An Account of Some Railway Accidents and the Operation of the Breakdown Train
An artist’s impression of the fire in the Paris Metro, August 1903
IN spite of the utmost watchfulness and care taken of signals, track, and rolling-
Yet the percentage of accidents is small, even wonderfully small, when one considers the nature of a train tearing along at terrific speed, across innumerable points ; through busy junctions; along high embankments liable to slip; under bridges that after all are only brick and mortar, and subject as such to deterioration; round “blind” curves; through cuttings from the sides of which a tree or boulder might so easily fall; over a hundred trestles and girders of wood or steel; and all this by night as well as by day. Carelessness on the part of driver, signalman, coupler, axle-
With the exception of a shipwreck or a big fire, few catastrophes are so dramatic as a railway “smash”. It is so terribly sudden. In a couple of seconds the unsuspecting travellers are hurled into such a scene of destruction as will haunt them all their lifetime, if they escape alive. Occasionally, as in the case of the Tay Bridge disaster, not a soul lives to tell the tale. At other times -
Almost more terrible was the fire in the Paris Metropolitan Railway, which occurred in the month of August 1903. The conflagration originated in the leakage of the electric current propelling a train, which was not only arrested in the middle of a tunnel by the failure of its motive force, but also ignited. The tunnel acted as a chimney to fan the flames, and in a few moments they had seized the whole train. Many of the passengers were overcome by the tremendous heat and the gases created by the combustion of the sleepers, before they could struggle to a place of safety. A very similar accident happened, with similar results, on December 23, 1901, in a tunnel of the Liverpool Overhead Railway. In addition to the horrors of burning and suffocation, those of electrocution are added on an electric railway, since the fugitives cannot see the “live” rail as they stagger along in the darkness. For the avoidance of such accidents, Mr. George Westinghouse recommended that the motors should be placed at the ends of a train only; that the amount of current supplied to each section should be limited, so that in the event of a short circuit (i.e. leakage) on the train, the current may be automatically and instantaneously cut off at a point some distance from such section of the “live” rail. Electrical engineers generally also advise the installation of the motors in absolutely fireproof cars, sheathed with steel and lined with asbestos; the provision of emergency exits at the rear of the train; and the location of the “live rail” outside the track so as to leave the four-
The disaster at Thirsk on the North-
The Scotch express, southward bound, was being run that night in two parts. The first part cleared the box safely. Then a goods train, waiting on a siding, should have been allowed to run through his block before the second half of the express. Unfortunately he fell asleep over his levers, and being suddenly startled into wakefulness by the “Be ready” signal from the next box, which referred to the express, he forgot about the held-
The signalman was tried on a charge of manslaughter and found guilty, but received no punishment, since his case was considered a particularly hard one. To avoid the recurrence of such lapses from duty the Company decided to increase the number of relief signalmen over their system. A further result of the accident was the stimulus that it undoubtedly gave to the movement for shortening the hours of a signalman’s “shift”.
The Thirsk accident on the North Eastern Railway, November 2, 1892. Ten passengers were killed and thirty-
Though the loss of human life is the most terrible feature of a collision or derailment, the financial loss proves, in a strictly pecuniary sense, the most grievous burden to the Company concerned. Thus, after the Thirsk affair, £25,000 had to be devoted to the payment of compensation to the injured passengers, and to the next-
In the United States many an accident has been due to the collapse of the gigantic trestle bridges which span ravines and rivers, especially where the structure has been one of wood, or where it crosses a stream liable to heavy floods. A friend of the writer, while touring the States with a theatrical company, relates the following story, which gives a good idea of the risks that are run sometimes to keep an engagement. The train was approaching a large city where the company had to play that evening, when the engine-
Another foe that the train-
The next train was, of course, also compelled to stop, and to clear the track of the remnants of its predecessor. As a precaution trucks were sent flying down the grades in advance to see if the way was safe. Fires still smouldered at many points, and were fanned into activity by the draught of the passing vehicles, proving that their despatch had been a prudent measure.
