At around 6.50am on the morning of 22 May, 1915, the worst train crash ever to occur in the UK took place at Quintinshill in Scotland, a short way north of Carlisle on the Caledonian Railway. The accident involved a special troop train carrying a Royal Scots battalion, two goods trains, a local train and an express from London Euston via Carlisle, with the death toll having reached 227 after two collisions and a fire left little but burning wreckage on the line. Despite the horrific nature of the accident - or, more pertinently, due to it - the crash was kept a secret until after the end of World War I.
George Meakin had begun the night shift in the Quintinshill signal-box at 8pm the evening before and was just starting the process of signalling through the morning traffic when James Tinsley arrived to take over. Though the official time of the changeover at signal-boxes was 6am, Meakin and Tinsley had been working consecutive shifts for the last couple of years and had made an agreement whereby the man taking over would arrive for 6.30am, so as to get an extra half hour in bed in the morning. As they didn't have permission to do this, the signaller working the night shift would jot down the signalling notes between 6 and 6.30 on a scrap of paper, with the other transferring them into the record book once they had begun their duty.
So it was that George Meakin was responsible for directing the traffic up until 6.30 that morning, a task that involved the use of all four lines passing the box. These consisted of the main up and down lines, along with a refuge loop next to each of the two lines to allow trains to be shunted out of the way while others passed, and a set of crossovers to allow trains to be moved between lines. Generally speaking, up lines head in towards a major city or other point of reference, while down lines head in the opposite direction. At Quintinshill, the down line heads from Carlisle towards the north, while the up line heads southwards, with the down line being west of the up line so that trains would normally 'drive on the left'.
That morning, both the express trains from the south were running late, and so it became necessary for the 6.17 local train from Carlisle to leave ahead of the expresses and then be shunted off the down main line so that the express trains could pass. As the 4.50 goods train from Carlisle was already sitting on the down loop line, Meakin moved the local train onto the up main line. Though it would seem a sackable offence to move a train onto a line for services running in the opposite direction, at that time the way onto that stretch of up line was blocked by an empty coal wagon service headed for Carlisle which was waiting at a red signal. The driver of the local train would then have watched as the empty wagon service was moved towards his train along the same tracks, only to be shunted onto the up loop line by Meakin. The reason for doing this was so that the up main line would be clear by the time that a special troop train carrying soldiers from Larbert arrived from the north, assuming of course that the local train had been relocated by then. However, Meakin reset the signals on the up main line once the empty wagon service was out of the way, leaving the local down train on an up line without any real protection.
Not only did Meakin remove the block from the up main line, but he also omitted to place a lever collar on the signal lever for the up main line to indicate the presence of the local train there as Hutchinson, the fireman from the local train, had left the signal-box without checking that Meakin had done so. Tinsley arrived at the signal-box just after 6.30, having caught the 6.17 local train and hopped off as it drew onto the up main line. While Meakin was explaining the position of the empty wagon service on the up loop line, he took a phone call notifying him that the troop train had just passed Lockerbie to the north and was heading along the up line towards Quintinshill.
Situation Before the Crash
- Down loop: Occupied by 4.50 goods train from Carlisle.
- Down main: Empty to allow the two express services from Carlisle to pass.
- Up main: Occupied by 6.17 local train from Carlisle.
- Up loop: Occupied by the empty wagon service from the north.
It's In Your Reach - Concentrate
After their discussion had ended, Meakin sat down to read a newspaper Tinsley had brought while Tinsley began to copy out the signalling records from between 6 and 6.30 that morning. Due to the rules in place at the time, a member of staff from trains being shunted between lines had to report to the signal-box to remind the signaller of the position of their train and then remain there until certain that their train was sufficiently protected while sitting on that section of line1. There were therefore several different men calling at the signal-box at various times that morning, some of whom stayed longer than was necessary, with Meakin reading out 'interesting war news' from the paper to those present in the box.
Amid all the distractions, James Tinsley somehow forgot about the presence of the 6.17 local train on the up main line, which had earlier carried him into the vicinity of the signal-box and was now sitting a short way to the south, being stranded within view of the box until the express trains had passed through. The first of these headed through Quintinshill without event at around 6.33, with the handling of this train being the first thing Tinsley had to deal with upon taking over control of the signal-box. Next he was notified that the troop train from Larbert was just about to arrive from the north and, upon finding that the up main line section south of Quintinshill was also clear, he signalled the troop train onto his section of track. The troop train thus had a straight run - right into the front of the 6.17 from Carlisle.
'Whatever have you done, Jimmy?'
