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Published March 1, 2019

For many people, steam trains evoke an air of vintage glamour and romance. Think, “Brief Encounter.” And there are some train lines which have always had a little more of that aura than others. Europe, of course, had the Orient Express, and here in the UK, we have the Flying Scotsman.

However, being famous and romantic doesn’t protect a train line from catastrophe.

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The Flying Scotsman. Source: Unsplash

The Special Scotch Express began in 1862, with two trains leaving simultaneously from London’s King’s Cross station and Edinburgh’s Waverley station at ten o’clock in the morning, each arriving at the other end ten and a half hours later, with a half hour stop in York for lunch.

It became known informally as “The Flying Scotsman”, and that led, eventually, to the service being officially renamed in 1924.

On Sunday the 26th of October 1947, the Flying Scotsman service from Edinburgh to London left as usual, drawn by a steam locomotive called “Merry Hampton”. It was driven by Thomas Begbie, with fireman William Baird and train guard W. Blaikie. It was a busy service, with four hundred and twenty passengers on board.

Shortly before 1pm, they were approaching Goswick in Northumberland. They were a little behind schedule, due to engineering works they had to slow down for earlier on the route, between Drem and East Fortune, but now they were back to their usual speed, 60 miles per hour.

Goswick-Location
Source: OpenStreetMap

A Mr KJ Mulaney from Notting Hill Gate in London was travelling in one of the rear-most carriages. He described feeling two jolts, as if the brakes had been suddenly and firmly applied. Then the carriage began to heel over, and finally came to rest at an angle. All the people in the compartment were thrown in a heap by the door farthest from the corridor. They had to climb up into the corridor and out of a window to reach the ground.

Once they escaped their carriage, the scene before these passengers was horrific. The train was now a twisted pile of debris; luggage and personal belongings lay scattered across the fields. Cries for help came from within the wreckage.

A report in The Times the following day detailed the aftermath.

“The engine fell into a culvert 9ft deep at the side of the track. The three coaches behind it, which were telescoped, cleared the culvert and crashed into a field. The fourth coach, the restaurant car, broke loose, fell on to its side, and skidded along the track.”

As the train fell down the embankment, it had sheared away several telegraph poles; telephone communication between Berwick and Newcastle was cut. The wreckage had also blocked the other railway line, heading north. The Times report continued;

“Rescue workers informed Press representatives that although the accident happened in a sparsely populated area doctors, ambulance men, farmers and others arrived from miles around in nearly 100 cars. They went to the assistance of the uninjured passengers, who were helping the injured and trying to free others who were trapped in the wrecked coaches.”

Passengers related how they had heard cries for help coming from a pile of wreckage, where one carriage had fallen on top of another. There they found a woman with head injuries, trapped under the twisted metal which had once been part of the Scotch Express. Although they tried to lift the wreckage off her, and other passengers tried to assist, they weren’t able to. Another man was pinned by a steel girder, and had only his head clear. Both were trapped until a crane could be brought in.

Meanwhile, casualties were taken to hospital by whatever means necessary. Some were taken in buses, and others in open trucks, until ambulances were able to reach the scene. According to newspaper reports, one doctor said “it was a frightful scene of destruction”.

Twenty-one bodies were pulled from the wreckage by rescuers that night. Many more were injured, and were taken to Berwick Infirmary. The Times stated that the infirmary was so busy that when a reporter telephoned for information, it was actually one of the injured passengers who answered the call; the hospital staff were all too busy tending to the most serious casualties.

A number of these were reported to have been taken on by ambulance to hospitals in Newcastle, Ashington and Edinburgh for further treatment.

Amongst the injured was an Australian Warrant Officer, whose name was given as T. McNee, and who was at that time living in London. When he was freed, he was carried on a stretcher to Goswick station, where passengers stopped the first ambulance that arrived to take him to hospital. Sadly, he died along the way. Another of the casualties died that night in hospital, so the immediate death toll was reported at 23. Two days later, The Times reported that another casualty had died in hospital, and that it was thought more bodies still lay beneath the wreckage. The final death toll would rise to 28.

