The Castlecary Rail Disaster: Tragedy in the Snow

On the 10th of December 1937, in blizzard conditions, an express train bound for Glasgow collided with the rear of a stationary train bound for Dundee, causing the rear carriages of the Dundee train to disintegrate, killing 35 people and injuring 109 others. This was Britain’s worst snow related crash and sent ripples through the local community. The blame was first laid at the feet of the driver of the Glasgow bound train, but then switched to the Signalman at Castlecary, neither man ever accepted responsibility.

Ruined Remains

The Dundee train left Falkirk on time at 4.20pm, passed Bonnybridge 2 minutes late, and Greenhill Junction 1 minute 45 seconds late. The train was low on steam and water, and as a consequence of trying to deal with the steam issue the Fireman, Fleming, had not observed any signals since leaving Falkirk.

On approach to the distant signal the driver was certain that the arm was standing clear, but he missed the home signal which was standing at danger. Signalman Sneddon, upon realising that the train was still steaming on, displayed a red hand lamp from the signal box. As the driver did not whistle to acknowledge the signal, Sneddon believed he was continuing through the home signal, and assumed that he had entered the next section of track. The Driver Mr Macauley had actually applied the brakes and brought the train to a halt at the advanced signal which was standing at danger.

As Sneddon thought the train was continuing, he signalled Signalman Smith at the next junction to warn him, as there was a goods train waiting ahead and he believed that there would be a collision within the next couple of minutes. From his position in the Castlecary Signal Box, Sneddon could not see the stationary train. Sneddon had made a critical mistake. When a train passes a signal into a section of track, a circuit operates to confirm the presence of the train. Sneddon failed to observe the indicator in front of him, which would have confirmed that the train had indeed stopped. He also made no effort to try and look for the train to confirm whether it had indeed continued or observed his warning and come to a halt.

Despite bringing the train to a standstill, Macauley still failed to use his whistle to acknowledge receipt of Sneddon’s warning lamp. The Fireman, Fleming, made his way to the back of the train to see if he had spotted the warning. Inglis, the Guard confirmed this, and the train remained at a standstill. The station master at Castlecary, a Mr Scott, was returning from the nearby brickworks. Before reaching the booking office at the station he could clearly see the tail lamp of a stationary train at a range of about 175 yards. He was unaware at the time, despite having spoken to Sneddon in the Signal box via telephone, that this was in fact the Dundee Express that he could see. He was only informed of this when he reached the signal box and spoke to Sneddon in person.

The next fatal error occurred when instead of phoning Dullatur to find out what had happened to the Dundee train, he phoned Greenhill to discuss accepting the Edinburgh express. He told Greenhill that the Dundee train had passed the home signal at danger, he had seen its tail lamp, and that his track was clear. He was unsure under the circumstances whether he should accept the Edinburgh express. At this point, Sneddon claimed that his track circuit indicator was clear, he was certain of it.

Rescue Efforts Underway

Fleming, the Fireman on the Dundee train had by now made his way back to the signal box, and there was visible relief on Sneddon’s face when he realised that the train had actually come to a stop. Sneddon told Fleming that he would have to see about getting the Edinburgh train stopped. Just at that moment the signal was received that the Edinburgh train had passed Greenhill and entered the Castlecary section. Stationmaster Scott ran for the detonators; devices that are placed on the track and emits a loud bang when a train passes over it to warn of danger ahead. Time was short, and only one detonator was secured properly. Sneddon, as he had done with the Dundee train, displayed held out his red lamp.

Anderson the driver of the Glasgow train, failed to observe the signals on the approach to Castlecary due to deteriorating weather conditions, but did see the red lamp held by Sneddon. He though it unusual to see a stationary lamp in such a position, as standard practice for stopping a train was to wave the lamp from side to side. He applied the brakes, and as he did so he heard the single detonator explode. Anderson attempted to throw the train in reverse in a desperate attempt to slow the train, which was travelling at between sixty and seventy miles per hour when he applied the brakes. He spotted the tail lamp of the Dundee train and, realising that a collision was inevitable, shouted to Kinnear, his fireman, to hold on.

The first two carriages of the Dundee train disintegrated on impacted, which was estimated to be at around sixty miles per hour. In total, 35 people were killed in the collision and 109 were injured. Initially charges were brought against the driver of the Edinburgh express, as it was alleged that he was exceeding the speed limit for line at the time of the impact and failing to adjust his speed on account of the weather conditions. Later the blame was switched to the signalman Sneddon, for accepting the Edinburgh train and failing to properly investigate the location of the Dundee train. Sneddon would not accept this charge.  

The Station Master at Castlecary Mr. Gardner Scott and his wife were actively engaged in rescue attempts. Mrs. Scott worked tirelessly in blizzard conditions throughout the night. At 10am the following day, seventeen hours after the accident, she was finally convinced by fellow rescuers to take a break. Mr Scott was also exhausted by the time the couple finally took a break from rescue operations.

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