Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cool Runnings

This post focuses on another, of the many, railway accidents to have occurred in and around Penistone (see here and here for previous posts on this topic).

At 7:53am on the 1st of January 1885, eight minutes after the scheduled departure time, a special excursion train to Liverpool and Southport left Sheffield. The train should have reached Penistone at 8:20am but at 8:26am it was travelling at around 20 miles an hour as it passed Barnsley Junction signal box approximately half a mile south of Penistone station (see the 1894 map to the right).

At approximately 8:21am a goods train, of mostly empty wagons, left Penistone goods yard heading south through Penistone station. After passing Huddersfield Junction signal box, with the steam off, the train was travelling at around 12 miles an hour as it headed towards Barnsley Junction.

By 8:27am two people were dead, two fatally injured, and a further 47 had suffered minor injuries.

The full details of what happened between 8:26am and 8:27am on the morning of the 1st of January 1885 come from the official accident report compiled by Major F. A. Marindin, who had also been responsible for the report into the accident at Bullhouse Bridge the previous July. Unlike that accident I haven't been able to find any other contemporary reports or photographs, but the official report runs to ten full pages and is packed with eye witness and expert testimony.

Before we can fully understand the accident report we need to understand the makeup of each train as specific carriages and wagons are referred to throughout the eye witness evidence. Firstly we have the passenger train that was heading from Sheffield to Liverpool and Southport. It was being operated, as was the goods train, by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MS&LR) company and consisted of an engine and 18 carriages (note that I'm using break instead of brake as this is the spelling used in the original report):

  • 0-6-0 tender engine #229 (John Coldwell driver, John Healey fireman)
  • third class break #407 (under-guard Jacob Hanby)
  • third-class #452
  • third-class #417
  • third-class #255
  • composite #96
  • third-class #470
  • third-class #466
  • third-class #109
  • third class break #463 (head guard Joseph Plowright)
  • third class break #499
  • third-class #331
  • composite #98
  • third-class #657
  • third-class #188
  • composite #102
  • third-class #230
  • third-class #400
  • third class break #516 (head guard William Spinks)

The reason for two head guards being present is that each was in charge of a separate portion of the train. William Spinks was in overall charge as well as being head guard for the nine rear coaches which were destined for Southport, while the front nine coaches, which were destined for Liverpool, were under the oversight of Joseph Plowright.

There are slightly less details about the makeup of the goods train and I don't have running numbers for all 26 wagons. The details I have managed to deduce from the report are as follows:

  • 0-6-0 tender engine #464 (John Schofield driver, Edmund Peacock fireman)
  • MS&LR goods wagon #582 (the only loaded wagon, which was picked up at Penistone)
  • five empty Shireoaks waggons (numbers 98, 575, 1, 218, and 219 all picked up at Hadfield)
  • five empty Kiveton Park Colliery wagons (numbers 504, 413, 227, and 543 all picked up at Ardwick)
  • two empty wagons for Whaleswood belonging to A. Lawton (picked up at Ardwick)
  • four empty Shireoaks wagons (picked up at Old Dinting)
  • nine empty Shireoaks wagons (picked up at Ardwick)
  • break-van (guard Robert Higgs)

As you can see both trains were recorded as being pulled by 0-6-0 tender engines (number 229 and 464 respectively) and while I don't know for certain, I'm assuming that they were both of the same design, what would later be referred to as GCR Class 18, as this appears to have been the only class of 0-6-0 tender engines in use by the MS&LR at the time of the accident (if anyone knows differently please do let me know).

From the report it would appear that Robert Higgs, the guard on the goods train, was the only one to fully see the accident unfold. He had this to say in his evidence to the commission:

I was looking out ahead on the left-hand side, and I saw fire flying from a waggon, I think the fifth from the engine. I then saw the waggon oscillating very much. I then noticed it taking to the 6-foot way, and the wagon behind it followed. I then saw a waggon mount up. At that time time the engine of my train and the engine of the passenger would be about passing each other. I then saw the passenger engine strike one of the waggons, rearing it up on end, back towards my train. The waggon then fell back into the passenger train. I had put my break on as soon as I saw the fire flying. At that time I had not noticed the passenger train. It all happened quicker than it would take to tell.
The driver of the passenger train, John Coldwell, gives a similar account in his evidence:

When I first saw the mineral train the engine was over 100 yards away, and at that time I saw nothing wrong with it. When the engine was about 20 yards from me I saw a waggon (which I thought was the fifth waggon) was running on the 6-foot. I cannot say that I saw this waggon actually leave the rails. ... I shut off steam at once and applied the vacuum-break, and my fireman at the same time applied the tender-break. Both breaks were hard on before my engine struck the waggon which was in the 6-foot, and I think that before the collision took place the speed of my train had been reduced to nearly half the speed at which we had been travelling. ... Just before the collision I saw the waggon which had been running in the 6-foot work into the 4-foot of the down line. I struck it with the front of my engine, so that the smoke-box door was driven in. As my engine struck it I bent down on the foot-plate, as I thought the waggon might come over the engine, so that I cannot describe what followed.
Head guard, William Spinks, who was travelling in the rear van of the passenger train, continues the story:

Immediately I felt the vacuum-break go on I applied my hand-break. I looked out of the right side of my van. The engine of the mineral train had then passed me. I saw some of the waggons of the train in collision with my train, and one waggon struck the side of my van. I saw it coming and bobbed my head in just as it knocked the side lamp off. We were pulling up very quickly, and had just about stopped when the side lamp was knocked off my van.
It should be clear, from this evidence, that the accident happened extremely quickly and that there was nothing the drivers of either train could have done to avoid it. The best description of the aftermath is provided by John Thorpe, the assistant locomotive superintendent in charge at Sheffield, who arrived on scene at around 9.45am:

