburgh, the scottish capital, where yet more passengers could board the train and make their way to England.
The vast, sprawling, waverly station was free of much of the hustle and bustle of the daytime as E48 sat in Platform one, here the traincrew was relieved to, well, be relieved.
A fresh guard and driver had met in the platform at 2350, and after a brief chat they ascertained they were both booked on the same train. When it arrived the guard, a W.G.Brown, headed to the breakvan to collect his paperwork, while the driver, Driver Peter Allan, wandered up to the locomotive at the head of the train. The two would sjare a few extra words when Mr Brown walked back up to the cab of the locomotive to confirm the consist and makeup of the train, and the stopping pattern. The next scheduled call of the train was Newcastle, 80 miles to the south. Brown returned to his brake van at the rear of the train, and at 2305 the train departed and started southbound.
The journey was uneventful. An inspector, a Mr Simpson, had joined the train at Edinburgh as well as the traincrew, and he sat with Brown for 10 minutes and then went into a vacant berth to fill out some paperwork. He remembered opening the blinds and seeing Tweedmouth, south of the border from Scotland into England. The inspector, R Simpson, recounted how the journey hadn’t felt unusual to him.
Further south they travelled, deeper into Northumberland and in turn, England. They passed Alnmouth, a traditional coastal resort just shy of 30 miles north of Newcastle and continued on down.
We’ve covered the route this train was travlling on a few times on this podcast now. Yet again we find ourselves on the East Coast Main Line. The main line from London Kings Cross up to Edinburgh. We’ve talked previously about how the line is home to high permissable speeds and high speed trains as a result of various factors. As a general rule the ECML is composed of relativley flat, gently curved track, at least double tracked throughout, quite often quad tracked where possible, and in later years electrification thoughout the whole of the route up to Edinburgh.
The electrification of the line took place between 76 and 91, by 1984 the electrification hadn’t gotten this far, so the acceleration and power to weight ratio benifits of this tractive power weren’t available to the night sleeper on the 24th June.
Without electification though, the line in general was still “the fast one”. This was where Mallard broke the Steam speed record, it’s where the Deltic diesels routinely hauled express trains at 100 mile an hour and, after their retirement, the High speed train, or intercity 125, came to take up the route of the flying scotsman. This meant that the ECML regularly now saw passeger trains at 125 miles an hour.
The factors which allow this speed are not to be found everywhere on the route though, there are places where toppgraphical features, and towns etc dictate a route less flat and featurless. Places such as the Northumberland coast. Which brings us back to our journey.
Mr Simpson sat in the vacant berth, filling out his check sheet and noting some locations passing by the window. He noted nothing unusual, no signifcant brake applications, until it all went drastically wrong. As the train passed Morpeth, he described himself as being held against the side of the coach by centrifugal force. That was until the carraige rolled over and everything came to a stand.
A similar shock was experienced by passengers, who had found themselves pitch from bunks and in a world turned around an axis.
What was rapidly becoming certain is that everyone on the train knew that something had gone terribly wrong. It was abundantly clear as people found the doors of their compartments were now a feature of the ceiling. Those who could, used furtniture as a ladder, and then crawled along the narrow corridor to the doors at the end of the carriage.
For most, no warning had come, the time was 0040. It certainly fits the bill of as good a time as any to be asleep. The only person who had any real warning was the guard, Mr Brown. He was reading a book in the brakevan as the train approached Morpeth. When he saw the lights of the town approaching he became acutely aware that the train was travelling faster than he expected it to be. He jumped out of his seat and went to the brakes in order to apply them and slow the train, but he never got there. He was thrown violently forward instead.
After the train came to a stand, the occupants of the train started to try and make good their escape. Mr Simpson the inspector was one of them. He was one of the indiviudals able to extricate themselves from compartments and climb to the corridor which now ran along the “top” of the carriage.He managed to exit the coach by the doors at the end and found himself stood in somebodies garden, not in the ballast found under and to the sides of the track. A local resident told him that the emergency services had already been called, so Mr Simpson
Mr Brown was another member of staff who managed to get himself out. He grabbed his lamp and climbed free of the brake van. He was met with the site of people coming out of their houses adjacent to the line. He climbed the cuting and called to them to get in touch with the emergency services, while he ran back towards Morpeth Station to raise the alarm.
