Some of you might be a bit worried about the title of this piece. Did you miss something in the news? The answer is no as the accident in question happened over a 100 years ago, the 15th August 1896 to be precise. It involved the 8pm express from London Euston to Scotland which derailed as it passed through Preston Station in the middle of the night. Fortunately it was lightly loaded and only one of it’s 16 passengers was killed. However the circumstances of the crash would, some historians claim have an effect on rail travel that would last almost 40 years.
As most of you will know the West Coast Main Line through Preston was operated at the time by the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) the self styled “premier line” of British railways and in purely financial terms the largest railway company in the country. The route was permanently in competition with the East Coast Main Line for the lucrative traffic from London to Scotland and in 1888 there had been the first of what history would call the “race to the north”. Over a period of weeks the two routes had slashed journey times in the race to get trains to Aberdeen first. Ultimately the East Coast was declared the victor. Seven years later in 1895 the races would resume with again locomotives and their crews pressed to the limits. This time there was a reverse of fortune and it was the LNWR and it’s Scottish counterpart the Caledonian Railway which prevailed. One of the stars of that event the locomotive “Hardwicke” survives in the National Railway Museum.
The effect of the 1895 race was that overall train speeds of some express services had increased markedly to bring down journey times. The express train subject of this article was expected to maintain an average speed of 60mph for 105 miles of it’s journey. This obviously required enormous skill from the loco drivers not just because of the rapid change from previous practice but particularly at night bearing in mind how poor lighting of landmarks was compared to today (including of signals) and of course engines had no speedometers or any kind of on board warning system. Most importantly it required good judgement on sections of line with tight bends and points.
On the night in question the 8pm “Down Highland Express” was running with two locomotives called “Shark” and “Vulcan” well capable of pulling the 200 ton load. The railway companies had in fact that June already negotiated a minimum journey time for the Anglo-Scottish trains to reduce the possibility of excessive speeds. However that only applied to daytime services not those which ran overnight. As it happened neither driver on the 15th August 1896 had driven this particular express before and in addition neither had ever driven a train non-stop through Preston Station. At Preston due to a sharp curve at the north end of the station by the goods yard there was a speed restriction of just 10mph which applied to all trains. The accident investigator Colonel York determined that in fact on the night in question the “Highland Express” was travelling around 40-45mph through the station with the result that when it hit the speed restricted curve instead of going round it the train effectively carried on in a straight line ploughing through the goods yard coming to rest just short of a bridge wall. Perhaps surprisingly both locomotives stayed upright but the coaches were scattered across the mangled tracks and one of their occupants was fatally injured. For anyone interested there are photographs of the results on the internet.
Colonel York conducted his investigation for the Board of Trade and concluded as follows:
“The cause of the accident is clear. A reverse curve without any intervening tangent, without a check rail, with superelevation suitable only for very low speeds, and badly distributed and with a radius at one point of only seven chains; a train drawn by two engines each having a rigid wheelbase of 15ft 8in; and lastly a speed of 40mph or more form a combination of circumstances which were almost certain to lead to disaster”.
The crash immediately attracted the attention of politicians and Mr Herbert Roberts the MP for Denbighshire West raised it in Parliament.
“ I beg to ask the President of the Board of Trade whether his attention has been called to the serious accident which occurred to what is known as the London and North Western “Racer” at Preston, at midnight on Sunday night on it’s journey from Euston to Aberdeen, a train which held the record this year for travelling 105 miles in 105 minutes; and whether , in view of the great risks to the travelling public connected with this practice of rival railway companies racing to Scotland, the Board of Trade will make strong representations to the said companies on the subject?”
The President of the Board of Trade was the minister responsible for safety on the railways at the time and replied “I have received a return of the accident referred to and have directed an inspecting officer of the Department to hold an inquiry. Until I receive the report of his inquiry I am unable to say what representation if any I shall make to the railway company”.
That didn’t satisfy another MP Sir Wilfred Lawson who then asked “Whether there had been a single accident due to the high speed of those trains”. The President replied “I cannot answer that question without notice, but I am not prepared to admit that high speed means danger”
There was to be no ban by the Government on high speed trains (hardly a surprise) However the result of the crash was arguably that train speeds for the rival Anglo-Scottish expresses would remain lower for many years than experience had shown was possible and there would be no repeat until the late 1930’s of anything remotely like the races of 1888/95. Journey times of 8 hours or more from London to Scotland would now remain the norm until 1932. Although the results of the Preston crash in terms of lives lost had not been that great no doubt some in management and, based on the above in government feared what the consequences could have been at Preston had it involved a heavily loaded train. 10 years later the nation would find out when over a period of months overnight express trains derailed at speed at Salisbury, Grantham and Shrewsbury with a combined loss of more than 60 lives, none of those accidents ever being fully explained. A decade on and the intervention of the First World War meant the railways would anyway suffer from a period of neglect and shortage of investment. Nevertheless despite newer much bigger and more powerful locomotives being built from the 1890’s onwards it was not until the 1930’s in the face of competition from cars, coaches and even planes combined with an international financial crisis that the successors to the LNWR and their rivals would engage again in pushing high speed running to the limits both to gain publicity for their crack services and rake in badly needed revenue.