3 pages of permanent way casualties

We’ve blogged about the dangers of the permanent way before now, including one post about a particularly bad day in 1911. Sadly we have to return to the same topic and the same year for this post. It’s unusual to find, but one of the Railway Inspectors’ quarterly reports (the source of the details in our database) for 1911 features 3 consecutive reports, each of multiple permanent way workers being hit by trains, stretching across 3 pages.

The first case occurred on 23 June 1911 on the Great Western Railway. Three packers – a grade of permanent way worker, responsible for ensuring that ballast was level – were at work at Newton Abbot, near the entrance to the single track branch to Moreton Hampstead. Given it was single track, this meant trains might be worked in either direction. All three men were facing towards Moreton Hampstead when A Northway and T Webber were struck and injured by a train from Newton Abbot. Inspector JPS Main’s report concluded that the train was not heard as a result of shunting being carried out nearby. Webber and the third man, Perryman, were criticised: as ‘experienced men,’ they ‘were aware that the train was about due, [but] no steps were taken to keep any look-out.’ Main saw this as ‘careless inattention’; Northway was excused censure as he had only been employed for 10 weeks. No recommendations were made.

1921 Caledonian Railway accident prevention booklet warning for PW workers. This issue affected all the railway companies.

It was a busy time for Inspector Main, who dealt with the other 2 cases as well, particularly as there was more to say about them. The next accident had the most serious consequences, as it led to the deaths of ganger W Tibble and packer J Benger at Slough, again on the Great Western Railway. On 28 June, a gang, under Tibble’s direction, had been at work, with Benger acting as look-out. Just before 3pm Tibble stopped the work and moved the gang further down the line. As they were going, Tibble – standing in the track – told Benger ‘to get a hammer and knock up a key [a wooden block used to help hold the track firm in place] which had fallen out of one of the rail chairs.’ As he did so, an express train approached unobserved, hitting and killing both men.

Main declared that ‘the actual work of hammering up a key is very trifling, and how Tibble, or even Benger … failed to notice either the signals [which showed a train was set to pass through] or the train is difficult to understand.’ As a result, the accident was put down to ‘a singular lack of care’. Tibble came in for particular criticism, as he shouldn’t have required Benger to hammer the key in: as look-out, Benger’s only role should have been to keep watch. The driver of the train also came in for some implicit criticism. He claimed that he sounded his whistle to warn the men on the track about the approaching train, but Main rather cuttingly noted ‘It is strange that this whistle was not heard by the rest of the gang … nor by the signalman, nor, in fact, by anyone, and I have only [Driver] Rowe’s uncorroborated statement on the point, with, which by the way, his fireman does not even agree. … I am inclined to think Rowe is mistaken’. Nevertheless, Main’s criticism went no further, and the recommendation was to ensure that those in charge of permanent way gangs should be ‘impressed with the fact’ that look-outs should only keep watch and do nothing else, no matter how small the work might appear (1911 Quarter 2, Appendix B).

Main had some distance to travel for the final case, which took place on 12 April 1911 at Fazakerley Junction, Liverpool, on the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway. This was an extremely unusual – and quite complicated – incident, injuring 8 men, none of whom were named in the report. This wasn’t the only time 8 unnamed casualties appear in our database – we’ve already posted on the other case, here, which took place at Totnes in 1915. The Fazakerley case raises a number of issues about railway working, including the use of contractors and their relationship to the employing railway company – and is one to which we’ll return in the future, in order to do it justice. For now, the key point remains that whilst this set of cases was unusual, it is indicative of the dangers to which track workers were exposed and of the serious outcomes if something did go wrong.

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