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
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.
3.45 am, 22 May 1915
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
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
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
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…
6.49am, 22 May 1915
Adrian Searle collection
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
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.
23 May 1915
A lost battalion
Adrian Searle collection
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
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
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.
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.