Very Serious Consequences: Harrow and Wealdstone, 1952

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    We all make mistakes. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get away with it. Even if we don’t, sometimes the results aren’t too disastrous. But once in a while particularly unfortunate circumstances conspire to give a momentary error consequences that are catastrophic out of all proportion.

    In the foggy early hours of Wednesday 8 October 1952 the 8.18pm night sleeper express from Perth arrives at Crewe at 4.02am, thirteen minutes late. Here it is to change engines for the final leg of its journey to Euston, but the fog is particularly thick in the Crewe area, and there are further delays before Driver Jones and Fireman Turnock with 46242 City of Glasgow, one of the largest and most powerful locomotives in Britain, arrive from the shed and the engine is coupled to the train. It leaves Crewe thirty-two minutes late, at 4.37am.

    The fog persists all the way to London, and the train gets later and later. By the time it is approaching the north London suburbs it is nearly an hour-and-a-half late, and Driver Jones can expect yet more hold-ups, for by now the morning rush-hour has begun, and it is standard practice to give commuter trains precedence over late-running expresses so their passengers can get to work on time.

    Not far ahead of the Perth express such a commuter train, an outer-suburban service that left Tring in Hertfordshire at 7.31, is making its way towards Euston along the slow lines that run alongside the fast lines. It has nine coaches and they are all packed, because the train that usually follows it has been temporarily suspended while resignalling works are in progress at Euston. Many more people are waiting to board it at Harrow and Wealdstone station, where it is scheduled to swing right over a crossover to stop at the fast line platform and then run non-stop on the fast line all the way to Euston. This is to free the slow lines for empty carriage workings in and out of the terminus. Driver Jones and his Perth sleeper will have to follow behind it.

    From Harrow No 1 signal-box, just off the north end of the platforms at Harrow and Wealdstone station, Signalman Armitage can see (in clear weather) almost the whole of the station, and some distance along the lines stretching away to the north. The fast lines pass right beneath his front windows, and beyond them are the electrified lines for the inner-suburban trains to Watford. Just behind the box run the slow lines.

    It is usual for every signal-box to have a designated ‘fog object.’ If the signalman cannot see it, he must introduce the extra signalling precautions known as fog working. At Harrow No 1 box the fog object is the home signal for the southbound slow line, three hundred yards north of the box. Armitage hasn’t been able to see that signal since 6.35 and so he is operating fog working, but by eight o’clock the sun is breaking through and the fog is beginning to clear.

    At 8.07 Hatch End, the next signal-box to the north, sends him two bell signals in quick succession. One is Train Entering Section, to tell him that a sleeper express from Glasgow has passed Hatch End and is on its way towards him on the fast line. This train is running even later than the sleeper from Perth, which has been slowly gaining on it through the night until the two trains are now only about ten minutes apart. The other bell signal is to offer forward to him the local train from Tring on the slow line. Armitage sends back the bell signal to accept it, enabling the signalman at Hatch End to clear his signals for it.

    Looking to his left, Armitage sees the southbound fast line platform crowded with people waiting for the Tring train. Some of them are standing close to the edge, and the Glasgow sleeper will be coming through at speed any minute now, so he rings the station staff to tell them to warn the passengers to stand back. Looking to his right, he notices that he can now see that signal which is his fog object. At 8.10 he rings Control to inform them that he is reverting to normal working.

    One minute later the Glasgow train thunders through the station. As soon as it has passed Armitage moves the points of the crossover just north of his box to set the road for the local train to cross to the fast line.

    Almost at once Hatch End sends him another bell signal, offering him the Perth sleeper express. If fog working, with its prescribed greater distances between trains, were still in force he wouldn’t be able to accept it, for it will almost certainly arrive while the local train is still standing in the station on the fast line with the crossover and the signals set against the express, and it would have had to wait at Hatch End until the station is clear. But with the improved visibility it is safe to allow it into his section as far as his home signal at danger. Armitage accepts the express.

