A Mystery For The Inspector

“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.

Ivatt Atlantic At Finsbury Park

Ivatt Atlantic At Finsbury Park (similar to the locomotive involved in the Grantham accident) – View original image on Geograph

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   © Copyright Ben Brooksbank and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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/



  1. Nice read, and love the story of possibilities … 😉

  2. Very, very nicely done, Martin!
    Really makes you wonder, doesn’t it?!

    • They are real mysteries that have stood the test of time Bob, especially the Grantham disaster. A recent suggestion from researchers is that the Vacuum Brake pipes could never have been connected at Peterborough but that theory flies in the face of the testimony of nearly half of the witnesses and from more than one location, so I don’t think that’s the solution. One that even Sherlock Holmes would have struggled with me thinks 😉

  3. intriguing, well told tale martin, shame it is still a mystery!

  4. So fascinating! Unexplained railway accidents would be even more traumatic! My husband has shared some really terrible scenarios with me, reminding me of just how powerful these locomotives really are. He has had a couple of engineer friends killed because the sun was at a perfect slant and temporarily blinded them, causing them to run through switches. Those aren’t mysterious, but freakish accidents. I sometimes think it’s favorable that the general public doesn’t really fully comprehend how potentially dangerous locomotives can be, in particular as the rail lines run through the middle of a town!

    • Hi Debra – these acidents have remained a mystery because the key witnesses, the engine crews themselves, were killed and so couldn’t explain that key question ‘Why’ 😦 I’m sorry to read of your Husband’s friends. Fortunately deaths are much rarer in the modern age although the misguided – I could use stronger words – privatisation of our railway system was directly to blame for the Hatfield and Potters Bar disasters. When profit is the motive then the first thing to go out of the window is safe maintenance. Track maintenance was brought back under ‘government control’ after Hatfield and the safety of Britains railways is back to being where it should be. The biggest issue presently causing deaths is people misusing level crossings – and I know that is also an issue in the US and Canada.

  5. Strange. A couple of years ago we had a passenger train accident here on a straight section of track which killed a number of people including the two or three engineers (one was a trainee). Seemed to be no reasonable explanation. Never heard if the final report ever found the cause.

    • Wombies burrowing in the trackbed perhaps? 😉 But seriously, straight track accidents are usually caused by track defects, a broken rail is a possible cause. Much rarer, in this day and age, is a broken axle on the locomotive – another possible cause.

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