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A Disaster at Quintinshill

May 2014

Simon Wills looks at Britain's worst train crash, which killed soldiers on home soil during wartime.

The horrific loss of life on battlefields in the First World War can understandably eclipse other tragic events during the period from 1914 to 1918. One of these is the Quintinshill junction train crash, sometimes known as the Gretna railway disaster, notable as the UK's worst ever railway accident in terms of the number of persons killed. About 230 people died in this tragic incident, although the exact number is not certain.

The Quintinshill disaster took place on 22 May 1915 and involved 5 different trains. On the morning in question, a freight train heading towards Glasgow was being held in a northbound loop (siding) off the main line at Quintinshill junction to allow two northbound express trains, which were running late, to pass. When a local train arrived at about 6.30 am, it also had to be held. It couldn't occupy the northbound loop because the freight train was there, so it was temporarily diverted to the opposite main line (southbound) and held there. Additionally, a coal train from Glasgow arrived heading south, but there was a loop off the southbound main line that it could occupy. This crowded situation was complex, yet it should have been manageable. But, in the midst of this, the signalman at Quintinshill was contacted by his neighbouring signal box at 6.42 am to give clearance for a southbound train to come through. It was packed with troops of the Royal Scots regiment. Without thinking, the signalman gave clearance for the new train to come through, even though the local train was still sitting on the main line blocking the very route that the troop train had to take.

The first of the northbound expresses raced by uneventfully, but shortly afterwards the southbound troop train arrived and ploughed into the local train that sat in its path. The troop train was 215 yards long but was telescoped down to a mere 67 yards by the force of the collision. Carriages and men were thrown in the air and wreckage landed all over both main line tracks. The signalman frantically changed the signal in an attempt to stop the second northbound express, but it was too late. Less than one minute after the initial accident, the second express hurtled into the wreckage thrown up by the troop train's collision. This crash threw debris wider still, affecting both the freight train and the coal train.

Amazingly, there were only 2 fatalities on the local train and 12 on the express, 4 of whom have never been identified. But the troop train had been crowded – its elderly carriages crammed with men. Some soldiers died in the initial collision but many more were run down by the express train or killed by the explosions and fire that followed. Unfortunately, the troop train was lit by gas which rapidly ignited into a fireball. Soldiers tried desperately to escape the flames but many were trapped underneath the wreckage or within the twisted remains of carriages. There are harrowing reports of agonized men begging to be shot by their officers, self-amputations with bayonets and suicide to avoid being burned alive. Of the 485 officers and men on board the troop train, only 67 escaped death or injury; 212 men of the Royal Scots regiment died.

The immediate question was why had this happened? An inquiry concluded that the two signalmen at Quintinshill were to blame – George Meakin and James Tinsley were arrested a week after the crash having failed to adopt vital safety measures that could have prevented the accident. In mitigation, it should be noted that both signalmen had good employment records before this incident, and that railway traffic had become heavier and more complex because of the war effort. Nevertheless, both were found guilty and imprisoned: Tinsley was sentenced to 3 years in prison and Meakin to 18 months, although they were released after serving only 12 months. The tragedy at Quintinshill will not be forgotten, and the Scottish government has announced that the centenary of the crash on 22 May 2015 will be publicly commemorated as part of the First World War remembrance in Scotland.

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