    By 8.17 the local train has passed over the crossover and has come to a halt at the southbound fast line platform. Guard Merritt gets out onto the platform from his compartment in the seventh coach to keep an eye on the boarding. The train is now so crowded he decides to allow some passengers into his guard’s van.

    Up in the signal box Armitage has just received two more Train Entering Section signals, telling him that trains are approaching on both fast lines. One is from Hatch End, and is for the Perth sleeper. The other is from North Wembley, the next box to the south, and is for the 8.00 express from Euston to Liverpool.

    The local train has been standing in the station for a little more than a minute, and is almost ready to leave, when Signalman Armitage is astounded to hear the sound of a train approaching at speed from the north. Looking round, he sees the Perth sleeper emerge from the mist six hundred yards away, coming straight past his outer home signal at danger and doing at least 50mph. It will have hardly any time even to slow down, let alone stop, before it runs into the local train. And that Liverpool express will be arriving from the other direction at any minute.

    Horrified though he is, Armitage reacts instantly, pulling the lever to operate a device that lays a detonator on the track in front of the Perth express, and throwing all his northbound signals to danger in an attempt to stop the Liverpool train.

    On the Perth express, Driver Jones has slammed the brakes full on, but he is far too late. As it bursts through the points of the crossover and passes Signalman Armitage’s box the train has hardly slowed at all.

    On the platform, Guard Merritt is just beginning to shut doors in the two coaches behind his van when he hears the Perth sleeper bearing down on his train. At once he turns to dive across the platform and down onto the northbound slow line, crouching against the platform wall for shelter. He is going to need it.

    The last four coaches of the packed local train have bodies made entirely of wood. They stand no chance against the impact of a speeding train weighing 525 tons, headed by one of the most massive locomotives in the country. The last two coaches are totally destroyed, their bodies shattered and their twisted steel underframes thrown in a heap onto the platform that Guard Merritt has just vacated in such a hurry. The rear half of the next coach, Guard Merritt’s van, is also destroyed. It is a miracle that anyone in this part of the train survives, but some do.

    The whole train is propelled forwards for twenty yards. The first five coaches of the Perth train are telescoped, piling up behind and on top of the engine. But all this, in terms of violence and destruction if not of loss of life, will be eclipsed by what is about to happen next.

    The Liverpool express has left Euston five minutes late, delayed by the time taken to put right a minor fault in its braking system. Although it is a heavy train of fifteen vehicles, it has plenty of power in the shape of the two large engines at its head, and it has already made up some of the deficit by the time it approaches Harrow and Wealdstone at nearly 60mph.

    Quick though Signalman Armitage’s reactions have been, the train has already passed all his signals before he threw them to danger. With no warning of the obstruction ahead, it races into the station and towards destruction at unabated speed, steaming hard.

    And what is blocking its path is not a few wooden coaches but the derailed locomotive of the Perth sleeper, half-buried under the wreckage of its train’s leading coaches. It is completely blocking the northbound fast line, standing at an angle with its rear end slewed out and jammed against the platform, and it weighs 105 tons. The speeding Liverpool express weighs, with its engines, 740 tons. An irresistible force is about to meet an immovable object.

    The shock of the impact stops every clock in the station. Both locomotives of the Liverpool train together with their tenders, nearly three hundred tons of steel, are lifted bodily from the rails and leftwards onto the platform. They skid along it on their left sides for nearly seventy yards before the leading engine drops off the other side onto the electrified lines, where it shorts out the current. At least this means that none of the electric trains can run into the wreckage. The leading coaches of the train pile up against the obstruction, adding to the mound of wreckage until it is 45 yards long, 18 yards wide and 30 feet high, spreading over the platforms to either side and reaching high enough to damage the footbridge connecting the platforms. And underneath it all is the engine of the Perth express, with the dead bodies of Driver Jones and Fireman Turnock.

