Top critical review
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on 23 October 2013
There is certainly a need for a new book about Quintinshill; the standard reference sources have for many years been `Gretna: Britain's Worst Railway Disaster (1915)' by John Thomas and `Britain's Greatest Rail Disaster: The Quintinshill Blaze of 1915' by JAB Hamilton, both books published as long ago as 1969. In the forty-odd years since then a good deal of new material has come to light. This could well have been that book, but unfortunately it isn't. What is needed is a balanced account, taking account of the new material and using it to demonstrate that, although hard facts are sparse, there is a huge amount of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Caledonian Railway manipulated the subsequent enquiries to direct attention away from the company's shortcomings and that in so doing it was in all probability supported by the government.
The book does indeed come to that conclusion, but its account is far from balanced. The clue may be in the title - advertised for pre-order as `Britain's Worst Rail Disaster: The Shocking Story of Quintinshill 1915', by the time of publication the title had been changed to `The Quintinshill Conspiracy: The Shocking True Story behind Britain's Worst Rail Disaster'. The authors adopt an approach taken by a long line of conspiracy theorists throughout history - cast as much doubt and dirt as possible upon the `official' version and repeat the elements of the conspiracy theory interminably until the general reader accepts them as fact. This is a great pity, because I already accept, and have long believed, that there was indeed serious impropriety - a `conspiracy', if you like - in the handling of the Quintinshill enquiries.
In fairness to the authors I feel that I ought to explain the thinking behind my criticism, and as a result this review will necessarily be lengthy. As will become apparent, I am actually encouraging prospective readers to buy the book, but I hope they will take the time to consider what follows and to bear it in mind when making up their own minds. To set the scene, it's necessary to understand what happened at Quintinshill in the early hours of Saturday 22 May 1915. Quintinshill was an intermediate signal box just under 1½ miles north of Gretna Junction and just over 2¾ miles south of Kirkpatrick Fleming. It controlled loops on both up and down lines, and a trailing crossover between the main running lines.
On the fateful morning George Meakin, the signalman, was aware that two late-running expresses were approaching from the South, preceded by a slow-moving goods train and a local stopping passenger train. He also knew that a troop train was approaching from the North, again preceded by a slow goods train. The down goods arrived first, and was secured in the down loop. A little later, the up goods and the down stopping passenger arrived pretty much simultaneously. The up goods was diverted into the up loop, and at the same time the down local passenger stopped just beyond the crossover and reversed through the crossover on to the up main line. The first down express passed through without incident. During these manoeuvres, another signalman, James Tinsley, arrived and took over responsibility for the box. The up troop train was offered from Kirkpatrick signal box, and was accepted by Tinsley, despite the fact that the down stopping passenger was blocking the up line. There was a head-on collision, and a minute or so later the second down express ran into the wreckage. The troop train was made up of long-outdated and predominantly wooden-framed coaching stock, lit by gas; the gas cylinders were ruptured, the wreckage caught fire and the scene was soon a blazing inferno. The number of fatalities has been the subject of some argument, but I'm happy with the figures used in the book; 2 railwaymen and 214 soldiers from the troop train, 1 railwayman, 5 military personnel and 6 civilians on the Glasgow express, and 2 civilians on the local passenger train, an overall total of 230.
The official enquiries focused almost exclusively upon rule infringements by the two signalmen, and rule infringements there certainly were. First of all, the signalmen had an unauthorised agreement to change shifts at 6.30.am., rather than the official changeover time of 6.00.am. To conceal this, the outgoing signalman would note train movements after 6.00.am. on a loose sheet, so that his colleague could copy these entries into the Train Register in his own handwriting. Secondly, after placing the local passenger train on the up line, Meakin had failed to place a collar on the up home signal lever, to prevent the signal (and the associated distant signal) being used. Thirdly, Meakin had failed to give the `blocking back' signal to Kirkpatrick box to advise that the up line was obstructed.
Here we must pause to consider the exact significance of `rules'. For the employer - in this case the Caledonian Railway - rules served a dual purpose. Most obviously, they were designed to ensure safe operation of the railway, but they also had a second significant function - to ensure, so far as possible, that the employer was insulated from any culpability if things went wrong. This was the case in both private and public sectors for decades - it was the reason why the `work-to-rule' was so strongly favoured as an industrial bargaining tool later in the century. The truth of the matter was that rules proliferated to such an extent that employees could not remember, much less apply them all. Employers needed to have rules in place in order to protect themselves, but did not want those rules to impact upon profits, so in the fullness of time many rules were largely ignored on a day to day basis.
