Ending Dead: The 1975 Moorgate, London (England) Train Crash
Moorgate is a street in the district “City of London” (population as of 2016: 9401), right in the heart of the English capital. Moorgate is named after one of the city’s first entrance-gates back in the fifteenth century, then sitting on the edge of the city. Today the area is unofficially referred to as the “Moorgate Area”, however, there is no official distinction as such. Moorgate Station opened in 1865, by which point the area was mostly home to financial institutions along with several historic buildings. Moorgate station is located 4.2km/2.6mi east-northeast of Buckingham Palace and 10km/6.2mi west of London City Airport (both measurements in linear distance) in the center of the metropolis.
Moorgate Station is the southern terminus of the Northern Line (also called the Moorgate Line), a dual-tracked electrified mostly underground railway line connecting Moorgate with Finsbury where the line connects to the East Coast Main Line (connected in 1976). Nowadays Moorgate Station sees 10.4 million annual riders. Tracks 9 and 10 at Moorgate station belonged to the Northern Line, with track 9 being a dead end. Anticipating trains overrunning the end of track 9 the rails’ end was followed by a 61cm/2ft deep sand-pit (also called a sand-drag), intending to get overrunning trains stuck within 11m/36ft. The last 5.2m/17ft of the sand pit ran into a dead-end tunnel beyond the platform, being followed by a buffer stop and eventually, 20.3m/67ft past the station, a brick wall with soil behind it. The tunnels along the Northern Line had been intended to use normal railway trains instead of the standard tube stock, leading to them measuring 4m high and 5m wide (13x16ft) instead of 4x3.7m (13x12ft). The dead end was further marked by a permanent red light at the entrance of the tunnel. Originally the line had been intended to proceed past Moorgate, the overrun-tunnel only existed because construction on the line’s continuation had started before plans were binned.
The Northern Line had a speed limit of 64kph/40mph at the time of the accident, with Moorgate station being approached at no more than 24kph/15mph.
The train involved
In November 1966 the Northern Line had introduced the 1938 rolling stock, a three-car electric multiple unit developed for the London Underground Subway system by BRC&W. On the Northern Line they were used in double-traction, coming in at a total weight of 153 metric tons while measuring 95m/316ft in overall length. Each car could carry up to 42 seated passengers (plus undefined room for standing passengers) at speeds of up to 72kph/45mph. The control-cars measured 15.94m/52ft in length and featured a 91cm/3ft drivers cab at one end, giving the double-traction a total of 4 driver’s cabs. The trains are fitted with a dead-man’s switch, the driver has to press a button or the train will automatically stop. At the time the trains were operated with two crew members, a driver and a guard (a conductor of sorts). At the time of the accident the train was driven by 56 years old Leslie Newson, who had 6 years of experience, with 18 years old Robert Harris serving as the train’s guard, and carried approximately 300 passengers.
On the 28th of February 1975 the first Drayton Park — Moorgate Service passed without incident, reaching its terminus at 6:53am. Only there did Mister Harris join the train, he had run late and missed the departure-time 13 minutes prior at Drayton Park. He replaced an off-duty driver who had spontaneously volunteered to act as a guard so the train could run. The two men ran 3 more services on the line without incidents before departing for Moorgate once more at 8:38am. Most of the approximately 300 passengers were in the forward part of the train, as the platform for track 9 at Moorgate station only had one staircase at the far side of the platform, next to the dead-end tunnel, and commuters liked to cut down on the walking if possible. Normally the train would have been even more crowded, as it was commonly used by students of the nearby City of London School for Girls. However, the school had a holiday on the day of the accident as it was used for external exams, reducing the number of passengers.