    The two collisions have come so close together that many witnesses have hardly been able to tell them apart.

    Signalman Armitage has had a grandstand view from his signal-box windows of what one railway writer will later call ‘the most terrible wreck ever seen on a British railway,’ a catastrophe he has been powerless to prevent. He has held himself together long enough to take prompt action to stop the traffic and avoid further carnage, but when Stationmaster Rolinson comes to the signal-box about ten minutes after the collisions, he finds Armitage white-faced with shock, and has to help him out of the box and sit him down on the steps to get some fresh air.

    Inevitably, the death toll was very heavy, exceeded in Britain only by that of the Quintinshill disaster of 1915, and Harrow and Wealdstone remains the worst peacetime railway accident in British history. Over half of the 112 fatalities occurred in the shattered rear carriages of the crowded local train. Considering the violence of the second collision, it is surprising that of the four enginemen involved only the driver of the leading engine lost his life. The fireman found himself lying on top of the overturned second engine, with no idea of how he’d got there. The driver and fireman of that engine also had miraculous escapes.

    Just as surprising is the fact that City of Glasgow, the engine of the Perth sleeper, having run at speed into the back of the local train, been struck with great violence by the engines of the Liverpool express, and buried under a huge mound of wreckage, was eventually rebuilt and returned to service. But the leading engine of the Liverpool train was reduced to little more than a pile of scrap metal. The second engine also had to be scrapped, a decision taken reluctantly because it was effectively brand new, having been extensively rebuilt from an experimental steam turbine locomotive. Though that engine had been nicknamed ‘The Turbomotive’ and was habitually referred to as such, it had never borne an official name, but the rebuild was named Princess Anne, after the Queen’s infant daughter who was two years old at the time. It had been running in this form for only two months.

    It is sobering to reflect that this horrendous accident was the result of a simple mistake by one man. The enquiry found no chain of responsibility, no contributory factors, no mitigating circumstances. Signalman Armitage’s actions had been perfectly correct throughout, and he was held to be blameless. Thorough investigations failed to reveal any faults in the signalling systems. In visibility which, though less than perfect, should have been quite good enough to give him plenty of time to react, Driver Jones on the Perth sleeper express had passed a colour-light distant signal at caution without slowing down and then two semaphore signals at danger, and that was the sole cause of the disaster. The almost simultaneous arrival on the scene of the Liverpool train was nothing but bad luck. If only it hadn’t been delayed for those five minutes at Euston…

    Since Driver Jones was killed along with his fireman, any explanation of his lapse could only be speculative. The locomotive was minutely examined (taking account of its accident damage) for any fault that might have distracted his attention, but nothing was found. Jones had a good record and his supervisors at Crewe North shed regarded him as a conscientious, reliable man. At 43 years of age he was in the prime of life and had no health problems. Nobody noticed anything unusual about him before he took over his engine. He was an experienced driver who knew the route well and so was familiar with the practice of giving commuter trains precedence over late expresses. He would have known he could expect adverse signals in the London area, arriving there at the time he did.

    The chairman of the enquiry, Lieutenant-Colonel G R S Wilson, wrote in his report, ‘I can only suggest that Driver Jones must have relaxed his concentration on the signals for some unexplained reason, which may have been quite trivial, at any rate during the few seconds for which the distant signal could have been seen at the speed he was running in a deceptive patch of denser fog. Having thus missed the distant he may have continued forward…, underestimating the distance he had run from Hatch End and still expecting to see the colour light and not the Harrow semaphore stop signals which were at a considerably higher elevation.’ In other words, he missed the high-mounted home signals because he was still looking lower down for the colour-light distant signal.

    This, of course, was only Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson’s best guess. Another possibility is that Jones had a microsleep, a condition that was yet to be identified at the time. He had had almost eleven hours off between shifts, but the long journey in fog and darkness, demanding a constant high level of concentration to be sure of spotting the signals in the difficult conditions, must have been fatiguing. He would have felt able to relax a bit as daylight came and the fog began to thin, and perhaps he relaxed that little bit too much. Again, this is only speculation. No one will ever know exactly what happened in the cab of City of Glasgow during that last crucial minute or so before the collision.

