Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash
View of the platforms from the north after the crash
|Date||8 October 1952|
|Location||Harrow and Wealdstone|
|Rail line||West Coast Main Line|
|Operator||BR London Midland|
|Cause||Signal passed at danger|
|List of UK rail accidents by year|
The Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash was a three-train collision at Harrow and Wealdstone station in London during the morning rush hour of 8 October 1952. 112 people were killed and 340 injured (88 of these being detained in hospital); it remains the worst peacetime rail crash in the United Kingdom.
An overnight express train from Perth crashed at speed into the rear of a local passenger train standing at a platform at the station. The wreckage blocked adjacent lines and was struck within seconds by a "double-headed" express train travelling north at 60 mph (97 km/h). A subsequent Ministry of Transport report on the crash found that the driver of the Perth train had passed a caution signal and two danger signals before colliding with the local train. The accident accelerated the introduction of Automatic Warning System – by the time the report had been published British Railways had agreed to a five-year plan to install the system that warned drivers that they had passed an adverse signal.
There are three pairs of running lines through Harrow and Wealdstone station, from east to west these are the slow lines, and the fast lines of the West Coast Main Line, and the DC electric lines. In each case the "up" line is southbound towards London Euston, the "down" is northbound towards Birmingham.
The collisions involved three trains;
- the 7:31 am Tring to Euston local passenger train - 9 carriages hauled by a steam locomotive - on the up fast line
- the 8:15 pm Perth to Euston night express - 11 carriages carrying approximately 85 passengers hauled by a single steam locomotive - on the up fast line - this train was running about 80 minutes late because of fog.
- the 8:00 am express from Euston to Liverpool and Manchester - 15 carriages carrying approximately 200 passengers, double headed by two steam locomotives - on the down fast line 
Sequence of events
At around 8:17 am, on 8 October 1952 the local train had stopped at platform 4 at Harrow and Wealdstone station, approximately seven minutes late because of fog. Carrying about 800 passengers; it was busier than usual because the next Tring -Euston service had been cancelled. As scheduled, it had travelled from Tring on the slow line, switching to the up fast line just before Harrow and Wealdstone to keep the slow lines to the south of the station clear for empty stock movements. At 8:19 am, just as the guard was walking back to his brake van after checking doors on the last two carriages, the Perth express crashed into the rear at a speed of 50–60 miles per hour (80–100 km/h). It had passed a colour light signal at caution, two semaphore signals at danger, and had burst through the trailing points of the crossover from the slow lines. The collision completely destroyed the rear three coaches of the local train (where most of the casualties occurred) telescoping them into the length of one coach, and drove the entire train forward 20 yards (18 m). The leading two vans and three coaches of the Perth train piled up behind and above the locomotive.
The wreckage from the first collision was spread across the adjacent down fast line. A few seconds after the first collision, the northbound express to Liverpool Lime Street passed through the station on this line in the opposite direction at approximately 60 miles per hour (100 km/h). The leading locomotive of this train struck the derailed locomotive of the Perth train and derailed. The two locomotives from the Liverpool train were diverted left, mounting the platform, which they ploughed across diagonally before landing on their side on the adjacent DC electric line, one line of which was short circuited by the wreckage; the other line had its electric current quickly switched off by the signalman, thus preventing any further collisions. The leading seven coaches, plus a kitchen car from the Liverpool train were carried forward by momentum, overriding the existing wreckage and piling up above and around it. Several of these coaches struck the underside of the station footbridge, tearing away a steel girder.
Sixteen vehicles, including thirteen coaches, two bogie vans and a kitchen car were destroyed or severely damaged in the collisions. Thirteen of these were compressed into a compact heap of wreckage 45 yards (41 m) long, 18 yards (16 m) wide and 18 feet (5.5 m) high. The Perth locomotive was completely buried under the pile of wreckage.
The first emergency response arrived at 8:22 am with the fire brigade, ambulance and police services being assisted by doctors and a medical unit of the United States Air Force, based locally at RAF Northolt. Help was accepted from the Salvation Army, the Women's Voluntary Service and local residents. The first loaded ambulance left at 8:27 am and by 12:15 pm most of the injured had been taken to hospital. The search for survivors continued until 1:30 am the following morning.
