On this day in history : 22nd May 1915 – The Quintinshill rail disaster takes place near to Gretna Green, Scotland…. To this day it remains Britain’s worse rail disaster – with 227 dead and 246 injured….
The signal box at Quintinshill controlled two passing loops, situated parallel to one another on the Calendonian mainline between Glasgow and Carlisle…. The signal box was the responsibility of the station master at Gretna Green and manned by one signalman at a time and was worked in shifts…. On the day of the accident the night shift had been manned by signalman George Meakin and he was due to be relieved at 6.30am by James Tinsley, for the morning shift….
Two regular express trains were due to pass through at this time of the morning – a long with a local train…. The normal procedure was – so as to make way for the faster trains – to shunt and hold the local train on one of the passing loops…. However, there was extra traffic on the line this particular morning – a special troop-train, carrying a Royal Scots battalion, was passing through on its way south to Liverpool…. They were on their way to join the troop-ship Aquitania bound for Gallipoli….
The two passing loops were already occupied when the local service train arrived at Quintinshill – a freight train with empty coal wagons and another goods train…. Both express trains were running late – so Meakin directed the local train to be held, facing north, on the south bound line…. James Tinsley was on the train, arriving to do his shift in the signal box…. He joined his colleague – who did not leave immediately – but remained to read the newspaper that Tinsley had brought with him…. They were joined by a couple of crew from the waiting trains and the group discussed the latest war news….
At 6.49am the south bound troop-train collided head-on with the waiting local train…. The train carrying the Royal Scots over-turned onto the north bound main line…. Shortly after one of the express trains ploughed into it….
The troop-train burst into flames – the ferocity of the fire made it impossible for rescuers to get near…. The old wooden carriages were lit by gas lamps….the gas being stored in cylinders beneath the floor….which of course added to the inferno….
Out of the 498 soldiers onboard 214 were killed….only 83 of these could be identified…. A total of 227 lost their lives in the disaster – and a further four children remained unaccounted for…. Another 246 people were injured…. Only 58 men and 7 officers from the Royal Scots escaped un-injured – and were sent on to Liverpool for departure to Gallipoli…. However, they were declared medically unfit and returned to Edinburgh….
At the following public enquiry all blame was placed on Meakin and Tinsley…. George Meakin had failed to put into motion two vital safety procedures…. He had forgotten to inform the signal box further north that no trains should be allowed onto the Quintinshill section – and he did not put the regulation safety lock collar on to the signal lever…. James Tinsley, on taking over, had forgotten the local train was being held on the south bound line – and as there was no safety collar on the lever it meant he was able to signal the express train through….
Meakin and Tinsley were charged with culpable homicide and found guilty at trial…. Tinsley received a sentence of 3 years imprisonment and Meakin 18 months…. Both men actually served just over a year – and returned to work on the Calendonian Railway – but not as signalmen….
It has to be questioned whether the men were entirely to blame….most of the lives lost were due to the fire…. It could be said the age and condition of the carriages made them not fit for purpose….and contributed to the disaster….