QUINTINSHILL RAILWAY DISASTER
Let me set the scene for you.
Where we are right now is up on the Scottish side of the Anglo-Scottish border at the back of Springfield, a small village just a short walk away from the famous tourist trap of Gretna Green. Across the fields from here is the main railway line that connects Glasgow and the Clyde ports with the major centres of production in Northern England and then onwards down to Birmingham and London.
World War I is well under way and in view of the problems of logistics at the southern English ports, a great deal of merchandise is being shipped across the Atlantic from North America to the Clyde ports and then transferred by train down southwards. And what with the regular passenger traffic and all of the unscheduled troop movements, the railway system running at maximum capacity.
At Quintinshill are two main lines, one northbound and one southbound. And there are two passing loops on the outside of the main lines. The purpose of these two loops is that slower trains may be shunted into them to allow faster trains to pass by uninterrupted.
There's also a signal box here that controls the signalling on this part of the line as well as the operation of the passing loops.
Changeover time for the signalmen is 06:00, but Messrs Tinsley and Meakin, the signalmen and the two main players in this drama, have a private arrangement between themselves that they keep secret from their employers.
A slow northbound train is timed to leave Carlisle, 10 miles south of the signal box, at 06:14 almost every day. A few minutes previously, a London express to Glasgow passes through Carlisle and heads north along the same line but quite often, the express is running late and so the controller allows the slow train to depart on time, authorising the signalman at Quintinshill to shunt it into one of his passing loops there to allow the express to overtake it.
Whenever that situation occurs, the signalman working the night shift sends a message to his relief to tell him of the position, enabling him to have an extra half-hour in bed and come up to Quintinshill on the slow train.
Meanwhile, although he should normally finish work at 06:00, the night signalman stays behind and writes down all of the train movements onto a piece of paper. His relief will then alight from the slow train at Quintinshill and once in the box copy into the Movement Book all the train movements from the piece of paper.
It then looks like the seamless changeover at 06:00 that it should be.
On the 22nd of May 1915, Meakin is working the night shift. He learns that the express is running late and so sends a message Tinsley to have a lie-in. Then he takes a piece of paper and notes down the train movements after 06:00 so that Tinsley can copy them into the movement book as soon as he - and the slow train - arrive.
And there are quite a few movements to record that morning. There is a considerable volume of traffic on the line and the line is blocked back in both directions. Hence Meakin has filled both the passing loops with standing freight trains.
Nothing is scheduled to come down from Glasgow for a while however so he decides to pass the slow train over onto the southbound line, let the express past, and then pass it back onto its correct line so that it can carry on northwards once the express has roared through.
There is a rule that when any train is standing at a signal, the driver should send someone to the signal box to report the presence of the train and to make sure that the signal is locked so that it cannot be raised to allow another train into that section on the same line.
This is particularly important when a train has been passed over to the "wrong line" and so you would expect this to be firmly in the forefront of the mind of the driver of the slow train. However, bearing in mind that Tinsley is a railway employee and has just alighted from the slow train, you can understand the driver assuming that Tinsley would automatically do the necessary.
When you think that Tinsley is actually going into the signal box to work the signals, and that the train is standing right in front of the signal box, nothing could be clearer. But Tinsley has other things to do. He needs to copy out Meakin's paper entries into the Movements Book.
Meakin is also preoccupied. He is talking to the guards of the trains in the passing loops, who had come into the signal box to ensure that their trains are protected. And when Hutchinson, the guard of the slow train, comes in to find out what is happening, he is then doubly preoccupied.
And whatever else is going on, no-one has thought to lock the signal protecting the slow train which is standing on the wrong line.
While all of this is - or isn't - happening, the signalman in the next cabin up the line signals to Quintinshill that an unscheduled troop train is on its way southwards to England from Larbert. This is the making of our tragedy. One of our heroes, completely forgetting that the slow train is standing on the southbound main line and not having locked the signal, pulls it off to allow the troop train to pass through Quintinshill.
The troop train steams at full speed into the picture and the head-on collision with the slow train that results, right underneath the signal box, is inevitable. The troop train is made up predominantly of old wooden coaches lit by gas, and immediately bursts into flames. Hundreds of dazed, burned and injured soldiers struggle from the wreckage, only to be run down by the express from Carlisle that now thunders onto the scene.
227 die in the rail accident at Quintinshill, the highest total ever on the railways in the United Kingdom.