It was only when the troop train rushed downhill past the signal-box at 70mph that Meakin, who was still in the box at that time, realised what had happened. However, Tinsley had put through the second express train just beforehand, and so the two signallers could do nothing to stop what was about to happen. Having just passed along a one in 200 downhill gradient, the troop train had no hope of stopping and ran at speed into the front of the local train, driving it backwards along the line and causing the engine of the local train to derail while the carriages of the local train broke loose and ran downhill towards the south. Meanwhile, the engine of the troop train turned over sideways and came into contact with the empty wagon service while the front carriages of the troop train shot over the top of the engine. Although the troop train was mostly made up of old Great Central railway coaches, the rear carriages had been supplied by the Caledonian Railway, and these became separated from the front of the train by the collision. The rear carriages of the troop train began to run back up the hill and were subsequently stopped by the brakesman of the empty wagon train, thus saving them from becoming part of the wreckage.
The wreckage from the first collision covered both the up and down lines, with the troop train having been crushed down to one third of its original length. As the 600 tonne express train arrived it ran through the wreckage to hit the rear part of troop train's engine, which it proceeded to push through the wagons of the 4.50 goods service so that it came to rest covering the down main and down loop lines. Meanwhile, the front three carriages of the express train were also crushed into a small space. Some of those in the carriages of the troop train that were not crushed became trapped under the wreckage, forcing some soldiers to self-amputate to escape, but it was not clear whether the officers on board the train attempted to shorten the pain of those fatally wounded - most shots heard that day were due to magazines stored on the train exploding in the heat.
During the two collisions, the ashpan of the troop train had been forced open, spreading hot coals through the wreckage of wooden carriages. At the same time, some of the gas cylinders used to power the lighting on the Great Central railway coaches of the troop train were ruptured by the force of the impact, and the whole wreckage was covered in coal pouring out from the derailed wagons of the 4.50 goods train. As if matters weren't bad enough already, the ashpan of the leading engine of the express was also ruptured, sending hot coals into the wagons of the 4.50 goods train and starting a separate fire. As the temperature rose, other gas cylinders from the troop train ruptured due to the pressure. The fire made rescue efforts difficult, and a lack of water meant that the fire spread to the entire wreckage, with only the two sets of carriages that had earlier become detached from the trains being saved from the inferno. All that could be hoped was that those still in the trains had become unconscious by the time the fire took hold - this was quite likely due to the way in which the wreckage was crushed during the collisions.
A total of 227 people were killed in the accident, 215 of which were travelling on the troop train. The number of soldiers killed was based on the bodies recovered from the wreckage, as the battalion's roll was destroyed in the fire. Around only fifty of the battalion onboard the troop train turned up to a roll call the following day, with the rest being dead, injured or assisting others. A minority of the uninjured soldiers took advantage of the crash to escape their duties, probably escaping death in Gallipoli as a result. However, it is recorded that 42% of the casualties suffered by the battalion during World War I were due to the crash. Seven passengers from express train died, while two from the local train and three railway staff involved in the accident were also killed. Most of the dead were later buried at Rosebank Cemetery in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, 246 others were injured and much of the rolling stock involved was completely destroyed along with much of the railway track. The fire brigade arrived at 10am but could not control the blaze until 23 hours later, and a special hospital train arrived at Quintinshill at 8.10am.
The accident report was released a month later and recommended the removal of gas lighting and flammable material from carriages along with the provision of fire fighting equipment in all carriages, with both recommendations having already appeared in earlier accident reports. The Quintinshill report blamed Meakin and Tinsley for the entire accident - Meakin for not keeping the up main line blocked while the 6.17 local train was on it and for not placing a lever collar over the appropriate lever to indicate that the line was occupied, Tinsley for allowing the troop train to run into the local train, and both for the general lack of discipline and rule-breaking that led Tinsley to be distracted from his proper duties.
Both men were tried for involuntary manslaughter and were convicted by a unanimous vote - after all, one of them had shunted a down train onto an up line and failed to protect it, while the other had sent a train along a line occupied by the service which he had just caught to work. However, the verdict proved controversial at the time due to the fact that neither man had previously caused any sort of harm, and that both would live with the accident on their consciences for the rest of their lives. They were later released early.
Though Meakin and Tinsley were discovered to have broken various rules on a regular basis, they were not caught sooner due to the fact that the circumstances on the morning of 22 May, 1915 were different from any other day previously. There were actually five factors which contributed to the accident, as a change to any of them would have prevented it from taking place, despite the signallers' lack of discipline:
- The lateness of the express trains.
- The presence of the special troop train, which made worse an already complicated morning.
- The late changeover made by Meakin and Tinsley to afford the latter more sleep.
- Meakin failing to place a lever collar on the up main line lever to protect the local train.
- Fireman Hutchinson failing to ask Meakin to protect the local train before leaving the signal-box.
A memorial cairn was constructed overlooking the site of the accident on the 21 May, 1995 and was subsequently unveiled at Gretna Green by the last living survivor of the accident.