ConsultantAdrian SearleJournalist and author

Britain's deadliest train crash

During World War One, hundreds of soldiers were killed in battle in a single day but no one expected large casualties on the way to the front. Yet that is what happened to soldiers of The Royal Scots in Britain's deadliest rail disaster.

Nearly 500 men boarded the train eager to be part of the fight in Gallipoli but only half survived. Two signalmen were blamed for the accident but were they the only ones responsible? What really happened on that fateful Saturday morning?

4 August 1914

War on rails

Getty Images

Troop train

The railways were essential in mobilising the British Army during World War One.

Once the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, the railway became essential to the war effort. But the network was soon creaking under the strain.

There was twice as much track as there is today, with routes and stations under the control of different companies. The government’s Railway Executive Committee assumed a co–ordinating role. There was also a shortage of trains to transport the troops. Old carriages, often in a state of disrepair, were brought back into service to help plug the gaps.

National Railway Museum: Railways during World War One

The First World War had begun – imposed on the statesmen of Europe by railway timetables. It was an unexpected climax to the railway age.

AJP Taylor, The First World War

3.45 am, 22 May 1915

Gallipoli bound

Getty Images

gallipoli artillery being fired

Gallipoli was one of the toughest places to fight during World War One. It is estimated that 213,000 members of the British Empire forces were killed.

As the war continued a major campaign began in Gallipoli in Turkey. Troops were mobilised from across the British Empire to join the fight.

On the morning of 22 May 500 men from the 1/7th Battalion of the Royal Scots boarded a train bound for Liverpool, where a boat was waiting to take them to Gallipoli. But the carriages they travelled in were old and completely unsuited to high speed use. Built from wood and lit by a gas system using fuel stored in cylinders beneath the floor, there was a high risk of fire in the event of a crash. As the train steamed south towards England, the men did not know the danger that lay ahead.

The Royal Scots: Campaign at Gallipoli

6.00am, 22 May 1915

On the track ahead

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Local historian Gordon Routledge explains the events leading up to the crash. Clip from World War One at Home (BBC Radio Scotland).

As the train approached the Scottish border, signalman George Meakin was still on duty at Quintinshill, waiting to be relieved by James Tinsley.

Meakin and Tinsley were responsible for controlling four lines at the Quintinshill signal box. There were two main tracks running north and south, as well as passing loops on either side. But on this morning both loops were already occupied by freight trains. Meanwhile, a local train and two express trains were heading north towards Quintinshill as well as the train with the soldiers heading south.

BBC Radio Scotland: The Quintinshill Rail Disaster

6.30am, 22 May 1915

Late on shift

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Had Meakin's plan been followed, the disaster would not have happened. (Clip from Quintinshill: Britain's Deadliest Rail Disaster, BBC Two).

But that morning, like many others, Tinsley was running late. He arrived for work on the northbound local train that stopped to allow him to get off.

Meakin's plan, which he passed to Tinsley, was to move this local train to and from the southbound line to make way for the various incoming trains. This would allow all trains to pass safely. Watch this clip with Neil Oliver as he describes what happened.

Wikipedia: Animation of the Quintinshill crash

6.38am, 22 May 1915

Fatal mistakes

Getty Images

signalmen pulling signal

If Meakin had followed the regulations and used the safety collar then the signal lever could not have been pulled down.

However things did not go to plan and serious errors were made that contributed to the disaster.

Meakin firstly failed to implement two safety measures. He did not notify the signal box to the north that no trains should be allowed onto the section towards Quintinshill. Secondly, he did not place a locking safety collar on the signal lever. Meanwhile Tinsley had forgotten about the local train on the southbound track. Without a safety collar on the lever to stop him, he was able to signal the troop train through.

I am aware of the regulations for the use of lever collars, but... I did not use lever collars for the main line…

James Tinsley, Official Accident Investigation

6.49am, 22 May 1915

Crash

Adrian Searle collection

Quintinshill Railway Disaster

At 6.49am the troop train collided with the stationary local train.

