Local rail crashes in the Spring of 1953

Tuesday 7 April 2015

 There were two train crashes in the Forest Gate area - one underground, one overground - within 7 weeks of each other, in the spring on 1953, with no apparent connection between them. This blog is posted on the 62nd anniversary of the first of them.

That, which was the more serious, crash occurred on the Central Line, between Stratford and Leyton on the evening of 8 April. There were signal failures on the track, so train drivers were expected to proceed with caution on a cautious, "stop and proceed", basis.

However, a train heading eastbound towards Epping ploughed into the back of a stationary train waiting in the tunnel between Stratford and Leyton just before 7pm, leaving twelve passengers dead and 46 injured. It was the worst crash on the London Underground in its history, until the Moorgate crash in 1975. 

The driver of the 6.55pm Epping train, Mr Besley, ran into the back of a Hainaught bound train and was hurt but survived. He was later charged with having ignored the 'stop and proceed' rules by a Public Enquiry.

He  passed a signal at Red, and because the tunnel curves round, he did not see the other train which was standing still until it was too late.

12 people were killed in the accident, although the British Pathe News clip shown below states that 8 adults and one child were killed. 

Still from Pathe Newsreel, recording  (inaccurately)
 details of the Stratford accident.  See here,
 to download the clip, from their website
The public enquiry into the crash (see image of cover), published on 24 September 1953, recorded that there were 12 fatalities, and 46 passengers injured. Amongst the injured was Mr Besley, who had to have his leg amputated

This was not the first fatal accident on this stretch of line. On 5 December, 1946, a signal failure on the Central line near Stratford meant that trains running on that section of line had to follow the "stop and proceed" rules, allowing them to continue very slowly past a red light after having waited for a minute. On this occasion, there was one fatality with 3 people injured.

Cover of Stratford collision report
It seems strange that lessons learned from the 1946 were not learned, and remedial action taken that could have avoided the 1953 accident.

Blurred press cutting of 1946 accident

An underground train, about to depart
 into the East-bound tunnel, at Stratford

Forest Gate rail crash, 24 May 1953

Less than two months after the April 1953 Stratford crash, the 1953 Forest Gate rail collision occurred - on 24 May.

Though less serious than the Stratford accident, this more-local-to-us event, provoked some press attention and a Ministry of Transport Enquiry, which we consider, below.

This accident took place a week before the Coronation, and forced its way into local newspapers, despite otherwise blanket coverage of the Coronation preparations and celebrations, nationally and locally. The cutting is reproduced, below; it states:

Stratford Express, 27 May 1953

Stratford Express, 27 May 1953

"Blue flashes from the electric wires lit up the bedrooms of Hampton and Sebert Roads, Forest Gate early on Sunday, when they were awakened by the terrific noise of breaking wood and shattered steel as an electric train ploughed through a goods train and cut it in half. 
Only pausing to throw coats over their night clothes, men and women snatching up blankets and sheets raced to the Southend and Shenfield lines where they cross over near Sebert Road. 

Four wagons were destroyed 

They reached the scene just as the passengers in the electrified train got free and began helping the driver who was trapped in the cabin. Some of the women returned home to make tea for the passengers who were shaken up, and the rescue workers. 
The driver of the electric train, motorman Walter Coley, 52, of 17 Bennetts Castle Lane, Dagenham was the only very seriously injured person and he was taken in a critical condition to Queen Mary's hospital, Stratford. 
By Tuesday, his condition was "satisfactory" and yesterday (Thursday) was stated to be "still satisfactory". 
The electric train was a staff one, out of Liverpool Street, picking up and dropping off workmen between there and Gidea Park. 
It smashed into the goods train at 4 a.m. as that train crossed over from the up electric line to the up main line. Four wooden goods' wagons were completely destroyed, blocking all four lines (two up, two down), with debris. Wheels and chassis were buried in all directions. 

Driver's cab ripped open 

The front of the electric coach was badly ripped open. The first two coaches were derailed and their windows smashed. Although there were several workmen on the train, none were badly injured. Some received bruises and minor cuts as they were thrown about by the jolt. Mr William Garwood of Orchard Street, Chelmsford fell heavily and injured his back. He was also taken to Queen Mary's hospital. 
The guard on the goods train. Mr George Dawson, 25 Culcross Buildings, Kings Cross was also taken to hospital with shock, but was not detained. 

Bus shuttle service 

All electric power was shut off between Stratford and Ilford and a bus shuttle service was put into operation between the two stations.  
The buses called at Forest Gate, Manor Park and Maryland stations. Many were packed with parents and children going to London to see the Coronation decorations. At times, long queues waited outside Ilford station. 
A half-hourly all-stations service from Shenfield started and maintained until the line was back in operation for the Whit-Monday crowds. 
Seaside excursions to Southend and the East Coast were barely affected. By 8.40 a.m. breakdown gangs with oxy-acetylene cutters had cleared one down line and the "seaside specials" were passed slowly through. 
Normal steam service was resumed at 5.30 p.m. when the main line was also cleared."
Some of the rolling stock damage
 incurred by Forest Gate collision
 The Ministry of Transport launched an enquiry five days after the collision, as is normal in the event of rail accidents, on the still nationalised British Railways network. The report (see cover, below) was published on 8 October 1953.

Cover of Forest Gate collision report
The salient points of that report are that:

  • The accident took place at 3.58 on the electrified four-track Liverpool Street - Shenfield line, between Forest Gate and Manor Park stations. 
  • An "Up" freight train was travelling slowly over the junction, when an electric passenger train travelling at about 35 mph passed at danger the colour light signal protecting the crossover and struck the freight train.
  • Two coaches of the passenger train and 13 of the freight train were damaged. 
  • No lives were lost 
  • The motorman of the electric train escaped with superficial head wounds, shock and severe bruising, the guard (of the electric train) sustained a fractured rib and wrist, and the guard of the freight train was severely shaken.
  • In spite of his injuries, the guard of the electric train continued to protect the train and "attended to passengers in a praiseworthy manner."
  • Fire and ambulance services were called, and attended promptly.
  • All four lines were blocked. The "Down" line was opened for traffic at 8.40 am on the same morning, but the opening of the other three lines was delayed until the following morning by the comparatively slow working of the cranes. 
  • The night was fine, clear and still and dawn was just breaking. The rails were dry.
Map, showing detail of Forest Gate
 collision, from the inquiry report
The body of the report examined, in great detail, the circumstances around the collision, including the state of signals, brakes, physical state of the drivers, rolling stock and weather and came to the final assessment that:
I can only conclude that Motorman Coley was not alert and had ceased to pay attention to signals for the few critical moments  ... and that he suddenly came to consciousness a momentary before the collision in time to cut off power and apply the brake. 
Motorman Coley was still shaken from the accident when he gave his evidence, but I formed the impression that he was frank and truthful. The vagueness of his account of what happened immediately before the collision may well have indicated the lack of his alertness at the time. He is 52 years of age and has a good record during his service of 35 years..... I can find no excuse for his lapse.

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