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Significant Accidents 1937 - 1965

In 1831 the opening day of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world's first inter-city railway, was marred by a fatal accident when one of the dignitaries - a leading economist called William Huskisson - was run down and killed by a train on the adjacent track. The accident demonstrated that the new railway technology raised a whole series of new safety issues - unlike road vehicles trains cannot stop suddenly or take avoiding action.

In 1889 Parliament mandated three important safety systems for railways - lock, block and brake. "Lock' meant interlocking points and signals so that a signal could not be cleared unless a safe and appropriate route had been set for the train. "Block' divided each running line into block sections, using the recently developed telegraph communications technology to ensure that only one train occupied a section at any one time. "Brake' required continuous brakes throughout passenger trains that could be operated by the driver or, in an emergency, by the guard or a passenger and that operated automatically on both sections if a train became divided.

By the time the Southern Electric system was developed, these three safety systems were well established on all main line routes. But safety development is a continuous process - railway accidents were much more common fifty years ago than they are today and the consequences were often more serious.

The Southern Railway made widespread use of the Sykes lock and block signalling control system. For added safety, this system used electric locks to guard against human errors - for example a signaller could not clear a signal for entry to a block section until the signaller in the box in advance had accepted the train and released an electrically-operated lock on the signal. However, electrical systems can fail and in this instance a failure would lock the signal at danger, potentially causing massive disruption on a busy suburban route. To keep the traffic moving, signallers could override a failed system but sometimes they overlooked a train, assumed that the protecting lock had failed and operated the release mechanism in error, with potentially fatal results.

Another common cause of accidents, including the 1957 Lewisham collision which was one of the worst accidents in British railway history, was drivers failing to see or to respond to signals. Sometimes the signals were obscured by fog (thick "smogs', fog exacerbated by smoke pollution, were regular winter events in the London area until the mid 1950s). On other occasions, drivers, guards and platform staff failed to notice a signal at danger when starting a train from a station. It is only in recent years that TPWS (the Train Protection and Warning System) has virtually eliminated this human error as a cause of accidents.

Brake failure was rare, though two such fatal accidents with unrelated root causes took place at Guildford within a year of each other.

Below is a summary of the most significant accidents on the Southern Electric system. Any such list is necessarily selective; these have been chosen on the basis of their serious outcomes and/or the extent to which they affected the Southern Electric fleet.

Battersea Park collision, 1937

Just after 8a.m. on 2 nd April 1937, the 7:30am London Bridge to Victoria service via Tulse Hill was waiting at Battersea Park station for the 7:37a.m. from London Bridge via Peckham to precede it over the converging junction and into Victoria . The signalman at Battersea Park became confused about the sequence of trains on the busy main line, overlooked the waiting 7:30am from London Bridge and assumed that his Sykes instrument, which had correctly locked the signal in the rear of the waiting train, had failed. He used a key to release the locking and cleared his home signal for the 7:31am service from Coulsdon North. This train was not booked to stop at Battersea Park and ran into the rear of the 7:30a.m London Bridge at about 35mph. Ten people were killed and 59 others were injured.

Waddon collision, 1942

In thick fog and early morning darkness on 7 th November 1942, the 6.15 a.m. train from West Croydon to Holborn Viaduct via Wimbledon collided with the rear of the 5.34 a.m. from London Bridge to Epsom, which was waiting at Waddon station for a late-running train to be turned back at Wallington, the next station down the line. As is so often the case the accident, which killed the driver of the 6.15 and injured two passengers, was caused by the signalman overlooking the waiting train that was hidden by thick fog, coming to the conclusion that his Sykes lock and block instrument had failed and operating the release key.

Caterham collision, 1945

On 26 th June 1945, the 9:34 a.m. service to Charing Cross started from Caterham against the signals, colliding head-on with the incoming 8:55a.m. from Charing Cross to Caterham. Both motormen were killed.

