4 men atop a runaway train

At best, we might think of runaway trains as belonging to the world of high drama, the culmination of an outlandish film plot; at worst, we might consider the real life cases which, though rare, had disastrous or well-known consequences. In the UK this would include the case of John Axon in 1957; beyond it could be the tragic Lac-Mégantic explosion in Canada in 2013, which saw a 74 wagon oil train run out of control into a well populated area before derailing and exploding. These high profile cases were very visible and attracted a great deal of attention at the time – but we’re unlikely to know anything about a smaller scale case of a runaway train that is found in our database.

On 26 February 1913, William Dymond, ganger on the Lynton and Barnstaple Railway in Devon, was given instructions to pick up some soil near Bratton Fleming station and take it to Chelfham, around 3 miles away. His plan was to take the wagon for the soil and, using the brake on the wagon to control its speed, descend the 1 in 50 incline between the 2 stations: no locomotive was to be used.

After making 3 stops to pick up soil, fellow workers George Barrow, William Welch and G Dinnicombe climbed on top of the wagon to ride the rest of the way, whilst Dymond stood at the rear with one foot on the brake lever. According to the report, by inspector JPS Main, ‘after running a short distance, Dymond says he found that the brake was not acting sufficiently to check the speed.’ Quickly it was out of control, and despite the men’s attempts to throw soil onto the rails ‘the speed became terrific, and after running about a mile the waggon jumped the rails’ on a curve, and ‘pitched down an embankment of some twenty feet in height.’ Barrow and Welch were killed, and Dymond and Dinnicombe were badly bruised and shaken.

Main couldn’t determine whether the excess speed of the wagon was a result of Dymond’s error of judgement or an inefficient brake. It was known that the brake had been examined 3 days before the accident, and from discussion with the examiner, Main was ‘inclined to think that the brake required further adjustment to make it properly effective for such working.’ However, he did also note that this probably only became obvious at the point at which it was too late. Main suggested that it was probable that Dymond, ‘in his anxiety to hang on to the waggon’, eased pressure on the brake, which coupled with the ‘very greasy rails’, would have worsened the issue.

All of this dodged a key factor, which Main saved until the end of his report: ‘the accident is attributable to a dangerous method of working which has been in common operation in the past. The practice of running waggons free down the severe inclines which prevail on this line will now be prohibited’ (1913 Quarter 1, Appendix B).

Unusually, we learn something of the procedure for these Board of Trade inquiries. As well as the clear indication that Main had talked with survivors, in his report Main refers to photographs of the scene taken at the time. This is unsurprising, but useful for us to know. And for those of us who might have assumed that the railway inspectors ‘just’ looked at cases on standard gauge railways, this is a valuable reminder that their remit included all railways – including narrow gauge and broad gauge (as in Ireland, where the reports give cases of track workers hit ‘whilst in the five foot’).

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