Firefighters from both Morpeth and nearby Cramlington were on site between 10 and 15 minutes after the crash. What they found was a scene of devestation. To help understand the severity of the accident, Ill try to describe it to you.
Directly following Morpeth station, is Morpeth Curve. Not unsurprisingly, named for the noteable curvature of the tracks. It’s note just noteworthy, in fact, in the middle of what is otherwise a relatively fasy section of line, Morpeth plays host to what is reputed to be the tightest curve of any mainline UK railway line, the radius of which is only 340m, or in railway parlance, 17 chains.
As you’re heading south, our train was on the left hand set of rails, the Up track towards London. The track startes to curve to the left as you reach the end of the platforms at Morpeth Station, the curve then continues round to the left, eventually turning around 98 degrees to the left.
Just around a coach length off the end of the platforms rescuers found the rearmost vehicle, the brake van. It was derailed, but upright on the tracks. Ahead of that was the rearmost sleeper car, also derailed and also upright. Forward of this things looked far worse however. The next sleeper was on its right hand side, layed across both tracks, its front end all the way over to the opposite cess, the space to the very edge of the down running line. Both of the bogies, the frames holding the wheels, had been ripped clear of the carriage. In fact, the Up track and cess ahead of this carriage was littered with bogies from various vehicles.
The next two sleeping carriages lay almost in a straight line, end to end on their right hand sides. They led up the bank and into the garden of Aaronsfield, a house on High Park lane in Morpeth.
Moving forwards to Coach E. This was also laid on it’s right hand side, however it was at a right angle to the three precceding carriages. It’s roof laid along the rear wall of Aaronsfield, and the last few metres were creased around the south eastern corner of the home.
Coach F also lay atop the bank, but it’s leading end was no longer in the gardens of High Park Lane. It was embedded, by around a third, in the unused spare bedroom of a delightful timber framed bungalow over looking the cutting.
All of the vehicles along the gardens and drives had been stripped of their bogies and these remained down on the tracks.
This accounts for virtually all of the vehicles of the train, barring three, the leading sleeper car, the locomotive and the brake van which sat between them.
While 5 of the vehicles had taken a crosscountry jaunt up the side of the cutting, these three stayed a little closer to home.
The locomotive lay on it’s right hand side in the down cess, underneath where Aaronsfield stood. This was the opposite side from where it had been travelling, meaning it had left the up line, crossed the down lines and ended up uprighted against the edge of the cutting. Significant damage was found to the down lines where the locomotive had crossed them.
The leading brake van and sleeper car lay behind it, forming what was almost a letter V. The leading end of the brake van was next to the rear end of the loco, with it’s rear end in the Up cessat the opposite side. This end sat below the leading end of the first sleeping car, whose trailing end had ended up in the cess of the Down line. The brake van laid on it’s left hand side, and the sleeping car it’s right.
The train was well and truly off the tracks, and one can only imagine what arriving rescuers were expecting to find in, on and under the wreckage.
Sleeping cars are different from usual coaching stock in several ways, the most obvious being the internal layout. Your average passenger carriage in the 80s has moved to what we expect nowadays. Open seating, normally 2 by 2 with a wide gangway in the middle of the train, to allow you to move through. Access to and from the carriage was from either vestibules at either end, or on some commuter services, door areas at 2 points along the length of the carriage.
One of the selling points of the sleeper services, was that people could arrive at their destination well rested. This isn’t likely to be achieved in an open carriage, where people can brush past, not to mention the issue of some little oik having at your belongings while you slumbered. For this reason the sleeper cars were designed a little differently, locating the beds in berths, or compartments, with a sperate corridor. This solved the safety issue and allowed for an undisturbed nights rest.