I first saw the mineral engine standing with two waggons attached, on the up line about 40 yards east of the last break-van of the passenger train. I then ... walked the length of the passenger train to see that all the passengers had been got out, and found that they had. I noticed that all the carriages were on their wheels. I walked round the train and back to the rear of it, and found two coals waggons on their sides, and Shireoaks waggon No. 1 reared up. It was then standing nearly opposite to the rear van of the passenger train, and was nearly cut in half. ... next was Shireoaks waggon 218 on its side, with the opening to the off side, lying on the the 6-foot, damaged, and one pair of wheels out; ... next was Shireoaks No. 219, partly on its side, and rather over towards the 6-foot way; next was Kiveton Park No. 504, on its wheels but off the rails, partly in the 4-foot way and partly in the 6-foot way; next was Kiveton Park No. 413, off the rails, but not much damaged; next Kiveton Park No. 227, off the rails slightly, and not damaged to any extent, next was Kiveton Park No. 543, with one pair of wheels off. ... Under Kiveton Park No. 543 there was lying a wheel and short length of axle, which I afterwards found to belong to Shireoaks waggon No. 218; the other wheel and part of axle was lying further to the west on the bridge, in the 6-foot way; opposite to the point of collision. ... The passenger train had no couplings broken, and none of the vehicles had telescoped. The damage had been done by the waggon (probably No. 1) dragging along the side of the passenger train. ... The waggon which took the shock of the collision, and then fell back on the passenger train, was clearly No. 1 Shireoaks, which was the fourth from the engine, and I believe that No. 218 Shireoaks, which was the fifth waggon, and the first to leave the rails, must have got buffer-locked with this waggon, and then pushed it out diagonally across the 6-foot, immediately in front of the passenger engine.
An appendix to the report goes into more details as to the damage to the passenger train, and while most carriages showed some damage (mostly scratched panelling and broken windows) the final three carriages of the front portion of the train (numbers 109, 466, and 470) had suffered so much damage that they would need to be completely rebuilt before they could be used again.

While the investigation had to look into how the accident unfolded, the more important questions they had to answer were what caused the accident and could it have been prevented. The focus of the investigation seems to have quickly settled on the axle of Shireoaks No. 218 which was found in two parts after the accident (as described by John Thorpe above).

Shireoaks No. 218, as it's name suggests, was a private owner waggon belonging to Shireoaks Colliery. The report doesn't describe the wagon in any detail, but I'm assuming it would be similar to the Shireoaks waggon captured in this photo while at Penistone steelworks.

Rather than being owned by the railway companies, private owner wagons were built by or for private owners. Often collieries who would need to ship their coal across the country, but often by local merchants or companies. There were no specific guidelines agreed between the builders of these waggons and the railway companies as to their size or the materials used to build them. The railway companies were responsible though for checking the waggons periodically to ensure they were safe to use on the railway. In this instance it would appear that there had been no cause for concern over Shireoaks No. 218 in the days leading up to the accident, and there was no suggestion that the wagon was unusual in design. A chemical analysis of the broken axle did, however, highlight the probably cause of the accident.

Graphitie carbonTrace
Combined do.0.078
The chemical analysis of the iron from the broken axle (shown in the table to the right) showed a higher than normal percentage of phosphorus. While 0.263% may not seem like very much, when considered in conjunction with the cold weather on the day of the accident (William Genders, the permanent-way inspector, stated that it was a "frosty morning and the ground was hard") it is likely to have been the cause of the axle failing.

The problem with phosphorus in wrought iron is, apparently (I'm not a metallurgist), that concentrations over 0.2% make the iron cold short or, in layman’s terms, brittle at cold temperatures. The iron in the axle, at 0.263% phosphorous, was clearly not suitable for use as a wagon axle and certainly not on a frosty morning. The failure was, therefore, an accident waiting to happen, although no one could have predicted that the axle would fail just as two trains were about to pass each other. Had the passenger train been on time it is likely that while the axle would still have given way, only the waggon itself would have been damaged.

In the conclusion to his report, F. A. Marindin, noted that:

... it nevertheless appears from the evidence that the existing regulations as to the construction of traders' waggons and inspection of waggon stock generally are far from satisfactory. ... it is clear that there is really no absolute hold over the builders, especially as to the class of materials which they make use of; besides which, the constant interchange of waggons from one Company's line to another's makes it almost impossible for any Company to guard against a wagon unfit for running coming upon its line.
His proposed solution to the problem was to suggest that:

... it is highly desirable that all waggons commencing to run upon any line should either be the property of the Railway Company, or should be carefully inspected before being permitted to enter upon the line, that care should be taken that all materials of which they are constructed are of good quality, and that there should be a systematic periodical inspection of the waggon stock of every description, including a rigid examination of all axles after they have run for a specified time. All waggons to bear a label to show that they have been passed for running by some Railway Company, and to be legibly marked with the date when they were last thoroughly overhauled.
All of which sounds eminently sensible to me.

  • Railway accidents. Returns of accidents and casualties as reported to the Board of Trade by the several railway companies in the United Kingdom, during the three months ending 31st March 1885, in pursuance of the Regulation of Railways Act (1871), 34 & 35 Vict, cap. 78; together with reports of the inspecting officers of the Railway Department to the Board of Trade upon certain accidents which were inquired into.


  1. It's a shame that so many recommendations and safety checks are the result of a crash or a fatal accident. This one, given the brittle nature of the axle, seems utterly random and most unfortunate. But perhaps it resulted in a general improvement in standards. The train locos, those MS&L class 18's, are lovely things.

  2. It would be interesting to see the coroners report on the four who died. Misadventure I suspect.
    A grand bit of research.

  3. Another fascinating read Mark.