Dying for a wee – 1

As travellers today (when we’re able to resume travelling) we may be less than enamoured of the toilets on trains – all too often cramped, unclean or even out-of-order. But at least they’ve been provided for us. That isn’t always the case for staff – and that’s a long-standing issue. Earlier this year I wrote a piece for RAIL magazine on the history of toilets on trains and the implications for staff, particularly track workers exposed to effluent emptied direct on to the rails. That piece didn’t have space to do justice to the many examples of accidents related to the ‘smallest room’ seen in our database, so today’s post is thematic – the first of two in this area, to examine the topic a bit further.

We’ve featured a couple of cases in previous blog posts – one involving a female carriage cleaner coming into contact with a toilet bowl and another case, involving a goods porter who needed to relieve himself and couldn’t make it to a toilet. That’s on the assumption that a toilet was provided for staff use – though in King’s Cross goods shed, given the size of the operation, if it wasn’t provided there, then fairly much everywhere would have been without one. We can divide the lavatory accidents in our database into two categories, each represented by these two cases: those incurred whilst maintaining on-train provision and those incurred in operation, around the railway lines.

Part 1 of this post will look at the first of these categories. Falling into that camp were at least four cases. Two men were injured and one killed whilst filling carriage water tanks. Many water tanks were filled from the rooves of stock, which meant one person working at height and another at ground level to control the water. Neither place was necessarily a safe one.

The first case to feature occurred on 5 April 1911. North British Railway carriage cleaner W Cochrane, 28, was working at Glasgow Queen Street station. Whilst replenishing water for a carriage toilet he was between two lines. Stock was being moved on the adjacent line and hit him, resulting in a cut to his head. There was a lookout on board the train being moved, but evidently neither of the two men saw what was about to happen. Both were noted by Inspector Charles Campbell as having failed to exercise a proper lookout (1911 Quarter 2, Appendix C).

What looks like a similar case, also at Glasgow Queen Street station, occurred on 29 April 1914. It resulted in the death of North British Railway porter John Burke, 22. He operated a hydrant set between two lines whilst another porter filled the lavatory tanks on coaches, but was found dead, apparently crushed between two sets of coaches. No-one saw what happened, but according to Inspector JJ Hornby’s report Burke had no need to be between the coaches, rather pointing the responsibility at Burke (1914 Quarter 2, Appendix C).

accident prevention image warning of the dangers of bridge strikes whilst working on top of stock.

1932 accident prevention image, warning of the dangers similar to those encountered by William Smith in Bradford.

In the third case, Midland Railway carriage washer William Smith, 31, was injured at Bradford on 16 December 1911. With a colleague he filled the lavatory tanks on a rake of coaches about to be used; they were coupled to three that weren’t required, so the plan was to uncouple those, send the others off and then fill the tanks on those that were left. However, as Inspector Amos Ford noted in his report Smith mistakenly got on the roof of the final carriage about to be moved and when they were drawn forward ‘before he could then get clear, he came into contact with an over footbridge.’ His left shoulder and both thighs were bruised, but he survived; Ford attributed the accident to Smith’s want of care (1911 Quarter 4, Appendix C).

Toilets on coaches didn’t just need water. Washing passenger hands required towels – another item which meant someone had to keep them stocked up. On 22 July 1912 London and North Western Railway carriage cleaner David Jones, 49, boarded a train to replace towels at Manchester’s London Road station. Half an hour after the train left, he was found unconscious next to the track around 100 yards from the station. What happened wasn’t determined – Inspector JJ Hornby spoke to Jones three months after his fall, but he still had no recollection of the event and there were no witnesses (1912 Quarter 3, Appendix C).

As is often the case on the railways, keeping ‘normal’ operation going required people to maintain the system, whether that be physical infrastructure or more public-facing aspects like toilet provision on trains. Wherever people were involved, accidents happened, it seems. In the second part of this post, in two weeks’ time, we’ll look at staff welfare and comfort, so far as toilet provision was – or, more to the point, wasn’t – concerned.

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  1. Dying for a wee – 2 - Railway Work, Life & Death - May 4, 2020

    […] weeks’ ago we looked at accidents to carriage and wagon staff who were keeping the railway network’s on-train toilets stocked. Provision was clearly made for […]

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