    What was perfectly obvious, however, was that the accident would almost certainly have been prevented by some means in the cab of alerting the driver if he passed adverse signals, what is today known as AWS (Automatic Warning System). The old Great Western Railway had begun trials of such a system as far back as 1906, and by the time Britain’s railways were amalgamated into ‘The Big Four’ in 1923 it was busily installing it throughout its network; but as far as the other three railways were concerned the military gentlemen of the Railways Inspectorate must have been feeling a sad sense of deja vu, for they had been experiencing a re-run of their nineteenth-century battle to get the railway companies to adopt fail-safe continuous brakes. For the past quarter-century and more their accident reports had been repeatedly urging the adoption of AWS. In 1930 a committee chaired by Colonel Sir John Pringle, the Chief Inspecting Officer, had reported strongly in favour of AWS, specifically recommending the GWR system.

    And the other three companies had balked. The GWR system wasn’t suitable for their needs. The considerable costs of developing an alternative system, or of installing any kind of AWS in thousands of miles of track and many hundreds of locomotives, were out of proportion to the small number of accidents it would prevent. It was more cost-effective to concentrate on improving signalling systems.

    It was not until 1937 that the London Midland and Scottish Railway began trialling its own version of AWS on its line from Fenchurch Street to Southend. And at the time of the Harrow and Wealdstone accident that was still the only AWS installation in the country outside the former GWR lines.

    Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson’s report pointed out that, though indeed only about 10 per cent of railway accidents in the previous forty years had been preventable by AWS, those accidents had accounted for 28 per cent of the fatalities. ‘The much greater proportion of the fatalities is not fortuitous,’ he wrote, ‘as Warning Control [i.e. AWS] affords valuable protection against failure to act on the Distant signal at Caution, which may well lead to a collision or turnout derailment at high speed with very serious consequences…. This is the case for Warning Control.’

    In fact, as Wilson knew, the battle had already been won, at least in theory. The railways had been nationalised in 1948, and British Railways had recognised the need for AWS from the start. But BR had found neither of the existing systems satisfactory and had decided to develop its own system, and progress had been hampered by its deliberations and by technical problems. Wilson refrained from stringent criticism, writing, ‘I would not be prepared to say that the experimental period could have been greatly shortened,’ but others were less restrained. The fact remained that by the time of the Harrow and Wealdstone disaster there were still no concrete results to appease those critics who, lacking Wilson’s inside and technical knowledge, saw only that people were being killed when something that could have saved them had been available for decades, and for whom ‘We’re working on it’ wasn’t enough.

    The Harrow and Wealdstone disaster did at least silence those who were still arguing that AWS was a waste of money and give the British Railways project fresh impetus, and by the time the report came out in June 1953 a five year plan had been agreed to install AWS on over 1,300 miles of line. But it didn’t come soon enough to save the 90 people who died less than five years later at Lewisham, on a line that had one of the most sophisticated signalling systems in the country and so was a low priority for AWS. In grim confirmation of Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson’s point, this, the next-worst British railway disaster after Harrow and Wealdstone, had exactly the same cause: a driver ran through red signals.

    On a less sombre note, one person involved in the rescue work at Harrow particularly caught the imagination of the British public. A team from a US Air Force medical unit based nearby at West Ruislip attended the scene, and their military medical training, based on battlefield experience, proved invaluable in a situation that did indeed resemble a battlefield. One of them was Lieutenant Abbie Sweetwine, a black American nurse, whose tireless dedication in comforting and treating the injured created such an impression that the Daily Mirror christened her ‘The Angel of Platform Six.’