Which sounds great, until an accident like Morpeth occurs. The design of the carriages themselves created one major issue for rescuers as they arrived on the scene. To understand why, we need to look briefly at one of the main constraints on UK rolling stock designers, loading guages.
The UK loading guage, the template which shows what space a train can fill based on lineside obstacles, is, to say the least, restrictive.
You can picture this as a widthways outline of a rough train shape, and the outline of the shape is the maximum size a train can be to run within that gauge.
Yes it’s true we have various different loading guages across the country, depending on when lines were built, and what rolling stock can fit on that specific line, and this includes some lines with the very generous eurpoean standards, but these are very few and far between in places like on High Speed One.
The rub is that if the train you’re building is to be used all over, then you need to build to the smallest template. We’re not going get bogged down with this, could easily spend a good 15 minutes on loading gauges. What we need to understand is that the basic guage for passenge stock only gives you between 2.7 and 2.8 metres worth of width to play with. That’s just under 9 feet.
In your normal train carriage this is enough to give you comfortable 2 by 2 seating and a corridor. Some units even manage to get 3 by 2. However, that’s not the aim of a sleeper carriage.
2.8 metres is not a lot of space to try and put beds, and compartments, while also leaving room for a corridor along the train. When all is said and done, bigger compartments are more marketable, more luxurious and sell better. So the corridors on sleeper cars are very narrow. Just about wide enough for somebody to walk along. Passing would be difficult so it was more realisic just to wait at the end of the carriage to pass.
Generally speaking this isn’t much of an issue, until these carriages are on their side. 3 of the sleeper cars on their sides had the compartment windows skywards, so extrication of injured and trapped passengers was relatively easy. But, Coaches G, E and C were the other way round. The compartment windows were face down into the grass or ballast.
What this meant was that while firefighters were able to break the windows in the “roof” of the carriage, this allowed them access not into the compartements where people had been sleeping, but rather into the corridor. There is a photograph in the report which illustates the problem.
Firefighters found themselves what now was nothing more than an 18 inch high space. They struggled to use crowbars in such a confined space, and were unable to cut thrrough the roofs of the carriages with the gear they had available at the time.
This invariably delayed the recovery of some of the people trapped within the carriages.
At the front of the train, in the cab of the locomotive, now laid on it’s side was Driver Peter Allan. As the loco had tipped and slid along the ground he had been thrown from his seat and into the opposite side of the cab, the secondman side.
Firemen and a doctor entered the cab through a broken front window on the secondmans side, driver Allan was examined briefly, before being taken out and placed on a stretcher.
In amongst all of this chaos and destruction it was neccessery to take stock of the cost of the disaster. For those arriving on scene, and those involved in rescue efforts carried out their work, it seemed almost certain that the derailment on Morpeth curve would have resulted in a loss of life.
Which is why everyone was so surprised it didn’t. Believe it or not, the death toll of the 1984 Morpeth Crash was zero.
29 passengers and 6 crew were taken to hospital, but everyone barring driver Allan and two sleeping car attendants were discharged after treatment. The physical damage to the infrastructure was extensive, but somehow it didn’t come hand in hand with the expected damage human cost.
The BBC news report the morning after described how rescuers and railway engineers called it “the miracle at Morpeth”. As each passenger was brought out alive, it felt more and more so.
The rescue and recovery stage was complete, and so once again the railway inspectorate found themselves investigating the causes of a UK rail disaster. Her majesties rail inspectorate, under the leadership of LEFTenenat Colonel A C Townsend Rose, worked in conjuction with the Police to ascertain the reasons this accident had occured.
As ever, there are a number of questions which needed answering by the investigators.
- First and foremost, what had led to the midnight sleeper leaving the tracks at Morpeth? What was the immediate cause.
- Were there any underlying causes which had directly led to the immediate cause?
- Had any oppotunities to prevent this accident taking place been missed?