The troop train steamed into Quintinshill at high speed and smashed into the stationary local train.

The huge force of the crash derailed the troop train and spread wreckage across both the main lines. It was a rude awakening for the soldiers: "Most of us, having been up all night, had been sleeping when the trains collided. The first thing I remember was rifles falling on me from the rack. And suddenly all went dark." While some men were killed instantly, many more were trapped in the wreckage.

BBC Two: Recreating the crash for television

6.50am, 22 May 1915

Inferno

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Were some of the soldiers shot by their own officers to avoid being burnt alive? Clip from Quintinshill: Britain's Deadliest Rail Disaster (BBC Two).

And the situation became even worse when Tinsley accepted the second northbound express. It powered straight into the wreckage at 80mph.

The wooden carriages had splintered like matchwood in the initial crash. But now the gas tanks underneath the carriage floors were ignited by the hot coals from the engines. This caused a huge fire that spread to the trains in the loops. Many soldiers were trapped in the train with fire raging around them. There were reports from the time that some soldiers were shot to spare them any further agony as rescue services struggled to reach the rural location.

NMS Soundcloud: Eyewitness accounts from Quintinshill

The length occupied by the engine and coaches of the troop train after the collision was only about 67 yards... its length when running was 213 yards.

Edward Druitt, 1915

23 May 1915

A lost battalion

Adrian Searle collection

Quintinshill Rail Disaster

1/7th Battalion served in a variety of other theatres during World War One, including Egypt, Palestine and the Western Front.

In total 230 people died and another 246 were injured. On the troop train, only 58 men and seven officers escaped Quintinshill alive and uninjured.

The survivors were initially sent to Liverpool in order to ship out for front line service in Gallipoli. But they were declared medically unfit and sent back to Edinburgh. Newspaper reports describe how they looked so destitute when they arrived that they were mistaken for enemy prisoners of war and taunted by local children.

The Royal Scots

25 May 1915

Official investigation

Getty Images

train manufacture

It would not be until after the Second World War that all steel carriages would become commonplace.

A short public inquiry was held into the crash, with all responsibility put onto the shoulders of Meakin and Tinsley.

Lieutenant Colonel Edward Druitt of the Railway Inspectorate said they were to blame as they lowered the signals and allowed the trains through. But Druitt also highlighted a number of recommendations for improving passenger safety that were beyond the control of signalmen. These included making coaches out of steel, instead of wood, as far as possible and abolishing gas lighting in existing stock.

The Railways Archive: Official Accident Report

24 September 1915

Trial

Getty Images

injured quintinshill eyewitness

Injured eyewitnesses were among those who gave evidence.

Tinsley and Meakin were also put on trial, charged with culpable homicide. Both were found guilty.

Tinsley was sentenced to three years and Meakin 18 months. But they each served just over a year in prison and both returned to work on the Caledonian Railway, although no longer as signalmen. The primary cause of the 230 deaths across the three trains involved, mostly in the troop train, was fire – not the impact of the crash itself. So could the signalmen be wholly to blame?

It is ridiculous to say that the man was in neglect for not looking out to see a train he had just come off. It was just some temporary defect.

Condie Sandeman KC, lawyer for the defence

2015

Numerous failings

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Adrian Searle believes that a deal was struck with the two signalmen. Clip from Quintinshill: Britain's Deadliest Rail Disaster (BBC Two).

Meakin and Tinsley's swift return to employment has led to a theory that a deal was struck between the signalmen and the railway.

It seems that the men accepted the entire blame for the accident in exchange for being 'looked after' with new jobs, probably to divert attention away from evident shortcomings on the part of the railway company and the government. Tinsley may have been medically unsuitable for the position he held because of epilepsy. So while there is no doubt that he and Meakin made crucial errors on that fateful Saturday morning, the railway and the government should also have accepted some responsibility.