Undoubtedly the majority of railway worker accidents were incurred by those exposed to danger on a day-to-day basis – the manual grades, like the platelayers, shunters, guards, porters, workshop staff and engine crews. But sometimes you find cases where those higher up the ranks were involved. One such case occurred at Kilmeaden, near Waterford, in what we now know as Ireland (the subject of a future post).
On 18 March 1913, station master Frank Lappen was taking part in one of the procedures introduced in the 19th century to ensure the safety of trains: exchanging staffs for possession of the single line. For those not familiar with the intricacies of railway working, this process ensured that only one train could be on a piece of line at any one time – quite important if you don’t want to meet a train coming head-on from the other direction. Before a train could enter a section of track, the crew had to take a tablet or staff. When they reached the next station, they would hand over the staff, which could then be given to the next train back down the line. All very clever when it worked (and, needless to say, considerably more complex than this summary suggests).
For trains that weren’t stopping at a station it was normal practice to slow down, but keep moving, during the exchange of staffs (see the video here for an example). In this case, the train was moving at around 8-10 miles per hour. The crew were to give back the staff for the section of track they’d just left, and collect the staff for the section they were about to enter. In a proficient exchange, both giving and receiving the staffs would be done at the same time, in a smooth process between fireman and signalman. This time, however, things were not proficient.
Presumably in the name of ‘staff development’ (to adopt a modern phrase), Lappen had decided that lad porter J White should receive the staff from the fireman, and Lappen would give the staff for the next section. Unfortunately White dropped the staff he was collecting; Lappen heard the noise, and ‘altered his position as [fireman J] McCarthy was taking the other staff from him, with the result that he was struck on the mouth by it’ resulting in an injury to the mouth and lips.
Certainly not as serious an accident as many that were investigated, but it is one that demonstrates that even what we may think of as relatively safe jobs on the railway might have their dangers. The Inspector, JJ Hornby, recommended that the company, the Great Southern and Western Railway, ought to ‘consider the advisability of adopting a satisfactory mechanical apparatus for the exchange of staffs’ (1913 Quarter 1, Appendix C). This was an interesting recommendation – such apparatus certainly existed, but often recommendations shied away from technological fixes to problems, as these could be expensive. Sadly we don’t know whether or not the company followed up on this recommendation.