South Croydon collision, 1947

On 24 th October 1947 unit 1770 was leading the 8.4 a.m. Tattenham Corner to London Bridge service on the Up main line towards South Croydon when it collided violently with DMBT 10511 of 4 Lav. unit 2926 at the rear of the 7.33 a.m. Haywards Heath to London Bridge service. Unit 1770's buffers under-rode 10511, lifting it from its bogies and turning it on to its side, separating the body from the underframe. The body of the leading coach of 1770 was destroyed as far back as the last two compartments. Both trains were crowded and 31 passengers and the motorman of the Tattenham Corner service were killed and a further 41 passengers admitted to hospital.

The accident, which occurred in fog, was caused by an inexperienced signalman at Purley Oaks overlooking the Haywards Heath service and using the release key of his Sykes lock and block instrument to free the signals for the Tattenham Corner service.

Herne Hill collision, 1947

On 6 th November 1947, unit 4250 was leading the 6.58pm Holborn to West Croydon service. As it crossed from the Down Slow line to the Tulse Hill branch at Herne Hill, the 4.15pm train from Ramsgate to Victoria, headed by U1 class 2-6-0 no. 1901, ran past the protecting Up Main Home signal in thick fog and collided almost head on, just behind the driving compartment, tearing out the sides of all eight compartments of the leading DMBT, separating the body of the second coach from its underframe so that it came to rest with the first 20ft overhanging the viaduct parapet and crushing the leading compartments of the third coach. One passenger was killed and 9 seriously injured and the unit withdrawn.

The accident was caused by the driver of the Ramsgate train misreading the "stop' hand-signal given by the fog-signalman.

Motspur Park collision, 1947

The same smog caused a second fatal accident on the Southern Electric system on 6 th November 1947. The 4.45pm Holmwood-Waterloo collided with the 5.16pm Waterloo-Chessington train as it crossed the junction at Motspur Park , killing four passengers and injuring 12.

The accident was caused by the fog-signalman failing to check the aspect of the Up Main Outer Home signal protecting the junction and giving a false "proceed' signal to the motorman of the Holmwood-Waterloo train.

London Bridge collision, 1948

On 23 rd January 1948 the 8.5 a.m. train from Seaford to London Bridge , formed of two 6 Pul units, overran the Up Through Inner Home signal on the approach to London Bridge . It collided with an empty train of Pul/Pan stock standing in Platform 14, pushing the empty train back through the stop-blocks and on to the concourse.

The driver of the 8.5 and a colleague travelling with him to learn the route were both killed and a passenger on the concourse later died of his injuries. Of a further 79 injured or suffering from shock, three were detained in hospital.

The accident was caused by an experienced driver failing to respond to a colour light signal clearly displaying a red aspect. Whilst one can conjecture that he may have been distracted by the second man in the cab there is no specific evidence to support this.

Ford collision, 1951

On Sunday 5 August 1951 the 10.47 a.m. train from Three Bridges to Bognor via Littlehampton was formed of eight coaches in order to accommodate the high level of passenger demand on a summer weekend. It was too long for the platform at Ford and was due to draw forward to free the track circuit controlling the points at the eastern end in order to enable the 11.17 a.m. train from Brighton to Portsmouth to access the Down Main on the other side of the island platform and make the booked connection.

There was some delay drawing up so, in accordance with the rules, the signalman at Ford waited until the 11.17 had stopped at his Outer Home signal before clearing it to allow the train to move forward to the Inner Home signals controlling the entrance to the Main and Loop lines either side of the island platform, which he maintained at Danger.

However, perhaps seeing that the Down Main line was clear through the station and assuming that the route had been set and the signal cleared, the motorman of the 11.17 failed to stop at the Inner Home. The train passed through the locked points into the Down Loop and immediately collided with the rear of the Bognor train. The DTCs of units 2069 and 2100 were telescoped together for a distance of about 40 feet, killing the motorman of the Portsmouth train and eight of the passengers in the two trains. A further 40 passengers were detained in hospital.