    How astonishing that an event with so much loss of life has faded from memory. I mean, not literally, it’s still there in the records – and you’ve just blogged about it. That said, it’s coming up to 70 years, I suppose. Great blog as ever, Richard. I shake my head when you write about the prevarication and penny-pinching over AWS. Then I remember that the architects for the Grenfell Tower refurbishment hadn’t checked over the fire safety guidance. Then they thought the cladding was a subcontractors responsibility. Then they thought it was down to Chelsea Council to check. Then Chelsea Council actually signed it off when it wasn’t compliant – and so on. Oh, and they picked the architects using a costs fiddle to avoid having to tender it. Plus ca change?

    Thanks for writing this – really interesting.


    It certainly is. Mindboggling that such a catastrophe could have come about through a momentary lapse by a single person. Less mindboggling that the means of preventing such a catastrophe had long existed but not been implemented.

    As Ath says, the parallels between this incident, along with many of the others you’ve written about over the years, and Grenfell Tower are striking. Complacency being the main one, and casual disregard for human life when money is involved.

    Mad Iguana

    Jeez that’s some incident. I did not know about this at all – thanks for telling the story so vividly, Richard!
    It just shows that human nature – our inability to foresee and avert disaster until something truly catastrophic has happened – is unchanged over the years/decades/centuries.

    John S Alty

    Another interesting blog, Richard, thank you.


    Love your railway blogs, Richard. Not only excellent writing and interesting to me subjects, but because my father and grandfather were railwaymen – rising all through the ranks. Your stories offer me nostalgia and many mixed emotions which, to me, is a mark of rich writing. Thank you. 😊. Write on as our friend Tony would council. Jill.


    Complacency and casual disregard for human life ain’t the half of it, sometimes.

    I mentioned above that the Railways Inspectorate had a battle in the nineteenth century to get fail-safe brakes adopted. They were up against not only reluctance to spend money – the so-called automatic vacuum brake was more complicated (and therefore more expensive) than the simple vacuum brake – but also, in some quarters, downright obstreperousness, an attitude of ‘no interfering government official is going to tell us how to run our railway.’ The chairman of the Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, Sir Edward Watkin, was about the stroppiest of the lot.

    In July 1884, near Penistone, South Yorkshire, an MS&L locomotive suffered a broken driving axle and the resulting jerk broke the coupling between the engine and the train. The engine was otherwise undamaged and stayed on the rails, and if the train had been fitted with the automatic vacuum brake that would have been the end of it, for the rush of air into the braking system would have put the brakes hard on. But the MS&L used the simple vacuum brake, in which air had to be sucked out of the braking system to put the brakes on. So while the engine stopped, the rest of the train didn’t, the carriages falling down an embankment with the loss of 24 lives.

    Not unnaturally the reporting officer had strong words to say about the MS&L’s policy on brakes. Sir Edward Watkin’s reaction was that ‘he would prefer an occasional Penistone to being compelled by Government to put on something which he did not want.’ What the relatives of the victims made of that has not been recorded.

    As a PS to the original blog, sometimes my researches for these pieces lead me to on-line forums frequented by railwaymen, retired or otherwise, and I glean fascinating snippets of info and opinion, not always suitable for inclusion in the actual blogs. Here are a couple I found while researching this one.

    One man who’d worked at Crewe North depot, where Driver Jones and Fireman Turnock were based, said that for years after the accident fixed opinion in the mess-room there – despite all the evidence and the unequivocal verdict of the report – was that it was all the signalman’s fault. Oh no, couldn’t be one of ours.

    As for the signalman himself, another man said he had worked some years afterwards at a station where Armitage was the stationmaster. He described him as ‘a bag of nerves.’ The dead and the physically injured aren’t the only victims of incidents like this.

    I think Lieutenant Abbie Sweetwine must have been quite some woman. It must surely have been most unusual in those days for any black person, let alone a black woman, to achieve officer rank in the US armed forces. And she shrugged off the fuss made about her, saying that she’d only been doing her job.

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