The thread about the Ratho Rail Crash of 1917; “an unfortunate illustration of the danger of taking things for granted”

This thread was originally written and posted on January 3rd 2023.

On this day, January 3rd, in 1917, a tragic railway accident occurred on the Edinburgh to Glasgow mainline of the North British Railway (NBR) when a packed express train crashed into the back of an engine manoeuvring across its path just outside Ratho Station. As a result, 12 people lost their lives and a further 46 were injured – the 8th most deadly railway accident in Scottish history.

The case is an unfortunate illustration of the danger of “taking things for granted.”

Col. J. W. Pringle, Board of Trade Accident Summary

The accident took place after the traditional Scottish two day New Year bank holiday; the principal holiday of the year for most people and much more important at that time as a public celebration than Christmas. As such, the railways were packed with people heading home after a brief visit to friends and family in other towns and cities to bring in the bells.

Ratho (Upper) Station in 1905, looking towards the direction of Bathgate and Glasgow © Edinburgh City Libraries

In order to understand what went wrong and why, we first have to understand the layout of the railway at Ratho. The Edinburgh & Glasgow mainline runs through Ratho Station, which has platforms on it known as Ratio Upper. A single track branch to South Queensferry (via Kirkliston and Dalmeny) branches off of the mainline just to the east at Queensferry Junction, serving a platform known as Ratho Lower.

Layout of the railways around Ratho Station, OS 1:25 inch survey, 1893. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

In accordance with British railway parlance, the line towards Edinburgh (the principal destination on the NBR) was the “up” line, and that towards Glasgow and Bathgate was the “down” line. The single line South Queensferry branch split into a down and up loop just before the junction on either side of the signal box which controlled it. This allows trains to pass before heading to/from the single line branch, and allowed the engine of a passenger train to “run around” its carriage, i.e switch from pulling it at one end to the other. However, the junction was poorly designed, and the only way to undertake this manoeuvre was to move across both sets of mainline tracks before returning around the other side of the loop.

Layout of the Queensferry Junction, OS 1:1250 survey, 1944. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Layout of the Queensferry Junction, OS 1:1250 survey, 1944. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

This risky manoeuvre had six basic stages and was further complicated by the fact there were no fixed signals to control it – instructions were given by hand, lamp and shouted voice signals between the signal box and any engine crew. This had rarely been a serious issue up until this point in the 51 year history of the line given traffic was so light, with only 2 or 3 passenger trains a day on the branch.

The afternoon of January 3rd 1917 was stormy but clear. At 435PM, the local train from South Queensferry to Ratho Lower departed the latter station as “empty stock” (no passengers) and pulled up at the Queensferry Junction signal box in the Down Loop (orange on the map above) as it should have done to commence “running around” its carriages. The engine driver was John Ramsay, 52 years old with 38 years railway service, 26 as an engine driver. Ramsay was very experienced but this was only his third day working the South Queensferry Branch. The signalman was John Philp, 51 years old and again very experienced, with 24 of his 26 years railway service being served in this very box.

The engine was No. 421 and was also very experienced, having been in service with the company for 44 years. It was a 4-4-0 (4 leading, 4 driving and no trailing wheels) tender engine. It had recently been demoted from working Dundee to Edinburgh trains and was based at Thornton in Fife; both crew were Dundee men.

NBR No. 423, of the same type as No. 421

What should have happened next, and what driver Ramsay had done for only the previous 2 days, was that the empty coaches should have been uncoupled outside the signal box and left in the Down Loop. Ramsay should then have awaited instruction (verbally or by hand or lamp) from signalman Philp to proceed onto the Down Mainline “light engine”, i.e. not pulling a load.

Steps 1 and 2 of the "run around" procedure at Queensferry Junction
Steps 1 and 2 of the “run around” procedure at Queensferry Junction

At step 3, driver Ramsay should have moved ahead onto the Up Mainline, there was a small trackside indicator signal that gave him permission to do this. Once his engine was clear of these points, as step 4 he would then reverse back along the Up Mainline and into the Up Loop, on the opposite side from the waiting empty carriages.