Yet again, we find ourself revisiting the comments I made during the Potters Bar episode;
Derailments tend not to happen where tracks are straight and level. I made points about how the majority of derailments occur when there are junctions or excessive curves. I believe we’ve already ascertained that a great deal of curvature was present at Morpeth, in fact probably the very definition of curvature.
Corners in and of themselves don’t lead to accidents, if this was the case the network would be very restictive, lots of straight lines and vastly increased tunnelling and bridging costs, cuttings and embankents absolutley everywhere. No, it’s not feasible at all. we use corners and we manage the risks they introduce.
This is done through some very careful balancing of physics. Increasing the fastest speed trains can travel through the corner by introducing features which keep the trains on the rail.
The first, and most common of these is Cant. Cant helps a train steer around a curve, keeping the wheel flanges from touching the rails, minimizing friction and wear. They way it is set up essentially creates a banked turn with the outside rail higher than the inside one, tilting the train into the corner and neutralising the lateral forces which would push a cornering train over the outside rail and into derailment. This has to be balanced also around the types of trains using the line. If you want a high speed passnger train to use it, then it needs to tilt more, but if you need slower, heavier freight trains to pass by, then the tilt can’t be too great, or trains will tilt over and fall into the corner.
If we look to modern times, we have class 390 pendelinos on the west coast main line, operated by Avanti, although for a long time they were adorned with the logo of Branson’s Virgin Trains. These train use an active tilting system which can tilt the cars individually into the corner to better manage the forces experienced and artificially increase the cant.
Once you’ve exhausted the speed gains you can make from these external factors, then you’re left with your maximum permissable speed for the corner.
Going to Morpeth in 1984, only one of these factors was available. BR was still trialing the advanced passeger train on the west coast at this point, and it’s active tilting wasn’t yet a common feature of rolling stock, let alone sleeper cars. So Cant was the answer to increasing the permissable speeds at Morpeth.
Up until the 30th December 1977 the speed around the curve southbound had been 40 miles an hour, but the cant had been increased from 114mm to 150mm which allowed for an increase to 50 miles an hour. Any futher tilting would result in slower trains being at risk on the curve and so the permanent speed restriction for the corner was set at 50mph.
So the long and short is that the curve of the corner wasn’t to blame for the accident, it was tighter than most mainline locations, but it was managed.
In which case, the most likely answer is that the train may have been travelling in excess of the 50mph limitation on the curve.
To understand the feasibility of this answer we need to look at several different sources of information.
Firstly, we’ll look at eyewitness accounts. One of the most reliable sources we’ve already discussed. The guard on the train, Mr Brown. As the train approached Morpeth he had become aware of the speed of the train, and he was concerned enough about it that he jumped out of his chair in order to apply thr brakes himself, too little, too late though.
Some passengers as well had complained of the ride quality, In particular, a Mr. Mark Barker, who was the Marketing Manager of the Commonwealth Games Organisation, was a regular traveller and was concerned at the movement of the coach, which he described as pitching and rolling unusually for some 20 minutes prior to the accident and that his body was sliding up and down in his bed; his hat also slid along the rack above his head.
A trackworker, a Mr Brewis, was working around 6 miles in advance of Morpeth on the closed down line, He saw the train approaching as he worked, sounded his warning siren and recieved a warning horn in return from driver Allan.
As useful as these accounts may be, particularly the experienced and competant accound of conductor brown, the best evidence will always come from physical proof.
Much in the same way as at Hatfield, physical marks and damage to the track would prove instrumental, Mr. McLoughlin, a Principal Scientific Officer at the British Railways Board was called to attend the derailment and arrived there shortly after 08.30 in the morning. He was incredibly experienced in the study of derailments.
The actual point of derailment was ascertained by the marks caused by the wheels lifting over the right hand rail. At least 5 derailing marks were noted over the next 19 sleepers on the right hand rail. One point of note, was that there were no marks on the left hand running rail, which indicated that the wheels had just been lifted clear of it, the whole train must have been tilting over to the right at the point the derailment occurred. In fact, Mr Mcloughlin noticed a flat spot on the gauge corner which lasted for 21 metres prior to the derailment, which indicates the train had been running with an inclined axle and left hand wheels clear before it jumped fully clear of the rails.
