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Tom Rolt’s Red for Danger – but for staff accidents?

On the bookshelves of many in the rail industry and many more rail enthusiasts, you’ll probably find a copy of Tom Rolt’s Red for Danger. First published in 1955, it is a litany of railway disasters – Quintinshill (to which we’ll return next week), Abermule, Harrow and Wealdstone … and many more.

Red for Danger is recognised as a classic text. Rightly so. Rolt managed to capture the tragic drama of the accidents and convey technical detail to an interested audience. As a review from The Times noted ‘At the risk of being thought callous, one must praise Mr Rolt for making death and disaster on the line most attractive reading.’

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Rolt’s death it’s absolutely worth recognising what Rolt did. He was a pioneer of industrial heritage, at a time when ‘heritage’ was fairly narrowly conceived. He contributed to the establishment of the first heritage railway and the conservation of many waterways for leisure use. (This conference, at Ironbridge, will analyse Rolt’s legacy, on 10 May 2024.)

Cover of Rolt's 'Red for Danger', showing railway tracks heading towards a red signal in the distance.

Train accidents; worker accidents

The accidents Rolt featured in Red for Danger were investigated by the Railway Inspectorate. Those reports are now available via the Railways Archive resource, courtesy of the Office of Rail and Road. They are detailed, and extensive, a testament to the seriousness with which such accidents were viewed. Notably, virtually all cases in Red for Danger deal with passenger train crashes and derailments.

These accidents were well known at the time, received extensive investigation and press coverage, and are now easily publicly available. When we started the Railway Work, Life & Death project we therefore decided not to cover these accidents – but instead to focus on the workforce.

Passenger train accidents killed and injured far fewer people than worker accidents. For example, in 1900, for every passenger hurt on the railways, around seven staff were injured or killed. Those workers remained largely unknown and unseen at the time of their accidents – and even more so, since. They are the focus of our project and its database.

Posed accident prevention image, showing a railwayman stepping out of the way of one train, but into the path of another approaching on the adjacent line.
Posed LNWR safety image, showing a similar issue to the one at Weaste, discussed below.

Why, then, isn’t there a Red for Danger for workers?

The answer ties into issues our blog and project have touched upon before. Passenger crashes were large-scale, spectacular and rare. They often happened in public view, and involved all classes of society. Worker accidents, by contrast, tended to happen in ones and twos, frequently, in very mundane ways. They tended to be out of sight of the public, and confined to the working classes. In short: they weren’t news, despite the fact that they were, cumulatively, far more harmful than train accidents.

If those big train accidents led to changes and improvements in train safety, what about worker accidents? Did they lead to changes?

Very often, sadly, the answer was ‘no.’ We’ve seen in the project the same old accidents coming up time and time again. The reasons for this are beyond this blog post. Here it’s just worth reflecting that the lack of ‘drama’ around the moment of the accident means worker cases likely won’t have the reach or appeal of the cases in Red for Danger. This doesn’t make them any the less important – it means the Railway Work, Life & Death project has to work harder to make them publicly visible.


Worker safety in the industry

The industry now takes safety far more seriously than it did in the period covered by the Railway Work, Life & Death project. That’s a good thing, of course, even if there is still work to be done. Some of that work we’re delighted to be contributing, whether via our work with the RMT Union or with organisations inside the industry.

This includes the Infrastructure Safety Leadership Group (ISLG), a forum that brings together health and safety leaders from the principal contractors and designer communities, supported by Network Rail and the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB). In January 2024, at the invitation of the ISLG Chair, Stuart Webster-Spriggs, we co-led an ISLG workshop, with Greg Morse from the RSSB. This used carefully selected cases from the Railway Work, Life & Death project’s records as a starting point to draw out potential implications for safety practice on the railway today.

The session itself went really well, a testament to the engagement from Stuart Webster-Spriggs and Greg Morse – as well as those present. They could readily see the parallels between the historic cases and today, and were enthusiastic about taking those messages back to their organisations. Indeed, we’ve since been invited in to one organisation to run a similar session for their health and safety leaders. The past clearly isn’t simply behind us, but can be practically useful today.

There’s more to come from this, which we’re keen to see happen. A track worker safety digest has just been released by the RSSB, drawing from our session at the ISLG – available here. This is being shared widely in the industry, and we hope will influence worker safety in positive ways. And we’re alert to further opportunities to bring the Railway Work, Life & Death project into the current rail industry.


‘Shocking railway accident at Weaste’

One of the cases we drew on in the ISLG workshop and the safety digest took place at Weaste, in Lancashire, on the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). On 1 March 1901 a gang of three men were working on ballast to the east of Weaste station. Normally there would have been four men, but one man was absent through illness. The work proceeded as normal, however, with no apparent adaptation made for this short-staffing.

Ordnance Survey map showing Weaste station, yard and running lines, surrounded by housing and factories.
Ordnance Survey map, c.1916, of the area where the accident occurred.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

From about 4pm William Williams and Frederick Kilner had been left to the work by the man in change, Ganger William Lee. Lee returned at around 5.20pm, at which point all three men were distracted by a pair of shovels left in a dangerous position on a wagon being moved out of the goods yard. As they stood clear of that, an express approached on the line they were working on. Lee saw the danger too late, and attempted to pull Kilner out of the way – both were struck, before Williams was also hit. Sadly Kilner and Williams died; Lee survived but was injured.

The investigation, by Inspector JPS Main, noted that the men were familiar with the express train, which passed daily. He also noted that a look-out, to keep watch for trains, wasn’t provided – ‘the ganger stating that he could not spare a man for this purpose.’ Tragically, Lee noted that had there been a look-out, the accident wouldn’t have happened. A contributory factor was a cloud of steam and smoke blowing across the line from a nearby factory and the goods train they were trying to avoid.

Main concluded that the men were responsible as they remained in a position of danger. However, he added a rider – that a look-out would have prevented the accident. He suggested that the LNWR should supply look-outs to track workers on this section of the line ‘where the traffic is extremely heavy’ (1901 Quarter 1, Appendix B).

In the workshop, participants could see parallels to the tragic case at Margam, south Wales, in 2019. Local adaptations were made and a team split to cover different sites. Changes to expected practice weren’t managed sufficient at Weaste – the ill-health absence; and questions were asked about the planning of the work.

Whilst Lee recovered and remained on the railways into the 1920s, the widows of Williams and Kilner became solely responsible for five children. Kilner left three children, Williams left two daughters. The second, Winifred, had only been born a month before the accident.

Our hope is that we can both see the men involved and their families – and that through our project’s work we can help to improve safety in the present.

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