Hull Paragon: The Million-to-One Chance

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    It seems appropriate to post this piece today, since it’s the ninety-first anniversary of the events it recounts. It does get a bit technical, but bear with me: it’s not very long, and the dénouement is worth it. At least, I think so…

    It’s the morning rush-hour on 14 February 1928, the busiest time of the day at the London and North Eastern Railway’s Hull Paragon terminus, and a rather tight situation is developing for the three signalmen in the Park Street signal-box just outside the station. The 9.05 train to Scarborough is about to leave, and an incoming train from Withernsea is approaching. It should have already arrived at Platform 3, but it is running late, and to reach the right platform it will have to cross over the track the Scarborough train is going to take. The signalmen don’t want to hold up the Scarborough train before it’s even started; neither do they want to cause further delay to the Withernsea train, which they know must be full of people trying to get to work.

    They decide to let the Scarborough train leave. The two trains will pass each other a few hundred yards out from the station, and then it will be safe to set the appropriate points for the arriving Withernsea train to cross over behind the Scarborough train. This way neither train will be delayed, but there won’t be any time to lose once the Scarborough train is clear of those points. The signalmen will have to look lively.

    As the Scarborough train starts away from Platform 1 the locomotive’s wheels slip a couple of times on the greasy rails. Driver Samuel Atkinson is an experienced man and he soon has the slipping under control, but it does result in a slightly slower start than usual. Atkinson has his eyes on the signals as the engine passes Park Street signal-box, a couple of hundred yards from the end of the platform, at about 15mph. As far as he can see round the curve ahead they are all showing clear for his normal route, along the track he is already on.

    But when he lowers his eyes something seems to be amiss. It looks as if his train is further over to the right than it ought to be. He crosses over to the other side of the cab, looking out of both sides to make sure. His eyes haven’t deceived him. It shouldn’t be, it can’t be, and he hasn’t noticed any sideways lurch that would have told him he was crossing from one line to another, but the train really is running along the next track to the right of the correct one. And that track is for incoming trains.

    Atkinson shuts off steam and slams the brakes full on. By now the train has already covered another two hundred yards or so, but it’s still not doing much more than 20mph, and at that modest speed the brakes take effect quickly. Before the train has gone further than its own length it has almost stopped, but at that moment Atkinson sees a train emerge round the curve from under a road overbridge less than a hundred yards away, on the same track as his. It’s not going very fast, but it hasn’t a chance of stopping in time. ‘Look out!’ he yells to his fireman.

    The train he has seen is the late-running train from Withernsea, in charge of Driver Robert Dixon. Before reaching the overbridge he has already shut off steam and slowed down to about 15mph on account of the curve and the imminent 10mph speed restriction at the station entrance, and he has his hand on the brake lever ready to slow further. The first thing he does on emerging from under the bridge is to check that the signals are clear for him, and when he drops his gaze to see the almost stationary Scarborough train it is not more than two engine lengths away. He too slams on his brakes, but they hardly have time to slow his train any more before the two locomotives meet head-on.

    With a closing speed of only 15mph it isn’t a bad one as head-on collisions go, and none of the enginemen are seriously hurt; but some of the wooden-bodied coaches are telescoped into each other and the engines’ tenders, causing eight fatalities among the passengers. Four more will die later in hospital.

    Sam Atkinson has been buried in coal catapulted out of the tender by the shock of the collision. After being freed he sits down beside his engine for a few moments to collect himself, then he crosses the tracks to walk back to the Park Street signal-box, climbs the steps and opens the door. ‘What are you playing at this morning?’ he demands.

    He may well ask. The signalling at Hull Paragon is thoroughly up-to-date, with power-operated points and signals controlled by finger-tip miniature levers instead of the traditional chest-high levers you have to heave at with your whole body, and is as foolproof as modern technology can make it. All the points and signals are interlocked, so it shouldn’t be possible for a train to be on one track when it’s been signalled along another. Furthermore, the points have locking bars to prevent them from being moved when a train is on them, or approaching them. But the impossible has, apparently, just happened. How?

