Tragedy on the West Coast Main Line – Ignorance from Arrogance in 24 seconds

In the last part of our mini-series looking back to events of 50 years ago, Fraser Pithie considers a tragic accident that took place in early January 1968 on a section of the West Coast Main Line. It led to the first judicial and public inquiry into a railway accident since the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879. The consequences were to affect the progress of British Rail’s modernisation plans for several years afterwards, and proved to be a defining moment in level crossing use by motorists. Hixon was also a tragedy that could have been avoided.

An aerial view of the devastating aftermath of the Hixon level crossing crash on January 6, 1968. The remains of the low-loader still straddle the rail line. The transformer lies beyond the crossing, dislodged by the electric locomotive. PRESS ASSOCIATION

Often it is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and in terms of several or more railway accidents, many images have fulfilled this maxim.

The dreadful events that took place near a disused airfield at a small hamlet known as Hixon in Staffordshire on Saturday, January 6, 1968 led to images that certainly conveyed the force and consequences of a high-speed rail/vehicle collision.

The remains of ‘AL1’ loco No. E3009 are buried under wrecked carriages as rescuers get to work, one suspended in a harness on a crane. All pictures courtesy STAFFORDSHIRE POLICE unless stated.

This was irresistible force meeting a nearly immovable object.

As 1968 started, the modernisation of the railways, and in particular the West Coast Main Line (WCML), had advanced well.

Above: The rear of the Wynns low-loader with the half-barrier wedged against the cab. In the top right of the picture is the back of the transformer.

Electrification between London Euston, Rugby, Birmingham and Wolverhampton, along with the Trent Valley section of the WCML from Rugby to Stafford, was complete to the main destinations such as Manchester and Liverpool.

Further electrification from Weaver Junction, where the line to Liverpool diverges from the WCML, north to Preston, Carlisle and Glasgow was to follow and be completed by 1974.

The carriages which landed on No. E3009 have been removed as two men sift through the debris. No. E3009 entered BR service in October 1960, and after the accident was removed to Crewe Works. By August 1968 it had been cut up, because of the damaged sustained.

A regular and fast express electric train service using a new ‘InterCity’ brand was launched in April 1966.

It brought Manchester and Liverpool within three hours of London and was very much vaunted as the face of Britain’s ‘new modernised railway’.

A view towards Hixon level crossing showing the half barriers represented by ‘hammers’. Today, road signs for level crossings with both barriers and traditional gates carry the gate symbol.

The trains were hauled by new electric locomotives, taking their power from a 25KV AC overhead system.

With the initial electrification of southern sections of the WCML also came other modernisation elements, and this involved crossings with roads, right of ways and farm tracks/accesses. A number of options were followed from closing such crossings, upgrading them or automating them.

Background

To understand and appreciate some of the elements that were associated and likely contributed to what became a tragic event in 1968, one needs to go back more than 170 years to the early days of railways in the UK.

Press photographers make their way to the lineside to record the crash scene, which had become a free-for-all for the public. It is difficult to believe no police cordon was in place.

In 1845, Parliament determined that strict rules would be applied to level crossings with railways and highways, tracks, rights of way etc.

Initially, The Railway Clauses Consolidation Act 1845, (RCC), required that public level crossings be “manned and gated” with “good and sufficient” gates normally kept closed against the road, effectively fencing and securing the railway.

Another aerial view that shows the final positions of the key components of the train and low loader. MIRRORPIX

The RCC Act gave powers to the President of the Board of Trade to vary and reverse this practice, a power that was transferred to the Ministry of Transport in 1919.

Over the period from inception of the Act up to and beyond 1919, such powers were increasingly exercised where the volume of road traffic increased and exceeded the volume of rail traffic on a level crossing.

Most, and certainly major, level crossings required that the gates were interlocked with signals ensuring a train could only proceed after receiving a clear indication, which was only possible once the crossing gates had been closed against the road.

Hixon level crossing lasted until 2002 when a bridge costing £2million was built over the line following two other accidents between road vehicles and trains 18 years previously, one of them fatal. This is the view from the bridge looking towards the former crossing, which is located by the front of the Class 390 ‘Pendolino’ on a London-bound service. FRASER PITHIE

With the passage of time, the Ministry of Transport made judgments to vary more crossings.

However, this included some crossings, mostly that were not busy, to be changed without the protection of interlocking and signals.

In 1966 there were some 2,500 public level crossings with 514 gated crossings NOT protected by interlocking and signals.

Read more in January’s issue of The RM – on sale now!

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