Guildford runaway and collision 1952

On Saturday 8 th November 1952, the 9.46 p.m. Ascot to Guildford (via Aldershot ) train was formed of 2 Bil. unit 2133. Unbeknown to the crew, the compressor governor fuse on DMBT 10699 had blown at some point on its previous journeys when it had been working in multiple with other units. When unit 2133 was detached from the rear of the 8.54 p.m. Waterloo to Reading train at Ascot the unit's compressor was no longer activated by another unit via the compressor synchronising train line.

The air supply in the main reservoir not only supplied the unit's braking system, it also powered the electro-pneumatic relays that opened and closed resistance contacts in the English Electric power control system and it supplied air for the train whistle. The driver and guard failed to notice that each station stop and re-start was progressively reducing the pressure in the main reservoir pipe and the train brake pipe.

Just after 10.30 p.m., as the train approached Guildford on the 1 in 100 descent from Pinks Hill the driver saw the distant signal at danger but found that there was no longer sufficient air for an effective brake application. The accelerating train passed Guildford's Inner Home signal at danger and collided violently with 700 class 0-6-0 steam freight locomotive no. 30693, which was crossing the Down Alton line north of Guildford station en route from the motive power depot to the Up Main line.

The impact split open DTC 12166 (which was leading at the time of the accident), bending the two solebars back and destroying the front half of the coach, killing the driver and one passenger and causing six others to be detained in hospital.

The Inspecting Officer found that the Southern drivers were so confident of the reliability of the Westinghouse brake that they rarely checked the duplex gauge in the corner of the cab that displayed pressures in the main reservoir pipe and train brake pipe - in fact the roof-mounted spotlight that illuminated the gauge at night was found to be out of alignment in a large proportion of cabs.

As a result of the accident, all Bil. and Nol. units were fitted with a control governor that cut off power to the main traction circuit until pressure in the train brake pipe had risen above a predetermined safe level. Units so fitted were marked with a white spot on the cab fronts until all units had been modified. 2 Hal. units already had this safety feature.

Guildford collision 1953

On 18 th September 1953 the 3.12 p.m. train from Waterloo to Guildford, formed of 4 EPB units 5003 and 5015, was approaching Platform 1 at Guildford station, a bay platform with a sand drag and stop-blocks at the end.

Having been slowed almost to a standstill by signals outside the station, the driver initially accelerated towards the platform before making a brake application. He sensed that the electro-pneumatic brake was not responding but instead of making an emergency application of the back-up Westinghouse brake he attempted to reverse the motors. However, the reverser was locked by the controller handle and the effect was to apply forward power and the train collided with the stop-blocks at about 20mph.

The body of the leading car of unit 5003 overrode the stop-blocks and embedded itself in a block of station offices, injuring two passengers and five station staff members, one of whom later died of his injuries.

The subsequent inquiry concluded that there was in fact no fault with the EP brake equipment, that the driver had misjudged his approach and had subsequently panicked, mismanaging the controls.

Barnes collision and fire, 1955

On 2 nd December 1955, a signalman working alone in the busy Barnes junction signalbox had overlooked the 10.55 p.m. freight from Battersea to Brent, which had come to a halt at his Down Local Home signal, out of sight at the eastern end of the station beyond the overbridge that carries the Queen's Ride main road over the four tracks.

Using his release key to override the Sykes lock and block equipment, which was correctly showing "Train On', the signalman accepted the 11.12 p.m. service from Waterloo to Windsor and Chertsey , formed of 2 Nol. units 1853 and 1877. As he cleared his released Down Local Home signal for the passenger train the 42-wagon freight, hauled by Stanier 8F steam locomotive no. 48750, slowly restarted and moved up to Barnes's Down Local junction starting signals, which were still at danger as the route from the Down Through to the Richmond line had been cleared for the 11.03 p.m. Waterloo-Kingston service, which was just leaving the station.