Steps 3 and 4 of the "run around" procedure at Queensferry Junction
Steps 3 and 4 of the “run around” procedure at Queensferry Junction

The final two steps of the operation were (5) to move completely through the Up Loop and back onto the branch, before (6) reversing once again back to the empty carriages and re-coupling at the other side. The train would then wait here for an hour before forming the evening service from Ratho Lower back to South Queensferry.

Steps 5 and 6 of the "run around" procedure at Queensferry Junction
Steps 5 and 6 of the “run around” procedure at Queensferry Junction

It was Philp’s intention that the local train would now wait outside his box and await his instruction. Seventeen minutes previously, at 418PM, the packed ten coach express service for Glasgow Queen Street left Edinburgh Waverley. It was pulled by No. 874, “Dunedin“, a 4-4-2 Atlantic type express engine. These were the pride of the company, its biggest and most powerful engines, and were only 11 years old. Driver Moffat and fireman Hyslop were on the footplate and would stop only once, at Haymarket, before running non-stop to Glasgow.

An NBR Atlantic of the same class as No. 874

At 430PM, the signalbox at Gogar Station, 2⅓ miles to the east, telegraphed Philp to inform him that the express was approaching; he acknowledge and accepted it into his section of line. A minute later, he changed his signals on the mainline to give the driver of it a clear run through his section and into the next. At 433PM he received the “train in section” confirmation from Gogar; the express was now unstoppably approaching Queensferry Junction at 45mph. Two minutes later, the local arrived outside his box and stopped, having been shown a white hand lamp by Philp which was the accepted signal to move forwards from the branch. Fireman Cairns of the local train got down from the footplate and uncoupled the carriages. At this point, it was Philp’s understanding that the local train would now await him to give a further hand and lamp signal before moving off; as it always had done in his 24 years of experience at the box. Instead, the local engine moved straight to step 2 of the process outline above and pulled forwards and stopped on the Down Mainline, where a small lineside disc signal – correctly set for the approaching express – told him not to proceed.

The horrified Philps instantly leapt out of his box and waved his red lamp and blew his whistle, but the noise was lost in the gusty January wind and the crew could not see the red lamp they were not expecting to look for. He rushed back into his box and pulled all his signal levers to “Danger”; driver Moffat of the express saw the signal change as he approached it, and applied his brakes, but it was too late. At 436PM his engine smashed into the back of No. 421. The 104 tons of the latter were pushed to one side and thrown 97 yards back where it had come from, but remained largely upright and suffered remarkably little damage. The front end and frames of Dunedin were badly damaged but although the the 119 ton engine was derailed, it remained upright.

The engine of the express train, No. 874, is recovered. Notice the damage to the front end as a result of the collision
The engine of the express train, No. 874, is recovered. Notice the damage to the front end as a result of the collision

The train coupled up behind was less fortunate; 294 tons of carriages instantly came to a stop and ran into each other like a concertina; the first carriage was completely wrecked, folding up like a telescope, the second was badly damaged at each end, and all the following carriages suffered damaged buffers and couplings, broken windows and warped doors. 140 yards of railway were torn up.

Wrecked front carriage of the express. The engine of the local train, No. 421, is in the background.
Wrecked front carriage of the express. The engine of the local train, No. 421, is in the background.

At 437PM, Philps sent out an “Obstruction Danger” signal and telephoned Central Control in Edinburgh; all traffic on the line came to a stop, preventing further catastrophe. The stunned passengers in the express train found that the warped doors had jammed in their frames; fortunately all expect the rear carriage in the train had electric lighting so the danger of a catastrophic fire from acetylene lighting gas was absent. The many soldiers and sailors on board led the recovery effort; climbing out through smashed windows and breaking open doors to evacuate the wounded. Some of the carriages were so inaccessible as a result of jammed doors that rescuers had to smash through their wooden sides to release those trapped inside. Local nurses and doctors from Ratho and Kirkliston villages rushed to the scene, as did members of the British Red Cross Society and St. Andrew’s Ambulance Association. Colonel J. W. Pringle who led the accident investigation praised them all.

