Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rail disaster at Quintinshill

In the spring of 1915, the Great War was underway. Troops were being mobilized and shipped to various battle sites. Back in those days, the railways were used to transport troops. On May 22 of 1915, two such trains were transporting soldiers of the Royal Scots 7th Battalion to a troop transport ship at Liverpool, bound for the war in Gallipoli. The second train didn't make it.

Quintinshill Junction is/was a railway switch point just outside Gretna, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. There were two main through-tracks and, above and below the main lines, two sidings (passing loops.) Shortly after 6 a.m. that morning, due to railway workers negligence, there was a terrible train crash which involved five trains. 226 people lost their lives, the worst UK train disaster in history, in terms of loss of life.

Due to wartime censorship, the event was not widely reported at the time. Click here to view a diagram of the railway switch at that point.

On the top (up) running line was parked a local train waiting for an express train to pass on the other (down) running line. This was done because both sidings were already occupied: On the top siding was parked an empty coal train returning to Wales, and on the bottom siding was a waiting goods train.

It was during a shift change where replacement workers were arriving. The switch worker responsible "forgot" that he had just shunted the local train onto the upper main line and left it sitting there in the path of oncoming traffic. At approximately 6:47 a.m. the troop train arrived as expected and collided with the stationary local. Within seconds of the collision, the express arrived on the down main line from the other direction and collided with the wreckage which had blocked that track too.

The troop train carriages were obsolete wood ones. The lighting was gas. The oil-gas reservoirs were slung under the passenger cars and had just been charged (filled.) The wreckage began to burn with the troops still inside. Red hot coals from the crashed locomotive fire boxes ignited. The two trains on the sidings became involved in the fire and wreckage.

Of the 500 members of the 7th Battalion, only 60 were able to answer roll call the next day. 214 soldiers dead, 246 injured. Certainly the fires caused more deaths than the crash. Due to the remoteness of the crash site, it took four hours for the fire engines to arrive, traveling the last mile over an open field. The bodies of three children were found burned in the wreckage, presumed stowaways on the train. The rest of the dead were engineers and other train employees.

See an animation of the crash on Wikipedia.

6 comments:

  1. The 7th were a Leith Territorial Battalion. The two signal box workers had been working a scam. One set the signals and left 30 mins early, the other arrived thirty mins later than he should knowing all was well. They forgot about the troop trains, which always ran at night. They got long prison sentences!
    The 7th remnants did end up in Gallipoli.

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  2. This is the first time I've heard of this at all. It makes me wonder what there is still to be revealed about WWII.

    I can't imagine it would be possible now to cover up the type of incident you're telling us about because of instant communications by cell phone, but it does make you wonder how they managed to keep so many people quiet.

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  3. @Adullamite - Yes, I read about the derelict workers. The whole episode was a sad affair.

    @A. - I don't know how it was kept under wraps, pretty much, for so long. Of course the government didn't want the Germans to know so many soldiers had been killed, because they might have found a way to use it for propaganda. But it is odd that a very large number of people still aren't familiar with this terrible disaster. Google for pictures - the twisted wreckage and carnage are amazing.

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  4. The story has been known for a long time, however in war many such episodes are not revealed until long after. Ships sunk with thousands on board at Dunkirk are examples of this.

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  5. The signalmen didn't "set the signals and leave". The two men worked a scam where one stayed for about an extra half hour past the end of his shift to allow the other to travel by train to the signalbox. The first signalman noted train movements on a piece of paper, and the second one copied them into the log when he arrived.

    It was WWI, not WWII. And news of accidents or tragedies involving significant loss of life in WWI and WWII was always suppressed to avoid harming morale.

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