If rules really were important, employers needed to provide sufficient supervision to ensure that those rules were adhered to. It would seem that the Caledonian Railway, at least in the Gretna district, failed to provide anything approaching adequate supervision. Lever collars were routinely ignored, no doubt because the signalmen felt that they knew perfectly well where they had placed their trains - though accident reports make it clear that there were many occasions when signalmen did forget, and people died as a result. The variation of changeover time was put forward as a significant contributory factor to the accident. The signalmen's representative might reasonably have observed that, if that were so, then presumably the travelling public must be exposed to mortal danger three times a day on every line in the land. That didn't happen, but one of the signalmen, James Tinsley, lived only a matter of yards from his immediate superior, the Gretna stationmaster, and it seems incredible that in the tiny railway community at Gretna the late changeover arrangement would not be common knowledge. At Quintinshill, correct use of the lever collar could well have prevented the accident, but this was not pressed by the Caledonian's representatives, presumably because it would draw attention to the inadequacy of supervision.
The third alleged failure, that Meakin did not give the `blocking back' bell code to Kirkpatrick, was the matter pursued most vigorously by the Caledonian representatives. The authors contend that Meakin was prohibited from giving the signal, and this is a major plank of their case for conspiracy. I don't think this argument is viable. `Blocking back' was a relatively recent innovation in 1915; the essential objective being to ensure that if a main running line was obstructed, perhaps by a shunting operation, the next box back up that running line should be made aware of and authorise the blockage. The bell code signal was to be given before the blocking manoeuvre began. Quintinshill was something of an anomaly. The up coal train was still moving into the loop when the local passenger drew to a halt. This had two consequences. The Kirkpatrick block instrument would still show `train on line'. The presence of the crossover allowed the local passenger to begin to reverse to the up line. But the rule book said that the blocking back signal should be given before that manoeuvre began.
The Caledonian prided itself on offering `business as usual' despite the 40% increase in traffic as a result of the war. Its officers were `encouraged', if not formally instructed in print, to give the main expresses the maximum possible priority. Meakin rightly considered that to wait for the goods to fully clear the main line, allowing him to give the `train out of section' to Kirkpatrick box, immediately followed by the `blocking back' code, all of this before allowing the local passenger to reverse, would result in delay to the express. He therefore felt justified in beginning the manoeuvre prematurely. In so doing, he infringed a rule, though in circumstances which the Caledonian would privately applaud. So, at the end of the manoeuvre, the goods and local passenger trains were in their places, and the block instruments still showed train on line, and would do so until the `train out of section signal' was given. There was clearly an omission in the rule book in that it provided no instructions for giving the `blocking back' bellcode in the situation now obtaining at Quintinshill, though the prohibition in the existing rule was by inference rather than explicit. So what was to be done? The whole objective of the `blocking back' procedure was to ensure that the Kirkpatrick signalman was aware that the up line at Quintinshill was occupied. This could be achieved by waiting for the local passenger to leave before giving the `train out of section' code or by giving that code, immediately followed by the `blocking back' code, or by telephoning the signalman at Kirkpatrick or by a combination of these methods. In the event, the `train out of section' bell code was given when the up goods had cleared the up main line, although the line was still occupied by the local passenger. Neither of the two signalmen would admit to being responsible for this. The Kirkpatrick signalman was therefore left with the impression that the line was clear, so he duly offered the troop train.
Summarising the above, I would suggest that the authors are wrong to take the view that George Meakin was `prohibited' from using the `blocking back' code. Taking the strict view, he certainly infringed the `blocking back' rule by starting the manoeuvre before giving and receiving the bell code. We may have some sympathy with his actions in the circumstances in which he found himself, but he was an experienced signalman and must have appreciated that the most important duty was to make sure that Kirkpatrick was aware that the section was occupied. If he specifically intended to do this by delaying the `train out of section' bell signal, he failed to say so at any of the enquiries. And, of course, if he had used the lever collar the accident might still have been avoided.
The second plank of the authors' case is that James Tinsley was seriously ill on the morning of the accident. There simply isn't the evidence to underpin that argument. There's no doubt that he froze at the time of the first collision - it was Meakin who frantically threw back the signals for the express, and Tinsley certainly seems to have experiences some form of post-traumatic stress . A number of witnesses commented upon how frail and ill he looked, and his GP decided that he had suffered an epileptic fit and should not be moved from his home. Evidence of his state of mind before the accident is contradictory. Meakin makes no mention of anything untoward when he briefed Tinsley on the current situation prior to changeover, but others felt that his behaviour was abnormal. In at least one respect it certainly was - after the collision Tinsley consistently admitted to forgetting all about the local passenger train on the up line, even though he had hitched a lift on the locomotive from Gretna to Quintinshill just a few minutes earlier. The only other mention of illness is a reference in the Edinburgh press to Tinsley having suffered `fits' - presumably this derives from the GP's opinion. The authors produce no evidence suggesting that Tinsley had fits in later life, nor do they provide any expert medical opinion to explain how he might have acted under the influence of epilepsy, or indeed of any other condition that might have affected him on 22 May 1915. He may simply have slept badly the previous night. In short, without much more specific evidence to the contrary, William of Ockham's celebrated razor dictates that the simplest solution is to be preferred, and that solution suggests that he was simply `out of sorts' on the fateful Saturday morning; nothing that followed was inconsistent with post-traumatic shock.
