SummarySalisbury station, 30 June 1906. Rivalry between two railway companies the Great Western and the London & South Western led to each striving for the honour of having the fastest boat train service from the the south coast to London. Plymouth became the starting-post for races between the companies' special Ocean Expresses. Drivers had to maintain some very exacting schedules and their enthusiasm to keep to them led to a certain amount of risk taking. On this day, the races came to an abrupt and tragic end as the L&SWR's train derailed at high speed.
Plymouth was the first practical landfall on mainland Britain for the passenger liners from the United States of America. Travellers between the two countries who wished to reach London as quickly as possible could disembark here and complete their journies by train. The time saved could be as much a day over continuing in the ship to Southampton. Two railway companies, the Great Western and the London and South Western connected Plymouth with the Captial. The Great Western Railway followed the South Devon Lines as far as Exeter before proceeding to Bristol. Here, it joined the GWR's original mainline, built by Brunel to Paddington station. The route of the L&SWR took it over its own metals to Exeter where it briefly met the GWR. It continued eastwards through Salisbury to Basingstoke where the route converged with the L&SWR's London - Southampton mainline which carried it to Waterloo.
For much of these routes, sustained high speed running was perfectly feasible. However, there were several sections over which caution was required in respect of speed. The nature of the terrain in the west country was such that the engineers who built the lines could not avoid steep gradients and severe curvature. Along the route, important traffic centres, such as Bristol on the GWR and Salisbury on the L&SWR had the effect of slowing down through traffic.
The Locomotives in use by both companies were very capable machines. Those used by the GWR were exceptional, indeed just two years prior to the incident described here, the City of Truro had become the first steam engine in the world to achieve 100 mph (160 km/h). The T9 class of engine in use on the L&SWR had proved themselves to be very able particularly over the steeply graded and sharply curved routes in the west.
A tremedous rivalry had built-up between the the two companies as they competed for traffic for this particularly prestigious service. The South Western company was conveying passengers to London. The Great Western had the mails. It had become a point of honour for both companies to turn in particularly fast schedules to London and to compete with each other in terms of speed. When the ocean expresses ran, the lines of both companies became a race track. In order to maintain the very fast schedules drivers were almost certainly tempted to exceed safety limits on the curves set by the lines' engineers. That such risk taking had official sanction seems very probable. Nock (1966) cites Churchward (Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Superintendent of the GWR) who when discussing the running of these trains stated
Withold any attempt at a maximum speed until I give you the the word; then you can go and break your b..... neck.The passengers seem also to have joined in the spirit of the racing, many offering the enginemen money for "a fast run".
The boat trains were always regarded as special workings. The companies had to be ready to run the trains as they were required, depending on when a liner called. In order to assure the smartest possible working they could not afford the luxury of waiting for a path in the timetable and crews could be called to duty at short notice. Although these men were certainly qualified to drive over the route, they may not always have had experience of operating the ocean expresses.
On 30 June 1906, passengers from the transatlantic liner ss United States were landed at Stonehouse Pool by ships tender. Here, they boarded the London and South Western train for London. They were mostly Americans travelling first class and numbered 43.
It was 2.40am1 when the Ocean Express entered Salisbury station with its whistle blasting. As it thundered past the platform, the few, startled onlookers estimated the train's speed to be about 60 mph (100 km/h).
At the London end the the line curves sharply to the left taking it through the goods yard. In order to get onto the London road, there was a scissors junction situated on this curve. This complicated layout justified the permanent speed restriction of 30 mph (57 km/h). Beyond the yard is a long incline and drivers would certainly wish to have a good run at this, buliding as much momentum as possible. On this occasion, as the train came upon the bend, the engine began to lean over so far that it could not recover. Coming in the opposite direction, on another track was a milk train, carefully negotiating the complex layout. No 421 struck the engine of this train. There ensued tremendous destruction. The carriages of the express piled up behind their locomotive and disintegrated.
Of the 43 passengers 24 were killed. As well as the Driver and fireman of the express, the milk train's fireman and guard were also killed.
The deaths of the locomotive crew preclude any definite answer to this question. Maj. Pringle, who carried out the Inquiry came to no particular conclusions. That the train was exceeding the 30 mph speed restriction is certain. Was the driver aware of this restriction, as he should have been? We have already seen that he had never driven through Salisbury without stopping. On these occasions any restriction would hardly have been relevent. It is possible then that it had become but a dim memory. Perhaps the driver was unaware of where he was, having become ill on the footplate. This would seem an unlikely explanation from witness accounts of the engine's whistle blowing.
It is highly probable that trains had previously approached the east end of the station at speeds that were very close to that of the ill-fated No 421 without coming to grief. The L12s, as previously noted had a higher center of gravity than the earlier T9 class. This may have been sufficient to shift the margin of safety to a point where unsafe practice became lethal.
What contribution to the accident did the company make? This is a question which Maj. Pringle would not have asked. There is some indication that the companies involved sanctioned the risks that the drivers may have taken. What is less clear is the pressure that loco-men may have been under from their employers. Then, were they 'bribed' by passengers to achieve ever-faster trips? With wage packets that hardly made them top-earners, it would surely have been a temptation to accept 'tips'.
Whatever the reason, along with the twenty four passengers and four railwaymen, that night racing died.
1 Hall (1990) puts this time at 1.57 am, although it must surely have been an exceptional run to reach Salisbury in little more than two hours.
Copyright © David Fry 1998
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