As the train departed Old Street Station, a scheduled 56 seconds from Moorgate station, Mister Harris became bored and left his position at the guard’s control panel at the front of the rear train car in search of a newspaper. Unable to find one he remained away from the panel, later saying he read the ads plastered on the interior walls instead. The signalman on duty at Moorgate station saw the train pull in at vastly excessive speed with no sign of braking, saying it might have even sped up slightly. Witnesses on the platform later claimed they saw Mister Newson sitting a the controls facing straight ahead as the train raced into the station. Tests later showed that further statements about where exactly he was looking/what his eyes were like could not possibly be accurate, though, as the lighting made it impossible to see the driver’s eyes even at slow speed. The train reached the end of the tracks at 8:46am, overrunning the end at approximately 56kph/35mph. For a split-second sand and dust were thrown up as the leading car sped through the sand pit before the train crashed into the buffer-stop, tearing the body of the leading car off it’s frame. It impacted the wall at the same moment, insignificantly slowed down, forcing the body of the car upwards into the ceiling. The second car dug itself beneath the rear end of the leading car, crushing the rear of the leading car against the ceiling in a shape comparable to a V with a tail. The weight of the train pushing from behind forced the second car far into the leading car’s wreckage, suffering severe damage itself, while the third car only slightly climbed the back of car 2 and cars 4–6 were barely damaged. Responders would later find the leading car’s remains compressed to just 6.1m/20ft from what used to be 16m/52ft.
Mister Newson and 42 of his passengers were killed in the crash, with another 74 being severely injured.
The first ambulance arrived at Moorgate station at 8:54am, 3 minutes before the fire department. Around the same time the nearby St. Bartholomew’s Hospital was informed that “a tube train had hit the buffers”, with no indication of the severity of the incident. As such the hospital originally only sent a medical student and a casualty officer to the scene to assess the situation. Their slow response based on lackluster information is why another hospital located further away had doctors on site first. Doctor Dean, one of those first medical professionals on site, soon realized that his small supply-bag was ridiculously insufficient for the tragedy at hand, proceeding to head to a nearby pharmacy and acquire their entire stockpile of morphine and pethidine (another strong pain suppressant). One of Dean’s colleagues later described the scene at the station as follows:
The front carriage was an indescribable tangle of twisted metal and in it the living and the dead were heaped together, intertwined among themselves and the wreckage. It was impossible to estimate the number [of casualties] involved with any degree of accuracy because the lighting was poor, the victims were all tangled together, and everything was covered with a thick layer of black dust. Many of the victims were writhing in agony and were screaming for individual attention. It was obvious from an early stage that the main problem was the disentanglement of a heap of people, many of whom appeared to be in imminent danger of suffocation.
The dust wasn’t the only problem for survivors and responders, as traffic on the other track was shut down ventilation became nearly nonexistant. Normally the trains going in and out of stations act like pistons, pushing air back and forth and getting a certain circulation going. With all traffic stopped the dusty air at track 9 started to heat up, aided by lamps and cutting-equipment the fire department brought in, reaching over 50°C/122°F in a short time.
The rear 3 cars, being largely intact, where quickly towed away to improve access to the main wreckage, at the same time a makeshift medical center was set up on the platform where even some emergency surgeries were conducted. The platform was located 21m/70ft below the ground, everything had to be carried in and out by hand over several flights of stairs slowing both the supply with equipment and the evacuation of survivors. Firefighters cut holes in the wreckage as they inched forwards to allow a circular route-system, moving towards the front of the train on one side and back on the other. Due to the limited space the firefighters had to strip off most of their equipment before climbing into the twisted remains of the train. The first two cars had expanded sideways as they were crushed, almost completely filling both width and height of the tunnel.
At the same time runners had to relay messages to and from the surface as the radios didn’t work underground, delaying communications and leading to some errors. In one case a doctor requested the pain-suppressing gas Entonox, by the time a runner delivered the message to the surface he reported a doctor had asked for an empty box and was equipped with such. Just before noon a large fan was placed at the top of the escalators to improve ventilation, however this caused the dust-situation to worsen drastically, causing the fan to soon be removed again.
