At just after 9pm on a freezing January evening a freight train of some 24 wagons was being shunted between sidings in the sleepy Gloucestershire village of Ashchurch. A relatively routine operation that had been carried out here hundreds of times before. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary as the railway foreman strolled along beside the engine overseeing the operation. Just then he heard a noise he recognised, a noise that struck fear into his heart. The Bristol to Leeds express mail train was approaching from the south, in its path, and barely visible in the fog was his freight train.
At twenty-five past six in the evening on the 8th of January 1929, a freight train of 16 carriages left Gloucester headed for Ashchurch, where it would pick up more wagons, and then remain there until 10.25pm, when all the passenger and mail trains were clear, and it could continue its slow run north without holding anyone up. Its driver was a Mr Reynolds, who was on board with the Fireman Mr Trotman, and the Guard Mr Gardener. They arrived at Ashchurch at 7.20pm and pulled up in the Provender Store Sidings.
At five past eight the fast mail train from Gloucester to Leeds left Gloucester Station on time, headed for the first stop of the journey at Ashford. Half an hour behind the Leeds bound train the Birmingham Express mail train left Gloucester approximately 6 minutes late; six precious minutes that sealed its fate.
Back in Ashford the freight train was waiting patiently for the Leeds express mail train to clear the station, there was no particular hurry, after all, they were not due to depart until later that evening. The Leeds train arrived on time and left promptly at 8.40pm. Things were running on schedule, and railway foreman Bunn sought permission from the signalman Mr Horne to commence the shunting operation that would take the freight train, now consisting of twenty wagons, from one set of sidings, to another on the down line. The two men spoke briefly on the telephone, with Bunn asking Horne “how is the fast mail running”, before telling him that “we are ready to go to Ashchurch junction with about 20 wagons on.” Horne did not reply to the first question, simply stating “Right, come in then.” Foreman Bunn, a man of 28 years’ service, six of which were at Ashchurch, seemed a little surprised by the response, but got to work immediately carrying out the move, with first involved shunting the train up onto the up line, and then backing it across onto the down line and into the sidings.
Bunn was walking slowly besides the engine when he heard the approaching mail train. He hurriedly signalled the driver by waving his hands, urging him to hurry up. There was no chance of reversing the move in time. Just as he was shouting to the driver, he heard a detonator explode as the fast-approaching mail train ran over it, this was followed by a violent collision which threw Bunn to the ground and covered him in dirt.
At the time of the impact, the Guard on the fast mail train, Francis Molson was standing in his box carriage, when it seemed to collapse around him. The impact threw him clear of the train and he landed in a field surrounded by mail bags. Despite having broken his arm and suffering other injuries he ran back to the signal box to ensure that the line had been stopped, and then joined in with the rescue operation, managing to pull several people from beneath the wreckage. He modestly heaped praise on other postal workers who came to help, playing down his own contribution, and describing them as the finest men he had ever seen. Francis Molson refused medical treatment until he had been assured that nobody remained trapped within the wrecked train.
The express mail train was carrying 44 people at the time of the collision. The collision was so severe that the express train’s engine buried itself underneath the rails and sleepers of the adjacent sidings, destroying some 75 yards of track. Two people were killed in the crash and a further eleven, including Francis Molson, the heroic guard, suffered injuries. A routine operation led to tragedy, a tragedy that was avoidable, and cost the lives of a train driver, and a company employee who was simply making his way home that cold and foggy January evening.