Heritage railways: Nearly a very nasty train crash

steam locomotive tangmere

Tangemere – the steam locomotive involved in the ” near miss” train crash. Pic credit: Wikipedia


The nostalgia for the age of steam has been turned into a profitable business. Rail trips using historic steam locomotives are very popular at holiday times. I enjoy them myself. They are not cheap but then safety standards for the travelling public need to be very high and it costs a lot of money to maintain steam locomotives.

Last year on one of these trips there was nearly a catastrophic train crash.  A steam special from Bristol run by West Coast Railways overshot a red light at Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire coming to rest on the South Wales main line only a minute after a 125  First Great Western express to Paddington had passed by. Some 750 people were on both trains. The inspector’s  damning report is here.

I am not going to comment further on this incident as both the engine driver  and the company are facing charges under health and safety legislation due to be heard at Swindon Crown Court in May.

However I am going to comment on the repercussions that followed this highly dangerous incident as it has led to West Coast Railways temporarily losing its licence ( now restored) to run a train service on Network Rail lines and to an extraordinary exchange of letters between the  Office of Road and Rail, the regulator, and the company. Both can be found here.

What emerges from the correspondence  is that this was not an isolated incident but one of a number – not all of which had been properly reported on other steam enthusiast’s train trips. And furthermore the company’s attitude to safety culture was seen by the Office of Road and Rail  as bad. It found ” that there is still an inadequate appreciation of the need for an appropriate safety culture from the Board down, and the senior management’s role in ensuring that its staff operate safely. ”

The report revealed also the staff who operate these trains were nearly all on  cheap zero- hours contracts – a matter that the company has now promised to rectify and that it was not clear  who was responsible for the day to day running of the company either.  Serious matters indeed.

David Smith, chairman of the company, has  promised  major changes to the way the company is run.

He writes to the ORR :” We have engaged the services of a respected independent safety consultancy to review our management arrangements and conduct safety culture surveys and gap analysis within the organisation. They will also conduct an assessment of the executive, identifying development plans if necessary.”

What is clear is that  the West Coast Railway Company needed more than just a major overhaul but a complete change of attitude from top to bottom. The public exchange of letters by the ORR shone a light on an area which the public know little and tend to trust the operators because they  are used to high safety standards on their daily commute or  travelling across the country by rail.

Luckily for the company we are discussing this after a ” near miss” not a fatal accident which could have killed and injured hundreds of people – and probably led to the end of main line steam heritage trips.



10 thoughts on “Heritage railways: Nearly a very nasty train crash

  1. I sincerely hope that this company has indeed made a thorough overhaul of the way it operates. Zero hours contracts are unacceptable, and for a company who operate train services to be careless about health & safety is even worse.


  2. Apart from the risks raised by poor regulation of historic steam trips, I understand that there is apparently no limit to the number of passengers that scheduled trains may carry, despite the impact that has on health & safety, access for disabled and other vulnerable train users, when overcrowded, and more seriously, the consequences that would ensue should the worst happen and an accident occur. This was what I was told by GWR, after complaining about a hellish journey to Paddington, from Cornwall, involving a train rammed with twice the normal numbers, and an incident with drunken passengers, a couple of years ago. It seems incredible, if true.


  3. an important story in its own right but also reflects the reality which the public face when using commercially run services in general. Such services are operated for profit with priority given to the interests of shareholders(by law) . They have never been regulated or monitored or those responsible held to account as in the public services. The best example I have in is coal mining here in the North East where records are held of the number of individual deaths including of women and children in their thousands in the 100 or so mines in Northumberland and Durham Tyne and Wearside and the handful which occurred in the decades after nationalization.

    In the mid 1980’s I attended an international senior general management course for future chief Executives as one of three individuals from the public sector out of forty where the hatred of the public sector (and of politicians) was almost universal among the Directors from some of the most well known international and national companies.

    The commercial philosophy promoted at the time was that in order to maximise profits in an increasing global economy it was essential to be prepared to move headquarters to countries with a stable government and economy offering the lowest taxation opportunities and for production to be shifted between countries again with stable governments but who also offered a low wage and if possible non existent or controllable trade union system. In addition it was important to form alliance with those in the same area of manufacturing and be be restricted in relation to a particular product or service. I wrote a paper that within the context of a capitalist financial system and trading system on the importance of a collective European approach from the perspective of local government which Michael Heseltine distributed widely within Whitehall.

    Of significance in relation to the Justice Goddard Inquiry and how the UK and Western civilized government actual work was the use of operatives in the accumulation of wealth of business of wealth, ( or acting on behalf of a state as well as their tole in management teams and even as CEO’s or Chairman known as ‘creative or as important how to eliminate them from having had an organizational involvement or ones individual responsibility for appointing or using they a contractual or agency basis when they crossed line. It was important to plan for this eventuality in advance, and if there were records for these to disappear….. you get my drift…..


    • Old carriages are stronger! So you are saying a mk1 tso is stronger and more durable than a mk3hst coach! Just have a look at the Clapham jct disaster to see how crashworthy a mk1 is. Then, take a look at the crash at Grayrigg when 390033 crashed and landed all over a field. None of coaches crumpled up as you quoted and there was only 1 fatality


    • Actually they aren’t! The crumple zones in modern stock are designed to provide progressive decelleration without intrusion into the passenger area. The older stock had massive deceleration which is more harmful, the interior fixtures detached and the windows collapsed and smashed inwards causing massive trauma and injuries. The body shells deformed and ruptured taher than staying intact ejecting passengers. Further in collisions and derailments you will find that the number of deaths and serious injuries even at the higher average speeds on the tracks nowadays result in less casualties and fatalities,


  4. Old carriages are stronger! So you are saying a mk1 tso is stronger and more durable than a mk3hst coach! Just have a look at the Clapham jct disaster to see how crashworthy a mk1 is. Then, take a look at the crash at Grayrigg when 390033 crashed and landed all over a field. None of coaches crumpled up as you quoted and there was only 1 fatality


    • The damage resistant qualities of the all-steel coach, have been seen time and time again. Very few accidents led to fatal accidents, and there have been several remarkable instances of high-speed derailments in which no personal injuries have occurred in the old carriages.


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