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Look out!

This guest post comes from Arthur Moore, one of our longest-serving volunteers, based with the NRM team. Arthur has a lot to answer for, having contributed the first guest post the project featured, opening our eyes to the possibilities! This post comes out of Arthur’s work on the inter-war accident reports currently being prepared for public release. Here Arthur looks at the persistence of one of the most challenging issues in regards staff accidents: track worker safety and the use of ‘look-out men’. As the name suggests, these were men (and at this time they were all men) whose job was to keep watch and warn staff working on the railway lines about approaching trains – enabling them to get out of the way, as they were working on tracks next to or open for normal service use.

The problem was their use wasn’t compulsory; it was up to the workers to decide whether to appoint a man, from their gang, to the task. That would mean greater safety – but also harder work for everyone left doing the job the employer had told them to do. No allowance would be made in terms of extra time for the work, so there was a strong disincentive to appoint a look-out – sometimes with disastrous consequences, as this post shows.

If you have an idea for a guest post, please get in touch with us – we welcome contributions dealing with railway safety, particularly but not exclusively staff accidents.


Image warning of the need for look-out staff.
1922 Great Western Railway accident prevention image, warning of the necessity of look-out men.

Having worked through another set of interwar data – reports from the third quarter of 1930 – I think one item might be of particular interest.  Inspector Charles Campbell is obviously annoyed about the failure of gangers [track workers] to appoint a look-out man when one is needed.  Over a 21-month period he repeatedly calls for the companies to take action over this.  For example he states:

It is most important that all gangers and others who have charge of men engaged on or near lines in use for traffic should appreciate correctly the circumstances in which a look-out man is required. With a view to educating these men on the subject, it is recommended that the Company should arrange to have each of them interviewed by specially trained officials, who, after carefully explaining Rule 273 (c) and the responsibilities attached to it, should impress upon them the necessity for interpreting the regulation generously and warn them not to hesitate to appoint a look-out man when there is any possibility of danger arising in consequence of a train approaching unobserved. 

The officials ought to be in no way responsible for permanent way maintenance or the amount of work performed, so that they may take a broad and unbiased view of the look-out man question.  

It is to be hoped that these recommendations will be adopted by the Company. [Emphasis added.]

I think he raises this issue with similar comments on at least 7 occasions I have seen, and no doubt more in the other reports: 4 January 1929, 23 May 1929 (Earsdon Junction), 7 July 1930 (LNER), 25 July 1930 (LNER), 4 August 1930 (LMS), 21 August 1930 (LNER), and 30 September 1930 (LMS).

1921 Caledonian Railway accident prevention booklet warning for PW workers. This issue affected all the railway companies.

He clearly feels that the gangers do not appreciate the need for a look-out; for example, on the LNER on 7 July 1930, concerning the death of Davison:

The want of a look-out man, for which ganger Reay must be held responsible, was evidently the cause of the accident.  At my Inquiry, I found that, notwithstanding the occurrence, Reay still considered that protection was unnecessary. [Emphasis added.]

What is even more striking is that he clearly feels this attitude is prevalent throughout the management of the permanent way staff, presumably because they are more concerned about budgets than men’s safety.  He clearly believes that the only way in which gangers can be correctly trained is ‘for each of them (to be) interviewed by specially selected officials who would be in no way responsible for permanent-way maintenance or the amount of work performed.’ [Emphasis added.]

He is clearly frustrated that, despite his recommendations since 4 January 1929, no action has been taken by either the LNER or the LMS up to the end of September 1930. One wonders if the companies ever did take action on his comments?


Arthur Moore

I trained as an engineer at the BBC and went on to design and manage the creation of television stations in countries as diverse as Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei and the UK.  My earliest memory is riding on a shunting engine at Warwick station circa 1951; a Triang train set a year later confirmed my interest in all things railway.  Now I am retired I am building an O gauge layout in my loft based on LSWR practice pre-WW1, for which I use modern engineering tools such as CAD, etching, laser cutting and 3D printing.  Involvement in ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ has provided me with a fascinating insight into the operation and working practices of British railways in the first half of the last century.


  1. TW

    Lookoutmen were still not mandatory by 1958, as the matter was brought up in parliament as part of a broader debate about railway working conditions. I believe at some point they did become mandatory, though they are of course not a guarantor of safety – I believe one of the speculative causes for the accident last year where two PW workers were hit and killed by a train was that they were working away from the main group, and were thus out of earshot of the lookoutman.

  2. Pingback:Stapleton Road, 26 September 1921 - Railway Work, Life & Death

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