I've been looking for years for the site of the Quintinshill Rail Disaster but without success. Quintinshill isn't marked anywhere on any map I've ever seen. But while I was staying with my friend Carole, I came across an old Ordinance Survey map that showed near the railway line and down a dirt track under the bridge, a small farm named Quintinshill. We compared this with a more modern map in order to identify the spot today, and then set off to track it down.
We drove into Springfield and successfully located the dirt track despite the potholes, ruts and puddles. Down near the bottom in the distance was a railway bridge.
The gate by the side of the line is quite an obvious give-away. There's obviously a footpath or similar that goes up to the side of the railway line from here, and it wouldn't be for the use of civilians either.
Some short way further north there is another give-away. A railway signal.
It's a modern coloured light signal rather than one of the contemporary semaphore signals, but nevertheless it's an optimistic sign. There isn't likely to be a signal just here without a set of points for it to control. That's likely to be a crossover between the two main lines at the very least, and the accident report certainly mentions a crossover, as well as the two passing loops.
And if you want conclusive proof, just click on the image here to see an enlarged view of the identification plaque. This location is definitely called Quintinshill Bridge and the track layout is exactly what the layout is said to be, according to all of the old diagrams and witness statements that I've seen.
Just so that there is no mistake or misunderstanding, on British railways you always travel "up" to London, so the "up" line is southbound and the "down" line is northbound.
I've clambered up onto the railway line, facing north and with my back to the south. Both the slow train and the express came from behind me and passed onwards away into the distance. The fact that neither managed to progress very far is the reason why we are here.
A little farther up the line, the northbound or down passing loop separates from the main line, and you can clearly see it here.
It's into this passing loop that the slow train would normally have pulled to let the late-running express through. But on the 22nd of May 1915, due to the heavy traffic on the line, there was already a goods train waiting here for a vacant northbound slot.
Meakin thus passed the slow train over to the southbound or up main line. And as he did not lock the signal, the disaster was assured.
It was well worth breaking my neck to climb up here to take this pic of the end-on layout of the track set here at Quintinshill, looking northwards.
From the left, we have ...
i.... The northbound passing loop, in which was a goods train awaiting a slot to proceed northwards.
ii... The northbound main line. Arriving first, entering the scene at the bottom left of the photo, would be the slow train. Behind it, coming in the same direction, would be the express.
iii.. Hidden behind the pylon in the foreground is the southbound main line. Onto this line Meakin diverted the slow train to allow the express to pass by. The troop train, coming down from the north on the same line, crashed head-on into it.
iv... The southbound passing loop, in which was a goods train awaiting a slot to travel south.
But one mystery is cleared up. And that is why the express driver didn't see the carnage and do his best to try to stop. It's quite obvious that with the tight radius of the bend, the high hedge and the slight cutting to which the railway ran just up there after the hedge, the engine driver could not have seen anything at all until the very last minute.
About a mile or so north is a small country lane that also crosses over the railway line. From here there is an excellent view of the track layout at the northern end of the passing loops.
The layout from left to right here is ...
i.... The southbound passing loop
ii... The southbound main line. The troop train roared from underneath the bridge upon which I am standing straight into the slow train which was standing just a little way up here waiting for the express to pass by.
iii.. The northbound main line. Onto this line many of the soldiers struggled from the wreckage, only to be run down by the express as it crashed into the wreckage on its way towards the bridge
iv... The northbound passing loop, in which a goods train was waiting.
I walked down to the trackside to see what I could find, and here on the extreme left of the image behind the rubber blocks is what I consider (with very good evidence) to be the site of the signal box from within which Meakin and Tinsley unwittingly lured the troop train on to disaster.
There's quite a bit of rubble on the site, rubble that could easily be the remains of the signal cabin. The major electrical and resignalling projects of the late 1960s and early 1970s on the west coast main line led to its closure in 1975. There's nothing though of any significance that could be useful in making any identification of the signal box, but a drawing of the track layout that I subsequently saw placed the box in more-or-less this position.
In many respects it's quite poignant to be here where this unprecedented drama unfolded. I felt desperately sorry for all of the actors in this tragedy of over 90 years ago. This was wartime though, and the survivors of the 7th Battallion, the Royal Scots, went on to face the wrath of the Turkish army in Gallipoli.
Meakin and Tinsley, due to their most extraordinary act of gross negligence, went on to become the only British railway signalmen to be imprisoned for neglect of duty. Or so I wrote at the time. Jack Richards wrote to me to point out that the signalman implicated in the Connington South rail disaster of 5th March 1967 was sent down for two years for his role in that crash.