Poorly Guarded: The 1994 Cowden (England) Train Collision

Max S
10 min readMay 19, 2024

The Trains Involved

Cowden is a village of 818 people (as of 2011) in southern England, 44km/27mi north of Eastbourne and 42km/26mi south of London (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Cowden in Europe.

The village has a station on the Oxted Line, a partially double-tracked partially electrified branch line connecting London with Grinstead and Uckfield. It splits off the Brighton main line at South Croydon, just south of London, and separates at Hurst Green to serve the two southern termini in a layout resembling an inverted Y. The line opened in 1884, with the stretch from from London to East Grinstead being gradually electrified between 1983 and 1987. The branch from Hurst Green to Uckfield, however, remained unelectrified.

The site of the accident seen from above. Oxted and Ashurst are the next relevant/mentioned stations, smaller stops (like Cowden) lie between them and the site.

The Trains Involved

Train number 2E27 from Uckfield to Oxted and train number 2E24 from Oxted to Uckfield were two regional passenger services running the same connection in opposite directions. Both were provided by a double-traction of BR (British Rail) Class 205 with 2E27 consisting of units 205018 and 205001 while 205029 and 205032 made up the other train. The BR Class 205 was a two- or three-car diesel multiple unit (DMU) introduced in 1957. Each 3-car unit (the version involved in the accident) measured 58.36m/191ft in length at a weight of 118 metric tons. They carried 127 passengers in a two-class configuration and were powered by a 450kW/603hp four-cylinder diesel engine allowing a top speed of 121kph/75mph.

2E27 was crewed by a driver, Mister Barton, and a guard, Mister Brett-Andrews. 2E24 was driven by Mister Rees with Mister Boyd working as that train’s guard. The guard is essentially the British version of a conductor, and is there to oversee the passengers and the operation of the train service.

BR Class 205 number 205029, which was involved in the accident as 2E24, photographed in 1992.

The Accident

2E27 departs from Ashurst station at 8:25am on the 15th of October 1994 on its northbound journey to Oxted. The single-track section between Ashurst and Hever was occupied by the southbound 2E24, but 2E27 entered it anyway by driving past a red signal (“Danger”/”Stop”). The points from the single line into Ashurst station were already set for the incoming 2E24, and were thus forced to switch to the other direction when 2E27 passed through them in the wrong direction. This action, referred to as “running through” or “cutting” the points, triggered an alert in the signal box at Oxted station.

The signalman on duty at Oxted recognized the meaning of the alert, having seen 2E24 disappear into the heavy fog that hung over the rail line as it (rightfully) entered that same section of track. But he had no direct way of contacting the drivers as there was no radio system installed on the line. He did attempt to contact the driver of 2E24 by calling a telephone mounted on a trackside signal, but this call went unanswered as the driver likely couldn’t hear the phone ringing outside over the noise of the engine right behind his cab. Being left unable to avoid the imminent catastrophe the signalman chose to do the only thing left for him to do and called the emergency services, notifying them of a train crash happening in the next few seconds and giving an approximate location.

The two trains closed the mile that was between them as emergency services were notified and collided head-on at speed at 8:27am. The leading car of 2E24 mounted the frame of 205018 and forced its leading wall back as it proceeded to completely separate 205018’s body from its frame, obliterating a significant part of it in the process. Its own cab was also forced inwards by 2m/6ft in the process before it fell off the shaved-clean frame, tipping over on its side. Both drivers, Mister Brett-Andrews and two passengers were killed in the collision, with another 13 passengers being injured.

The frame of 205029, with remains of its body lying scattered across it.

Aftermath

Mister Boyd, who had been riding in the guard’s compartment at the back of the train, had felt a jolt before the train came to a halt and assumed that his train had struck something. Looking out the window of his compartment allowed him to see that train cars further ahead were derailed. He went along the outside of the train (there was no way to switch between the units within the train) to what he assumed to be the front of the train and found an empty driver’s cab with no sign of a collision. He assumed that Mister Rees had walked further up ahead to use flags for protection from oncoming trains. He thus entered the empty cab to retrieve detonators (small explosive charges to be attached to the rails, their detonation when run over would be an absolute stop-order) and attached those further up the rail line. He then walked back to the back of the train, checked in on passengers and proceeded on foot back to Cowden station to report the incident. It was only there, on the phone with Oxted signal box, that Mister Boyd was told that a collision had occured. The “empty cab” he had noticed had been the rear cab of 2E27, and he had happened to walk past the center of the wreckage on the side where it hadn’t spilled into the trackside undergrowth. Mister Boyd then returned to the site of the accident, where he broke down and was taken to hospital with a listed severe shock.

The overturned leading car of 2E24 where it came to a rest after falling off the oncoming train’s frame.

Investigators came across a major hint at the main cause as responders picked the mangled remains of 205018 apart. The bodies of both Mister Barton and Mister Brett-Andrews were found in what used to be the driver’s cab, a place the guard had no business being at the time of the accident. Coworkers and relatives explained that Mister Brett-Andrews had been dreaming about “upgrading” from a guard to a driver (a common career-path at the time), and had likely gone to the cab to watch/talk to Mister Barton. This behavior, which had apparently been repeatedly supported by drivers, had gotten him reprimanded three prior times, but that apparently didn’t stop him. Even worse, investigators couldn’t assure that Mister Barton had been the one at the controls at the time of the accident, opening the possibility that Mister Brett-Andrews, a person with zero training/experience, had been driving the train at the time of the accident.

