Explore your Archive week – a case from the archive: road safety on the railway

As well as this being ‘Explore your Archive’ week, it’s also Road Safety Week, run by the charity Brake. Road accidents remain a major source of casualties in the UK, and a part of this relates to occupational road risks. Although we might not expect it, road accidents are a source of concern for the current railway industry – though perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, given it employs a large number of people who have to be mobile for their job.

As the Railway Work, Life & Death project’s co-leader, I’m probably one of the few people well placed to comment on the long-term perspective, as I’ve researched the history of road safety as well as railway worker accidents. Given the huge diversity of jobs in the railway industry at the start of the 20th century – a product of the range of roles and services they offered, from catering to shipping, manufacturing stock to shifting people and goods – it’s no surprise that many people were employed on the roads, initially driving horse and cart vehicles but as the century went on, increasingly vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. As a result, I was keen to have a look and see what sorts of road accidents were captured in our project spreadsheet.

1932 Prevention of Accidents booklet on road accidents

As ever, there were some cases, though not all that many – presumably because many road accidents weren’t investigated, as they were judged not to have been railway-specific. Several of the cases involved points at which road and rail vehicles interacted: level-crossings. This also meant that some of the people injured weren’t necessarily railway employees.

One such case occurred on 3 April 1913, and involved Edmund Broadhead, employed as a carter by a farmer local to Flushdyke in West Yorkshire. He was taking a horse and cart over ‘a much-used occupation crossing’ between two sets of sidings on the Great Northern Railway when his cart was struck by a set of wagons being moved between the sidings. Broadhead sprained his right leg, ‘the cart being badly damaged.’ As Inspector Amos Ford determined, the shunter in charge of the work, T Burge ‘instead of being at the crossing to protect the public, was riding on the engine footstep’, presumably to save himself a walk and to get through the work in the time allowed. As a result, Ford laid blame at the feet of Burge (1913 Quarter 2, Appendix C).

It’s a great shame that all the railway worker accidents weren’t investigated by the state – though that would have been extremely difficult, given the numbers involved. However, it would have told us an awful lot more about railway work, and wider issues, including things like how far the railways were invested in road transport and how far road safety was – or wasn’t – an issue. Clearly it’s hard to compare the railway industry then and now in a meaningful way; one of the key reasons for this being the vast numbers of people employed in 1913 and the dangers to which they were routinely exposed, compared to the present day. So it’s no surprise that road safety cases like that of Edmund Broadhead (even though he was a member of the public) were less of a priority for investigation than the more obviously railway-related accidents. Things are rather different today!

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