April 1914 saw 2 railway accidents which raise interesting issues about the differences between worker and passenger incidents – particularly as both involved multiple casualties. On 14 April 1914, the Flying Scotsman train (not to be confused with the loco!) collided with a goods train at Burntisland in Fife, killing 2 (the driver and fireman of the express) and injuring 12. It was certainly widely reported in the national and local press, given the numbers involved and the exceptional nature of a passenger accident (the more so given it involved a ‘named’ train).
What wasn’t widely reported – of course – were the worker accidents that were occurring daily at this time. 10 April was the single date this month on which we have most accidents recorded in our database, but we want to skip most of the 20 individuals injured or killed and focus on a single incident involving multiple casualties. This was one of two cases of multiple casualties on that date – partly accounting for the high total for a single date. In some respects such cases may be exceptional – most worker cases involved a single person. But the multiple cases also remind us that some of the more dangerous tasks involved groups of workers and if anything went wrong, it could go badly wrong.
On 10 April 1914 a gang of 4 Caledonian Railway track workers were ensuring the sleepers (the wood that the trackwork sits upon) were level on the Muirkirk branch line, near Sandilands Viaduct (near Lanark). Just before 11.30am, surfacemen John Laidlaw and William Symington were between the rails, and second-man (no doubt about his rank!) James Stewart and foreman Charles McLauchlan at the sleeper ends. An untimetabled train (carrying district officials from the railway company) approached unnoticed, in part due to the strong wind and sound of the river Clyde in spate obscuring its noise. The train struck the gang, killing Laidlaw and Symington, and injuring Stewart (who was hit by Symington’s body, surely a gruesome event and not the first time we’ve blogged about such a case). McLauchlan was unharmed.
Inspector JH Armytage investigated, concluding that ‘the accident was clearly due to the fact that an efficient look-out was not being kept.’ The noise and the structure of the viaduct meant that advance warning of the train would have been limited, and under those circumstances Armytage felt that McLaughlan should have appointed a special look-out man instead of attempting to help with the work and keep look-out. As a result, McLaughlan received a large portion of the responsibility for the accident. Interesting a rider was added to this: ‘I consider that his failure in this respect was largely due to a want of proper guidance from his superior officers’ – a fairly strongly worded rebuke for the Company (by the standards of these reports).
This was elaborated upon in the following paragraph, as the 3 Company officials whose evidence was taken as part of the inquiry had made it clear that they ‘did not consider a special look-out man was necessary … on any portion of this branch line’. Armytage then went on to explain why he felt this inaccurate: ‘In order to efficiently protect his men at this point it would have been necessary for McLaughlan to look carefully in the direction of the viaduct at continuous intervals of not more than ten seconds, and I do not consider that it is reasonable to expect any many to do this while he is packing sleepers.’ He did not mention the issue which we think might be seen here (as in other cases we’ve discussed), that of the economics of safety: paying for an extra worker to act as look-out would add direct cost to the job, and taking one of the gang of 4 away to act as look-out would add time to the job.
However, Armytage did find other deficiencies in the Caledonian’s practices as an organisation, noting that it (as all other railway companies) was supposed to have brought a new set of rules into operation from July 1913. However, their introduction had only been started in February 1914. The rules were intended to ensure that all workers acting as look-outs were tested on their competency – but Armytage noted that ‘I understand that no examination of look-out men has yet taken place. It is to be hoped that this important matter will receive prompt attention.’
All of this still leaves one important matter unresolved: the sudden appearance on the line of an unscheduled train. For those less familiar with the intricacies of railway operation, there were two sets of timetables produced: passenger timetables, which detailed the publicly available services, and the working timetables, which detailed all regular movements – passenger trains, goods trains, engineering trains, light engine movements and so on. Where known in advance these would also include one-off ‘specials’ – but where these were put on after the timetables were printed, notices would – or should – have been issued, day-to-day, to inform any staff who might be affected. No mention is made of this in the report, but it is implied that such notices were not issued in this case: ‘I do not in any way wish to suggest that surfacemen should not always be prepared for the approach of special trains of which they have not received notice’, Armytage suggested. He did take issue with the special train’s driver, William Taylor, who had claimed he was keeping a look out but had not seen the gang: ‘from a personal test I am satisfied that he could have seen the men for a considerable distance if he had been keeping a proper look-out, and I consider that he is to blame for his neglect to do so’ (1914 Quarter 2, Appendix B).
Clearly it seems there were – as with every accident – multiple contributory factors; and in this case, multiple organisational failings. Having them pointed out like this in the Inspector’s report appears to have been relatively unusual; and above all, it was tragic that all the aspects came together to affect 3 men in one go. To return to our starting point, in comparison with the Burntisland crash, this case received virtually no press coverage – nothing in the national dailies, and relatively little in the local papers (typically a note of the accident, and then of the funerals of Laidlaw and Symington). It clearly lacked the sensational and visible elements necessary to receive widespread publicity. It also involved employees who were assumed to have understood and taken on the risks, as well being seen as having some control over their fates. Yet this example was arguably more important than the Flying Scotsman crash, in that these ‘small’ cases – even with multiple casualties – demonstrated some of the issues which ensured many tens of thousands of railway workers were injured or killed in our period: a far great toll than produced by passenger accidents.