But even if he had just been standing off to the side as he watched and chatted with Mister Barton he would have still provided a potentially significant distraction from the driver’s duties. The second large puzzle piece was the absence of onboard radios in both trains involved in the accident. Flatly put, a simple radio call could have avoided the accident, assuming the drivers would have heard and acted on it. The signalman at Oxted had realized what was going to happen with so much time to spare that he could have radioed both trains, ordering emergency stops with enough distance between them to avoid a collision.

The keypad and screen for an in-cab radio system, the type installed on the line after the accident.

In-cab radio systems had been mandated after the 1988 Clapham Junction train collision, but the contract to install the system on the line had been cancelled before any of the installations were performed. The precise reasoning for the cause remains unclear, but the most likely scenario sees that changes in the rail industry brought about by the Channel Tunnel and widespread privatization moved those in charge to downgrade the priority of funding onboard radio systems on the line. The contract was swiftly un-cancelled after the accident, with a radio system being installed after all. The analogue system installed, called Cab Secure Radio (CSR), was replaced by the internationally standardized digital GSM-R radio system in the 2010s.

The report also notes that the signal disregarded by 2E27 was dirty, reducing the already low light-output, and that the heavy fog on the day of the accident reduced visibility of both the signal and the line (and eventually train) ahead. There were also no “trap points” at the beginning of the single-track section, a special type of points which derail a train running through them in order to keep the adjacent rail line safe.

It was never quite determined why the AWS-system (Automatic Warning System) installed on 2E27 didn’t make the driver realize what had occurred. AWS usually works at red signals by having a sensor on the train register passing over a magnet mounted between the rails, which triggers a visual indicator in the cab along with an audible warning. Inaction would then lead to the brakes being automatically applied. The investigators could prove that the trackside components worked as intended (activating the system when the signal was turned red), but the condition of the system aboard 2E27 couldn’t be examined due to the degree of destruction. It’s thus unknown if Mister Barton pressed a button to acknowledge the warning “out of habit” without actually registering it (possibly because he was focused on a conversation), if the system had developed a fault earlier and been “isolated” (leaving it inoperative) or if it had failed to produce a warning due to an undetermined fault. Testing of recovered components did indicate that it had likely been functional at the time of the accident, but circumstances prevented the testing from fully recreating the system, leaving doubt. British Rail reacted by installing an AWS-magnet at the exits of maintenance-depots, so that any train heading into service would pass over it to check if the system was functional.

The AWS-components in the cab of a BR Class 43 locomotive. The “sunflower” turns black if a red signal is run and the “sounder” lets the driver hear a horn.

Lastly, there was also the age of the rolling stock. A 40 years old body-on-frame design just didn’t have the crash safety of a contemporary train set. The Class 501 is based on the BR Mark 1 passenger cars, a type of unpowered passenger car introduced in 1951. The Class 501 thus possesses poor longitudinal stiffness, only highly selective connections between the body of the train and its frame, and no dedicated crumple zones to absorb energy in a collision. Furthermore, there are no “anti-climb” structures to be found, special sections/”patterns” at the end of a train’s frame meant to keep a train from mounting the frame of the other in a collision. It is this climbing which then allows telescoping (the process of a train moving through the body of another train), which leads to catastrophic loss of survival space. Modern trains are designed to absorb some impact-energy in dedicated crumple-zones, but to then be shoved back rather than allowing the other train to move above its frame, thus maintaining more survival-space.

Responders work on recovering the wreckage (apologies for the watermarks).

Seeing the degree of destruction suffered by both trains involved in the accident it might be a surprise that most of the rolling stock was repaired and returned to service after the accident. Only BR 205029, which had led 2E24, was written off and scrapped in the aftermath of the collision. In fact, all 3 remaining Class 205 units survived the type’s retirement in the early 2000s and remain in museal collections to this day. 2E24’s BR 205032 even appears to be in operational condition at a historic rail line in Scotland while 205001, which survived as a two-car set, is undergoing restoration work to become operational again (as of May 2024).

The Class 205 was succeeded by the more modern BR Class 171 “Turbostar” DMU, introduced in 2003. Along with being more comfortable, efficient and quicker the Turbostars also profit off far advanced crash protection engineering, should an accident occur. A local interest group is also still lobbying tirelessly for improvements and expansions of the rail line’s branch to Uckfield, which includes demand for elimination of single-tracked sections. Modern safety systems have already made an accident like the one from October 1994 less likely, expanding the entire line to dual-track configuration would make a head-on collision almost impossible.The accident is commemorated by a rather small memorial at Cowden station, consisting of a small black stone plaque on the station building’s wall engraved with:

ALWAYS REMEMBERED 15–10–1994

Former BR 205032, photographed during a test-run following reactivation at the Caledonian Railway in 2022.

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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.