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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Great Rail Disaster at Witham

As the Cromer Express was running through Witham Station at 10.30 a.m. on 1 September 1905, the whole of the train with the exception of engine and tender suddenly left the rails. The train consisted of 14 coaches and its total weight was 287 tons. One coach mounted the island platform and turned upside down, another crashed into the porters room which it demolished. A third was destroyed by fire owing to the ignition of gas in the cylinder beneath the framework - fortunately no lives were lost by this means Ten passengers as well as the foreman porter were killed, and 66 passengers and five railway employees were injured.

At this time of day two express trains normally passed each other at Witham, but the up express from Cromer was a minute late It had already been signalled and was rapidly approaching the station at full speed. With great presence of mind the signal man slammed all his signals to danger immediately he heard the crash, and the up express drew to a halt six hundred yards from the wreckage.

The wrecked train had been travelling at over 65 miles per hour. The driver said

"As I was approaching the overbridge coming into Witham I noticed that there were three men on the line in front of me working on the right hand rail of the down line. They were all in i a stooping position, close together. They all kept looking round at the approaching train, I was beginning to get anxious about them as I was getting uncomfortably close. I did not take special notice of what they were doing, but it seemed to me they wanted to get something done before I went over the spot. As Ireached the spot, the ganger put himself in a kneeling position, and the eyes of them all were riveted on the one spot which they had just left,"

The men were working on the crossing from the up to the down line, and it was at this point that derailment occurred. Shunter Hume said

"At the time the accident occurred I was standing in the four-foot way of the up line, opposite the crossover road I had just finished shunting a special coal train, and I was going across to the signalbox to tell the signalman that I had finished. I was waiting there on the up line for the down express to pass, just on the London side of the overbridge. I was watching the crossing and as the engine came onto it I saw there was a key out at the wing rail at the V crossing timber. As soon as the train began to go over it the rail began to jump up. The engine and two coaches passed over safely but the third one dropped off and ploughed up the road. I said to the Foreman 'That looks well', and he replied *0 My God !' Then I went up to the station to assist. George Fisher was at the bookstall at the time. Most of the carriages stayed between the platforms when they derailed. But one mounted the platform on the down side, struck the porters hut which was in the open, and finished up on its side under the footbridge. This was the worst incident. In the hut were . Joe Doole, Bill Dene and Fred Ardley. Poor old Joe was killed. In the other section of the hut were porters Bill Chalk, Arthur Chalk, Walter North, George Adams and I think Ted Lewsey, the last three being from Black Notley

It was Ben Sainty I think who was able to put the signals at danger and stop the up express. On it were the Norwich City team with their manager Sid Boxraan and they all came along to help with the rescue-. So did the off-duty railway men, 8 St. Johns Ambulance training certainly paid off,"

At the enquiry the Inspector pointed out that the Forman Platelayer and two other platelayers who were at work with him loosening ballast at the crossing absolutely denied the truth of Shunter Hume's evidence and asserted that no keys had been removed from the line. He said

"It is impossible to resist the conclusion that the derailment at this point was probably due to a weakening of the line at the knuckle timber owing to the work which was being carried out by the platelayers9 It is possible that these men had exceeded the foremanf'S instructions and had removed some fastenings, and that on the approach of the train they were engaged in restoring them but they had not time to do so completely before it arrived.The knuckle of the crossing is the portion of road which is subjected to the severest strain. When a train runs through it. The wheels of each vehicle after leaving the V crossing have to a certain extent to make a jump from V onto the wing rail, and during the passage of a train the wing rail thereby sustains a constant succession of more or less severe blows. This is especially the case when as in this instance the crossing is situated at the point where the gradient of the line changes from a falling one to a rising one. The fact that the line at the knuckle timber was slightly out of level would tend to increase the severity of these blows.

If as appears probable the line at this point had also been weakened by the removal of some fastenings, a failure of some portion of the permanent way at the knuckle when the crossing was run through by a train at a speed of about 70 miles an hour is not surprising; And with that speed this failure might readily have led to the results which occurred in this case."

The three platelayers were discharged. The claims for personal injuries were settled to the amount of £5000 by the Great Eastern Railway Company.


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