Responders slowly cut the wreckage into sections as they worked, creating a gap at the entrance to the tunnel and saving them the climb through already cleared wreckage. At 8:55pm 19 years old Miss Liles was recovered from the wreckage of car 1, which was only possible after responders amputated one of her feet on-site. An hour later Mister Benton, who had been trapped next to Miss Liles, was the last passenger to be rescued alive as responders slowly cut through one of car 1’s main girders that had been trapping the two. After Benton had been rescued all equipment was turned off and responders were ordered to be quiet. A doctor shouted for any trapped survivors to make noise, being met with silence it was declared that no further survivors were to be expected. At the time the death-toll was at 42, with 40 people dying in the crash and 2 dying from the crush-syndrome minutes after being rescued. For more information on that phenomenon, see my write-up on the 1977 Granville (Australia) Derailment, where the crush-syndrome played a major part. Mister Benton also died of what would become known as the crush-syndrome, surviving a month before passing at hospital, making Miss Liles the last survivor rescued.
The day after the accident the fire department started cutting the wreckage apart for removal at a more advanced pace, however, the flame cutting equipment had detrimental effects on the conditions at the site, with oxygen-levels dropping to 16% (from a usual 21). Furthermore, the sustained heat and dust along with the increasingly strong smell of decomposition made work incredibly hard. Firefighters could only remain in the tunnel for 20 minutes, having to take 40 minute breaks afterwards, and anyone with the slightest cut or similar open injury was banned from returning below ground. Late in the day on March the 1st a company donated an air conditioning unit which at least brought the temperature down, only for work to grind to a stop the next day when pranksters called in a false bomb threat. On the morning of March the 4th responders finally accessed the remains of the driver’s cabin, which had been compressed to 15cm/6in (for comparison, an iPhone 12 is 14.7cm long). It was reported that Mister Newson’s body was found with his left hand near but not on the brake-handle and his right arm hanging down next to the main controller which also contained the dead man’s switch. The switch itself had been bent upwards well past its usual range, making it impossible to tell if Newson’s hand had been on it or not. Firefighters brought Mister Newson’s body to the surface at 8:05pm on March the 4th, clearing the wreckage by 5am the next day and handing control of the site over to the London Underground. In total, the rescue and recovery effort had involved 1324 firefighters, 240 police officers, 80 EMTs, 16 doctors and countless nurses.
Investigators had already examined cars 3–6 of the train involved in the accident, finding no sign of a technical fault that would’ve caused the accident. They were unable to conduct the same examination on cars 1 and 2 as those had been destructed past recognition or sensible reconstruction. Even if the brakes had somehow failed to a status of not applying, the opposite of what train-brakes usually do in a failure, the train would have decelerated at the station as the platform-track was level, the last decline ending some 70m/230ft outside the station.
With a technical fault out of the question and based on witness reports the investigation centered in on Mister Newson himself. Right after his body was recovered an autopsy was conducted, intended to bring information forward about his condition in the final minutes, along with his clothes and duty bag being examined. Mister Newson’s bag contained a bottle of milk, sugar, his notebook and a rule book, while he carried 270 British pounds (around 2000 GBP in 2022) in the pocket of his jacket. A coworker recalled having a cup of tea with Newson before the latter’s shift, where Newson gave the man some of his sugar and joked that he please go easy on it as Mister Newson intended to have another cup later. Talking to the Newson family it was explained that he had made an appointment to buy his daughter a used car after his shift, hence the money in his pocket. All of this made a deliberate crash highly unlikely, as investigators concluded that a suicidal person would have behaved differently and likely carried different things. Furthermore, coworkers stated that they were sure he would have shared larger issues/worries with them as he was a chatty person. Furthermore, there was no sensible explanation why a suicidal driver would have run the connection several times without incident before the accident. It was still noted that Newson, who was known as a careful driver who approached platforms slower than the average underground train driver, had overshot a platform twice in the week prior to the accident. This led an expert to claim that he might have been “getting the feeling” for a planned suicide after all. However, the investigation could not declare suicide as the cause of the accident with the evidence at hand.