Travelling at about 35mph, the 11.12 p.m. from Waterloo collided with the rear of the freight. The body and underframe of driving trailer no. 9990 of 2 Nol. unit 1853 over-rode the frame of the freight's brake van, demolishing the body and killing the freight guard and the motorman of the passenger train. 9990 toppled on to its side to the right of the freight, coming to rest on the electrified third rail of the Down Through line, which started to arc severely. However the circuit breakers of the elderly power supply equipment at Clapham failed to open and continued to feed the arc until a motorman, who was travelling as a passenger in the 11.12 to take the rear unit forward from Staines to Windsor , managed to get a short-circuiting bar across the track. The arcing, together with the three oil lamps on the rear of the freight and the debris of the van stove, quickly started an intense fire that was fanned by a strong wind. 11 passengers died in the wreckage and a further 20 were seriously injured by the accident. 9990 was completely destroyed by the accident and subsequent fire and its companion, 9901, was later broken up in Barnes goods yard.

Lewisham collision 1957

One of the worst accidents in British railway history occurred in fog and darkness on the evening of 4 th December 1957. Trains were running out of sequence and the signaller at Parks Bridge Junction held the 5.25 p.m. diesel-electric service from Charing Cross to Hastings in the mistaken belief that it was the 5.18 p.m. electric service from Charing Cross to Hayes. This 10-car EPB formation, crush-loaded with some 1,500 passengers, was in fact standing at the next signal in the rear with its brakes hard on to stop it rolling back on the incline.

The 4.56 p.m. train from Cannon Street to Ramsgate, headed by "Battle of Britain' class steam locomotive no 34066 "Spitfire" and running some 72 minutes late, passed St Johns outer home signal showing double yellow and the intermediate home signal showing single yellow without the driver seeing them. It was only when the lights of St Johns station suddenly loomed out of the darkness that he called to his fireman to check the next signal, which was showing red. Though the driver made an emergency brake application it was far too late to have much effect and "Spitfire" slammed into the 5.18 p.m. electric at about 35 mph.

The impact crushed the foremost passenger compartment of the driving trailer of BR Standard 2-EPB unit no 5766, crushing its into the rear seating bay of its companion motor saloon brake, the ninth coach in the formation. This transmitted a shock though its underframe that sheared the buckeye coupler of the eighth coach, SR-design 4-EPB motor brake saloon 14408 of unit 5204. The sheared coupler embedded itself in the headstock, deflecting the body, underframe and trailing bogie of the ninth coach upwards and forwards, tearing off the body of the eighth coach so completely that the headstocks of the tenth and eighth coach butted together with the motor bogie of the ninth coach jammed under the leading end of the tenth coach. The crushed body of the eighth coach with its hundred-plus passengers was pushed to the right and came to rest as a mass of twisted wreckage lying on the Up Through line. It was here, as the official report into the accident soberly notes, that the majority of the fatalities in the electric train occurred. Although the leading edge of the underframe of the eighth coach was in turn driven a short way beneath the trailer of the seventh coach, damage to this and the leading six coaches of the electric train was only slight and the impact had moved them forward by only a few feet.

Caught between the sudden deceleration of the locomotive and the force of the coaches behind, 34066's six wheeled tender was lifted from the track and thrown to the left against a steel stanchion that bore the weight of two lattice girders supporting the deck of the Nunhead line flyover as it crossed the Through and Local lines at a skewed angle. The impact of the tender sheared the bolts that attached the stanchion to its cap and to its concrete base and pushed the stanchion outwards from under the girders. The underframe of the leading coach of the steam train, its screw coupling now detached from the tender, then drove the stanchion some 20 feet forward.

No longer supported, the country end lattice girders subsided on to the still moving steam train, twisting the deck of the flyover and the tracks of the Nunhead line and demolishing the bodies of the first two coaches and the first half of the third coach of the steam train, with further very heavy loss of life and serious injury.