The LNER, the train’s operating company, quickly issued a list of seventeen names believed to be among those dead; it included a prominent British scientist, Professor John Masson Guilland.

In an effort to identify others, particularly the female victims, the Chief Constable of Northumberland appealed for the relatives of any women known to have been travelling on the train to get in touch with him at Morpeth.

Surviving passengers were transferred to another train to complete their journey; at 2:15 in the morning, they finally reached King’s Cross, where a crowd of a hundred people anxiously awaited them.


Now, there was time to ask the question on everyone’s minds: why had the train left the rails?

At the following inquiry, the testimony of the Goswick signalman, T. White, was damning.

Old style railway signal. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He had come on duty at 6am that morning, and since engineering work was scheduled that day, he had accordingly set the points to slow down and divert all incoming trains; instead of using the fast main line, they would use the goods loop, referred to by the signalmen as the Independent lines. Approaching this diversion, the driver would see first the Distant signal, then the Home signal, and finally the Starters signals.

After setting up this diversion, he brought five goods trains through on the Up line. According to the official report, “White said that his procedure was to keep the Home signal No. 22 at Danger until the train had nearly stopped and then to lower it to draw the train forward to the Starters at Danger; he would then lower No. 19 to allow the train to proceed through the crossover on to the Independent, at the same time showing a green flag from the box.”

This procedure was actually more cautious than that required by regulations; he was permitted to change both signals, No. 22 and No. 19, the Home and Starters, once he had received the signal “Line Clear” for the Independent line he was transferring the trains to. The Distant signal would be maintained at Caution to ensure that the incoming trains slowed down for the diversion; according to the train company’s engineer, they would need to be going at between 15 and 20 miles per hour to take the turn safely.

The report continued with White’s testimony;

“According to his account, he endeavoured to apply the same procedure to the express. After accepting it from Scremerston, he received “Train Entering Section” at 12:45pm., and got it accepted at once by Beal on the Up Independent… Shortly afterwards he saw some steam from the engine as it came through the overbridge; he had the impression that it was blowing off through the safety valve after the regulator had been closed, as he had often noticed before, and assumed that the driver was slowing down in obedience to the Distant at Caution. He therefore lowered the Up Home as the train approached it, at a distance which he estimated at about 200 yards…

“Just before the train reached the Home signal he suddenly realised that it was still steaming, shouted to Lengthman McIntyre, who was on duty as flagman in the box, that the train was not stopping, and threw the Home signal back to Danger.”

It was too late. The train hit the points at high speed, and derailed. The engine and tender went down a low bank into a ditch, ending up half-buried in the soft soil, and dragging the coaches behind it off the rail. The connection to the fourth coach broke, and it slid away from the rest of the train, careening 70 yards past the engine to come to rest on its side, across both of the Up lines, with wreckage fouling the Down line as well.

The back of the train escaped relatively unscathed; the last six coaches “remained upright and in line, the last four of them not being derailed.”

Lengthman McIntyre also gave evidence.

“…He was sitting down eating his dinner, when White remarked to him that the Up Scotsman was coming, and shortly afterwards he heard White say, “Good God he will not pull up”… He thought that the train was travelling very fast, in fact about the normal speed for express trains passing this point, also that the engine was steaming as it passed the Up platform and that the brakes had been only just applied as the engine was passing the box.”

Attention quickly turned to the driver. Why had Begbie not slowed down for the diversion?

Fortunately the driver had survived, albeit with multiple injuries to his ribs, and was able to give his own account once he had been discharged from hospital.

The report recorded that Begbie was an experienced driver; he had regularly been in charge of express trains between Edinburgh and Newcastle over the last twelve years. Furthermore, the investigators established that he had at the time been in excellent health, and well rested, having spent the Saturday evening at home.

