Today (October 8) in London History – the worst disaster in English railway history

The worst disaster in English railway history took place on October 8, 1952. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one’s not going to be easy for me to write. Or voice. In fact, I wish  I hadn’t come over the hill of October 7th to find this up ahead on October 8th. I didn’t know about it before. And I wish I hadn’t found out about it – which is an adult’s childish, make-believe way of saying, I wish it hadn’t happened. Wish it weren’t there for me to find. 

That first response – “this one’s not going to be easy for me” – I understood in a trice where that was coming from. I got to October 8th – was taking survey of what’s there – and this disaster came into view and just like that I was back in that newsroom, 25 years ago, getting up one day, walking into the editor’s office, and saying, “take me off the hard news stories – from now on I need to do features and sports stories.” “I’ll move you if you want but what’s going on, why do you want to make that switch?” I remember pausing before I answered – thinking, how could he be asking me that? – well, I was in a zone he wasn’t in – pretty sure I was giving him the newsroom equivalent of a thousand-yard stare – and then sure enough, out it came, a Shakespeare line, “because I have supped full of horrors.” And then I translated for him, “look, Lowndes,  I’ve had my fill of suffering and death – had my fill of trafficking in other people’s misery. I need to detox, need to do Features and Sports.”

They let me. I hadn’t thought about that since the last century. And then – well, it’d be exaggerating and over-dramatising to say I had a flashback or some low-grade PTSD reaction, but I did have some sort of aversion reaction when I ran my eye down the headlines. Story after story setting out the death toll – and it went up every edition, every day. 

“Death Toll up to 85 in Rail crash”

“88 Dead, 170 hurt in Three Train Crash”

“95 Bodies Found’

“Train Deaths Expected to Exceed 100”

“Train crash dead now total 108”

“Death roll now 109”

“110 bodies recovered”

My reaction wasn’t hard-bitten, wasn’t tough, wasn’t ‘these things happen’ – it was ‘oh no no no – please stop.’

It did finally stop. 112 dead. 340 injured.

The triple collision was the worst disaster in English railway history. And the second-worst train crash in the history of the United Kingdom.

It happened exactly 70 years ago today. October 7th, 1952.

Happened at Harrow-Wealdstone Station. At 8.20 am. Rush hour. There were a thousand passengers in the three trains.

The morning had been foggy but was beginning to clear. 

A crowded, semi-fast train from Tring (it was a minute or two late) was standing on the fast up-line alongside Platform 4, when the fast night train from Perth, travelling on the same line and about an hour late, entered the station and smashed into the rear of the local train. The locomotive and front coaches of the Perth-Euston Express tunnelled into the rear coaches of the standing train. Some of its coaches, including a sleeper, reared up and wreckage filled both the up and down fast lines. Less than a minute later, the Euston to Manchester Express – running about five minutes late and travelling at speed – crashed into the wreckage. Its two locomotives ploughed across Platforms 2 and 3, which were crowded with passengers waiting for the electric trains. There were casualties in the trains, on the platforms and on the footbridge into which the piling-up coaches were smashed. Rescue operations began immediately. and continued without break over the following two days and night. The rescue workers – hundreds of them – hacking their way through a heap of wreckage the size of a row of three-storey houses.

The first responders were of course the survivors who were fit. They were followed by railway workers, local firemen and eventually railway officials, doctors, clergy, nurses and Civil Defence rescue workers from throughout the area. American Air Force doctors, nurses and hospital orderlies from all round London were rushed to the scene.

The jumbled mass of wreckage 30 feet high and 100 feet long. It bears repeating: this was a three-train crash. So many victims  – alive, dead, and dying – were buried in that great, tangled pile that the rescue operations – cranes and oxyacetylene torches were pressed into action as well as the digging that was done by hand – the rescue operations had to be carried out with the utmost care.

There was of course an official inquiry. It ruled that the primary cause of the accident was the failure of the driver of the Perth to Euston Express to heed the signals he’d been given. He passed one caution and two danger signals as approached the station. Passed them at high speed. He was killed in the crash. When his body was found, his hand was on the brake. The finding was an answer but it was an answer that prompted further questions. Did the driver fall asleep? Was there some sort of technical failure? A braking system failure? The Chief Inspector of Railways, who headed up the Inquiry, said that a new automatic train control signalling system would be rolled out in a matter of months. 

And on that note, let’s get away from October 8th, 1952.

A Today in London recommendation. This one’s compliments of Sandra from Kansas   – well, now, Sandra from Houston – who was on my Old Westminster walk this afternoon. Go and see the fine collection of old musical instruments at Fenton House in Hampstead. It’ll knit up the ravelled sleeve of care of having that god-awful train crash on your mind.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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