The third main plank of the authors' case is the involvement of the Caledonian Railway in what amounted to a damage limitation exercise. In general, I agree with their conclusions in this regard, so there is no need to elaborate here. It is, however, worth emphasising that class divisions were still very sharp in 1915; the erosive effect of war didn't come into play until hostilities were over. Many middle-class professionals were happy to place blame firmly upon those at the metaphorical coalface, and thus were very keen to espouse explanations which tended to justify that bias.
The Government, too, seems to have had a finger in the pie; the authors draw attention to an apparent news blackout immediately after the adjournment of the initial enquiry. Perhaps it was thought bad for public morale. More significantly, it no doubt helped to deflect attention from the Government's failure to ensure, through the Railway Executive, that the railway companies consistently treated military requirements as the top priority, and from the fact that the Railway Executive was allowing the use of antiquated and dangerous stock to be used for moving troops. After all, whatever the immediate cause of the collisions may have been, the death toll was hugely increased by the telescoping and subsequent combustion of the troop train. It's difficult to see why this issue was not addressed by the Board of Trade enquiry, unless - again - pressure was brought to bear.
In summary - at last! I hear you say - I think that the authors are entirely justified in their contention that the Caledonian Railway and, in all probability, the Government of the day did seek to manipulate the various enquiries to deflect any suggestion of shortcomings on their respective parts. Why else would the Caledonian - a company not noted for philanthropy - have given jobs to both men after their release from prison? The company also seems to have generously supported their dependants. Taking account of all the available evidence, some sort of deal seems to have been reached with the signalmen, under which they jointly accepted responsibility in return for an assurance of support for themselves and their families. If only the authors had been content with that! The other issues they pursue weaken rather than strengthen the overall case. There are too many purely speculative observations - for example, Meakin had a car in later life, so where did the money come from? A possible source is mentioned (his wife was a publican but their pub was compulsorily acquired by the Carlisle and District State Management Scheme) but no figures are provided for the value of a typical car or for the amount of compensation received for the pub - so why raise the matter at all? In strictly factual terms, it is undeniable that errors by the signalmen were the immediate cause of the accident. The uncharacteristically narrow focus of the Board of Trade enquiry and the various other legal processes was an entirely different matter. By failing to adequately distinguish immediate factual responsibility from moral and lrgal responsibility the authors have simply muddied the waters.
Nevertheless, they have done well to study all of the available press coverage, some of which gives much greater detail of the enquiry proceedings than the official reports, but this good work is diluted by the `conspiracy theory' style of presentation. They are occasionally selective in presenting the established facts. As an example, they emphasise the fact that the lever frame and instrument shelf was in the middle of the signal box, requiring the signalmen to work with their backs to the railway and thus implying some justification for Tinsley's claim that he had simply forgotten about the local passenger train. On the other hand, they fail to provide a diagram of the layout of the box; had they done so, it would have revealed that the train register desk, where Tinsley had spent some minutes transcribing Meakin's notes, was against the front window, so that the stationary local passenger would be clearly visible to him, a few yards to his right.
There are also indications that the authors' research may have been rather superficial. Two examples are given below; there are plenty of others.
Chapter 3, Note 2: `Carlisle was not formally granted city status until 1974, but has been colloquially, and widely, known as the Border City for much longer and is thus referred to as a city throughout the book.' It was known as the Border City because it WAS a city, having been chartered as such by Henry II in 1158. So only 816 years out!
Chapter 7, page 85: `He had chosen the city's Saul & Lightfoot legal practice, of which G. A. (known as Lionel) Lightfoot was a partner.' Hmm. This seems to be a case of conflating two distinct individuals. Lionel Lightfoot was indeed a solicitor, very well-known and well-liked in Carlisle society - and indeed among the population at large - from the 1920s to the 1960s. He was a slightly larger than life character and a dedicated thespian. His name, however, was George Lionel Spencer Lightfoot; he was born on 1 November 1897 and so was only 17 at the time of the Quintinshill Disaster. G. A. Lightfoot was of an earlier generation, and I can find no evidence to suggest that he was ever known as Lionel.
More care and better writing could have made this a great book. Instead, it reads like a typical conspiracy theory. Nevertheless, everyone with an interest in railway history should buy a copy. Quintinshill was, after all, Britain's worst-ever railway disaster, and if you can ignore the speculation this book presents a compelling case in support of the view that the evidence as presented was significantly laundered in the interests of the Caledonian Railway and the Government. With the centenary only a couple of years away, more detail is likely to emerge, hopefully to be followed by a more balanced and probing analysis of the evidence.