Points at the Door: The 1973 Ealing (England) Derailment
Ealing is Borough and district (inside said Borough) in western London, England. The Borough of Ealing is home to 341806 people (as of 2019) on an area of 55.53 km²/21.44sq mi, making it London’s fourth-largest Borough by population. It’s located 13km/8mi west of downtown London and 17.5km/11mi south of Watford (both measurements in linear distance).
Ealing is crossed by the Great Western Main Line, a 190km/118mi double- to quad-tracked electrified main line running from Bristol in the southwest of England to London Paddington Station just 9km/5.5mi from Ealing. Opened in its full expansion in June 1841 the line is mostly used for passenger trains at speeds of up to 201kph/125mph with the main operator, Great Western Railway (at the time called First Great Western), running everything from Intercity trains to regional commuter services on a network spanning over 270 stations.
The train involved
1A82 was a passenger express train scheduled to depart London Paddington Station at 5:18pm for Oxford. On the day of the accident it was pulled by British Rail (BR) Class 52 Number D1007, christened “Western Talisman”. The BR Class 52 is a six-axle two-engine multipurpose diesel locomotive introduced in 1961. Each Class 52 measures 20.73m/68ft in length at a weight of 110 metric tons. They were powered by two license-built (as the government didn’t want to buy from Germany so soon after WW2) Maybach V12 diesel engines, each one producing 1007kW/1350hp from 64.5l/3940cu in. Even with a significant power-loss through the diesel-hydraulic powertrain (compared to the diesel-electric systems of the time) the Class 52 could still reach up to 140kph/90mph even with a heavy train in tow. All Class 52 were given a two-part name starting with “Western”, giving them the nickname “Westerns” or “Wizzos”.
The Class 52 carried several lead-acid batteries underneath its frame, located in compartments between the bogies. These batteries were needed to pre-heat and start up the massive engines, similar to the smaller 12V-battery in a normal car. To protect the batteries from the environment the compartment featured a 1.13m/44.5in door that opened downwards. The doors were locked in the closed position with a square key operating a carriage lock. While the smaller Class 42, where the design originated, only featured that mechanism the Class 52 featured an additional “pear drop” catch at the top, designed to catch the battery door should the carriage lock fail (which had happened on the Class 42).
The 1A82 express train consisted of ten BR Mark 1 “corridor” four-axle passenger cars, made up from seven second-class cars, one first class car and three “mixed” first and second class cars. Introduced in 1951 the Mark 1 class cars seat 24-48 people (depending on the interior configuration) at a length of 19.66m/64.6ft and a weight of around 35 metric tons. They were allowed to travel at up to 160kph/100mph, which was still enough for express trains at the time of the accident.
On the 17th of December 1973 Western Talisman was hauling a passenger service from Plymouth to Paddington early in the morning when, near the town of Reading, one of its engines failed. Another locomotive towed the train and the broken locomotive the rest of the way before the locomotive was moved to a maintenance facility on the 18th. At 10pm on that day an engineer, Mister Pitter, was ordered to charge up the locomotive’s batteries. He opened the compartments in the process of attaching the chargers but routed the wires for the chargers so they technically didn’t interfere with the doors. Early the following morning his supervisor, Mister Wiggins, discovered that someone had closed the compartments, something often done to free up crucial space in the crammed maintenance yard. No one touched the battery compartment doors in any way until noon when Mister Wiggins’ assistant, Mister Abbas, arranged for the locomotive to be moved to a different place for engine testing. Abbas told the engineers on duty to “box up” the locomotive, meaning to close any and all overhanging doors and secure them for driving. This included an engineer by the name of Mister Ashley being tasked with shutting and securing the battery compartment doors. He correctly removed the wires as he unplugged the locomotive but failed to examine the dual locking mechanisms as he didn’t open the battery compartment doors to do so. As such the locomotive moved out of the maintenance shed it had been stored in with the doors closed but at least one pear-drop not being properly set to secure it.
At 2pm Western Talisman was released from repairs and was sent to haul empty rolling stock to London-Paddington before taking the 5:18pm express train from Paddington to Oxford. Mister Owen, the driver for the two trips, examined the locomotive at the maintenance facility but failed to notice the open pear-drop, later stating that his examination during the preparation of a locomotive consisted of a walk around the locomotive glancing alongside it and checking that the brakes, the brake blocks and the wheels were in proper order as well as ensuring the locomotive was set to battery-power for startup and check for any hoses or wires still attached by accident.