Wrecked carriages of the express as seen from the other direction
Wrecked front carriage of the express as seen from the other direction. Notice the sheet metal of the tender of the local train has folded up from the force of the impact.

Most of the dead and injured were in the demolished first carriage; only 3 people escaped it without injury. Eleven died in the collision, four were from the same family. One of the injured died in hospital the following day, taking the toll to twelve. Of the 46 injured, 31 were sent to the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, including driver Ramsay, fireman Cairns and driver Moffat; the latter being one of the most seriously injured. Most of the dead were from the west and identifying the deceased was delayed on account of relatives needing to come through from Glasgow; one man who made that grim journey to the city mortuary lost his father, mother and two younger sisters. He found his aunt and uncle in the Infirmary. The full list of those who died was:

  • Margaret Gibson or Philp (c. 40) of Yoker, Glasgow
  • Thomas Gibson, a farmer of Port Bannatyne on Bute
  • Hugh Peat (16), a plumber of Bridgeton, Glasgow
  • Wilhelm Pentzlin (70) of Glasgow
  • Duncan Macfadyen, a carter of Glasgow
  • William Heatlie, an engineer of Dalmuir, Clydebank
  • Isabella Lyall (50) of Barnhill, Glasgow;
  • Robert Lyall (50), a tailor’s machinst, husband of Isabella
  • Ina Lyall (7) and Maggine Lyall (5), children of Isabella and Robert
  • Grace Wilson of Partick, Glasgow
  • Catherine White of St. Boswells, Roxburghshire

It only took until 3 O’Clock in the afternoon of the next day to get the line open again for traffic. Funerals took place on Saturday 6th for the victims. Five of the 12 took place in Edinburgh; those of William Heatlie Hugh Peat, Duncan Macfadyen and, William Pentzlin took place in Newington Cemetery and that of Margaret Gibson or Philp in The Grange. A large cortège awaited the return of those returned to Glasgow for Burial.

The subsequent enquiry found that both signalman Philp at South Queensferry Junction and driver Ramsay of the local train shared responsibility for the accident. Philp assumed, as a result of his extensive experience at the junction, that Ramsay would await further instruction from him before moving forward onto the mainline. He assumed that Ramsay would know it has intention to hold him here until the express passed. Ramsay, who was only on his 3rd day on the line, assumed that when Philp showed him the white light and hand signal to move forward into the loop that this meant he was safe to complete the entire run-around procedure without awaiting further instruction. He assumed that Philp would never have accepted an express train onto this section of mainline while he was performing his manoeuvre.

The enquiry was not just critical of these two men, however. It was critical of the general layout of the junction and of the company and its practices. These were criticised for the fact that the line was run by long-standing convention and ambiguous hand signals rather than clearly written and understood instructions. It was critical of the admission that the local signalmen were aware the run-around process was not as it should be done “by the book” but had never raised it with their superiors. And of their superiors, it criticised the company’s practice of using district inspectors drawn from local boxes; who were overly familiar with local practices and would not have necessarily have thought of them as being out of the ordinary.

Criticisms of the North British Railway in the report of the 1917 crash

Lastly, it was critical that on 20th December 1911, an almost identical accident had occurred when the 820PM Glasgow to Edinburgh express had run into a light engine from the Ratho Low train performing the same run-around manoeuvre across the mainline. (On that occasion, fortunately there were only minor injuries)

The final conclusion of the report into the 1911 Ratho rail crash
The final conclusion of the report into the 1911 crash

Although the company had enacted the above recommendations, sadly they were not sufficient to prevent the 1917 tragedy from occurring as a result of simple misunderstanding and mistaken assumptions.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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