Below is a post that I previously wrote for the Huntingdonshire History Festival on the anniversary of the Abbots Ripton Rail Crash. You can check out their blog here.
The evening of Friday 21st January 1876 was not a pleasant one for Huntingdonshire, with blizzards raging across the county leading to poor visibility and overall poor conditions. It was these conditions that led to the Abbots Ripton rail disaster, the worst rail accident in the county and one which changed some of the fundamental practices of the railways for the better.
Prior to 1959 the line between Peterborough and Huntingdon had three intermediate stations: Yaxley and Farcet; Holme; and Abbots Ripton. The latter lay just under 13 miles south of Peterborough and 4.5 miles north of Huntingdon with services at the time operated by the Great Northern Railway. Abbots Ripton was, at the time, a station with two lines, the ‘up’ towards London and the ‘down’ towards Peterborough, as well as a siding adjacent to the ‘up’ line. The 1015 ‘Special Scotch Express’, a forerunner to the ‘Flying Scotsman’ has left Edinburgh on time and had had an uneventful journey south as far as Peterborough, where it departed at its scheduled time of 1818. Ahead of it was a coal train, which although due to depart at 1735, was delayed until 1755 and was therefore being caught up by the Scotch-express by the time it approached Holme.
The Holme signalman (in 1876, it was definitely a signalman), had been instructed to put the coal train into the siding at that station to avoid it delaying the Scotch-express, however due to the poor visibility the coal train continued on past on its journey south. The inquiry later discovered that the weight of the snow on the arms of the signals and/or the wires connecting them to the signal boxes meant that they showed as clear (with the associated white lamp) despite the levers in the signal box being set to danger. The coal train continued to Abbots Ripton where it was stopped by the signalman with a red handlamp as normal and instructed to shunt into the up siding. This shunt move had almost been completed when the Scotch-express struck the coal train at full speed, having run through several signals the signalman thought to be at ‘danger’ but had been weighed down by the snow.
Although dazed by the accident, the railway staff for the most part reacted well with the guards of both the coal train and express gathering their ‘fog signals’ (detonators) and placing them to warn other trains of the wreckage. The fireman of the coal train also placed detonators on the down line before re-joining his driver and locomotive and heading south towards Huntingdon to gather assistance and warn approaching trains. The signalman at Wood Walton (the next signal box north) was able to stop the Manchester express (the train behind the Scotch Express) using a hand lamp, and this train eventually drew up behind the wreckage. Unfortunately, the most dazed member of staff was the Abbots Ripton signal man who set his signals in both directions to ‘danger’ but did not immediately send a 5-beat ‘obstruction danger’ bell signal to Stukeley (the next box south). The Stukeley box eventually received this message just seconds after the northbound ‘down’ Leeds express had passed the box.
This accident itself was disastrous enough, however the wreckage of the two trains blocked both the ‘up’ line and the adjacent ‘down’ line. Following the collision, a number of the coal wagons were smashed, however the coal train locomotive was undamaged. On the other hand, the Scotch locomotive had derailed and was lying on its side beyond the ‘down’ line with its tender and first two passenger carriages also obstructing the ‘down’. The Leeds express activated some detonators, saw the coal locomotive with a red lamp and whistling a warning and did everything it could to stop. Unfortunately, by the time it hit the tender and carriages of the Scotch express, it was still travelling at some speed. It was this second collision in which most of the 13 deaths were thought to have occurred.
Following the inquiry into the accident, and in some cases after further accidents, several changes occurred to the ways of working on Britain’s railways. At the time of the incident a default position for a signal was ‘clear’ with it having to be set to danger. After the accident the modern practice of signals defaulting to ‘danger’ was adopted, along with a change in signal design to ‘somersault’ signals. On this type of signal the pivot is in the middle of the arm, rather than at one end, therefore the weight of snow should not hinder the movement of the signal. Other signalling changes that were recommended and are now ‘obvious’ in the modern railway were the changing of white signal lamps to green (so if the red cover of a danger signal broke it didn’t provide a false ‘clear’) and the provision of indications to signallers in the event of equipment not working correctly.
The other changes that occurred over time were to the braking system of trains, which at the time of the Abbots Ripton accident were braked either solely by the locomotive’s brakes or by the locomotive and two or three of the carriages with handbrakes, each with a guard who would apply them when (and if) he heard the driver “whistle for brakes”. Both systems meant trains had limited braking, and it took a long distance to stop a train, potentially causing them to strike obstructions despite warnings (such as the Leeds express). Over time continuous braking has been fitted to passenger trains, with brakes on at least one axel of every carriage. An air pipe that runs throughout the train will apply all the brakes if split (the brakes are held off by the air), a method that has stopped trains in multiple accidents and incidents (including the 2002 Potters Bar crash).
If you look back across the history of railway technology and practices, a lot of developments have come from accidents, especially the principles of ‘fail safe’ and ‘absolute safety’. To quote Anthony Hidden in his report into the Clapham Rail Disaster, “The concept of absolute safety must be a gospel spread across the whole workforce and paramount in the minds of management.” Safety is the number one priority across the railways today and fortunately, serious accidents occur infrequently on the modern railway, although any frequency is too much. As with the accidents and disasters of the past, we have a responsibility to learn from the mistakes that lead to incidents and accidents as those before us on the railway did. If you are interested in finding out more about the development of railway safety, I’d recommend the book ‘Red for Danger’ by L.T.C Rolt,