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Accidents and the Breakdown Train

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

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-stock, “accidents will occur” on the railway as elsewhere. Scarcely a week passes without the papers bearing in large type “Terrible Disaster to an Express”, or “Fatal Collision”; and there follows an account of how some unfortunate beings were hurried into eternity amid the crash of the wrecked trains; and others, scarcely more favoured, suffered agonies beneath the debris while willing hands worked desperately to rescue them.

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-greaser, platelayer, or crossing-tender, may so easily have disastrous consequences; and even when all do their duty axles or wheels may be faulty. Then there are the elements to reckon with - water, that in the darkness of the night may have swept away a piece of the track, as happened some years ago on the London and North-Western on the North Wales coast; and wind, which sometimes lifts a train bodily and hurls it from the rails. Yes! there are plenty of possible causes for an accident, so that one may marvel with reason at the rarity of railway disasters in proportion to the number of journeys safely made. On referring to statistics, we find that in 1920 only one passenger was killed out of 267 millions who travelled over British rails, while but one in 2¼ millions was even injured. There is therefore little need for anxiety while travelling; since it has been proved that a railway carriage is far safer than a London street. A bed is the most dangerous of all places, Mark Twain humorously remarks, because the majority of mankind die there!

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 - we may instance the Abergele accident - the dread Fire Fiend is awakened. That pitiable occurrence has marked August 20, 1868, with a black cross in railway annals. The Holyhead mail dashed at full speed into some trucks laden with oil, which had somehow got loose on an incline. Only three carriages were derailed; but the engine had smashed open the petroleum barrels in the wrecked trucks, and almost instantaneously hundreds of gallons of petroleum were ablaze, wrapping the train in a fearful robe of fire. Twenty-eight persons, including Lord and Lady Farnham, were burnt to death. All that remained of them and theirs was a few calcined bones, among which were found precious jewels, unharmed by the intense heat that had fused the settings.

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-foot way unencumbered and safe.

The disaster at Thirsk on the North-Eastern Line, which took place on November 2, 1892, is notorious as another instance of the devastating effect of fire in a collision. The fact that it happened during the night, and resulted from a pathetic incident in an overworked signalman’s life added further notoriety. The signalman, James Holmes, had just lost his child, and on account of his mental distress had not been able to get a proper amount of rest between his twelve-hour shifts. When he entered the box to work the night express traffic he felt quite unfit for duty, and asked to be relieved, but it so happened that relief could not be sent.

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-up goods and lowered the signals. The goods driver, thinking that they were meant for him, drew out on to the main line, just in front of the express, which also interpreted the signals to mean a clear line for it. When the smash came the driver of the express had a marvellous escape, being flung over the fence into a field. But the passengers did not fare so well. Ten were killed and thirty-eight injured; two of the deaths being due to the fire that broke out among the wreckage, probably through furnace coals coming into contact with the woodwork of the forward carriages. A particularly sad feature of this collision was the fate of an officer in the 1st Royal Highlanders, who, after coming safely through the Soudan Campaign, was burnt to death, only his medals remaining unharmed to establish the identity of the victim. Lord Tweeddale, the chairman of the North British Company, escaped with a severe shaking, thanks to the strength of the Pullman Car in which he travelled.

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

The Thirsk accident on the North Eastern Railway, November 2, 1892. Ten passengers were killed and thirty-nine seriously injured. A careful examination of the picture will give a good idea of the destructive energy of an express.

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-of-kin of those killed. In other words, a five-per-cent, dividend was at one blow knocked off 5000 shares, having a capitalised value of £500,000. We can easily understand, therefore, that the Company finds it to its own interests to take every precaution against such disasters as the above.

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-driver saw that the bridge leading into the city over the river on which it stood had been almost submerged. A consultation was rapidly held as to the prudence of attempting a passage; and meanwhile the waters rose above the track, so that it now became impossible to see even whether the bridge were still complete. The manager decided to take the risk. The driver let his engine go, and the train slowly advanced into the flood. The bridge vibrated with the swirl of the torrent in a manner most terrifying to the passengers; and you may guess their relief when the train reached firm land on the further side. Very shortly afterwards the structure gave way. A few moments sooner, and the Tay Bridge disaster would have been repeated, with even more appalling results.

Another foe that the train-man has to fight is fire, the raging, relentless blaze that sweeps over the prairies or through the forests. Here is another little incident told to the writer by one who was on the spot. The name of the railway will for charitable reasons be withheld. Anyway, it was a great transcontinental line, and it passed through a forest-clad mountain range. The very first “through” passenger train that ran over its metals encountered a terrific forest fire, which compelled it to stop and the passengers to flee for their lives. In an hour only some twisted metal-work remained where the fine express had halted. One of the passengers, rushing back to recover a valise, found a man lying insensible on the floor of a car and hauled him out just in time to escape the most horrible of all deaths.