After dropping off the empty rolling stock Western Talisman was hooked up to the 1A82 express train from London-Paddington to Oxford, which it would pull under the command of a three man crew. Mister Owen was still the driver, being supported by his assistant Mister Woodnaugh and the guard (similar to a conductor) Mister Wells. Approximately 650 passengers were aboard 1A82 as it departed Paddington station 11 minutes behind schedule at 5:29pm, slightly exceeding the seating-capacity of 622. Approximately 3km/2mi into its journey the vibrations and motions caused the battery door to fall open (it’s unknown if the locks failed or hadn’t been locked) as the pear drop didn’t hold it back, hanging off the train and sticking out the left side far enough to protrude past the train’s loading gauge. The hanging door struck various trackside objects as the train hauled past at 110kph/70mph, but none of the survivors report having felt anything odd or suspicious as the train made its way down a little over 3km/2mi of track, including passing through two stations. It was only later that investigators found damage to various objects along the line, as early as the “end of shunting zone” sign at Old Oak Common (which was right after where the door must’ve opened).
At approximately 5:36pm the train reached Ealing Broadway station where the hanging battery compartment door got caught on the edge of the nearest station platform. The impact at still 110kph/70mph ripped several so-called coping stones (similar to a facade and gable) from the concrete platform. The collision with the rather solid platform severely damaged the door, causing its hinges to break. Several people felt and heard the impact with the platform, including Mister Owen and his assistant, who both believed that it had been a particularly rough weld in the rails which they would report once they reached Reading station, 48km/30mi down the line. The train would never make it there, as, by this point, disaster was likely unavoidable. Even if the crew had known that something was seriously wrong there was neither enough time nor distance left to stop the train. The door ground along the platform before falling down, the broken hinges allowing it to hang down further than previously possible while its supports kept it from departing the locomotive altogether. It was now hanging dangerously low to the ground, likely getting dragged through the gravel ballast next to the rails on occasion.
440m/1445ft beyond Ealing Broadway station the tracks passed under Longfield Avenue. Here a set of points formed a crossover to allow trains to change between the different tracks. With 1A82 being the only train in the area at the time the points were set to “straight ahead” and actually had been in that position for the previous trains also. The points were operated remotely from the signal box at Old Oak Common by sending an electrical signal to the motor at the points which then moved the center section to allow trains to either divert or keep going straight. However, due to the damage sustained at Ealing Broadway station the battery compartment door was hanging so low that it struck the motor assembly like a massive sledgehammer, ripping it apart and physically moving it. This moved the points’ center section as well, changing its setting with the locomotive halfway across it. Disaster had literally struck.
Getting its rear bogie essentially kicked out from under it Western Talisman was thrown onto its right side, skidding down the tracks for about 190m/630ft before coming to a rest. The leading car was completely derailed but remained upright, following the locomotive to a standstill with minor damage. The second car fell on its right side after swinging around 90°, blocking the entire rail line and causing the following three cars to jackknife. Those three suffered severe damage as they derailed and crashed into one another, with a bogie from the third car tearing off and coming through the wall of car four where it presumably caused the majority of the serious injuries and the fatalities. The remaining coaches came to a stop largely upright with minor damage, spread out over the width of the line, with the rear of the train coming to a standstill just past the damaged points, right by the battery compartment door that had torn off the locomotive at last. Ten passengers have died and 94 people, including the locomotive crew, were injured, 53 of which severely.
Just minutes after the locomotive came to a rest Mister Owen helped his assistant to climb out of the cab and sent him to find a track-side phone to notify the local signal box before, realizing he was blocking all tracks, he grabbed a box of detonators (small explosive charges that detonate witha loud bang if overrun, meant as an emergency stop order) and leaving the cab himself. First heading to a nearby phone only to find it out of order (the derailing train had cut several communication-wires) he then reached the one his colleague was using, wanting to know the report-status before attaching the detonators to the tracks so that no other train can run into the wreckage in the dark.
The signalman the men had called had already suspected an accident when his system suddenly showed all tracks in both directions as occupied (due to the wreckage short-circuiting the tracks) with only a single train meant to be in the area. As such, by the time the driver and his assistant called to report the accident at 5:40pm, the line was already locked down and emergency services had been dispatched to the location, beginning to arrive at the site just 4 minutes later. Both men later said they saw the way to a nearby phone as a more practical way to quickly get the line locked down than retrieving “track circuit clamps” (two clamps with a cable between them, causing the track they’re applied to to report as occupied) from the locomotive as everything in the cab had been thrown all over the place in the derailment.