    It was the job of the enquiry to find that out. It was obvious at once that the only way the Scarborough train could have got onto that wrong track was by being diverted to the right over a set of points almost dead opposite the Park Street signal box, known as Number 95, so those points must have been set for that route. The question was how they came to be in that position, and that was a real poser.

    Signal 171, near the station entrance, was the signal relevant to Number 95 Points. Driver Atkinson saw it showing clear for him to go straight ahead through those points. Because of the interlocking, it could only be set to that indication if Number 95 Points were also set for straight ahead. So those points must have been moved after the train started, but before it reached them.

    But the interlocking also made it impossible to move the points’ lever in the signal-box, Lever 95, until Signal 171 had been restored to danger. That should only have been done after the whole train had passed the signal, and by then the locomotive would have been close enough to Number 95 Points to activate the locking bars. It should still have been impossible to move the points.

    The only possible explanation seemed to be that Signal 171 must have been restored to danger too early. Under cross-examination Signalman Edwin Gibson, who was responsible for the movements of the Scarborough train, admitted that in his eagerness to keep things moving he had, in fact, reset Signal 171 at about the time the third coach of the five-coach train was passing it. Though strictly against the rules, this practice was tolerated at busy times, but here it was the first step towards disaster.

    His colleague in charge of the movements of the Withernsea train, Signalman John Clark, was also keen to keep things moving. To this end, rather than watching what was happening outside he had his eyes on what Gibson was doing. As soon as he saw Gibson resetting Signal 171 he began to set the road for the Withernsea train, starting with Number 96 Points. Or so he thought. In fact, he must have pulled the wrong lever in his haste. The next lever to the left, Lever 95.

    There could have been only a very small window of opportunity for him to do this, the time taken by the locomotive of the Scarborough train to reach the locking bars of Number 95 Points after Signal 171 had been reset. Just how long did he have?

    Calculations were made, based on the estimated speed of the Scarborough train, its estimated distance from those locking bars at the time the signal was reset, and the time taken by the mechanism to move Number 95 Points. It turned out that the time available to Clark in which to move that lever was less than one second.

    So in that vanishingly small moment of time in which it was possible, less than the blink of an eyelid, Signalman Clark made precisely the one mistake that could have caused a collision. If the signal-box had been equipped with the big old manual levers he wouldn’t have had time to do it all. It was a freak accident, a million-to-one chance.


    Another fascinating blog Richard. And unlike so many of them, where there were obvious risks being taken or safety features omitted, with this one it’s so unlikely as to surely have been unforseeable. Do you think the signalmen were reassured by all the built-in the safety features that nothing like that could have happened, freeing them to run the two trains so close? Or was it the old fear of causing a delay for financial/reputation reasons rearing its head again? Were there any additional safety measures introduced as a result?


    Yes, I’m sure that the signalmen must have thought their systems were foolproof. As for their motivation, it seems to have been professional pride more than anything else. It was a matter of pride not to fall down on the job, to keep the traffic moving if at all possible. And though no one would have blamed them if that arriving train had been held up briefly at a signal while the other train departed, they would have had to record the delay in a book, and they wanted to keep a clean sheet.

    The only recommendation the enquiry made was to install a track circuit between Signal 171 and Number 95 Points to electronically detect the presence of a train. Interlocked with the points and signals, it would prevent those points being moved when a train was anywhere on that stretch of track. I haven’t been able to find out if that was ever done.


    Just nipped into the Den in the middle of a busy week to discover another of your interesting blogs, Richard, so had to stop and read. Thank you!

    John S Alty

    Really enjoy these tales of the rails, thank you.

    John S Alty

    My late father would tell of a train crash in Diggle, then in Yorkshire, in 1923 or 1924. He was four and witnessed the accident whilst out walking with his granddad. He was interviewed by the local newspaper and is reported to have said “It were a grand smash” or similar. I see from google that four people died, so it probably wasn’t so grand for some. Have you heard of this incident?


