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Left on the track

On 4 March 2024, a passenger train struck an object on the tracks at Walton-on-Thames. Part of the train derailed, though thankfully no-one was hurt. Initial enquiries have suggested that the train hit scrap rail, left on the tracks following engineering works. Network Rail, responsible for railway infrastructure, have issued a safety bulletin to share the incident and the issues raised.

Historic cases of materials left on track

It won’t surprise you to read that this certainly wasn’t the first time this kind of incident – items on track when they shouldn’t be – has happened. On 21 September 1898, for example, a Highland Railway mail train was ‘saved from a serious accident by the bravery of a surfaceman [track worker] named John Morrison’. Morrison and two colleagues had been working on the track near Altnabreac. Their work was done, but the platelayer’s trolley they were using was still on the line ‘when the train was observed coming at full speed.’ Morrison got the trolley off the line – but was killed in the process (Manchester Guardian, 22 September 1898).

Posed photograph, showing four men on a trolley - a simple wooden platform sat atop two pairs of wheels.
Track workers using a platelayers trolley, c.1918. The trolley would be lifted on/off the track.

This incident is a bit different, of course – there was still active work going on at the time, for example. The work was taking place with the tracks ‘open’ – so, traffic might be on the line being maintained. This was a particularly problematic form of working, though common for the era of our project – we see many cases in the database of accidents to pre-1939 railway staff. The current industry is trying to reduce the use of open line working to an absolute minimum.

What we don’t know is what pressure Morrison and the others involved were under, to get the job done quickly. This might well have had a role in causing the accident. It is certainly something we have seen explicitly being identified in other cases in our project’s work.

Robert Fulton, 1912

Perhaps closer to the Walton-on-Thames incident was a case near Hamilton, Scotland, in 1912. On 25 October, North British Railway goods guard Robert Fulton, 23, was killed at Hamilton Palace Colliery. Just under six hours into his 10-hour shift, Robert was in charge of a train of 11 wagons and a guard’s van. The train was being pushed by the engine, with the guard’s van next to the locomotive.

Ordnance Survey map showing a colliery with extensive railway sidings, situated between workers housing and trees.
Ordnance Survey map of Hamilton Palace Colliery c.1910.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

As a result, Robert was inside the leading wagon, keeping an eye out on the route. The report into the accident, by Inspector Charles Campbell, noted that as they reached the colliery, Robert got out of the wagon to change some points. He then got on the buffers of the leading wagon and stood there. The report went on: ‘the train had not travelled much further when two men who were near the line noticed that a pick was being pushed along the rail by one of the leading wheels of the first waggon.’

Unfortunately for Robert, the wagon derailed, and he fell to the ground. As he did so, he was caught by the wagon, which ‘inflicted injuries which proved fatal.’ Robert left his mother and father – his father worked as a engine driver at a colliery, though sadly we don’t know which. One of Robert’s three brothers also worked at a colliery, as a shunter; another was employed by a railway company, so this was clearly a railway family.

Campbell’s report noted that the pick caused the derailment. As to how the pick came to be on the track, some colliery-employed track workers were seen near the accident site: ‘I think there can be little doubt that one of them left his pick foul of the line’. So, we have a relatively simple act which had grave consequences (1912 Quarter 4, Appendix B). As ever, we don’t know what pressures those workers were under, or if they were adequately resourced.

It’s also interesting in terms of the industrial structure then and now. Today we don’t necessarily have a straightforward case of railway company employees at work on the railways – many staff are sub-contractors, for example. Over 100 years ago there were also places and ways in which people at work on the railways might not conform to a simple notion of being railway employees. In this case we had a North British Railway Company train and staff working on private lines.

Robert’s Union

Robert was a member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) trade union – and he appears in our union dataset. He joined the ASRS Hamilton branch on 2 April 1911, so only lasted a year and a half before his death. His family received the Union’s standard £5 death benefit (worth around £590 at today’s prices). This would have covered some immediate costs. The ASRS also provided representation at the Fatal Accident Inquiry into Robert’s death, at which a verdict of accidental death was reached.

Robert’s death came shortly after the Workmen’s Compensation Act came into force. His dependents might therefore have received some compensation, though so far the records don’t show if this was the case.

Learning from the Past?

So what might we take from these historic cases? Are they relevant to the current industry?

We would strongly argue they are still relevant. Industry structure and precise details of operation have changed – no steam in common use on the lines today! However, enough key aspects remain to make it possible to draw parallels and make use of the older cases. Given no current people or organisations are involved, historic cases give us a space to discuss the issues raised in a meaningful way without any concerns about blame being apportioned.

Indeed, this is the basis of some of the work we’ve been doing with different parts of the industry, particularly since the start of this year. The willingness of the current industry to engage with its past demonstrates the value that it sees in looking backwards. So far we’ve led two workshops, with another to come next week, with key safety leaders from the industry and with RMT Union health and safety reps. We’re developing those resources and follow-up material, too, to support the safety work in the industry now. So – the past, certainly, but very relevant to this day.

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