The thread about the Elliot Junction Disaster; a tragic railway crash in the midst of a blizzard that shares its anniversary with the Tay Bridge Disaster

28th December is the anniversary of the Tay Bridge Disaster (of 1879), but is also the anniversary of the Elliot Junction Disaster of 1906. The spectacle former, which saw around 70 deaths, overshadows the latter, which caused 22 deaths and 24 injuries.

No. 324 on its side after the disaster

Elliot Junction Station was on the mainline between Dundee and Aberdeen, just south of Arbroath, where a short local branch to Carmyllie diverged to the north. This was what was called a “Joint Line”, with the tracks, their operation and their management shared by two different railways; the Caledonian Railway (“Caley“) and the North British Railway (NBR). Beyond Arbroath and Dundee each railway ran its own lines, and north of Montrose the NBR running powers on Caley tracks. There was therefore an awkward competition between the two companies on the route between Dundee and Aberdeen

Location of Elliot Junction Station, Bartholomew 1/2 Inc map c. 1897. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Location of Elliot Junction Station, Bartholomew 1/2 Inch map c. 1897. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The station at Elliot was an “island” between the tracks, with goods sidings on the up (southbound) and down (northbound) lines, as well as the junction for the line to Carmyllie, so was relatively complex for an otherwise insignificant place which at the time was little more than a few farms, cottages and a small flaxmill.

Elliot Junction station. OS 25 Inch map, c. 1892. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Elliot Junction station. OS 25 Inch map, c. 1892. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

January 1st was the most important public holiday in Scotland at the time and in advance of it there was a great increase in passenger travel on the railway for workers and relatives in far off towns and cities to return home to their family in advance of the bells. The railway and the trains were therefore unusually busy despite the time of year.

On the morning of 28th December, the weather had seen heavy snowfall for the preceding two days and snow drifts up to 3 feet deep blocked the line between Dundee and Aberdeen in places. The line north of Arbroath was totally blocked by snow. It was remarked at the time to be the worst east coast snow storm for 10 years.

The heavy snow had brought down much of the telegraph and telephone wires along the line. These were required for communication between signal boxes, which controlled the safe “absolute block” working of the railway. This is where trains are kept safely spaced apart from each other by allocating each to a “block” of track, controlled by signals, on which only it is permitted. As a train progressed along a line, it passed from block to block, with control being handed from signal box to signal box by telegraph communication). Thus if there were no communications between signal boxes, there was no safe control system in place on the railway.

Elliot Junction signal box in 1971, photo by John R. Hume
Elliot Junction signal box in 1971, photo by John R. Hume

Beyond Easthaven, the station 3 miles to the the south of Elliot Junction, block working was impossible. “Time interval” and “proceed with caution” was instead in place; basically, the signallers at each box tried to dispatch trains with a known time interval between them, and they were to proceed slow enough that they could come to a halt within the limit of visibility. Because of the damages to telephone and telegraph, because there were two competing railways and a joint railway operating between Dundee and Aberdeen, the overall train dispatch situation was confused. Trains were being dispatched north without it being clear there was nowhere for them to go due to the blocked line. It wasn’t clear what trains where were at any given time. To cap it all off, fine snow and freezing temperatures jammed points and signals along the line. In short it was chaotic.

And it was about to get even more chaotic. An early morning goods train out of Aberdeen, proceeding south, broke couplings about a mile beyond Elliot Junction, leaving two separate portions blocking the line, the front continuing on for some distance until this mishap was discovered. The driver of the train and the Easthaven signalman agreed that this train should now go back to Elliot, on the other (northbound) line and then push the broken part of the train back to Easthaven into a siding.

There now followed a bit of a farcical situation where the goods train went up and down the line trying to find a set of points which weren’t frozen. The train ended up going all the way back to Arbroath to be able to cross onto the line blocked by the abandoned wagons to go and retrieve them. On reaching the detached part, the driver attempted to push it through a snow drift from the rear, causing some of the wagons to derail. On trying the same from the opposite direction and in reverse to pull them out, he managed to derail his engine and block the “up” (southbound) line entirely! So on top of everything else, half the mainline was now blocked and a recovery operation had to be started to get it clear. Nobody thought to let Arbroath know about this situation.

Arbroath Station (Dundee & Arbroath Joint Railway). (R W Lynn collection).
Arbroath Station, early 20th century. Embedded from the Flickr of Kenneth G. Williamson

The North British express from Edinburgh to Aberdeen Express departed Waverley Station at 735AM that morning, including in its train some carriages that had originated in London and had come up over the previous night as a “through” sleeper. It was pulled by engine No. 324, a “Holmes 4-4-0” type, with Driver George Gourlay at the controls; an experienced and senior ranking engineman of good reputation. He had twice driven royal trains. At 1041AM, it struggled in to Arbroath an hour late, where it terminated on account of the blocked line north, where 6 trains were already stuck. It was held at Arbroath until it was decided what to do with it. Driver Gourlay had whiled away the hours of the delay in Arbroath by warming himself in the station bar.

