End of the Line: The 2004 Ufton Nervet (England) Level Crossing Collision

Ufton Nervet is a village of 296 people (as of 2011) in the far south of England, located 11km/7mi southwest of Reading and 16.5km/10mi north of Basingstoke in Berkshire County (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Ufton Nervet in Europe.

Ufton Nervet is passed by the Reading-Taunton rail line just 2km/1.25mi (linear distance) to the northeast. Opening between 1847 and 1906 the Reading-Taunton rail line is a double-track partially electrified main line connecting Reading to the Bristol to Exeter and Penzance Line. The line is mostly used for regional and express passenger services, allowing speeds of up to 177kph/110mph.

The site of the accident photographed from above a month after the accident. The train came from the east (right) and the car from the bottom-right (southeast).

The vehicles involved

1C92 was an Intercity 125 high speed train was travelling westbound from London-Paddington Station to Plymouth. Introduced into service in 1976 the IC125 is a high speed diesel express train consisting of 2 British Rail Class 43 locomotives with a row of Mark 3 passenger cars between them. The Class 43 is a four-axle high speed diesel locomotive purposely developed for the then-new Intercity service, evident in its asymmetrical design with a streamlined and a “blunt”end, giving the IC125-sets the appearance of a standard multiple unit. Originally a small stripe on the vertical end also wore the same livery as the passenger cars, making the trains look more uniform. This was later extended to the whole locomotive’s livery matching the cars. Each Class 43 weights 70.25 metric tons at 17.79m/58ft in length and has a listed top speed of 200kph/125mph (giving the Intercity 125 its name) while 238kph/148mph have been reached in testing. By 2004 each Class 43 was powered by a 79l/4800cubic inch Paxman V12 diesel engine producing 1680kW/2280hp at 1500rpm. 197 units were made for different rail service providers between 1975 and 1982. At the time of the accident the train was running in reverse, with Class 43 #43019, christened “City of Swansea” leading.

British Rail Class 43 #43126, identical with the one involved, photographed in 2005.

On the day of the accident the Intercity consisted of 8 first and second class Mark 3 passenger cars (called “coaches” in the UK), including a buffet car. Introduced in 1975 each Mark 3 passenger car measures 23m/75.6ft in length and can carry 74 (second class) or 48 (first class) passengers at up to 200kph/125mph. The cars have an all-steel construction and weight 33.6 metric tons each with the exception of the buffet car (36 metric tons). Due to cars being switched between trains the train ran with two “Coach B”, referred to as “B1” and “B2” in the report. At the time of the accident the train carried approximately 180 people, being far from full. The official report lists an overall length of 220m/722ft at a weight of 425 metric tons.

Note: Responders sprayed letters in a different order onto the wreckage, including the locomotives in the count, but like the report I will stick to the official designation the cars had prior to the accident.

An IC125 identical to the unit involved in the accident, photographed in November 2004.

Driving northbound on Ufton Lane towards the level crossing with the rail line was a third-generation Mazda 323 owned by Mister Drysdale. The Mk3 323 is a compact hatchback, measuring 4.11m/13.5ft in length at a weight of 936kg/2064lbs.

A third generation Mazda 323, nearly identical with the one involved in the accident (left) and two police officers reconstructing the car’s final position in an identical car (right).

The accident

On the sixth of November 2004 at 6:03pm the IC125 from London-Paddington to Plymouth departs Reading one minute behind schedule, heading southwest. By 6:11pm it has reached the scheduled speed of 160kph/100mph as it passes a sensor for the upcoming level crossing at Ufton Nervet, activating the lights and barriers. It is dark outside as the train races through agricultural land under an overcast sky. Moments later the driver spots a shiny obstacle in his path, pulling the throttle-lever to zero and triggering an emergency stop hopelessly too late.

The train strikes the parked Mazda, which had been parked with the handbrake applied and the lights and engine off, on the level crossing at 6:12pm, the same moment the emergency stop is triggered. The train rips the small hatchback apart and derails, with the leading two axles of the train leaving the rails. The train somewhat maintains its direction for another 95m/311ft before the derailed wheels hit a set of points, diverting the nose of the train to the side suddenly enough to cause the following axles to derail as well. The ensuing damage to the tracks, the plowed ballast and the sudden sideways forces caused the entire train to derail within seconds. Various cars had their bogies torn away, shaving off any underfloor equipment in the process. Without the tracks or even wheels to keep them aligned the train cars got out of alignment, worsened by the rear cars hitting debris from the leading ones. The leading locomotive and the leading car (coach H) eventually overturned onto their left sides and slid to a stop, pelting passengers with rocks as the windows broke and ballast entered the train. Coach H overturning inflicted sufficient yaw-motion into the still-upright coach G to cause coaches G to D to zigzag as they ran into one-another. Notably most of the train cars didn’t jackknife, with the cars separating before their broadsides came into contact.

