Tatham area railways 1845-1914
The Wennington Accident 1880
A contemporary image of a train on the line near Tatham Bridge Inn is shown by this illustration of the accident at Wennington at about 14:11 on 11/8/1880, the worst that occurred in the history of the line and one that was reported in the national papers.10 The cause of the accident was immediately the subject of an inquest convened at Lancaster the same afternoon, with the jurors first visiting the site that day. The inquest continued hearing evidence from witnesses until the 20th when the jury gave their verdict and the coroner his conclusion of “accidental death”.11
This was followed by enquiry by the Board of Trade conducted by a Colonel Yolland who had been an expert witness at the inquest. His report of 31st August described the accident thus:20
“.. the 12.15 p.m. express passenger train from Leeds to Lancaster and Morecambe, consisting of an engine and tender [a 2-4-0], seven carriages, and two break [brake] vans [one before & one after the carriages], with a guard riding in the last van, was passing over the junction of the Midland and Furness Railway, close to Wennington station, and travelling at the rate of about 30 miles an hour, the whole train got off the rails at the fixed point of the crossing ....
"... the engine stopped 216 yards from the fixed point of the crossing, having become separated from the tender and the guard’s van behind it … the next carriage had been stopped by the left abutment [of bridge, marked with X on the station map below] and this carriage and the following were almost entirely destroyed, and separated from the two carriages next behind them, and these again were detached from the remaining four vehicles, which, as well as all the others vehicles were off the rails, but standing coupled together on the down line....
"Seven passengers are returned as having been killed on the spot and one has since died of the injuries which he received, and 23 other passengers were also injured, some of them most severely." [One of the dead was visiting his brother in Caton and another was a potato merchant from Morecambe].11
The key witnesses were the engine driver, the guard and the foreman platelayer. The last was John Bee of Wray Crossing (Wray 'Station’), mistakenly called William Bee in the Lancaster Gazette account, who had worked in that position for 30 years. From their and other evidence, the contributory factors in the accident were considered to be the condition of the crossing, the speed of the train and the lack of brakes (‘breaks’) on the train.
There was evidence that the right-hand leading wheels ran off the rail at the crossing fixed point. The platelayers had been packing up the ballast under the crossing, which had subsided somewhat. This may have contributed to the lack of a small camber on the crossing (cant) designed to put weight on the wheels on the inside rail, i.e. with an elevated outside rail, or this may have been an installation fault. Much attention was paid to the measurement (gauging) of the gap between the checkrail and stock rail, which keeps the left-hand front wheels in the correct line of travel and might have been too slack. Also, the width of the track (road) was gauged as 1/8th inch too tight and the fixed point casting was also found to be cracked. Overall, the exact reason for the engine derailment was unclear.
The speed of the train was within requirements (37 mph average) but obviously would enhance the chance of derailment on a poor crossing. The lack of brake power, with only a steam brake on the tender and a hand-wheel brake in the guard van contributed greatly to the distance travelled after derailment and, hence, the collision with the bridge and the deaths. Continuous Westinghouse air brakes were only slowly being retrofitted to passenger trains.
The letter from the Board of Trade to the MR directors said:
In forwarding this report, I am to call the attention of your directors to the condition in which the Midland and Furness junction was found immediately after the accident had occurred, and to the absence of express instructions to the drivers of trains directing them to reduce speed at that junction to some fixed and moderate rate, such as the Midland Company have adopted at more than a hundred other junctions on their system.
I am also to request that you will call the special attention of directors to the fact that the train which met with the accident had no break on the engine, and that there was but one break on the tender, and one on the van at the end of the train… in other words, a proportion of only one guard’s break to nine vehicles. Had precautions been taken on either of the above points, there seems to be every reason too believe that this accident would not have occurred, or that its final fatal consequences would have been prevented.19
There were no court cases as a consequence of the accident – a situation that has echoes today, where questions of corporate responsibility are involved.