If you’re in the UK, you’ll have noticed it’s been rather cold of late, including a lot of snow. Despite the adverse comment about some train operators pre-emptively cancelling services, an awful lot of work has gone in to keeping the system moving – though as usual, most of that is behind the scenes, in places the public can’t see, or at night. And this means that the workers are out there, in some pretty nasty conditions, doing the best they can.
This brings with it safety challenges, above and beyond the usual. And that isn’t new. Our database has plenty of examples where snow and extreme cold conditions played a part in employee accidents.
Keeping the tracks free of snow was a key challenge. There are 4 cases in which men were clearing snow from points when they were struck by stock, 2 of which killed the men involved. This included signal-fitter Ernest Battams, who on 22 January 1915 was clearing snow from points at St Albans. He stepped towards one of the other lines and was struck by the engine of the approaching train. Inspector JH Armytage determined that it was Battams ‘want of care’ that led to the accident (1915 Quarter 1, Appendix B). In none of the cases were the conditions explicitly noted as a causative factor.
Snowploughs were involved in two cases, only one of which was fatal: driver Duncan Bone, whose body was found at Auchinleck on the Glasgow and South Western Railway on 15 January 1913. Inspector JH Armytage presumed that Bone had been hit by a light engine fitted with a snowplough that had passed at 03.53. Interestingly, Bone had come on duty afte a rest period of 8½ hours, but Armytage commented that ‘Although I have no reason to believe that he was in any way unfit to take duty, it should be noted that his previous turn of duty had been no less than nineteen and a half hours. These exceptional hours appear to have been due mainly to an unusual amount of illness amongst the drivers at Hurlford Shed, together with disorganisation of the traffic caused by the collision at Hurlford on January 13th, but it is probable that the hours of duty would have been kept within more reasonable limits if earlier application had been made to headquarters for additional men’ (1913 Quarter 1, Appendix B).
Other cases included slips, trips and falls, or casualties whilst clearing snow from tracks other than points. One of these was John Irwin, a 17-year old fireman with the Caledonian Railway. On 23 February 1915 at 4am he ‘left his home with intention of walking on the railway a distance of about 2 ½ miles’ to sign on for work. However, he was struck by a train at Bonnymuir: in the snowstorm he ‘failed to observe the approach of an engine in time to avoid it.’ He was hit in the shoulder and knocked down, though only suffered bruises to head and shoulder. Inspector Charles Campbell put the accident down to Irwin’s breaking rule 26, which forbade staff from walking on the line except when necessary for their job. An intriguing coda is added to the case, demonstrating once again the value of these reports in helping us understand what actually took place on the railways at this time: ‘Although another route, clear of the railway, is available, Irwin has since his recovery habitually walked on the line when travelling to and from work, and it is surprising that the Company have taken no action to stop the practice. Steps should now be taken to ensure that the rule referred to will be strictly enforced in future’ (1915 Quarter 1, Appendix C).
The final case we’re noting occurred on 18 March 1915, at Ince on the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway. Driver Charles Gibb had worked his shift of 10 hours, though been on duty for nearly 12 hours – the difference presumably being a result of time allowed for meals. He had been relieved, so was walking back to the loco shed, ‘when he caught his right foot either against or under one of three badly exposed point-rods and fell’, fracturing the shoulder cup of his left arm, for which he was still off-duty nearly 2 months later. Inspector John Hornby concluded that the accident was a result of the point rods obstructing Gibb’s path, which ‘must be classed as due to failure to comply with Rule 5 of the Prevention of Accidents Rules, 1902.’ What this doesn’t say – though would have been understood at the time – is that the failure was that of the Company. The 1902 Rules were put in place by the Board of Trade, under the limited extra powers they were granted by the 1900 Railway Employment (Prevention of Accidents) Act. They required companies to take certain well-defined steps to improve worker safety – including covering trip hazards like exposed point rods. In this case, however, this wasn’t the only factor contributing to Gibb’s accident. As Hornby went on to note ‘To add to Gibb’s dangers the point-rods were covered with snow, and a blizzard was raging at the time.’ Unusually, we also get a follow-up to the case, in the note that ‘the Company’s representatives who attended my enquiry agreed to protect the point-rods without delay’ (1915 Quarter 1, Appendix C) – a definite result, if the Company was true to its word.
Geographically, only 5 of the 14 wintery cases are found in Scotland – we might perhaps expect more. The other 9 are in England: we’ve already encountered St Albans, our most southerly instance, but Burton, Blyth and Gobowen also feature. All told, snow and ice were involved in killing 5 people and injuring 9 over the years.
For once, to end on a lighter note we’ve got some appropriately-named people in the database, too: Joseph Snow and the rather wonderfully-named Ernest Snowball.