No. 317, lead engine of the same class as No. 324

At 310PM, the Caley’s local train left a packed Arbroath station for Dundee. Because of congestion at Arbroath, the front coaches of the local train were inaccessible form the platforms and the 50 passengers were confined to the rear 4 coaches. It stopped at the first signal box to get permission to go through the “danger” signal and proceed with caution. Visibility was noted to be down to 50 yards. Six minutes later, at 319PM, the local reached Elliot Junction to make its scheduled stop – however the signalman at the station could not see it and did not realise it had arrived as it had not whistled to him in the blizzard to announce its presence. The local train was therefore held at Elliot Junction far longer than it should have been and once the signalman became aware of its presence there was confusion as to what should now happen to it as they were aware it was now blocking the line, but there was no permission yet to dispatch it south as they were awaiting a Superintendent walking to them through the storm from the next box to the south.

Not far behind, the stationmaster at Arbroath was finally convinced by the disgruntled passengers for Aberdeen to send the North British express back to Edinburgh. No. 324 was not turned around however, as the points to the nearest turntable were thought to be frozen and Driver Gourlay believed his locomotive would not fit anyway. So the NBR train was dispatched south again from Arbroath with the engine facing the wrong way; running with its tender infront of it. There was therefore no weather protection for the crew as they picked up speed into the blizzard, which whipped up the coal dust from the tender to add to the blinding snow.

Driver Gourlay set off at 326PM, having been told to proceed with caution and to stop at Elliot Junction station for instructions, he couldn’t see what he was doing and it was unlikely he could stop his train within the limit of his vision. He proceeded too fast in the circumstances and passed semaphore signals which had been pushed by the weight of snow on them from the danger to the clear position. However he should still have treated such signals as being at danger given his instructions and passed them with all caution. By the time he approached Elliot Junction it was estimated his train was making 30mph (he would later claim it was more like 15mph, in reality he probably had no idea).

At 330PM in the whiteout, the Caley local was still standing at the platform, waiting on the superintendent. The crew had decided to put the passengers into the waiting room to keep warm and then move the train out of the way into a siding. They had just started this procedure when suddenly No. 324 appeared out of the blizzard, in reverse, and ploughed straight into the back of it; where all its passengers were crowded.

The debris-strewn scene the following day. No. 324 lies on its side in the snow, in the nearground can be seen the mangled remains of the last carriage in the Caley train

In the calamity, 20 of the 50 occupants of the local train lost their lives, 6 of them being off-duty railway servants heading home. The three rear carriages and the brake van of the local train, of wooden construction, were totally obliterated, and all the deaths occurred in these carriages, including Guard A. H. Lesslie, in the rearmost vehicle.

The substantially demolished 2nd coach from the Caley local train
The substantially demolished 2nd coach from the Caley local train

No. 324 tipped over, but the regulator was stuck open and the wheels continued to thrash the air for a whole ten minutes until the brave Driver Ogilvie of the Caley engine climbed into the wrecked and turned it off. He dug Driver Gourlay out from under a pile of coal, but the fireman – R. Irving – was trapped and would die from his injuries after spending 7 hours trapped beneath the wreckage. He was the only fatality on the NBR train. There were 8 passengers with serious injuries across both trains.

The underside of No. 324 which is tipped onto its side in the snow
The underside of No. 324 which is tipped onto its side in the snow

One final fatality was Alexander William Black WS, a solicitor, Liberal Party MP for Banffshire and a resident of Edinburgh. He succumbed to his injuries the day after the disaster and was buried in the Dean Cemetery. His death precipitated a by-election which the Liberals won.

Alexander W. Black WS, MP
Alexander W. Black WS, MP

The poorly managed Joint Line had no breakdown equipment of its own, and heavy jacks had to be borrowed from a foundry in Arbroath. It took until the following morning for a breakdown train to arrive from Dundee.

The Elliot Junction Disaster was, and remains, the worst railway disaster as a result of snow in the UK. The subsequent enquiry made Driver Gourlay its scapegoat. Witnesses had seen him take a drink at Arbroath and he was not driving with sufficient caution it found. This was out of character for him, a reliable and sober railwayman of 46 years with a clean reputation.

Accident enquiry diagram, with the Caley local train on the left and the NBR express on the right

Gourlay was tried at the High Court in Edinburgh and found guilty of culpable homicide. He was given a lenient sentence (in the circumstances) of 5 months in the notorious Calton Jail on account of his good character and the contributing factors of the overall breakdown in railway control in the storm. The Court dismissed the charge that he was intoxicated; much of the evidence to this effect could have been explained away by post-accident shock. The Board of Trade’s accident inspector was less forgiving in that respect.

East gates to the Calton Jail.
East gates to the Calton Jail.

Perhaps surprisingly given the death toll, there was much public sympathy for Gourlay. A 98,000 signature public petition helped in reducing his sentence to 3 months and 2,000 well wishers greeted him on his release on Wednesday 12th June 1907. He had been ordered by a superior to drive a train in reverse, into a blizzard, with near zero visibility, with no working system of communication, of signalling or of train control. The Public Enquiry made it clear just how chaotic events had been on the day, and just how many individuals involved – beyond Gourlay – had made poor decisions, all of which contributed to the eventual accident. The public seemed aware of the reality of what had happened that day and the railway clearly did too as it paid him 157 days of disablement allowance on account of his injuries and kept him in service afterwards. No. 324 would also be returned to service and nicknamed, with much bad taste, The Unfortunate Gourlay.

George Gourlay died at home in Edinburgh, aged 70, on 10th March 1915 from heart failure.

If you have found this useful, informative or amusing and would like to help contribute towards the running costs of this site (including keeping it ad-free) or to the book-buying budget, why not consider supporting me on ko-fi.

These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s