A guest post by London Historians Member, Simon Fowler, who remembers London’s worst railway crash.
Today marks the anniversary of London (and England’s) worst railway disaster and one of only three accidents in the United Kingdom in which more one hundred people lost their lives. In total, 112 people died and more than 300 were injured. It was also an exceptionally rare three train collision.
The accident took place at Harrow and Wealdstone station in north London at exactly 8.19am on 8 October 1952. It was a very foggy morning. The 7:31am Tring to Euston local passenger train stopped at Harrow and Wealdstone station, seven minutes late due to the fog. It had switched to the fast line just before the station to keep the slow lines to the south clear for empty stock movements. Carrying approximately 800 passengers, the train was much fuller than normal, as the previous service had been cancelled.
At 8.19 am, just as the guard was walking back to his brake van after checking doors on the last two carriages, the train was struck from behind by the night express from Perth travelling between 50 and 60mph.
The Perth sleeper train consisted of 46242 City of Glasgow with eleven carriages and some 85 passengers. Because of fog and other delays it was running approximately eighty minutes late.
A second or two after the first collision the 8am express from Euston to Liverpool and Manchester with its fifteen carriages and 200 passengers hauled by 45637 Windward Islands and 46202 Princess Anne, came through on the adjacent fast line in the opposite direction at about 60mph. The leading locomotive struck the City of Glasgow and came off the track.
Sixteen carriages were destroyed, of which thirteen were concertinaed together under the station footbridge.
The subsequent safety report found that the sleeper train had passed a caution signal and two danger signals before colliding with the local train. Why this occurred will never be known as the driver Jones and fireman Turnock on the footplate of the City of Glasgow – both experienced footplate crew – were killed in the crash. It is likely that the driver was concerned to make up time as the train was running very late and he and the firemen missed the warning signals in the fog.
A subsequent Metropolitan Police report praised the response from the emergency services. Co-ordination on the spot was hampered, however, by the lack of communications equipment. There was only one walkie-talkie that, in the end, was not used. And the only telephone was a walk away.
An exotic element was the arrival of medical personnel from the neighbouring American base at Ruislip. One sergeant from Boston commented on the behaviour of the injured: ‘The British don’t cry’.
The accident had two effects. Firstly it accelerated the introduction of the Automatic Warning System that told drivers that they had passed an adverse signal, although because of the cost its arrival on many lines was very slow. And the crash confirmed the strength of the new all steel carriages British Railways had begun to introduce as they were less severely damaged (and protected passengers better) than the older pre-war wood and steel carriages.
Because the accident happened on the outskirts of London there was huge media interest. As a result, unlike most other railway accidents, it is well documented photographically.
Find out more in Simon Fowler’s Railway Disasters (Pen & Sword, 2013 ISBN ISBN: 9781845631581)