“According to Begbie, the speed had risen to 60-65 m.p.h. As he passed Scremerston and approached the Goswick Distant signal with the regulator just open and the reversing gear at 25 per cent cut off. He stated that he was looking out from the open right-hand side window of the cab under the protection of the vertical glass windscreen in the usual way, but he did not see the arm of the Distant signal, which was obscured by smoke and steam from the chimney which was blowing to his side with the South-easterly wind”.

The Inquiry tested the visibility of the signals, taking a similar engine from Scremerston to Goswick.

“From the driver’s seat, looking through the cab side window… it was just possible for an observer unacquainted with the locality to distinguish the Distant signal in the “Caution” position at a range of approximately 700 yards… Thereafter the view of the Distant signal became progressively clearer until at 350-400 yards it could hardly have been bettered.”

“The Home signal first came into view at a range of 1,300 yards, i.e., 350 yards beyond the Distant and about 100 yards before reaching the overbridge; it could be seen clearly through the bridge against a sky background.”

However, while the accident and the visibility test had both taken place on clear days, the wind was blowing differently; it had been South-Easterly on the day of the accident, and Westerly when the visibility of the signals was checked. That meant it wasn’t possible to exclude the possibility of smoke and steam obscuring the driver’s view.

Begbie told the inquiry that, having missed the Distant signal, he shut off the steam; however, since he saw the Home signal at Clear just a few seconds later, he did not apply the brake. He assumed that the signal ahead of him meant that he had a clear run through Goswick on the Main line.

“He also said that the Home signal remained at Clear until after he passed it, and it was not until then that he saw the Starting signals. He suggested that one of the arms was Clear – he could not remember which – and it was thrown to Danger in his face, so he applied the brake fully as the engine passed the Up platform, still coasting, at about 50 m.p.h.”

The experienced driver had been through diversions many times in his 28 years’ service, and told the Inquiry that, “invariably in such cases the Home signal had not been lowered until he was close to it.”

However, it seemed that he hadn’t really made much of an effort to see the Distant signal. When he saw that it was obscured by smoke and steam, he’d put the blower on to try and lift it clear, but that didn’t work. He could have moved to the fireman’s side to look; the visibility test had established that the left-hand side had an even clearer view of the signal than the driver did, because the angle meant there was less confusion from telegraph lines in the background. He could have asked Fireman Baird to look for him, but he didn’t; he told the Inquiry that was because Baird was firing the engine at the time, and anyway he was expecting to see the signal himself the whole time.

So, Begbie said that he’d simply not seen the Distant signal which warned him to slow down, and since the Home signal was clear he thought he could go straight on. However, these weren’t the only signals; past the Home signals were the Starting signals, which had still been at Danger, meaning stop, and the visibility test had established that these could be seen very shortly after the Home signal came into view, and well before reaching the Home signal and the signal box.

Begbie, “gave no satisfactory explanation for his failure to observe the Starting signals until he was passing the Home. He suggested at first that the curvature prevented any long view of them, and later that they were also obscured by smoke and steam from the chimney, notwithstanding his statement that he had shut off steam at the Distant.”

There was one possible explanation. Alongside Begbie and Baird in the engine was a third man; an unauthorised passenger, brought along by the driver.

T.A. Redden was a Naval rating whose brother was a fireman at Haymarket – – that’s how Begbie knew him. It seems that he’d told Begbie he was getting a job on the railways when he left the Navy, and asked for a ride-along. Begbie had agreed without getting any official permission, so that Sunday morning, he and Redden entered the railway shed through a back entrance which wasn’t overlooked by the timekeeper and foreman’s offices. Redden, wearing fireman’s overalls which he had borrowed from his brother, didn’t look out of place as he went to the engine to wait while Begbie clocked on. Since off-duty drivers and firemen would regularly travel on the engines between Haymarket and Waverly – two of Edinburgh’s stations – so they could get off closer to home, nobody questioned the presence of the third man.