The autopsy found no sign of a stroke, heart attack or similar medical emergency, largely ruling out those causes, while the position of Mister Newson reported by witnesses and upon recovery makes it unlikely that he had fainted. Upon a toxicology-analysis of his kidneys his blood-alcohol-level at the time of the autopsy was measured at 80mg/100ml (coincidentally the legal limit for driving under the influence in England both then and now). Newson’s widow stated that her husband only rarely drank “selected spirits”, backed up by his coworkers saying they had never seen him drinking or being drunk on the job. A further sampling and examination by a forensic poison-expert resulted in the decision that Newson likely had been sober at the time of the accident, blaming the alcohol found during the autopsy on the decomposition-process in between the accident and autopsy, aided by the high temperatures in the tunnel. Increasingly finding causes that they could say didn’t cause the accident but none that pointed to a cause investigators proceeded to reconstruct Newson’s position in the driver’s cab and comparing the damage to X-rays of his hands and arms. They concluded that he had likely had his hand on the dead man’s switch as intended, the mechanism of which showed no sign of pre-accident damage. Furthermore, there were no electrical burns found on his clothes or skin that would be caused by a major electrical fault.
On the 19th of March a memorial service was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, attended by over 2000 mourners including Newson’s family and representatives of the emergency services.
Around this time the guard, Mister Harris, also had to explain his behavior. The guard’s panel, which Harris left before the accident, contained an emergency brake, causing the claim that he could have recognized the train’s excessive speed and at least reduced the severity of the subsequent collision. Investigators didn’t place blame for the accident on the guard after all, pointing to his inexperience and inferior rank to the older and more experienced Newson, but his “idle and undisciplined” behavior was still heavily criticized.
While investigators now knew that the accident was entirely the fault of Mister Newson, they still didn’t know why it happened. And now they were out of sustainable theories. An investigator speculated that Newson might have been distracted/daydreaming and not noticed that he was approaching Moorgate station. However, even in the unlikely case that the jolty drive over the points outside the station didn’t bring back awareness he would have noticed before hitting the wall, but there was no evidence of any reflex-action such a moment would cause (like raising one’s arms in front of the face). Lastly, the medical experts involved in the investigation proposed that he could’ve suffered from either transient global amnesia or akinesis with mutism, two neurological conditions that maintain full function of the brain but leave the patient unable to move (akinesis) and/or speak (mutism). These theories could neither be proven or disproven, as transient global amnesia leaves no post-mortem traces and the diagnosis of akinesis with mutism requires a microscopic examination of the brain which wasn’t possible anymore because of the degree of decomposition that had occurred. As such the investigation had no choice but to declare an undefined cause, and to this day it is unknown why exactly Mister Newson let his train run into the far wall at the station.
When platform 9 was reopened the repaired wall was painted bright white and the sand pit was replaced by a heavy-duty buffer stop deemed more effective at slowing trains down. New rules limited the speed of trains entering terminal platforms to 16kph/10mph. London Underground also accelerated the development and installation of a train speed control system that stops trains if they approach a dead end too fast. At Moorgate station this system consisted of 3 sensors, one outside the station, one at the beginning of the platform and one halfway down the platform. Each sensor operates a “tripcock” lever that folds down out of the way if the train is moving at the correct speed. If the train is speeding it stays up and is touched by a matching counterpart on the train, applying the emergency brakes. On the London underground the sensors are set to let a train pass if it travels at no more than 20kph/12.5mph. Furthermore, resistors placed in the trains’ power-supply leave them unable to accelerate as they pull into a station, simply not getting enough power from the network. The speed-control is officially called “Trains Entering Terminal Stations” (TETS) and had started installations in 1971, but after the accident it became commonly referred to as the “Moorgate protection” or “Moorgate control”. By 1984 the system was in place and working in all applicable locations. This, along with increasing automation means an accident like Moorgate should be unable to happen again.
The 1938 trains were withdrawn from the London Underground in 1988, while modified sets ran on the Isle of Wight (above ground) all the way until January 2021. A handful of complete or incomplete units has been preserved in different places across the UK, including at least 1 operational train owned by the London Transport Museum where it is used for filming or occasional enthusiast tours.
In 2013 a memorial for the accident was finally unveiled after a long campaign by survivors, relatives and supporters, consisting of a black stone rectangle listing the names of all victims in gold lettering. The memorial can be found at Finsbury Square, 410m/450yd from the station. Half a year later an additional memorial-plaque, showing a more general reminder of the accident, was unveiled on the site of the station building.