“It makes absolutely no sense John…” Colonel Von Donop had dumped the binder of witness statements on the desk with a loud thud and now stood, hands on hips, staring at the wood panelling of the wall. “What’s that Sir?” replied Major Pringle. Von Donop turned to face his colleague. “It’s just like the accident you had on the London & South Western – where was it now?”
“Do you mean Salisbury which, if I recall correctly, was three months back?”
“Yes, that’s it, Salisbury – pray remind me of the outcome”
“Well” said Major Pringle, “the cause was excessive speed through Salisbury station – the train was proceeding at around 50mph on a 30mph limited curve and became derailed. But from there it all becomes a bit of a mystery”.
“How so?” asked Von Donop.
“The driver and fireman knew the road very well but for some reason they made no attempt to slow their train on approach to the station. The driver blew his whistle as he passed the West Box – so at least he was conscious on the footplate, yet he took no further action! It was a clear night with good visibility and there was nothing found to be wrong with the locomotive or the train after the accident – so, as you can see, it has left me with a mystery.”
“In fact”, Pringle continued, “The only thing that isn’t a mystery is why the Guard didn’t apply the continuous brake from his van – he didn’t really understand how it worked. The fool could have saved his train if only he had pulled the handle and left it pulled!”
“Hmm… It would appear that I have a very similar occurrence.” said Von Donop, thoughtfully tugging at his moustache. “I have been at Grantham this past week investigating the accident that happened there on the 19th. The train was due to stop but ran through at around 50mph before derailing on the curves of the Nottingham line points.”
“A strange coincidence… do you think you will find an explanation?” asked Pringle.
“There are a couple of possible lines of thought that I may use in my report.” replied Von Donop. “It is possible that the driver was taken ill at a critical moment and that the fireman was distracted. Another possibility, though I have to admit that it is rather an outside chance, is that they thought their train was booked to run through without stopping. I think that rather unlikely though as they had worked the self same train the previous night without incident. The only established fact, apart from the excessive speed of the train, is that the continuous brakes were applied as it ran through the platform – much too late, of course, to influence the outcome.”
“Oh well… I had better start writing the damned report – the board expect it by the second week in November. I hate mysteries – they undermine the public’s confidence.” With that closing remark, Colonel Von Donop picked up his pile of papers and strode out of the office.
In 1906 there occurred two high-speed derailments which seem to be beyond logical explanation. Above is a hypothetical conversation between the two Board of Trade Railway Inspectors who investigated these accidents – the first on 30th June 1906 at Salisbury and the second on 19th September 1906 at Grantham. Sadly, the Railway Inspectorate were to be confronted by a third mystery in the following year. Before and after these three mysterious events, inquiries into railway accidents have always nailed down a cause and usually the findings of the Inspectorate have resulted in major improvements to rail safety. There has been one modern day mystery – in 1975 a Northern Line train was driven into the blind ended tunnel at Moorgate killing 42 passengers and the driver. No cause was ever found. Copies of the board of trade reports into these accidents can be found at http://www.railwaysarchive.co.uk/