Redden was obviously curious about the locomotive’s workings, so the natural assumption was that he’d distracted the driver with conversation or questions, and that was what had made Begbie miss the signal. However, Begbie testified that “he had no conversation with Redden during the whole of the journey and that, as the latter was there for the purpose of seeing the engine fired, he had been “over on the fireman’s side” nearly all the time.”

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Interior of a steam engine. Source: Unsplash

That wasn’t what Baird said, or indeed Redden. The fireman stated that he “was sure Redden was standing behind the driver (as they approached Goswick) and that he had been in this position since leaving Berwick.”

However, he did agree that Begbie and Redden hadn’t spoken, except briefly as they passed the engineering works at Drem.

Redden told the inquiry that he had applied to work at the locomotive department, but hadn’t actually been promised a job. It was on his own initiative that he asked Begbie for the ride-along, and he’d stood behind the driver from Berwick onwards. He said that he’d spoken to Baird a few times during the trip, but not to Begbie.

To the layperson, at this point, it may seem like this is a case of tragic but reasonable human error – the two engine men had a very limited opportunity to see the signal, and they missed it. The thing is, driving a train isn’t quite like driving a car – there’s a set schedule, for a set number of trains, and disruptions like the engineering works at Goswick that day are planned in advance.

The driver, the fireman, and the guard on the train should all have known that there was a diversion in place. They should have expected the signal to be at danger; they should already have slowed so they could take the turn onto the Independent line.

So why didn’t they know?

The main way that railway personnel were advised of engineering works was through the Fortnightly Notices; every two weeks, each area printed up details of all the works and diversions planned for their area, and the lines that their crews would be working on, so the drivers and guards would know what to expect.

The engineering works at Goswick, however, had originally been planned for the 19th of October.

When these works were postponed, the North Eastern area deleted them from their notices for the 18th to 31st of October prior to printing, but the Scottish area apparently either hadn’t received that information in time, or hadn’t received it at all, so it was still included in their notices for the 19th.

Both of the engine men involved in the crash, Begbie and Baird,  worked from the Scottish area – from Haymarket Shed in Edinburgh – as did the guard, who was stationed at Waverley.

Begbie testified to the inquiry that he had checked his copy of the Scottish area notices after his engine was attached ready for that day’s service. He noted the single line working in force between Drem and East Fortune, and a company official on the platform reminded him of those works. He would, therefore, have seen a reference to the Goswick works, but it would have been dated for the previous week.

The guard, William Blaikie, also said that he’d seen the printed Fortnightly Notices, with the original date of the Goswick diversion.

Of course, postponements and emergency works were not unusual, so there was a system in place to advise the railway workers of anything that had not made it into the Fortnightly Notices.

Any updates would be sent to all the people involved; the Station Masters, Divisional Superintendents and Shed Masters who would have personnel working on the line where the works were occurring.

Once received, it was expected that all the Station and Shed Masters would put up the information for their enginemen, in what was referred to as a “48 Hour” or Late Notice.

At Haymarket Shed, where Begbie and Baird worked, the notices were displayed in the locker room, which was at that time being rearranged to provide better locker space. This also meant that they were rearranging where they put the Late Notices. Originally, they’d been put up in a case next to the window where the workers signed on for their shifts, but for six weeks before the accident no engineering notices had been put up there; instead they’d been put up in a new case in the middle of the room, which faced the outside window.

Running Foreman R. Dougan told the inquiry that he was at Haymarket on the morning of Saturday the 25th when the update about the Goswick work had been received;

“The time clerk wrote out the pencilled notice… and Dougan signed it and saw it posted in the case facing the outside window. He said that the notice was not typed as the office staff were just going off duty, but that any late notices received during ordinary office hours would normally be typed.”

The District Locomotive Superintendent for Edinburgh, Mr Blackburn, told the inquiry there was no reason why the Goswick notice shouldn’t have been typed, as the office staff were supposed to be there till noon – a little over half an hour after the notice was received. The notice wasn’t absurdly long, either:

“Engineers operations between Beal and Goswick station signal boxes will have possession of Up and Down main lines all traffic to be diverted to Up and Down Goods Independents between 7.30 am and 1.0 pm Sunday 26th.”