In the process of the derailing Coach F struck a detached bogie from the car in front, which tore through the train car’s wall and became lodged in the interior of the train car. The roof and sidewall collapsed due to this impact as the car rolled 240°, folding at the impact-site by almost 180° before coming to a halt. At last the rear 3 cars as well as the rear locomotive came to a stop derailed but relatively intact. By this point six people, including Mister Drysdale, were dead and 67 injured.

The rear locomotive after the accident, with the wreckage piling up beyond it

Aftermath

Mister Brazier, an off-duty police officer, came up to the crossing minutes before the accident. Seeing the car on the tracks he went to a trackside emergency phone. The local signal box recorded an incoming call just seconds before the train struck the car in its path. Seeing that his call came late Brazier ran back to his car to call the emergency services on his cell phone, identifying himself and giving a local inn as the landmark closest to the site. Retrieving a flashlight from his car he went back to the crossing, finding the scattered remains of the car and Mister Drysdale’s body. He had seen bright red sparks fly up into the night after the crash, but couldn’t see a wreckage so he assumed that the train had continued its journey before he started seeing a random collection of small lights move around in the distance.

The train’s electrical system had failed as the train derailed and split up, plunging it into darkness. Once the wreckage came to a rest survivors used glow sticks and their cell phones for light, orienting themselves in the completely dark surroundings. Uninjured and lightly injured survivors managed to break some of the trains’ windows, climbing out and helping others to escape the train, aided by Mister Brazier making his way to the wreckage with a stronger flashlight borrowed from a random passerby. Only once he reached it did he hang up on his phone, having fed the responding services valuable information about what to expect.

The remains of the car sitting by the side of the tracks the next day.

The conductor of the train survived with minor injuries, making his way back to the crossing to notify his superiors of the accident and tell them to hold traffic on the line in both direction. Finding the emergency phone inoperable he resorted to a mobile phone, calling in only to be told that the line was already blocked.

More than 20 ambulances, 14 fire trucks and various police cars responded to the accident, finally bringing some structure to the rather chaotic situation. Survivors who could leave the train were taken to the local Inn approximately 300m/330yrds from the site, where they were evaluated and either taken away by ambulance or by car, in some cases after being treated at the site.

Car F sitting in the wreckage, having folded halfway down its length.

Within a few hours all passengers are rescued and recovered and the site is left to the investigators. Initially it seems like an open-and-shut case, with the car’s debris getting stuck in the rails and forcing the train’s wheels out of them. But the theory stops making sense as investigators examine the crossing, which shows damage to the concrete tiles and metal rails consistent with the train’s wheels never leaving the ground/being forced upwards the way debris would. Similarly, the leading axle’s wheels of the train don’t show the usual damage of the wheel running into something and being forced up. An examination of the leading axle’s gearbox brings no definitive result, it rubbed along the rails and ballast as the train derailed to a point where it was effectively sanded down beyond any chance of clearly identifiable pre- and post-derailment damage.

Being rather puzzled by the unusual damage and still being tasked with explaining the rather severe consequences of the collision the investigators start mapping out and subsequently collecting as much of the destroyed Mazda as they can find. They also ask Mister Brazier to return to the scene, who, in agreement with the damage to the chassis of the car, is able to relatively correctly reconstruct where the car had been positioned as it was struck by the train (a photo of the re-enactment can be found above under “The vehicles involved”). As they create a map of the damage investigators get suspicious about the car’s engine. The main part of it, nearly the whole block, is found separate from the camshaft and crankshaft, which themselves are found a significant distance from each other. This left a section of the block 180x300x430mm. This piece of the car is also found a significant distance further down the line than the rest of the car.

A graphic from the report reconstructing the moment of the impact.

