By indexer
26 days ago

The Quintinshill rail crash, 1915

The worst rail crash ever to occur in Great Britain, in terms of loss of life, took place early on the morning of 22nd May 1915, nearly a year after the outbreak of World War I. The site of the crash was Quintinshill signal box, a mile and a half north of Gretna Green, on the border between England and Scotland and on the main west coast line that connects London to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Events leading to the crash

Express trains travelling the whole length of the line could easily suffer delays, and that was the case with the train that had left London Euston shortly before midnight. It was half an hour late when it reached Carlisle and so the decision was made to allow a local train to run ahead of it, rather than behind, and to stop in the loop at Quintinshill to allow the express to pass. Quintinshill had two such loops, on the up and down lines, which were in full view of the signal box.

This procedure was quite common, and it presented an opportunity for the signalman who should have started work at Quintinshill at 6.00am to delay his start until 6.30am. Instead of walking from his home at Gretna he could wait for the local train which he knew was going to stop right outside the signal box as opposed to running on to the next station.

This was an unofficial and unauthorised arrangement and it meant that the outgoing signalman (George Meakin) had to write down all the train movements that took place after 6.00am on a slip of paper so that the incoming signalman (James Tinsley) could write them into the train register when he arrived. The register would therefore have entries for the relevant times in the expected handwriting.

One movement that had taken place during that half hour was that a down (i.e. northbound) goods train had been shunted into the down loop, which meant that the passenger train on which Tinsley had travelled had to reverse across on to the up (southbound) main line to clear the down main for the express.

Shortly after this, and at the time when Tinsley was climbing the steps to the signal box, a train of empty coal wagons arrived on the up line. This could not be sent on to Carlisle, so Meakin turned it into the up loop.

At the time of the changeover between signalmen there were therefore three trains standing outside the signal box, with only the down main being clear.
Mistakes that led to disaster

George Meakin (the signalman who was about to end his shift) made a mistake by not protecting the up main line by placing a collar on the relevant signal lever. This would have made it impossible for the lever to be pulled and the line therefore cleared.

The signal box was now occupied by the two signalmen and the brakemen from the two goods trains that were waiting in the loops. Meakin read the newspaper that Tinsley had brought with him and Tinsley started to copy the entries from Meakin’s piece of paper into the train register. Clearly, nobody was giving proper attention to the job in hand as they chatted about this and that.

Next to arrive was George Hutchinson, the fireman of the local train that was waiting on the up main line. Under “Rule 55” it was his task to remind the signalman in person that his train was stopped and thus to ensure that it was duly protected. Meakin handed him a pencil so that he could sign the book that registered his compliance with the rule, but Hutchinson left the box without noticing that the relevant signal lever did not have a collar on it.

James Tinsley meanwhile got on with business by accepting the delayed down express, and he also, inexplicably, accepted an up troop train and set the signals for it. This was only possible because one of the signalmen (and it was disputed who this was) must have indicated to the Kirkpatrick box (the next one up the line) that the line was clear after the coal wagons train had been parked in the up loop. The Kirkpatrick signalman would not have offered the troop train if he had been aware that the line was not clear.

The crash

As it was, the troop train duly arrived at speed and crashed into the stationary local train. The force of the impact was such that a train of 15 carriages that was more than 200 yards long was instantly reduced to one of less than 70 yards in length.

The down express, which weighed more than 600 tons, then arrived and crashed into the wreckage that had spread across all the tracks. Fire broke out and raged furiously, fuelled by the high pressure gas used to provide light and heat on the troop train. The fire burned for more than 24 hours, leaving very little behind.
The troop train had been taking 500 soldiers belonging to the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots to Liverpool, where they were due to embark for the Gallipoli campaign. It is not known exactly how many were killed because the battalion roll was lost in the crash, but it is estimated that at least 215 officers and men died and at least as many were injured. None of the survivors were deemed fit to carry on to their destination.

Casualties on the other trains were much lower, with eight deaths on the express and two on the local train. One reason for the huge toll on the troop train was that wartime conditions meant that old railway stock was pressed into service, this being constructed mainly from wood and with old-fashioned gas lighting.

The aftermath

As this was wartime, news of the disaster was hushed up as much as possible and it was not until after the war was over that the general public got to hear about it. Knowledge of a disaster of this kind on the home front would hardly have helped to boost morale.

The blame for the crash clearly belonged to the two signalmen, both of whom served jail sentences after a criminal trial. George Hutchinson was also charged with negligence for leaving the signal box without ensuring the safety of his train, but he was acquitted.

There have been many serious accidents on Britain’s railways in the years since Quintinshill, but fortunately none that have had such devastating consequences. The technology to prevent such an accident occurring (i.e. the electric block system) already existed in 1915 but the war had prevented it from being adopted universally across the network. Needless to say, that is not the case today.

More images

Justin Very interesting
fortune So sad for those 215 officers that dead there
Deepizzaguy Thank you for sharing this tragic event.