The Leeds to Bristol Express Mail train struck a glancing blow to the freight train before smashing into the engine tender that was shunting the freight wagons off the main line. The express train continued out of control smashing into the carriages of a second freight train before overturning and landing on its right-hand side. Behind the wrecked engine lay a scene of utter devastation, beyond the bridge a tangle of wrecked steel and timber, but nothing resembling the train carriages that minutes earlier were on a routine trip from the North of England carrying mail and passengers. Flames began snaking their way through the wreckage of the train, their flickering orange glow lighting up a scene of complete devastation.
In the early hours of the 13th of October 1928, a freight train was slowly making its way south towards the sleepy village of Charfield in Gloucestershire. Mr Gilbert, the driver had made this journey many times before, and there was nothing to suggest that this day was going to be any different to the others. As he approached the Berkeley Road Junction, he saw that the distant signal was set at danger, so he began to slow the train in preparation to stop at the next signal. The signalman at Berkeley Road had decided to shunt them on to a branch line to allow a fast parcel train from Leicester to pass by. As a freight train driver, Gilbert was used to this, as the slow lumbering freight trains were often shunted out of the way of the express passenger and mail trains. If this was not the case, then the network would grind to a halt.
E. H. Adlington had worked on the railways for a little over 37 years. Today was an early start, and he arrived at the station in Birmingham to start his shift at 1.45am. He would be taking the mail and passenger express train to Bristol, returning later the same morning on the 7.40am from Bristol to Birmingham. He would be in the engine with Fireman Want for the southbound journey. Want had worked with Adlington for just short of 2 years and did not know the route as well as his driver did. Adlington new every inch of the line, including the location of every signal.
At 4.45am Driver Mr Honeyfield slowly propelled his empty freight train out of the yard at Westerleigh. He was heading north towards Gloucester, passing through Charfield with 45 wagons. The train slowly made its way north through patchy and often thick fog. Honeyfield was surprised given the conditions that the fog signalmen had not been sent out.
By now the Leicester Express parcel train had cleared Berkeley Road, and Gilbert’s freight train had been shunted back onto the main line and was once again making its way south. At Charfield the signalman Mr Button had shunted another freight train off the line and into a siding to allow the Leicester to Bristol train to pass through the station. This freight train was passing through and running low on water. Despite this the driver made no attempt to inform the signalman that he required water. The Leicester train passed by, and Button cleared the through freight train to return onto the main line to resume its journey south towards Wickwar. Without informing the signal box, the freight train stopped on the main southbound line at the water crane to fill up.
This unscheduled water stop meant delays, and had Button known about it he would have left the through freight train in the sidings to allow the Leeds to Bristol Express to pass by, giving him more time to get them watered and on their way. This was frustrating and put more pressure on Button by reducing the time he had between trains.
As the Leeds to Bristol Express was approaching Charfield, Adlington the driver moved across to the left-hand side of the footplate to get a better view of the signals as he approached Charfield. As he approached, he saw that the distant signal was showing a green light, meaning that the signals for Charfield were clear, and he could make safe passage through the station. Further south, Button was busy shunting a freight train off the main southbound track to allow Adlington’s train to pass. This train, the southbound freight train driven by Mr Gilbert was slowly being propelled northwards, off the southbound line and into a siding.
The northbound freight train driven by Honeyfield had by now arrived in Charfield. He was travelling at a speed of around 20 to 25mph approaching the road bridge just to the north of Charfield station. Gilbert was still propelling his train backwards into the sidings at a speed of around 5mph. At this point Button was unconcerned, as far as he knew the signals for the southbound line were closed, and the Bristol to Leeds Express would pull up until the line was clear.
On the Bristol to Leeds Express Adlington was happy that his way was clear and was heading towards the road bridge at Charfield at round 45mph, a reduced speed owing to fog in the area. All of a sudden there was a bang as his train struck something. Adlington immediately operated the brakes and crouched down, he could feel the train ploughing out of control and leaving the tracks. The next impact threw him, and fireman Want into the coal stock, and then he became aware that the train was falling over onto its right-hand side. The last thing he was aware of was coal falling and partially burying him.
Aboard the northbound freight train, Honeywell felt a slight tug behind him, but did not feel as though anything serious had happened. He saw the mail train passing him and brought his train to a stop as the signal on his side of the track was at danger. As he climbed down for the footplate, he realised that the last two wagons of his train were damaged and had come off the rails.
On board the Leeds to Bristol Express Adlington found himself partially buried by the coal, and it took him over ten minutes to dig himself out. Once he was free, he made his way to the signal box and informed Button that the southbound signal was clear, Button was convinced he had set the signals to danger and replied that this was “impossible”. He could not understand why the express had proceeded, but both Adlington and his fireman were convinced that the distant signal was showing a green. Button must have made a mistake.
The scene was one of complete carnage. The rearmost carriages of the express train had been unable to pass under the road bridge due to the wreckage blocking it. As a result, they had ploughed into the back of each other and piled up on the north side of the bridge. The impact had caused a fire which was now burning furiously in the tangle of steel and timber.
Of the sixty passengers aboard the Leeds to Bristol Express, sixteen were killed and a further twenty-four were injured. Thirteen post office workers and the guard of the train were also injured. Tragically, just three months later another train on the Bristol to Leeds route was involved in a collision near the village of Ashchurch. The passenger guard who had been on board the Leeds to Bristol Express in the Charfield Crash was on board the Bristol to Leeds train involved in this collision. Two collisions in just less than three months. The Ashchurch crash resulted in the loss of two lives.
You can read our report into the Ashchurch crash by clicking here.