Damage marks to the concrete sleeper ends of the Down line began 15 m beyond the point of derailment and 8 m after this there was blue paint on the ‘six-foot’ rail of the Down line, indicating that a coach was on its side as this point. There were wheel marks on the check rail of the Up line which there were marks of wheels havine run derailed on the sleepers in the ‘four-foot’. He considered these to have been made by the last sleeping car in the train which had remained upright, with the brake van behind it.
All of the evidence observed, told investigators that that the train had overturned quite quickly, beginning at a point some 18 m from the top of the platform ramp and that wheels had derailed some 23 m further on.
The first coaches to overturn were the first and second sleeping cars which had then separated from each other. It was thought that the leading sleeping car and the van ahead of it had caused the locomotive to overturn very soon afterwards and to cross the Down line; causing very serious damage to the Down line, and the fact that all the bogies from the rear half of the train had been discarded by their overturning coaches in the same area, supported this view.
While this understanding was crucial, it would come down to some talented maths to prove that speeding was to blame for the accident at Morpeth.
Mr. McLoughlin presented calculations carried out by his team. The calculations were based on an iterative process which considered ever-increasing lateral centrifugal force which drove the vehicle body over onto its bump stops and the primary and secondary sib.pensions onto theirs, until the inside wheels were completely unloaded.
Which is a very wordy way of saying they looked at the ever increasing forces needed to tilt the body of the train over to the outside, till the suspension and other components could tilt no more and the left hand wheels lifted free of the track.
It was ascertained that the speeds at which this occurs, based on the track geometry at Morpeth was between 85 and 91 miles an hour.
This was on a curve, renknowned for it’s tightness, with a 50mph speed limit.
The cause of the derailment was, without the shadow of a doubt, speeding. In fact you could call the blunt, immediate cause as being “the train derailed due to travelling at a speed in excess of the limitations of the corner”.
The story gets really interesting when we start looking at the second question. Were there any underlying factors, any causal factors that led to the train attempted to negotiate the corner between 35 and 40 miles an hour over the speed limit.
One by one the leftenant colonel and his team ticked off a list of potential factors which could have contibuted to the accident.
- Signalling, they were satisfied that the signalman had set the route for the train; that the signals were all at green, and that the signalling played no part in the accident.
- The condition of the track, although it was heavily damaged in the course of the accident, The point of derailment was easily identified, and they were also satisfied that the track on the approach to it and a little way beyond was in good condition.
- The braking systems, The guard’s evidence concerning the brake-gauge readings, the thorough examination of the air pipes throughout the train, and the braking equipment on the locomotive, indicate that the brakes were in working order. The locomotive controls indicated that no brake application had been made approaching the Morpeth Curve, or even as a final emergency measure.
- Trackman Brewis’ evidence shows that the driver was alert by sounding his horn some 6 miles or 4 minutes running time north of Morpeth. This satisfied him that, had Driver Allan been alert, he could not have been mistaken as to his whereabouts on his approach to Morpeth.
The marks on the rails and final positions of the coaches and bogies indicate, without doubt, that the coaches overturned on the bend. Calculations showed that the train’s probable speed was somewhere between 85 and 91 mile/h, whereas the maximum permitted speed was 50 mile/h. From the signal-box passing times looked at as part of the investigation, it seems the train was being driven at between 60 and 70 mile/h and probably began accelerating some 12 miles from Morpeth for it to have attained its overturning speed.It was therefore concluded that Driver Allan failed to reduce his train’s speed before entering the Morpeth Curve.
So the investigation swung round to him, placing him firmly in the spotlight. In fact this had begun in the early stages, due dilligence meant that the police had started checking on his condition from the begining. Dr Gardner, a police surgeon of Newcastle visited Allan at 03:55.
