Cheadle Hulme is a suburb to the town of Stockport with a population of 45621 people (in 1961) located in western England, 11km/7mi south of Manchester and 48km/30mi west of Sheffield in the Northwest-Region of the country (both measurements in linear distance).
The city lies on the Stafford-Manchester line, an 87km/54mi double-tracked electrified main line connecting Manchester with the West Coast Main Line. Since being opened in 1848 the line is mostly used for passenger services, connecting Manchester with London and Glasgow (Scotland). The line approaches Cheadle Hulme in a sharp right hand turn from the southeast, merging with the line from Crewe.
The train involved
On the day of the accident a special chartered service was running from Stafford to York, carrying 234 children and an unknown number of teachers/staff on a day trip to visit York’s Minister, Castle and Railway Museum. Due to its purpose the train was nicknamed the “Lollipop express”. It consisted of a BR Standard Class 5, a multipurpose steam locomotive introduced in 1951, and nine older model passenger cars of different types, some dating back to the 1930s. The Class 5 has two leading and three driven axles, propelled by two cylinders. An official top speed isn’t noted, but drivers have stated that the type easily reached 160kph/100mph. Each locomotive measures 19m/63ft in length at a weight of 126 metric tons including the three-axle tender. The report lists the weight of the passenger cars at an additional 258 metric tons at a total train length of 183m/600ft.
On the 28th of May 1964 the Lollipop Express is approaching Cheadle Hulme at approximately 9:35am under the command of Mr Smith. He hadn’t worked on the route for a few months but was confident in his knowledge of it. The bridge to the south of the station was in the process of being reconstructed, leading to a 16kph/10mph speed limit being placed on the section of the line, about a quarter of the usual speed for a train passing through the station.
A few minutes before reaching Cheadle Hulme signalman Mr. Pemberton witnessed the train passing his signalbox at an estimated 72kph/45mph, the usual speed at that location. He knew about the upcoming low speed zone and would later testify that he heard no brakes being applied, but wasn’t worried as there was still plenty of space for the train to slow down. Fireman (the person shoveling coal into the firebox, not a firefighter) Mr Gillyett, who was unfamiliar with the route, later recalled feeling a brake application just ahead of the station, slowing the train to approximately 32kph/20mph. Entering the turn ahead of the station twice as fast as it was meant to, the train was doomed.
The Lollipop Express enters the turn ahead of Cheadle Hulme station at 9:41am, just as Fireman Gillyett looks back along the train. He sees the third and fourth passenger car leaving the tracks, shouting at the driver to stop as fast as possible. The resistance from the derailing cars caused a separation between cars 3 and 4, with the forward part of the train skidding to a stop about 300m/985ft past the bridge. Car 4, separated from both cars 3 and 5, came to a stop on its side not far behind car 3, suffering minor damage. Cars 5 and 6 had overturned also, grinding along the platform and suffering severe damage from it. Car 5’s bogies had been torn away and ended up buried beneath car 6, causing further damage to the front and side of it. Two nine year old students and a British Rail employee acting as a tour guide are killed in car 5 and 6, with 27 passengers being injured severely enough to require hospitalization.
Moments after the crash Mr Gibson, one of the students on board the train, regained consciousness, having been ejected from the train through a window and ending up alive, but with his arm pinned beneath car 6. His last memory is his head banging along several sleepers before the train came to a halt. The two classmates he had been sitting with had not survived the crash. People waiting on the platform and construction workers from the bridge were the first people on site, with brakeman Mr Davies trying his best to keep them from climbing the wreckage, fearing a fatal shock from the still-connected overhead wires. Once professional responders arrive on the site Mr Gibson is among the first they try to help, but they find themselves unable to shift the heavy train car and chose not to amputate in the field just yet. Instead they stabilize the boy until a crane eventually arrives at the site that can lift the car, finally allowing responders to take the child to a hospital. In the meantime parents are eager for any snippet of information, in the chaos some of them, among them Mr Gibson’s parents, are sent to the wrong hospital. By the time they arrive at his bedside doctors had to amputate his arm, unable to both save the crushed limb or wait for parental permission. By 11am the last survivors are taken to the hospital, an hour and a half later another train takes the uninjured survivors home, leaving the site to the investigators.
When being questioned by the investigators Mr Smith insists that he knew about and obeyed the speed limit, a claim soon disproven by the damage to the tracks ahead of the wreckage. The train entering the construction site enacted such high forces on the rails that the clamps holding them in place simply snapped, pushing the outer rail outwards and making it impossible for the train cars to make it through the turn. In fact, the report notes that a few clamps had been pulled out of their sleepers whole, bolt and all. It is a lucky coincidence that none of the train cars fell off the bridge, or that the derailing train didn’t strike anyone waiting on the platform as it shaved off everything protruding past ground level for several dozen feet. Further back, the rearmost car was spanning a gaping hole in the severely damaged bridge, caused by the train ripping up the floor.
Investigators examine what’s left of the train cars, finding brakes in perfect working order. It is impossible to tell for sure at what point they were applied, there is no data-logger and the separation of the train cars caused an application throughout the train anyway. Colonel Reed, sole author of the final report, notes that he is disappointed in the train driver’s continued insistence on claims that are “far from reality”, as calculations show that the train was far from obeying the speed limit, estimating at least 56kph/35mph if not more. The report assumes that the driver forgot about the speed restriction and missed the warning-sign along the track, causing him to enter the construction site at excessive speed. Reed does note that the design of the warning signs could be improved, and that, in a dangerous spot like a curved bridge, fastening of the rails to the sleepers could be improved even for temporary installations beyond the mandated minimums at the time in order to ensure a larger margin of error for speeding trains.
Traffic on the line returns to full capacity 3 days after the accident, the bridge-reconstruction is restarted from scratch and eventually finished. Meanwhile the last survivor, Ms Tiernan, doesn’t get to go home for a year. She spends 86 days in a coma after suffering severe head-injuries in the accident, the media nicknaming her alternatively “Sleeping Beauty” or “Rail Crash Girl”. She takes another nine months to learn to walk again and heal enough to return home, carrying scars but no memories of the accident. Both her, Mr Gibson and the parents of one of the dead children remained in their hometown, while the other child victim’s family left the UK for Belgium after the accident.
The infrastructure around the station was changed several times in the following years, but the track layout remains the same to this day. The train cars involved in the accident were mostly outdated by the time of the accident already, which might be why they were used for the chartered service in the first place. Four years after the accident the last Class 5 locomotive is retired from service, 5 of the 172 units made remain today as museum pieces in varying conditions. By 1977 the rules for implementing temporary slow speed zones were changed, from then on a portable magnet for the AWS train control system would cause a horn to sound in driver’s cab and require the driver to confirm having noticed the restrictions to avoid an automatic stop. By 2006 the UK started introducing the European ETCS train control system, which makes ignoring a speed limit essentially impossible, making accidents from excessive speed even less likely.
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