As the flyover collapsed, the 5.22pm service from Holborn Viaduct to Dartford was approaching Lewisham on the high level line from Nunhead. Driving very slowly in the bad visibility and keeping a sharp lookout for the signal protecting the crossover outside Lewisham station, the driver noticed that the girders were at an odd angle and immediately made an emergency brake application, stopping with the leading coach of his electric train tilting downwards on the distorted deck but neither damaged nor derailed. His alertness and prompt action undoubtedly prevented an even worse tragedy.

In all, 88 passengers and the guard of the electric train died at the scene and another passenger later died in hospital of his injuries. Another 223 people were taken to hospital over a four-hour period by relays of ambulances and 109 of these casualties were detained with many suffering from serious injuries.

The driver of the Ramsgate train, suffering from severe long-term trauma, was tried and acquitted of manslaughter. Undoubtedly the accident was his responsibility but there were several mitigating factors. The colour light signals were located on the to the right of the track at this point due to insufficient clearance on the left. Because the track curved left they could normally be seen from the left-hand driving position of a steam locomotive before being masked by the bulk of the boiler - presumably the fog obscured them on this occasion. In common with other rolling stock at the time, 34066 had no speedometer, making it difficult to estimate speed and distance run in thick fog. Finally, although the Great Western Railway had developed a practical cab-signalling system some fifty years previously and had long since rolled it out across its main line network, no such system was available to drivers on the Southern. The go-ahead for AWS, a BR version of the GWR system using magnetic induction rather than physical contact between a train-mounted shoe and a track-mounted ramp, had not been given until 1956 and even then it took several more years to adapt it for use on the Southern electrified lines with their stray electromagnetic fields.

Eastbourne collision 1958

On Monday 25 th August 1958 the 7.45 p.m. car sleeper express, hauled by BR Standard class 5 4-6-0 no 73042 failed to stop at Eastbourne's Down Home signal, ran through the 15mph crossovers at the station throat at 25-30mph and collided violently with the 6.45 a.m. EMU from Ore to London Bridge, which had reversed in the terminal station and was about to depart from platform 4.

The collision pushed the 12-car train back through the sand drag, compressing the buffers at the end of the platform. It telescoped the leading coach of 6 Pul. unit 3014, (DMBTO no. 11027) into the second coach (TT 10004), forcing both into the air and bringing down a signal gantry, which fortunately fell clear of the wreckage. The motorman and four passengers were killed, five others were detained in hospital. Had the train not been lightly loaded at the time casualties would have been worse.

The driver admitted that he must have made a mistake reading the Down Home signal, blaming it on poor visibility in heavy, squally rain. However this did not, in the view of the Inspecting Officer, adequately explain the excessive speed of the train nor the failure of the fireman to check either the signal or the train's speed at this point in its journey.

Barnham derailment 1962

On 1 st August 1962 2 Bil. unit 2088 was leading the 10.17 a.m. train from Brighton to Portsmouth . As the train was approaching Barnham station it was derailed by facing points that were partially open as a result of a loose washer wrongly energising the point motor. The left-hand wheels of the front bogie of DMBT 10654 travelled up the platform ramp and the coach overturned to the right, followed by the unit's Hal.-type DTC 12121. Fortunately nobody in the well-filled 6-car train was seriously injured - the driver, in particular, had a lucky escape as a platform coping stone pierced the cab and fell across it as it overturned - but both coaches of unit 2088 were extensively damaged and were subsequently cut up.

Roundstone level crossing collision 1965

On the foggy morning of 22 nd September 1965 the level crossing keeper at Roundstone, between Goring and Angmering, became confused about the sequence of trains and opened the gates to road traffic as the 08.47 train from Brighton to Portsmouth was approaching. Southdown "Queen Mary' double-decker bus no. 939, working the 09.01 Route 31 service from Worthing to Southsea was struck broadside-on by DTC 12138 of 2 Bil. unit 2105 and pushed some 100 yards down the track, killing three bus passengers and injuring eight others. Fed by diesel fuel from the ruptured tank of the bus, a fierce fire destroyed the bus and badly damaged 12138.