May 1915: The Gretna Rail Disaster

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This month The Engineer looks back to a very dark day in British history, and the worst rail disaster the UK has ever suffered.

On 22 May 1915, five separate trains were involved in a devastating crash at the Quintinshill signal box near Gretna Green in Dumfriesshire, Scotland.

The collisions and subsequent fire resulted in the loss of at least 226 lives, although a definitive number of victims has never been established.

READ OUR ORIGINAL 1915 COVERAGE OF THE DISASTER HERE

“The Gretna disaster establishes a record in that it is the greatest railway accident since communication by rail was established,” The Engineer wrote in the days following the disaster. “There has never been anything like it as regards numbers of casualties in this country or the United States, the total in this accident alone being as many as those killed in the United Kingdom during the last 10 years.”

The Quintinshill signal box overlooked the Caledonian Main Line linking Glasgow and Carlisle, now part of the West Coast Main Line. As well as northbound and southbound tracks, passing loops for both main lines were also situated at this point. On the morning of the crash, both loops were occupied; the southbound loop with an empty coal wagon, the northbound with a goods train that had left Carlisle at 04.50.

Just before 06.30, a local train travelling north from Carlisle was shunted across to the southbound line in order to allow a London to Glasgow sleeper express to overtake it. Although not an ideal manoeuvre, this wasn’t considered a dangerous thing to do so long as proper procedures were observed. Unfortunately, a personnel change at the signal box - compounded with a litany of rule breaches – led to a southbound troop train being given the all clear to proceed, despite the section of track being occupied by the stationary local train.

The resulting crash officially claimed the lives of 215 soldiers, mainly from the Leith Battalion of the Royal Scots headed for Gallipoli: “Added to the prominence given to this disaster by the number of victims and the manner in which they were killed, there is the pathetic fact of over 200 gallant Scottish Territorials, who were on their way to fight for their King and country, in which work they were willing to lay down their lives.”

With the roll-list of the regiment destroyed in the ensuing fire, the precise number of casualties could never be confirmed with confidence. It’s believed that the majority of deaths occurred not from the initial collision, but when the Glasgow-bound express for which the local train had been shunted came hurtling into the wreckage just a minute later.

“The first collision must have killed many in the troop train,” wrote our predecessors, “but the greater number were, we think, killed by the down (northbound) express – not only as a consequence of its running into the debris, but because those who alighted from the troop train on the ‘off’ side were caught like rats in a trap on the down loop.”

Alongside the dead soldiers were three railway employees and at least nine passengers, including four victims believed to be children but whose bodies were never identified or claimed. The cause of the incident was found to be neglect of the rules by the two signalmen, and both were subsequently charged with manslaughter in England, then convicted of the equivalent charge of culpable homicide after trial in Scotland.

Perhaps the most damning fact to emerge from the entire incident was this: despite all the confusion of the occupied loops, the shunted train, and the shift change (which were by no means extraordinary circumstances), the signalman who gave the green light to the troop train had an unobstructed view just yards away of the stationary local train that occupied the tracks. According to this publication, simple measures could have been taken to avoid this fundamental human error.

“We may say, in conclusion, that there is a remedy against such oversight as happened in this case, and that is to track-circuit the lines. Had the up line been track-circuited, the signal for the troop train could not have been lowered. Such safeguards are, however, only used in places where a signalman’s view is indifferent. In this case the view could not be improved.”