Allan said that he remembered passing Berwick and Alnmouth, but nothing further.
At that point Dr Gardner observed that Allan smelt of alcohol. Allan admitted then to inspector Guthrie, who had accompanied Dr Gardner, that he had taken a drink before joining his train.
The next morning, Allan was interviewed again, and his movements prior to taking the train were questioned in further detail. He recounted that he had signed on duty at Haymarket Depot at 21:43 on the evening of Saturday 23rd June. He had then driven his ear down to Waverley Station. He had parked his car and after drinking two cans of Tennants Lager in the car park he walked around the station until his train arrived, which he boarded at about 22.50.
At this point he also raised that he had had bronchitis for 20 years and that he regularly suffered from coughing fits. He told them that he thought he had a small coughing fit at Berwick. He took medicines for it as necessary. He said that he had suffered a blackout from coughing 18 months previously and that on that occasion he had a small coughing fit which made him pass out ‘just for a second’.
After another two weeks Allan was interviewed again at home, His movements were further questioned. He said that he had left home on the night of the accident at about 20.50, by car , He stopped at a public house in Musselburgh, where he drank, or, his own, a whisky followed by one pint of Lager. He had left the public house at about 21.20. Arriving at Waverley Station car park at about 21.35 he entered the ‘East End shunter’s Bothy” and telephoned Haymarket Depot to sign on, He then collected two further cans of lager from his oar and drank them on hit own in the bothy.
During this interview he said that he did not normally drink before driving a train nor whilst on duty and was not a heavy drinker. But he could suggest no reason why he had done so on that occasion. He knew that it was an offense under BR rules to be intoxicated on duty.
The key questions were this;
When Inspector King asked him “Surely, as you havc admitted being an infrequent and light drinker that the quantity of your alcoholic intake on that night was way above normal?” he replied “I have to say yes”—and then to: “And consequently your driving ability therefore was likely to be impaired”—he replied “It could have been”.
All of this is what led to the Driver Allan facing charges in court. 3 counts in fact, Damaging property with intent, endangering the safety of passengers by a lawful act and endangering the safety of passengers by wilful ommision.
I certainly know what my thoughts, and the thoughts of many people involved in the investigation, would lead us to take as the main reason. I firmly believe the intoxication of Driver Allan led to him being in an unfit state to control his train correctly. In fact, his accounts of his wherabouts put him in close proximity to open public houses for about an hour of unaccounted for time, so the probablility exists that he had even more that nobody ever found out about.
However, for one reason or another, he was found not guilty. This is quite possibly the direct result of an ambush defense by Allans legal team. At the last minute provided medical evidence in the form of expert testimony which suggested that at certain times the driver might pass out, based around his broncitus. The prosecution, not having prior knowledge of this eveidence were unable to rebut it. Allan was acquitted.
It’s clear on the leftenant colonels opinion on the matter. I’ll read the following from his conclusion.
Driver Allan had clearly failed to properly control his train. There are two possible reasons for this; that he suffered a severe bout of coughing shortly before he should have begun to reduce the train’s speed and remained incapable until the train overturned. It seems that Driver Allan had never reported to the Railway medical officers the fact that he suffered from an incapacitating coughing condition. In any case he had only to take his feet off the DSD pedal to stop the train if he had begun to cough uncontrollably and he could also have shut off power and applied the brakes very quickly.
Alternatively it is possible that he became drowsy and inattentive because of the drink he had taken. In the last six miles approaching Morpeth at some 80 mile/h or more he may have fallen asleep, or become so drowsy that he completely forgot about the approaching curve. l must say that l am strongly inclined to the possibility that he fell fully or nearly asleep as being the most likely.
So now we’re at the question of missed opportunities. And yes like most times we’ve asked this question, the sad truth is that there certainly were missed opportunities and one of them was far more ironic than anybody cared to miss.
