The Charfield Train Crash: Another Tragedy on the Bristol Line

Burnt out Wreckage

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.

Wreckage at Charfield

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.

Carnage from Above

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.

The Ashchurch Rail Disaster: an Avoidable Tragedy

Wrecked Engine

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.

The Wrecked Mail Train

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.

Ashchurch Station

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.

Recovery of the Wreckage

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.

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.