Edinburgh shunting accidents – a connection

In previous posts we’ve extolled the virtues of our database as a means of making connections between accidents, whether by location, company, grade of employee, circumstances or a host of other possibilities. In some cases, however, our work is done for us by the Inspectors’ reports – they too found these connections significant, as they showed patterns that might be worthy of attention and (hopefully) remedy.

Two cases which were related in this way took place in Edinburgh, at Waverley station on the North British Railway, and were investigated by Inspector JH Armytage. The first took place on 15 June 1911: 20 minutes into his turn of duty, shunter Thomas Hamilton was killed whilst uncoupling stock. As some empty coaches were being moved from the main line into a siding, Hamilton climbed on to the steps of the carriage closest to the engine. Placing his left foot on the buffer of the loco, we went between the two, but fell and was killed.

Armytage noted ‘it appears to be a regular practice at this station for coaches to be uncoupled by hand while in motion. It is to be hoped that the Company will at once prohibit this practice, which is both dangerous and unnecessary’ (1911 Quarter 2, Appendix B). Something else we’ve discussed previously, Inspectors only had the power to make recommendations – they couldn’t compel companies to make changes. In this case, it was to prove significant.

Edinburgh Waverley station, c.1912. Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

At little over a year later, on 25 July 1912, foreman-shunter Joseph Horsburgh was injured under similar circumstances: clearly the North British had not stamped out the practice. Armytage again investigated – presumably this was his ‘patch’. A shunt was being undertaken, moving 3 fish trucks and 6 empty coaches out of the platforms and dividing them. ‘Instead of uncoupling between the fish trucks while they were at rest, Horsburgh climbed on to the buffers intending to remove the coupling by hand while the vehicles were being propelled. He slipped, fortunately only catching and bruising his right foot on the coupling that was not in use, and not landing on the tracks as has been the case for Hamilton.

Armytage noted that ‘the dangerous method of uncoupling’ was to blame but that this was ‘adopted with the knowledge and sanction of the responsible officers of the Company.’ This was strong stuff – as close to a reprimand as the Inspectors were likely to get. And Armytage wasn’t finished. He went on to noted Hamilton’s case explicitly, recording that ‘the Company were urged to prohibit the practice, but they declined to do so on the grounds that some delay would thereby be caused.’ It is unusual to have such a clear articulation of the outcome of previous recommendations, and a really clear example of the marginal economics of the railway industry at this time. Armytage when on: ‘The saving of a few minutes should not be considered a good reason for the continuance of a practice which is undoubtedly dangerous’ though could only end rather weakly with another entreaty to the Company to ban the practice ‘without delay’ (1912 Quarter 3, Appendix B).

From these cases, we might speculate about the process by which accidents were selected for investigation – as only around 3% of cases were investigated, clearly those which were looked at were chosen by some process. It wasn’t simply the case that all fatal accidents were explored – sometimes astonishingly minor injuries were the subject of reports. But here we have a case of accidents that were similar, with recommended steps clearly not having been taken after the first accident: surely it can be no coincidence that the second case was selected for investigation?

What we don’t know is whether or not the connection was made directly by Armytage remembering the first case, or whether there was a more systematic means of indexing – an early version of our database? – which allowed connections to be made regardless of which inspectors were involved. The suspicion is probably the former, but this may be a scenario that our database can test: were the connections made across different inspectors, or where there are multiple cases linked in the reports do they share an inspector?

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