On heavy grades a “runaway” is the driver’s greatest fear. Should the brakes fail to act he will find his train rushing round the curves with an increasing velocity which he is utterly powerless to curb. In the Rockies and other mountainous districts, “safety switches” are therefore provided, which will turn the train up an inclined side track if the driver is not able to stop and dismount to put the points over.
Cases are on record of a car actually jumping off the rails and re-
Avoiding any attempt at a detailed list of accidents, which make a sad and morbid chapter in railway history, we may turn to the appliances provided for the removing of debris from the line and the giving of succour to the injured. A “railway ambulance” is generally to be found at an important depot, ready for work, like the fire-
We will suppose ourselves privileged persons who have the keys to these vans.
One of them is the riding van, in which the breakdown gang are hauled swiftly to the scene of action. Formerly the crew had to cling as best they might to any part of the crane, the engine, or the trucks; nowadays it is recognised that exposure to the weather during the journey does not render their labour any more efficient when they reach the spot where it will be required; and a “coffee van” is provided. Peeping in, we see that its central object is a stove to which an oven is attached so that the men may heat both food and drink as they travel. A writer in the Strand Magazine -
“The van is capable of holding forty men. One end is fitted with cupboards, which, when opened, disclose flags, fog signals, signal and roof lamps used for lighting and protecting the train, as well as train signal lamps, ready trimmed for lighting, and four train lamps. Box seats are constructed around the sides of the riding van, which serve as receptacles for various tools, such as wood ‘scotches’, small ‘packing’ shovels, hammers, bars of many kinds, and a large variety of ‘sets’. The ‘set’ plays a very important part in the labour of clearing the line or rescuing imprisoned victims of a railway disaster. It is used for cutting shackles or bolts, and is a piece of sharpened steel resembling the head of an axe without the handle, from one to three pounds in weight. A piece of hazel, commonly called a ‘set-
Even more interesting than the coffee-
A RAILWAY TRAVELLING CRANE. Here we see a steam crane of a kind largely used upon the railways. It can travel upon the rails just like any railway vehicle, in fact it can form part of a fast train. When not in use the tall “jib” is lowered until it rests flat upon a truck which is provided for the purpose. When at work, as is clearly shown, it is clipped down upon the rails and also steadied by timbers upon the ballast. A crane, an engine and a few vans with tools, form the “breakdown train”.
“A couple of sets of strong ladders are lashed to the roof. These are fitted with socket ends, and when, in event of a collision, wagons are piled up to a height of 20 or 30 feet, they are of the utmost service in scaling the wreck. The lower sides of the van are devoted to an array of single and double hooks, and huge iron loops for the jacks. The remaining space in the van is filled up by bars, levers, and other appliances, all arranged in an orderly fashion. Order seems to be the guiding motto in the breakdown train. There are in this van no lockers, for the reason that miscellaneous articles get out of ken when hurriedly thrown in, and are afterwards urgently needed. At one end of the van there is an 8-
The crane, which forms so important an item in the outfit, is usually worked by steam, sometimes by hand. It has a lifting capacity of anything up to 15 tons, though seldom called upon to move more than a third of that weight. It can pick up anything within a radius of about 20 feet from its central point; and when required to exert an unusually violent pull is held down to the rails by means of clips. On the North London Railway the crane is built into the locomotive.
When a collision or other type of accident has been telegraphed to headquarters, the breakdown gang are at once summoned from their beds or wherever they may be. They lose not a moment in getting ready for action. A locomotive is hitched on to the train and off it goes at top speed, every other piece of rolling-
A week later, as the express rushes by the spot, a curious passenger may put out his head and say, “Oh! this is where the accident took place! don’t see anything!”
No! because the breakdown gang does its work thoroughly, and leaves no skeletons about to tell where the battle was fought. All the mangled mass of wood and steel has been burnt or removed to the shops to be repaired or broken up for other uses.