In this post, we’re delighted to welcome guest author Michael Davis. Michael volunteers in a number of railway-related ways, as becomes clear in his post – including through the National Railway Museum, with our project. Importantly, he’s been able to make connections between our paper-based work and his experiences volunteering on heritage railways: excellent!
We’ve always wanted to see our project making a difference in practical situations, so this is great to see. We’re open to further blog posts where this happens, too, so please just get in touch if that’s the case!
As a working guard on a couple of heritage railways, and a long-term rail enthusiast (skipping school afternoons in the 1970s to ride behind the driver of a first generation DMU – because you could see the line through the cab – from Fareham to Salisbury and back), the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project had instant appeal.
On my first day of training to be a guard, the instructor handed me a copy of the Rule Book and said “Everything in here is there because someone was hurt or killed!” and from the first couple of reports I read, I could see he was right.
Reading the reports was often like watching an episode of the TV medical drama Casualty. From the first few lines I could guess how it was going to play out. Whenever I read the word ‘captsan’ or ‘capstanman’ in the report, I thought “This isn’t going to end well”. Similarly, the words ‘rushed’ or ‘hurried’ also raised the stakes.
The ‘times on duty’ of workers involved in accidents indicated whether the report would be of injury or death. If the person was in the first 30 mins of working, or at the end of an 8-hour shift, I knew the outcome was likely to be the latter.
Despite the assumed independence of the state’s accident Inspectors, it was very noticeable that the cause of the accident was frequently attributed to ‘own want of care’ by the individual hurt or killed. However, the Inspector’s narrative would often indicate systemic problems with the Company’s operations, particularly in not stopping a culture of poor practice developing at particular locations.
What I have recognised is that despite what the rail industry has learnt from the accidents of the past, the reports that have been written, the Rules that have been adopted, and the training (like mine) undertaken, history does keep repeating itself.
From a 1905 Appendix C report which I transcribed:
During shunting operations, about 9:45 am while two empty corridor coaches were being loose shunted against two other similar carriages Howard went into the four-foot for coupling purposes. When so engaged, as the vehicles came together, his head was crushed between the gangways of the two corridors, with fatal results.
This is from the current Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB):
At around 12:20 hrs on 21 May 2012, a volunteer train guard was fatally injured after becoming trapped between two coaches at Grosmont station on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.
But it isn’t just the steam operations. Again, from the RAIB:
At around 20:00 hrs on Saturday 14 December 2019, a train driver became trapped between two trains in the yard at Tyseley maintenance depot, Birmingham. The driver received fatal injuries as a result.
I can honestly say that being involved in the research has at times made me wince; certainly I have checked my Rule Book when I read something familiar, but most importantly I think it has made my working a lot safer.
Reflecting on that, given that the Reports cover the steam era, potentially a few of the reports could be transcribed and shared with heritage railways, logically through the Heritage Railways Association as training aids.
Michael, like many enthusiasts, volunteers on more than one heritage railway (both standard and narrow gauge), and always tries to use a train to get to and from his turns. Happily he has taken early retirement from full-time work which allows him the time to indulge his passion (without destroying his marriage), and it means his body can still climb from the ballast to the guards van, and lift a buck-eye coupling.