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Learning the Lessons

How a serious accident led to the development of a longstanding footplate safety warning system. . . . . . .

The elegant lines of a Dean 4-2-2 express passenger locomotive of the type involved in the Slough collision. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.

How many times do we hear the vow that “we will learn the lessons from this incident….”? For the Great Western Railway (GWR) in 1900 it did come true, for it greatly helped to make the case for the development of their Automatic Train Control (ATC) footplate warning system. ATC spread over the GWR main line territory and was in use for almost 70 years.

On the 16th June 1900 there was a serious collision at Slough station. On this busy Saturday, the 1.05 p.m. train from Paddington to Windsor with eight coaches full of racegoers, including several Members of Parliament,was standing in the down main line platform while tickets were being collected:Windsor was an open station at the time. This normally took two minutes but due to the large number of passengers, collection that day took four minutes. The train’s brakes were off and it was just about to move when the collision occurred. It was struck in the rear by the 1.15 p.m. from Paddington to Falmouth ten-coach express train hauled by Dean 4-2-2 locomotive number 3015 “Kennet” travelling at between 25 to 30 mph.The Windsor train was driven forward 15 yards by the impact and part of the platform awning was brought down by telescoping coaches. Two of its eight-wheeled coaches were completely destroyed with two more suffering serious damage. Sadly, five passengers were killed, 35 were seriously injured and 90 more suffered shock and minor injuries. Some of the wreckage caught fire but was quickly extinguished by station staff and the fire brigade.

The weather was perfect and the straight tracks on this stretch gave excellent visibility. Colonel Yorke of the Board of Trade in his first year in the job was appointed to conduct a full inquiry into the cause of the collision. The Falmouth train had passed distant and homesignals at danger at Dolphin Junction (a mile towards London) and Slough East signal box’s distant and home signals at danger as well. Driver Woodman had simply not noticedthem, and neither had the train guard who had access to the vacuum brake. At the time he had been dealing with luggage and mail bags: GWR Rule 170 says “Guards of passenger trains must, after the safe working of the train, give their next attention to the luggage, parcels and other packages entrusted to them.” Colonel Yorke felt that the guard should have been looking out for signals as well. The train with its 7ft 8½ inch driving wheel locomotive had been running at 60 mph when its fireman,Henry Cann, who had earlier been busy firing through Dolphin Junction,saw the Slough East signals. He shouted “Whoa” to his driver, got to the regulator first to shut it and made an emergency brake application. Driver Woodman’s action was toput the locomotive into reverse gear and open the sand valves to improve adhesion. Butthis was not enough to avoid disaster. Station staff could see what was about to occur and shouted to passengers in the Windsor train to jump out and run clear.

The wreckage in Slough station’s down main platform in June 1900. Locomotive “Kennet” is buried in the rear vehicles of the Windsor train. Photo: Great Western Trust.

The physical and mental fitness of the driver was called into question by Colonel Yorke. Bristol Driver Harry Woodman was 59 years old; he had been driving for 29 years with the last 18 years in the top link. He had driven anearly morning train from Bristol to London that day, he had had a meal break and was returning to his home base. It was reported he had “all the appearance of a man ten years older”. On that afternoon he may have been fatigued or drowsy after eating. Headmitted that he has missed three signals and that the Slough East home signal was the first danger signal he noticed. Driver Woodman admitted his mistake but could offer no explanation for it.

Colonel Yorke suggested that drivers over the age of 55 had passed “the prime of life” and he urged annual examinations of all express drivers who had passed that age. In his report, he touched on the vital need for a safety system and noted that a few experimental versions already under trial caused a bell or whistle to be sounded on the footplate as soon as the engine had passed any signal at danger. Some would also shut off steam and make a brake application. “Some are wholly mechanical; some depend on electricity or magnetism; some are partly mechanical and partly electrical. "They would depend on apparatus alongside or between the rails and be connected by rod or wire with the signal. The main need, though, was to warn drivers passing distant signals at caution.Some are wholly mechanical; some depend on electricity or magnetism; some are partly mechanical and partly electrical.”They would depend on apparatus alongside or between the rails and be connected by rod or wire with the signal. The main need, though, was to warn drivers passing distant signals at caution.

So it was that the GWR electrical and signal engineers at their Reading Signal Works started to develop the ATC system for installation at distant signals. By 1905, the prototype was approved and installed on the Henley-on-Thames branch where it started working in January 1906. The main lines between Paddington and Reading were fitted with ATC in 1908, and by 1939 the GWR’s entire main line routes of 2,852 miles had been fitted with the system.

Slough was one of my stations in the 1960s, but mercifully the worst thing I was involved with was flash flooding at Dolphin Junction which completely wiped out the signalling system in the area on a busy Sunday evening. ATC, known to footplate staff as the “little friend in the corner”, was still in use at this time, but it was gradually replaced during the following decade as the BR Automatic Warning System (AWS) took over.

Mike Peart

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