ECML BLACKSPOT: Derailment at Danger

Just eight days after a major accident on the newly electrified West Coast Main Line at Stechford, Birmingham, there followed another tragic event. Fraser Pithie looks back at what was, in its immediate aftermath, one of the most mysterious railway accidents of modern times. The incident involved a Class 55 ‘Deltic’ hauling an express passenger and mail train that took place 50 years ago in a remote part of Cambridgeshire on the East Coast Main Line, Britain’s premier Anglo-Scottish route.

The view north after the derailment showing the seventh carriage almost on its side and the wrecked track. PA PHOTOS

IT WAS a typical late-winter/early-spring night at London King’s Cross on March 7, 1967 when Class 55 ‘Deltic’ No. D9004 Queen’s Own Highlander backed on to its train consisting of 11 coaches. Made up of three post office mail vehicles, a sleeping car, a mix of five second class carriages and two full brakes, one at either end, the total weight of the consist, including the loco, was 477 tons. The train formed an overnight service due to depart at 22.30 for Edinburgh.

As they prepared for the journey ahead the driver Mr B Oakton, his secondman Mr P A Wheaton and the guard Mr J Wright could not have known that their train would complete less than 70 miles of its planned 393-mile journey before fate played its hand in a lonely spot along some four miles of isolated Cambridgeshire fenland. In 1967 British Rail had advanced by 12 years from its 1955 Modernisation Plan, steam traction had not quite finished, and much of the railway infrastructure that remained in use was
pre-Second World War.

Signalling and points were one of the items that, for several decades, had little major investment, not least because the system, once installed, was generally reliable, safe and sustainable. Only major infrastructure schemes, where new traction and service levels were planned, such as the electrification of the West Coast Main Line, attracted complete new signalling and the associated benefits of more modern infrastructure.

Bleak location

A premier Anglo-Scottish line in its own right, the East Coast Main Line had attracted investment as part of the 1955 Modernisation Plan. This included 22 3,300hp twin-engined ‘Deltic’ locomotives built by English Electric for exclusive use on the ECML between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh.
The ‘Deltics’ reduced the King’s Cross
to Edinburgh journey time from
Flying Scotsman’s eight hours to an impressive six hours.

While several sections of the ECML had benefited from newer signalling and power-operated points, much of the route, particularly away from large conurbations, was still mechanically or electro-mechanically signalled from numerous lineside signalboxes.

Connington in Cambridgeshire was such a location. There were two signalboxes within just a mile of each other – Connington South and Connington North. Unfortunately, this remote, and at times bleak location had previously experienced accidents and mishaps.

Connington North signalbox was renamed Connington South when an additional signalbox was constructed in the Second World War. As the new ’box was situated to the north of the existing signal box it became Connington North, with the original signalbox being renamed Connington South.

The purpose of the extra box was to enable connection to sidings that had been laid to access a lineside tip for rubble and debris being brought out of London as a result of the wartime Blitz. After the war, the tip continued in use, with the railway using it as a dump for old ballast and ash.

Read more in the March issue of The RM – out now!

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