All six lines running through the station were closed including the undamaged slow lines to allow the injured access to ambulances that left from the goods yard. The slow lines reopened at 5:32 am the following morning. The electric lines were used by cranes to remove the Liverpool locomotive and carriages and reopened 4:30 am on 11 October. The fast lines were reopened, with a speed restriction, at 8:00 pm on 12 October and a temporary footbridge was opened the same evening.
There were 112 fatalities, including the driver and fireman of the Perth express and the driver of the lead engine of the Liverpool express. 102 passengers and staff died at the scene, with a further 10 dying later in hospital from their injuries. Of the 108 passenger fatalities, at least 64 occurred in the local train, 23 in the Perth train, and 7 in the Liverpool train. The remaining 14 were unclear, but some of the fatalities may have been standing on the platform and hit by the derailed locomotives of the Liverpool train. A total of 340 people reported injury: 183 people were given treatment for shock and minor injury at the station and 157 were taken to hospital, of whom 88 were detained.
The Ministry of Transport report on the collision was published in June 1953. The local train should have been protected by two semaphore home signals; the Up Fast Inner Home about 190 yards (170 m) to its rear, and the Up Fast Outer Home a further 440 yards (400 m) back. A colour distant signal (the Up Fast Distant) would show green if the Outer Home was at ‘clear’ or yellow if the Outer Home was at ‘danger’ and was set 1,474 yards (1,348 m) before the Up Fast Outer home; this being the full braking distance for an express at 75 miles per hour (120 km/h), the speed limit for this section of track.
Tests showed no signalling equipment faults and the report was able to dismiss the possibility that the signalman had only changed the route after the Perth train had passed the caution signal. The driver of the Perth train had not slowed his train in response to this signal and had then passed two danger signals before colliding with the Tring train. All the evidence suggested that the driver had made no attempt to stop until a few seconds before the collision.
On this section of line, the local ‘residential’ trains had priority over long-distance expresses at peak time, so the Perth express should have been expecting adverse signals. The driver ‘a methodical young man’ was in good health and there were no signs of a medical emergency or equipment fault that might have distracted the driver from looking for signals. The report discounted the possibility of green colour signals on the adjacent electric lines having been mistaken for the Up Fast Distant, or of signal sighting being seriously impaired by the low sun (9 degrees above the horizon and 17 degrees to the left of the track).
The report noted that whilst the fog had lifted in the vicinity of Harrow station, with visibility improving to 200–300 yards (180–270 m) witnesses estimated visibility at the Up Fast Distant to be 50–100 yards (46–91 m). At 50 miles per hour (80 km/h), this would be covered in four seconds or less.
In these circumstances I can only suggest that ..the driver.. must have relaxed his concentration on the signals for some unexplained reason, which may have been quite trivial, at any rate during the few seconds for which the Distant signal could have been seen from the engine at the speed he was running in a deceptive patch of denser fog. Having thus missed the Distant he may have continued forward past Headstone Lane station (which was not on his own side), underestimating the distance he had run from Hatch End and still expecting to see the colour light and not the Harrow semaphore stop signals which were at a considerably higher elevation.
The report considered it surprising that there had been only eight deaths in the leading seven passenger coaches of the Liverpool train; some of these coaches were built to a new British Railways standard (all-steel construction, with buck-eye couplings and bodies welded to the underframe) and seemed to have fared better than older stock.
Railway safety depended on obedience to signals, and the report saw no need for more restrictive ways of working to accommodate driver error;
...the Rules and Regulations for train working in fog have proved adequate in practice with the aid of the professional skill and care which is displayed by engine drivers throughout the country on the vast majority of occasions. The way to guard against the exceptional case of human failure of the kind which occurred at Harrow does not lie in making the regulations more restrictive, with consequent adverse effect on traffic movement, but in reinforcing the vigilance of drivers by apparatus which provides a positive link between the wayside signals and the footplate.
The report considered a system warning drivers that they had passed a signal at caution or danger would have prevented ten percent of the accidents (and 28% of the consequent deaths) in the previous forty-one years, thereby saving 399 lives, including the 112 at Harrow. British Railways had under development an "automatic train control" system that warned drivers of an adverse signal and automatically applied the brakes until this was cancelled by the driver and by the time the report had been published a five-year plan had been agreed to install this system on 1,332 miles (2,144 km) of line.