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-railing itself; and of an engine cutting its way clean through a heavy obstruction thrown maliciously or accidentally in its way. In the majority of instances, however, derailments and obstructions lead to disaster, as might naturally be expected. That there should not be more fatalities under the latter head is a matter for some surprise, since it is no uncommon thing to read of men or boys being arrested for placing sleepers, stones, iron, chairs, &c, on the metals, often with the avowed purpose of seeing “what a really good smash looks like!” In these lenient days such villains often get off much more lightly than they deserve; since the railway authorities do not wish to bring the facts before the public, to raise fears in the minds of their passengers. A liberal application of the “cat” is the least punishment fully earned by the would-be train wrecker.

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-engine, at a moment’s notice. You may have noticed in a siding a crane mounted on a flat carriage, to which are coupled five or more vans. There is nothing at all romantic about the external appearance of the outfit; but a peep inside those closed doors would at once give you some idea of the work which a breakdown train may have to do.

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 - from which the author is kindly permitted to quote - thus neatly describes the fitting up of the van:

“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-rod’, is wrapped round it, and the two ends form a handle. The set is held on anything which it is required to cut, and with the blows of a heavy hammer in the hands of those accustomed to such work it will quickly sever any bolt or shackle. Shovels, hammers, chisels, bars, and other implements are also ready to hand in this van. One cupboard contains the hand-lamp needed by the official staff, each lamp having the name or the initials painted thereon. Still another cupboard is labelled ‘Ambulance’. The foreman opens the doors and reveals two tourniquets, half-a-dozen compressor bandages, scissors, forceps, adhesive plaster, lint for dressing, splints for broken limbs, antiseptic fluids, sal volatile, needles, sponges, basins, while an ambulance stretcher is folded away in one of the lockers. Another locker contains the necessary food and provisions, bread, butter, tea, coffee, sugar, and last, but not least, tobacco. This hasty inventory omits many articles of importance, but we must move rapidly on to the next van, merely noting the curious fact that the greatest number of the tools which have handles are painted a bright vermilion, so as to be easily distinguishable in the dark or in the confusion which attends a wreck on the line.”

Even more interesting than the coffee- is the tool-van. This is the counterpart on wheels of the store ship, known among bluejackets as the “Nurse of the Navy”. Our authority continues:

A RAILWAY TRAVELLING CRANEThe tool-van glitters and bristles like an armoury. The floor is divided into little streets and squares, formed by rows of jacks, ramps, and pyramids of chains, each placed with due regard to neatness and to prevent confusion and intermingling. The upper portion of the sides of the van is looped around with strong cables of rope or chain for haulage purposes, and is also arranged and fastened with occasional lashings to be easily loosened ready for use.

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-inch vice, secured to a bench, specially constructed, so as to be portable if required; and a tool-rack, containing files, chisels, and hammers, every article being within easy reach. Before taking leave of this section of the breakdown train let us not fail to notice the hue of the paint on the inside of the van. It is a clear white, the object being to throw every article into greater relief, for every jack, every lever or wrench, is painted a ruddy vermilion. The object is, of course, to indicate its locality when in a half-buried state. Otherwise after the confusion and strenuous toil of a breakdown, especially at night, a number of the tools would be lost or mislaid.”

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-stock making way for it like street traffic gives place to the fire-engine. As it flies along, the foreman of the gang is making all he can out of the curt telegram that has been handed to him; and weighing the particular course that may be necessary for this particular case. Scarcely is the breakdown train at rest when the men swarm out, and, working with remarkable method under their foreman’s direction, attack the wreckage. Of course, any victims pinned beneath the debris must be their very first care; but scarcely less important is the immediate clearing of the line, the traffic on which may be entirely dislocated by but an hour’s block. The foreman has to decide very promptly on his line of action. He must take the tangled skein at the point where it can be most easily unravelled. Telegrams rain upon him asking how long it will be before the line is clear: he sends back answers of a noncommittal kind, and orders his men to sling trucks and carriages bodily off the track, with as little damage as possible. Chains are attached to the topmost vehicles of a pile to haul them down. Then the crane approaches and picks up anything free that it can reach and places it out of the way. Meanwhile special men are straightening or replacing twisted rails, packing the sleepers and setting the track right. When the wreckage, human and material, has been removed, and the foreman is satisfied that the traffic may be resumed, he sends word to headquarters, the men replace their tools in the van, after covering up the more valuable debris with tarpaulins, and depart to their well-earned rest.

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.

You can read more on “Floods, Fire and Earthquake” , “Railway Accidents” and “The Railways’ Daily Work” on this website.