In the meantime the guard had survived the derailment essentially uninjured in the sixth car and retrieved his set of track circuit clamps, only to find himself unable to attach them as the derailment had bent the rails apart too far for the cable. At the same time a railway employee who had been riding off-duty in the third car climbed out of the wreckage, made his way through a private garden to an adjacent office building, commandeering a phone and setting up makeshift headquarters for the rescue operation.
Rescue crews worked their way through the zig-zagged wreckage car by car, recovering the victims and distributing the more severely injured survivors to various local hospitals by means of about a dozen ambulances while railway workers started investigating the site with particular focus on the locomotive, especially after finding the broken remains of the points motor. Among them was Mister James who had headed to the site after hearing about the derailment on the news. He first entered the locomotive’s cab through the missing window the crew had removed to evacuate the cab, taking note of the settings of various controls before walking around the locomotive with a flashlight looking for anything suspicious. At last he scaled the locomotive (whose 2.64m/8.8ft width had turned into height) and found the fourth battery box door entirely missing.
The pear drop safety catch was in the “unlatched” position and secured with a screw, meaning even with the locomotive the right side up it would’ve remained in the unlocked position despite all the vibrations and motions from the train. A swift touch moved the screw to release the pear drop, allowing Mister James to move it freely (usually gravity would move it downward once released). Climbing down from the locomotive Mister James tracked down the police officer in charge of the site and explained his findings, leading to the officer taking Mister James to the other end of the wreckage where a policeman was guarding the destroyed points motor as well as a yet-undefined object which Mister James identified as a Class 52’s battery compartment door, specifically that of the Class 52 that he had just climbed all over moments earlier. He examined the battered door and found one of the locks on it to be missing entirely while the other one was in the unlocked position. At this point the theory that the unlocked battery compartment door falling down and hitting the points motor had caused the derailment was created, it would later be backed up by microscopic examinations showing the same nine layers of paint on the locomotive, the torn off door and pieces of the points motor. Following that discovery, just hours after the accident, all depots working with the Class 52 were alerted to pay particular attention to the battery compartment doors on their Class 52 locomotives, especially if the doors were regularly shut without being locked to free up space.
The recovery of the last victims stretched into the early morning before the site was handed over to British Rail’s maintenance department, who took another 10 days to clear the wreckage and repair the infrastructure before the line could be reopened. The official report, published in September 1974, places the blame for the accident squarely on the battery compartment door falling open. The report notes that the immediate person responsible remains unknown as it was never found out who closed the battery compartment door without locking or securing it or notifying anyone of the act. While the action is understandable given the circumstances (high workload and limited space) it is considered an indicator of poor working procedures at the maintenance facility.
With that person’s identity impossible to be found out the main blame lies on Mister Ashley who failed to examine the locks before signing off on the compartments, instead assuming that the doors being closed must mean they were locked and secured, a behavior the report considers inexcusable. Mister Abbas was also criticized for asking for the locomotive to be “boxed up” ahead of having it moved but just taking Mister Ashley’s word instead of examining the locomotive. The driver, Mister Owen, was relieved of guilt as the battery compartment doors were not part of his responsibility and thus he cannot be blamed for missing the wrong setting of the pear-drop. The report points out that Mister Pitter could only set the chain of events in motion as workers at the facility had, without permission, modified the pear-drop with a screw to secure it in the raised (unlatched) position, a modification the report considers well-intentioned but unnecessary and unreasonably risky as it can, and did, lead to potentially catastrophic accidents.
Despite placing partial blame on several specific individuals no record can be found of any of them ever facing legal consequences for their actions, so it is to be assumed that the matter was handled internally. After the accident the safety-catch on the Class 52 was redesigned and replaced on all locomotives within the year, seemingly successfully as no other accident was ever caused by a battery compartment door falling open.
The Mark 1 “Corridor” cars largely disappeared from regular service by the early 2000s, being replaced with more modern train cars that mostly featured open seating-layouts instead of individual compartments. Today only a handful are left in service mostly with charter companies or historic trains, the latter bringing them to a little bit of international attention when a preserved set was used as the “Hogwarts Express” in the Harry Potter Movies.
The Class 52 is today largely considered a failure, its diesel-hydraulic concept failing to make its advantages outweigh its drawbacks. By 1977, just 16 years after their introduction, all 71 surviving units (3 had been written off after accidents) had been withdrawn from service. Today seven units remain as museum pieces, 2 of which being operational as of January 2022. The Paddington-Oxford connection is currently served by BR Class 800 Hybrid multiple units.