Signal failure! This has been the cause of many railway accidents, and a prime example is the frozen semaphore signals that caused the disaster on the Great Northern Railway line at Abbots Ripton, Huntingdonshire (now Cambridgeshire) in 1876.
It was January, and snow was falling heavily as a coal train headed south from Peterborough on the up line. Behind it, also heading south, was the Special Scotch Express (known to the railwaymen of that time as ‘the Scotchman’, and after 1923 renamed the Flying Scotsman). The coal train was instructed to shunt into a siding at Abbots Ripton so that the express could overtake it, and the signals should have warned the faster train to stop if necessary.
However, because the signals were frozen or weighed down by snow, the signal arms did not move to the ‘danger’ position, and in the snowstorm the signalmen could not see what had happened. The Scotchman continued on its way, running through the signals, which were showing ‘clear’. It was going at full speed, about 45mph, when it struck the back of the coal train, which had not yet got into the siding.
The engine of the express jumped the rails and fell on its side. (The Victorian Picture Library has an illustration showing it being lifted by cranes following the accident). The tender, guard’s van and three carriages fell across the northbound rails, the down line. Here they were in a very dangerous position. The fireman of the coal train therefore laid warning detonators on the down line. The Abbots Ripton signalman set his signals in both directions to ‘danger’, but because of the snow and ice they did not operate properly. Badly shaken by events, he did not immediately send a warning bell signal to Stukeley, the nearest signal box southwards, and his telegraph message to Huntingdon, further south still, was not answered.
At last he did send a warning to Stukeley, but too late – the Leeds express, with 13 carriages, altogether weighing over 200 tons, had passed through seconds before, heading north to Abbots Ripton at full speed.
The engine driver of the Leeds express told the subsequent inquiry what happened next: ‘I found a white light [clear signal] at Abbots Ripton. After passing that signal post, I was alarmed by passing over two fog signals which exploded; I at once shut off steam and told my mate to put on the tender brake. I was then going at 40 or 50 miles an hour … I reversed my engine, and reapplied my steam, and as soon as that was done the collision occurred.’ The Leeds express ploughed straight into the tender and carriages of the Scotchman.
According to the Illustrated London News, ‘the effect of this second collision was most calamitous. The engine literally cut its way through the massive tender of the Scotch train lying across the down rails, glancing off on to the bank with its tender. The leading carriages of the train mounted the wreck of the Scotch express and added further ruin to the already terrible disaster. Here, it is evident, occurred the great sacrifice of life among the passengers of the Scotch express, while no deaths took place among the travellers of the Leeds express.’
In this severe accident, 13 people were killed, and 53 passengers and 6 railwaymen were injured. Among the dead was the son of Dion Boucicault, one of the most celebrated actors and dramatists of the Victorian age, author of The Colleen Bawn.
Following the disaster, an official inquiry took place to find out the causes of the accident, and recommendations were made to prevent such an accident happening again. In consequence, the Great Northern Railway adopted a different design of signal which would not be affected by snow or ice, and ruled that the default position of signals should be ‘danger’, so that if they did stick they would not show a false ‘clear’. They also fitted a continuous braking system in their trains – brakes in each carriage – which much improved stopping time and distance.