Norton Fitzwarren rail crash (1940)
|Norton Fitzwarren rail crash|
|Date||4 November 1940|
|Location||Norton Fitzwarren, Somerset|
|Rail line||Reading to Plymouth Line|
|Cause||Signal passed at danger|
|List of UK rail accidents by year|
The Norton Fitzwarren rail crash occurred on 4 November 1940 between Taunton and Norton Fitzwarren in the English county of Somerset, when the driver of a train misunderstood the signalling and track layout, causing him to drive the train through a set of points and off the rails. 27 people were killed. The locomotive involved was GWR King Class King George VI which was subsequently repaired and returned to service. A previous significant accident occurred here on 10 November 1890 and the Taunton train fire of 1978 was also within 2 miles.
The crash occurred at a point on the railway where four tracks were reduced to two. On the four-track section, the up and down fast lines were in the centre between the up and down slow lines. Instead of the usual practice of locating all signals on the left-hand side of their respective tracks, the fast-line signals were between the two fast lines, thus on the right.
The driver of the train left Taunton station observing the indications of the right-hand signals (all green, indicating "proceed" for the down fast line), not realizing his train was travelling on the down slow (left-hand) track. Wartime blackout conditions at night contributed to this misapprehension. The driver only realised his mistake when another train overtook him, by which time it was too late to stop before the track ended. As trap points were in place, the train was derailed rather than running onto the fast line and colliding with the other train.
Also, the signalman at Taunton had changed the route of the crashed train from the Down Fast to the Down Slow, which the driver had not noticed.
The signals had been badly placed as an economy measure. If at least one pair of signals had been placed as usual – requiring a gantry or a bracket – then the driver of the train would have been more likely to recognise which track he was on and which signals related to it. It would not have helped that Great Western locomotives had the driver on the right-hand side, when his signals were generally on the left-hand side.
The signals at Norton Fitzwarren railway station were fitted with the GWR Automatic Train Control (ATC) which alerted the driver, in the cab, audibly that the approaching distant signal is at "caution". A warning signal has to be acknowledged or the brakes are applied. Unfortunately, drivers can be so used to cancelling the warning, that they may do this subconsciously. This would especially happen if the driver is reading the wrong green signal. There is no reason to believe that the ATC equipment was not working properly.
Stop and Proceed
The guard of the overtaking train was alarmed by strange noises, which later turned out to be ballast thrown up by the derailed train. He applied his own brakes under the "Stop and Examine" rule to check what might be the problem. Finding nothing, the overtaking train proceeded on its way with a small delay, the guard only later learning of the accident.
The house of the crashed train's driver had been bombed the previous night. He had gone to work as usual.