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The Salisbury Rail Disaster

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In the early hours of 1 July, 1906, 30 people were killed when an Atlantic Liner Special train overturned on the approach to Salisbury station in Wiltshire. A sharp curve and a disregard for speed restrictions were possible causes, but were there other reasons behind the tragedy?

Atlantic Liner Trains

At the turn of the last century, two railways linked Plymouth to London, the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the London and South Western Railway (LSWR). The GWR had the longer route, via Bristol and the steep gradients of South Devon between Exeter and Plymouth. The LSWR route, although more direct, contained many sharp climbs between Salisbury and Exeter, as well as the steep climb round the north of Dartmoor. An added complication was that the route of the LSWR crossed that of the GWR at Exeter and Plymouth. Both crossings were controlled by GWR signalmen who were more than a little preferential.

Normally there was a little rivalry when running the normal trains but the Atlantic Liner specials generated international publicity for the railways. The load was spread between the two railways - the GWR took the mail and the LSWR took the passengers. Speed was of the essence. The trains were often arranged at the drop of a hat, although they were supposed to run weekly. They would often be arranged as soon as information arrived about an approaching Ocean Liner. It was on one of these runs that GWR 4-4-0 City of Truro reached a speed of 100mph and this fuelled the competitive nature between companies. When the arrival of a liner from New York was confirmed the LSWR arranged a train to be ready at the disembarking point late on 30 June, 1906.

The train consisted of five coaches. These were a passenger brake van, three first class saloons and a kitchen brake van. Because the train was running at night it would easily reach London in the early hours, leaving the passengers to find accommodation in the small hours of the morning. The point was that the train should be fastest. The boat trains ran as soon as possible after the liners' arrival. There was no need for intermediate stops between Plymouth and London as all of the passengers were going to London. However, an engine change was booked at Templecombe. On the night the train made good time between Devonport and Templecombe arriving one minute ahead of schedule at 1:21 on 1 July. The engine, a class T9 4-4-0 No 288 was replaced by L21 4-4-0 No 421 driven by WJ Robins. Robins was regularly employed on expresses to London but had never driven a boat train or worked non-stop through Salisbury.

Running on Time

After leaving Templecombe, Robins lost four minutes over the first 20 miles. Robins knew that he had to arrive on time but he knew equally he should not be early. After complaints about excessive speeds the feared engine chief Dugald Drummond had issued instructions that trains should not run too fast to gain time. After Dinton Robins increased speed and the average speed over the six miles to Wilton increased to 70mph.

On the approach to Salisbury from the west there was a left hand curve into the station and another at the east end of the station; both had a speed limit of 30mph. The east curve was a dangerous one as the cant1 was interrupted in the middle by a set of points that were level. At the normal speed this posed no threat but a train would tilt with the cant, level out and then tilt again causing a slight roll from side to side. As the boat special approached with its whistle blowing, the signalman realised that it was going far too fast. The train swept through the station and entered the east curve. As the train hit the level the engine overturned into a milk train on the down line2 and slid into a goods engine standing in the bay platform line on the bridge over Fisherton Street. The tender of the boat train jack-knifed and four of the five coaches were totally wrecked. The driver and fireman of the boat train were killed instantly along with 28 passengers, seven of the survivors were severely injured.

What Went Wrong?

How had this happened? How had an experienced driver like Robins crashed a train on a line he knew well? The fact is that he approached Salisbury at over 60mph. The whistle was sounded for several hundred yards as the train approached the station so the engine crew had not fallen asleep. Had some unknown catastrophe on the footplate distracted the engine crew? Nothing was found afterwards to suggest that there was anything wrong before the accident although the regulator was in the closed position3, the reverser was in forward gear and the brakes had not been applied. It looked as though Robins had meant to coast through the station. He could have misjudged the speed of the train in the dark or he could have been quite confident that he could make the curves at high speeds as many other boat trains had taken the curves of Salisbury station at more than 30mph as part of the bravado of boat train drivers.

One key contributor to the accident was the engine. LSWR 4-4-0s had a low centre of gravity but the L12s were of a more modern design with larger boilers and higher centres of gravity and were more prone to overturn on corners at high speeds. The Salisbury rail disaster remains a mystery because both the driver and fireman of the boat train died in the accident so no one could question them on their conduct while driving the train. Major Pringle, the inspecting officer, could find no other cause for the accident than reckless driving. The damage to the coaches and the train's surroundings confirmed that it had been travelling at great speed. Despite the violence of the crash, No 421 was not was not as badly damaged as it seemed; it had lost its chimney and safety valve cover and among other dents the front buffer beam was bent. No 421 was righted and towed to Nine Elms Engine Depot in London for repair.

Rivalry to Blame?

At the time, the GWR was about to open its new Berkshire-Hampshire route via Reading, Westbury and Taunton, slicing 20 miles off the GWR route from Plymouth. Had the crew of No 421 wanted to show the GWR that the LSWR would not go down without a fight? A record-breaking run the day before the opening of the new route would steal some of GWR's thunder. No one will ever truly know, but if that was the cause it cost 30 people their lives.

1A cant is when the curve is tilted at an angle to aid cornering with high speed trains.2The down line is the line going away from London.3This is the railway equivalent of taking your foot off the accelerator.

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