Investigators figure that something must have forced the axle of the train upwards rather than an individual wheel. The reconstruction of the final moment before impact fairly precisely aligns the car’s engine with the train’s leading axle’s gearbox. It’s calculated that 30 tons of lifting-force were required to make the leading axle leave the rails, and with the gearbox being recovered in several pieces the engine block is the only object recovered that could exert this force on the train as it gets jammed under the leading axle’s gearbox. The fact that it was jammed off-center also explains the train’s path post-collision, as the off-center lift of the leading axle would cause the bogie to yaw (rotate around a vertical axis) anticlockwise. It’s this slight yawing-motion that throws the train off its path, causing it to leave the tracks and eventually fall over. Had the train been lifted by something being jammed under the axle in the middle it might have remained more aligned with the tracks. With less of an angle to the track it might have managed to pass the points beyond the crossing with less severe consequences. Of course, in such a complex process, there is no way to go “what if” and have a guaranteed case.

Cars G, H and the leading power car (left) sitting alongside car E (right).

While the main investigation is ongoing the investigators also manage to resolve two minor issues. First, it is proven that the inoperable emergency phone encountered by the conductor wasn’t the feared unreliability, instead the derailing train’s wheels had cut the phone’s wires which ran along the tracks. Secondly, several survivors reported that emergency hammers provided to break the windows of the train hadn’t worked, breaking themselves instead. Testing with hammers of the same design shows that indeed the hammers can be used by average civilians with enough force to break them, especially when hitting something more rigid than the glass of the windows (the working theory is that passengers hit the metal window frame by accident). The investigators invited ten volunteers to purposely hit a metal plate, with three of ten hammers being broken during the test. However, one of the hammers had been placed in a freezer, which made it non-representative for the sake of the experiment at hand. It was also noted that the hammers were designed with 4–5mm thick panes of glass in mind while the windows on the IC125 consist of two panes of 6mm each. As a result the operator of the train, First Great Western, was advised to consider improvements to the design.

One of the cars being recovered from the site a few days after the accident.

With the cause of the accident decided to be Mister Drysdale’s suicide there were never any legal consequences for anyone. In 2005 the Royal Humane Society awarded its bronze medal to two surviving passengers, Mister Kemsley and Mister McPhee. The two men had found Miss Rossi and her daughter, who both had been thrown from the train during the crash. While Miss Rossi had died immediately the men made a significant effort to save the daughter, being unsuccessful in the end. Kemsley proceeded to find a clergyman among the passengers and got him to perform last rites on the two victims. The nine years old child was the last person to die in the accident, bringing the total death toll to seven. The two men went back to the wreckage and managed to rescue more passengers, further cementing their right to be awarded according to the RHS.

After the accident a memorial garden was constructed between the crossing and the final position of the wreckage, containing an “area of reflection” as well as an engraved plaque reading as follows:

For all those affected by the catastrophic derailment of the First Great Western 17.35 Paddington to Plymouth train on 6 November 2004. One event, many realities.

Furthermore, First Great Western named IC125 power car 43139 “Driver Stan Martin” after driver of the train involved in the accident, unveiling the name-plate on what would’ve been the driver’s 55th birthday.

The memorial garden photographed in 2015.

By 2019 the IC125 was no longer permitted for operation on the national rail network as they no longer complied with accessibility-regulations. As of August 2021 four providers had IC125 in restricted service (largely regional services) on UK rails as they worked on replacing the units completely, with Scotrail and GWR modifying their sets to meet the new regulations in the meantime. It is expected that the trains will completely retire from service in the mid-2020s after over 50 years in service. First Great Western retired their last IC125 from long distance services to and from London in 2019, now running them in a shorter configuration as regional trains.

Currently 12 Class 43 locomotives have been preserved in various conditions and states of completion, while another seven are owned by LSL for use on excursion trains.

A class 802 multiple unit, the IC125’s replacement at First Great Western.

The level crossing at Ufton Nervet saw a string of accidents in the years following the 2004 crash, with fatal accidents in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2014. Already by 2012 an online petition called for the level crossing to be either removed or replaced by a bridge, which at the time was denied due to the associated cost of a new bridge. Finally, by 2015, plans for a bridge were approved and after 8 months of construction (which involved moving the memorial a short distance) a new bridge now replaces the crossing, vastly improving safety. The crossing still exists today, but is permanently closed with no road on the southern side of the tracks as the old road terminates at a parking lot for the memorial to the north of the tracks.

The new bridge at the site of the accident seen from above, running to the east of the original route.

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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.

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