The first carries some resembelence to the issues we saw at Cannon Street some years later. The fact that driver Allan was allowed to book on for duty by telephone from Waverly, instead of in person at haymarket, means that the industry was robbed of the opportunity to phyysically look uppon him and check that he was fit for duty. The people on that train could have been saved the terrifiying experience they underwent if somebody had looked at him prior to him taking the train that day.
But that’s not the biggest missed oppotunity. Not the one that would probably have people kicking themselves.
In 1969 a passenger train had derailed on a corner with a reduced speed from the rest of the line. It was recommended as an outcome of that investigation, that the automated warning system, used at fixed signals be further rolled out to assist with certain permanent speed restrictions. This would mean that, although drivers should be aware of all of the speeds in their route knowledge, they would recieve a visual prompt from the signs, as well as an audible and visual notification inside the cab from the AWS equipment. This should have served to eliminate, or at least severly reduce the likelyhood of these sorts of incidents.
The train that derailed on the 7th May 1969 was the Down Aberdonian. The sleeper service from London to Edinburgh. The curve it derailed on, Morpeth.
In fact the signs warning of the restrictions had been given a nickname, Morpeth Boards.
The irony here was in the application of the rules. It stated that where the limit drops by a third, a sign and AWS magnet should be provided.
Southbound to Morpeth the limit drops by 50%. 100 miles an hour to 50 miles an hour. But it is staggered. The reduction actually takes place over three seperate restrictions, to 80, then to 70, then to 50. It didn’t qualify. The curve at Morpeth didn’t qualify for a morpeth board.
If one had been fitted, and Allan was incapacitated, he would have not reacted to the AWS alert, and the brakes would have been automatically applied, avoiding the derailment.
The legacy of Morpeth covers several factors, the noteriety of the corner only increased, and I would love to tell you that never was it’s tracks darkened again by disaster. But sadly it’s just not quite true. In 1992 two freight trains collided due to a misunderstanding, and this led to a fatality, and would you believe it, in 1994 an express parcel train overturned travelling at 80mph through the curve.
While AWS equipment was fitted to many permanent speed restrictions as part of the equipment associated with Morpeth boards, there were still lcoations, such as Morpeth itself, where the cascadinging of restrictions led to missed opportunities. Following the 1984 accident, the Rules were amended to take account of serious restrictions of speed where she restrictions are ‘cascaded’. In general, each restriction must be considered as if it were from the initial approaching speed. If the initial speed was over 75 mph, and the restriction greater than on third of it, a board would be provided.
Another system would also supplement the protection afforded by AWS in the years going forwards. We’ve briefly discussed it before, but TPWS, train protection and warning system, can be used to provide overspeed protection, as well as signal protection. The loops of the system can be placed in such a way that on the approach to a speed restirction, the system will automatically apply the brakes on a train if it is travellin too fast to be down to the new limit in time.
The system was rolled out at various locations around the network, rolled out from trials starting in 97, and really taking to the system in the early 2000s. It was a stopgap and looked upon as a cheaper alternative to some other systems, but it is quite flexible and see’s use up until now, in a variety of situations where appoaching X too fast will mean bad things happen.
Normally this is the point where I would end the episode and talk about the memorial to the accident, poignantly reflect on the loss of life and perhaps discuss trauma caused to those who responded.
This is the first accident we’ve covered where nobody died. Not the last certainly but the first.
The relatively new mark 3 coaching stock certainly saved lives, and even emergency services on the day couldn’t believe they didn’t neeed to lift out a body.
However, we need to remember that lucky though people were, the fact that this accident occurred wasn’t due to chance or anything else as vague. It was as a result of a combination of factors, Some of them were institutional, a booking on process that was flawed, a snag of a rule which meant morpeth boards didnt belong at Morpeth.
But make no mistake, the root cause, in my mind at least, is the reckless treatment of his charge by a driver who either drank too much at an irresponsible time, or failed to be open about an incapacitating illness which should have rendered him unable to carry out his role safely. Whether he was guilty in court or not, the blame for Morpeth lies firmly at the front door of Peter Allan.