    No, I hadn’t heard of this one, but with two (as it turns out) of the four fatalities being railwaymen it probably wouldn’t have made a big splash except in the local press. Your father’s reaction, though: kids, eh?


    Richard, it may be something I missed over the time that you’ve been writing these (excellent) blogs: I know where you used to work, but do you have a connection to the railway yourself?


    In a word, Athers, no. Just a life-long interest in railways, which is a spin-off from a passion for steam engines that started before I can even remember. I’m a nerd, basically. Though not an anorak: I was never a trainspotter, and collecting numbers seems a pointless exercise to me. Though if you were to ask me about the technical workings of a steam locomotive I could bore you for as long as you could stand it.

    The nearest thing to a connection is that my father grew up near the main Great Western engine shed (Canton) in Cardiff, and used to watch the trains go by when he was a boy. My autistic son is also very heavily into railways, though not technically like me. I think he may carry a map of the entire British railway network in his head. Maybe it’s in the blood…


    I can definitely see the attraction in steam locomotives, and I have fond memories of holidays as a child, waiting on Newbury station for the express to arrive and whisk me away. I always prayed that it would be one of those wonderful swept-front, streamlined marvels, and was overjoyed if it was. Looking over the tracks to the Newbury marshalling yard while we waited, was an entertainment that my 5-year-old self found irresistible: the puffing tank-engines, trucks full of goods from strange foreign parts such as Swindon, and incomprehensible equipment on wheels.

    By coincidence, my own son is, in his own words, ‘a massive railway nerd’. I suspected this from some of his correspondence in various places, but he only recently confirmed it when for a post-birthday treat he:
    1. Took the quaint Marshlink line to Ashford International
    2. Took the 140mph Southeastern High Speed into London
    3. Took a DLR train from Stratford International to Canning Town
    4. A Jubilee to the new London Bridge
    5. A clapped out 455 to Beckenham Junction
    6. A tram to East Croydon
    7. Had Taco Bell for the first time
    8. Overground to Shoreditch
    9. Got lost in Shoreditch
    10. Got the tube to Heathrow airport
    11. Raced the Business Carpark Pods against my friends
    12. Took a bus to Hayes & Harlington
    13. Took a Crossrail train for the first time
    14. Wondered around the underbelly of Paddington
    15. Met up with my sister in the Barbican
    16. High Speed home


    Newbury is my adopted home town, Ath. Needless to say it’s less romantic now though steam trains do pass through as I’m sure you know.


    This is fascinating.

    My grandfather, on my mother’s side, worked on the railways but I know virtually nothing of what he did, to my embarrassment. I gather he was responsible for maintenance of a section of track, and when he started, had something to do with using horses to shunt rolling stock into and out of sidings, this being before that particular line got shunting engines. I’ll see if my mum knows any more.


    …In fact one of my few relatively clear memories of my grandfather are holding his hand while we stood on the (very crowded) footplate of the Oliver Cromwell, a BR Standard 7 Class locomotive, for a short run up and down the rails at Bressingham in the early 1980s. All I remember is a glimpse of the fire in the furnace, being closed in on all sides by people, and the huge, solid presence of my grandfather. I thought that was all I remembered, anyway, until I went on another preserved steam train many years later, and the sharp smell of the smoke, the sight of it curling down off the boiler to drift in ribbons past the window, was as familiar as if I’d been on steam trains my whole life.


    When they put the Great Western locomotive Caerphilly Castle in the Science Museum my father said, ‘The father of one of classmates at school used to drive that engine.’


    Castle class are lovely. My first Hornby train was a Castle class. Wish I could remember which one.


    They’re favourites of mine. And they were exceedingly good engines too. A design that stays in front-line express service for forty years is not to be sneezed at.

    I own the current iteration of the Hornby Castle. A lovely model to look at, but my example is an erratic runner, so it sits on my desk as an ornament.

    I told you I was a nerd…

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