Meanwhile, at Waverley, where the guard was stationed, the notices were put up on a board on the wall of the entrance lobby. All notices regarding engineering works were put up in a single spring clip, backed with board and hung up on a hook. The inquiry was satisfied that the Goswick notice, as well as two other current notices, was put up in that clip. However, “There may have been another dozen or so notices in the clip as well, one above the other, some of which may have been obsolete, as obsolete notices were not necessarily removed at once.” They also noted that the room was lit by a single ceiling bulb, and the lighting for the notices was therefore “not good”. Again, this notice was written in pencil, not typed out.

The driver, Begbie, told the inquiry that he’d looked for late notices in the original case beside the signing-in window, where obviously he wouldn’t have seen it as it wasn’t there. Dougan told the inquiry that he thought it had been “generally understood for some time” that the notices had been moved, but it seems that the engine men were never officially told that.

However, Begbie had also testified that “he took plenty of time to study the notices exhibited in the cases”; he’d signed in at 10:25 and said he’d not left till ten minutes later. He stated that he hadn’t seen the notice about Goswick.

The fireman, Baird, had made a statement from hospital where he said that he’d looked at the notices before leaving Haymarket, and seen a reference to works at Goswick, but couldn’t remember whether it was for the Up or Down line.

At the Inquest, he admitted that was a lie; he’d been a little late signing on, so he hadn’t actually looked at the notices at all.

So neither of the men running the engine knew that they were supposed to slow down for a diversion at Goswick. The information had been there, and they hadn’t seen it.

The guard on the train didn’t know about it either; he said he’d looked at the notices in the clip, but hadn’t seen it. If he had, he might have noticed that the train wasn’t slowing down, and could have warned the driver.

The official conclusion of the inquiry’s officers was that “The main responsibility for this accident must… rest on Driver Begbie. Although there is no definite evidence to confirm it, we cannot but feel that his grave breach of discipline in taking an unauthorised passenger on the footplate may well have some bearing on his failure to exercise proper caution in the operation of his train.”

In the end, he was the one who was in control of the train when it passed the Caution signal at full speed. If he had seen either the notices at Haymarket or the signals at Goswick, the accident could have been avoided.

The rearrangement of the notices at Haymarket was felt to be “an inadequate excuse for Begbie not having seen the notice”; however shortly afterwards a new case was installed, specifically for the 48 Hour Notices, and the typing of all notices was to be more strictly enforced. The inquiry believed Baird’s later testimony – that he hadn’t looked at the notices at all – and thus he shouldered some of the blame, too. While the Guard, Blaikie, was criticised for not seeing the notice at Waverley, it was noted that “The arrangements for display of Guards’ notices were somewhat primitive and not such as to facilitate the rapid absorption of relevant information.”  A specially lighted case was installed at Waverley, and the practice of clipping notices together, one atop the other, was abolished.

Amongst the recommendations made in the report was this:

“This is emphatically a case which draws attention to the value of the warning type of Automatic Train Control, giving an audible signal on the footplate and a brake application at any Distant signal which is in the “Caution” position.”

This wasn’t the first call for Automatic Train Control; another accident, at Bourne End in 1945, had prompted a similar recommendation. At this time, the fact that the railway network was managed by a patchwork of different companies meant that getting agreement from all of them to install such a system would be difficult; the Goswick report admitted that:

” apart from the question of finance, the general installation of Automatic Train Control, even of the warning type, on main lines where this does not already exist, would occupy a considerable time and employ a large number of skilled men. The supply of such staff is strictly limited, and its employment on this installation would therefore necessarily delay the execution of other work such as the modernisation of signalling, the extension of track circuiting and other similar works.”

This was the last major accident before the nationalisation of the railways on the first of January 1948. However, it would take more accidents, and more deaths, to bring about the widespread adoption of an automatic warning or control system on British railways.

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