Charfield railway disaster

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Charfield railway disaster
Date 13 October 1928
Time 05:20
Location Charfield, Gloucestershire
Coordinates 51°37′43″N 2°24′02″W / 51.6287°N 2.4005°W / 51.6287; -2.4005Coordinates: 51°37′43″N 2°24′02″W / 51.6287°N 2.4005°W / 51.6287; -2.4005
Country England
Rail line Bristol and Gloucester Railway
Cause Signal passed at danger
Trains 3
Passengers 60
Deaths 16
Injuries 41
List of UK rail accidents by year

The Charfield railway disaster was a fatal train crash which occurred on 13 October 1928 in the village of Charfield in the English county of Gloucestershire.


The Leeds to Bristol LMS night mail train failed to stop at the signals protecting the down refuge siding at Charfield railway station. The weather was misty, but there was not a sufficiently thick fog for the signalman at Charfield to employ fog signalmen. A freight train was in the process of being shunted from the down main line to the siding, and another train of empty goods wagons was passing through the station from the Bristol (up) direction. The mail train collided with the freight train and was derailed, coming into collision with the up train underneath the road bridge to the north of the station. Gas used to light the carriages ignited, and four carriages were burnt out. The driver of the mail train claimed that he had seen a clear distant signal on approach to the station, and therefore had assumed that the home signals protecting the station were also clear; however, testing of the signals after the accident confirmed that the distant had been correctly in the yellow "Caution" position. The driver was charged with manslaughter, but was subsequently acquitted.


Early in the morning of 13 October, four trains were heading through Charfield Station in the Down direction towards Bristol. They were in the following order:[1]

  1. 10.35PM LMS Down through goods train, Washwood heath to Bristol
  2. 9.15PM GWR Down fitted goods train, Oxley sidings to Bristol
  3. 12.45AM LMS Down parcels train, Leicester to Bristol
  4. 10PM LMS Down passenger and mails, Leeds to Bristol

The parcel train was overhauling the two goods trains, so they were ordered to be shunted clear of the mainline to allow the parcel train to pass. The LMS goods was shunted clear at Charfield, and the GWR goods at Berkeley Road Junction (the block post before Charfield). When Signalman Button at Charfield received the "Out of Section" Signal from Wickwar (see block signalling) for the parcel train, he signalled the LMS train out of the sidings. However, this train spent five minutes taking on water at Charfield Station. It was not booked to do so, and the driver had not told Button of his plans. Button could not send on the GWR goods train to Wickwar before the LMS train had cleared the Block Section. This meant that his plans for the GWR good train had to be altered. The LMS night mail was speeding towards Charfield, so he decided to shunt the GWR goods train to allow the mail to pass, the mail being a much faster train with higher priority.[1]

The Block telegraph instruments at Charfield had three different positions: Train on Line, Line Clear and Line Blocked. Not only was it in control of the station and sidings, the signal box was a block post for two sections: Berkeley Road to Charfield (up line) and Charfield to Wickwar (down line), and was in control of signals for the entrance to the station and the following block sections on each line (This was standard block working – even though the box may control a section it controlled the signals for the entrance to next section along the line). The Down line signals protected trains in both the down line of the station and Charfield to Wickwar section of the down line which followed. It was on the down line that events would occur. The Block instrument could not be set to Line Clear until the train on the line had passed over a treadle at the next signal box and the signalman in the box had sent his consent by telegraph. The Block instruments were interlocked with the signal levers so that unless the respective instrument stood at 'Line Clear', they could not be cleared to accept a train. This prevented any false signals being given by mistake.[1]

When the GWR goods passed his 'clearing point' signal (the end of the section) at 5:13 AM, it released the treadle and thus allowed the section from Berkeley road to Charfield to be cleared. Button then shouted to the driver and fireman of the goods train to shunt and 'pulled off' his shunting disc signal. At this time, nothing was out of the ordinary. It was less than an hour before dawn, and the railway tracks were shrouded with fog. Due to the fog, Button could not see his down distant signal or his down outer home signal (both were connected to electrical repeaters which showed the signal position via an instrument in his box), but he could see his 'Fog Object' and therefore saw no need to call out Fogmen. The section from Berkeley Road to Charfield was clear, and therefore Button could accept the LMS night mail. He was perfectly justified in doing so, for he had a quarter of a mile clear between the Clearing Point signal and his Outer Home signal (the first "Stop" signal controlled by Charfield box)- there was plenty of space and the for the mail to stop. The station, however, was occupied by the shunting goods train and therefore his signals stood at Danger. He accepted the mail at 5:14 AM.[1]

The signals at Charfield should have been at Danger, for the Block system involved left no room for human error on the Signalman's part. The Outer Home Signal (which was at Danger) at Charfield, was fitted with a track circuit. The GW goods train was nearly clear of the line and an empty Up goods train was approaching, when Button happened to notice the indicator for this track circuit. It changed to 'occupied', but then Button then saw to his alarm the indicator fly back to 'clear' again. This could mean only one thing: the mail was over-running his signals. Having not heeded the distant signal which should have been at caution, the engine crew of the mail had assumed the line to be clear and was over-running the home signals at around sixty miles an hour. To make matters worse Button had accepted an Up goods train, which was running underneath the road bridge at the time of the collision. There was no error in Button's part in doing this, but it meant that the mail was running into a bottleneck – The track was in a cutting with a road bridge spanning both main lines, the sidings cutting off at the road bridge. Both main lines were blocked.[1]

The mail crashed heavily into the Great Western goods train, and canoned into the Up Goods. Some of its coaches ended up piled against the road Bridge.