The very occasional failures which have occurred give no grounds for loss of confidence in British railway engine drivers as a whole, and there is no reason to believe that the problem has become more urgent in the last few years, notwithstanding the exceptionally tragic results of one such failure at Harrow. All, however, are agreed that enginemen should be given their share of technical aids to safe working, and I consider that at this late stage there should be no reservations on the rate of progress once the apparatus has been approved.
The accident accelerated the introduction of British Railways' Automatic Warning System (AWS), although some in the industry thought more lives would be saved by spending the money on installing more track circuits and colour light signals. By 1977 a third of British Rail track had been fitted with AWS.
After the accident there was criticism that the layout of the track at Harrow and Wealdstone was arranged with the junction between slow and fast lines to the north of the station so the Tring train had to wait on the fast line. This was to keep the length of the rods between the points and the signal-box to a minimum. The junction was changed in 1962.
A memorial plaque for the disaster was unveiled in 2002 to mark the 50th anniversary. A mural was painted along the bordering road featuring scenes from Wealdstone's history by children from local schools and dedicated to the victims' memory.
The locomotives hauling the Liverpool train were No. 45637 Jubilee Class 4-6-0 Windward Islands and No. 46202 Princess Royal Class 4-6-2 Princess Anne, both scrapped after the collision. The latter was a rebuild in conventional form from the experimental steam turbine Turbomotive and had been in service as Princess Anne for only a few months. The Perth train had been hauled by No. 46242 Coronation Class 4-6-2 City of Glasgow, which was repaired. The Tring train had been hauled by LMS Fowler No.42389 2-6-4 tank engine running bunker first.
- "On this day 1952: Many die as three trains crash at Harrow". BBC. Retrieved 5 September 2012.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, p. 5.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, pp. 2,10.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, p. 2.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, pp. 2, 10.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, p. 3.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, p. 10.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, pp. 2–3.
- Coombs 1977, p. 30.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, pp. 3–4.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, pp. 4–5,8.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, pp. 1–2.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, p. 7.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, p. 18.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, p. 21.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, p. 17.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, p. 16.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, p. 24.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, p. 23.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, p. 25.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, pp. 25-26.
- Ministry of Transport 1953, p. 28.
- Kitchenside 1977, p. 83.
- Coombs 1977, p. 126.
- Coombs 1977, p. 143.
- Coombs 1977, pp. 137–138.
- "Survivors remember crash victims". Harrow Times. 11 October 2002. Retrieved 5 September 2012.
- Coombs 1977, p. 100.
- Coombs 1977, p. 97.
- Coombs 1977, p. 21.
- Ministry of Transport (1953). Report on the double collision which occurred on 8th October 1952 at Harrow and Wealdstone Station. Her Majesty's Stationery Office. Archived at railwaysarchive.co.uk. Retrieved 5 September 2012.
- Coombs, I.F.E. (1977). The Harrow Railway Disaster: 25 Years On. David and Charles. ISBN 0-7153-7409-5.
- Kitchenside, Geoffrey (1977). Great Train Disasters. Paragon Plus. ISBN 978-0752522296.
- Hamilton, J.A.B. (1987). Disaster Down the Line: Train Accidents of the Twentieth Century. Cassell Illustrated. ISBN 978-0713719734.
- Nock, O.S. (1978). Historic Railway Disasters. Ian Allan.
- Rolt, L.T.C. (1956). Red for Danger. John Lane, The Bodley Head. (or subsequent editions published by David & Charles: 1966 (2nd edn), 1976 (3rd edn), 1982 (4th edn - ISBN 0-7153-8362-0) )
- Tatlow, Peter (2002). Harrow and Wealdstone 50 Years On: Clearing up the Aftermath. The Oakwood Press. ISBN 0-85361-593-4.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Harrow & Wealdstone rail crash.|
- Images of the wreck britishrailways.tripod.com
- Pathé Newsreel report of crash
- Pathé Newsreel report of clear-up
- Pathé Newsreel report of the inquest youtube.com
- MovieTone Newsreel report of crash youtube.com
- Angels and Errors: How the Harrow & Wealdstone Disaster Helped Shape Modern Britain London Reconnections
- Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash: Boy rescuer remembers devastation bbc.co.uk 8 October 2012