The Engine crew of the mail had somehow not seen the Down Distant at caution. This was the primary cause of the accident. After the crash, the driver of the mail helped with rescue operations until it was impossible to continue and then entered Charfield box. He said to Button, "What is the meaning of this? Your distant was off!" Button replied that it was impossible. Indeed it was, for Button could not have 'pulled off' any of his Down signal levers. However, when Button looked at his repeater (a device attached to signals which shows what position they are in via an indicator in a Signal Box) for his down distant, it showed clear. Wreckage from the crash was lying on the signal wire and causing it to droop by 20o. However, This was not enough to even make the blue lens (semaphore signals were lit with paraffin oil lamps at the time, which give a distinctly yellowish flame – a blue lens covering the lamp would result in a green light being shown) to go across the lamp in order for the signal to show a green aspect, so was this the cause for the repeater to show clear? It is somewhat doubtful that it should have done in such a situation.[1]

In the trial of the driver for manslaughter, the driver and fireman of the mail train did not attempt to excuse themselves because of the conditions or the lack of fogmen, but put emphasis on the fact that the distant signal was at clear. The driver said when the mail was approaching Charfield, he was standing behind his fireman looking for the distant signal in the fog. They both saw it at clear, to which his fireman remarked "he's got it off mate". Because of this he had assumed that the signals in the station were also clear. However, Button's signal levers were locked at Danger, so he could not clear them. A possible explanation is that something odd happened to the signal wire for his Down distant signal soon before the mail passed it. This could have only occurred if a heavy object had fouled the signal wire or the wire was deliberately pulled. The mystery, and the doubt, remain to this day.[1]


The report on the accident by Colonel Pringle[1] stated that the LMS conversion from gas to electric lighting was not going as fast as the Board of Trade (HMRI) had hoped, and had the rolling stock of the train been electrically lit, the effects of the collision would have been greatly mitigated. It also recommended the installation of the Great Western Railway invention of Automatic Train Control, a system which worked by having an insulated steel bar laid centrally between the rails at all distant signals. When a train passed over it, the bar made contact with a spring-loaded shoe and so raised it. When the lever in the signal box was at 'clear', the bar was electrified and when a train passed over it a bell was sounded in the cab because the current passed through the shoe. However, when the lever was at 'caution', the shoe remained dead and when it was raised it broke an electrical circuit in the locomotive, sounding an alarm whistle in the cab and opening an air valve on the brake pipes, thus clearing the vacuum and applying the automatic vacuum brakes. This alone could have prevented the disaster.[1]


Intense fire made identification of the dead and even a complete body count difficult, but it is believed that 15 people died and a further 23 were injured.[2] (The official report lists 16 deaths and 41 injuries). Among the dead were stated to be the remains of two small children, who have never been identified. According to local accounts, from 1929 until the late 1950s, an unknown woman dressed in black used to regularly visit the memorial to the crash. But she has not been seen for several decades. There is a memorial to remember those who lost their lives at St James Church in Charfield, where the two unknown children are buried.[2]

Archie Ayres was the local carpenter in 1928 and was regularly employed by the local undertakers, Goscombes, to make coffins. He made the coffins for the fifteen people killed in the train crash. According to his daughter, Mrs Smith (née Ayres) in 1999, he made thirteen coffins plus two small boxes. The latter contained the remains that could not be associated with particular individuals.[citation needed] J.A.B. Hamilton had visited him and obtained the same information while researching for his 1968 book[3] According to L T C Rolt (who also perpetuates the story of two children) in Red for Danger, the crash blazed for twelve hours.[4] Mrs Smith described how some years after the crash, a reporter from a well-known Sunday newspaper came to interview her father. Once her father had explained the "mystery", the reporter was no longer interested and got up and walked out.[citation needed]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i LTC Rolt Red For Danger 1966 Revised and reset edition. Published by Pan Books
  2. ^ a b "Mystery of train death children". BBC. 13 October 2008. Retrieved 14 October 2008. 
  3. ^ Hamilton., J.A.B. (1967). British Railway Accidents of the 20th Century (reprinted 1987 as Disaster down the Line). George Allen and Unwin / Javelin Books. ISBN 0-7137-1973-7. 
  4. ^ Rolt, L.T.C.; Kichenside, Geoffrey M. (1982) [1955]. Red for Danger (4th ed.). Newton Abbot: David & Charles. pp. 246, 247–8. ISBN 0-7153-8362-0.