Great Heck is a small village of 201 people (2011 census) in North Yorkshire in the northeast of England. Located 247km/153.5mi north of London and 31.5km/19.5mi east-southeast of Leeds (both measured in linear distance) the town has no train station on its own but relies mainly on the M62 motorway, which runs just north of Great Heck, for its traffic. It’s part of the district of Selby, leading to this accident also being referred to as the Selby Train Crash.
The East Coast Main Line (ECML), one England’s main railway lines, also runs through the village north to south, crossing under the M62 in the process. Stretching 632km/393mi from London in the south to Edinburgh (Scotland) in the north the ECML is a mostly two-track (the southern section from Peterborough to London is mostly quad-tracked) electrified main line that opened in 1850. Being a large north-south corridor the line sees everything from regional passenger trains to freight trains and high speed intercity trains, being used at speeds of up to 201kph/125mph with more being technically possible if the signalling-system were to be upgraded.
The vehicles involved
Travelling westbound on the M62 motorway was a 1986 Land Rover 110 2.5 TDI (the model was later named “Defender”), a midsize 4x4 off-road focused vehicle measuring 4.6m/181in in length and 1.79m/70.5in in width at a listed weight of 1.9 metric tons.
The Land Rover was towing a trailer of unknown size/weight loaded with a 1986 Renault Savanna station wagon (marketed as the Renault 21 outside the UK), measuring 4.64m/183in long at 1.72m/67.5in wide and weighting 1.9 metric tons according to the report.
Running southbound from Newcastle to London King’s Cross Station was an Intercity 225 operated by GNER (Great North Eastern Railway, a British rail service provider at the time), a high speed passenger train for long distance connections throughout the UK. Providing the connection on the day of the accident was unit BN56, like all IC225 a fixed configuration of a locomotive and 10 passenger cars. The IC225, named after their theoretical top speed of 225kph/140mph, was introduced in 1989 in an effort to make use of the recent electrification of selected main lines and make the railway more attractive for longer distance travel.
Leading the train was a Mark 4 DVT (Driving Van Trailer/Control car), an unpowered car with a driver’s cab to remotely control the locomotive at the other end of the train. Unlike most control cars a DVT doesn’t carry passengers, only the driver. The DVTs are styled very closely to the matching locomotive, giving the impression of the train always travelling forwards with a design closer to multiple units like the French TGV or German ICE. Introduced in 1994 the Mark 4 DVT measures 18.83m/62ft in length at 43.7 metric tons in weight. They are styled after the Class 91 electric locomotive (see below).
Following the DVT were 2 first class cars (39.7 metric tons each), a service car/bistro (45.5 metric tons) and six second class cars (5x 39.9 metric tons and 39.5 metric tons for the last one). Each first class car can carry 46 people while the second class cars each offer 72 seats. The last second class car has a slightly different interior due to not offering a passage to the (nonexistent) following car, leading to the change in weight. The fourth-generation Intercity cars were introduced in 1991 and can travel at up to 225kph/140mph although they usually don’t go faster than 201kph/125mph in regular service.
Pushing the train at the time of the accident was Class 91 number 91023 (christened “City of Durham”), a high speed electric locomotive. The Class 91 was developed specifically for the then-new IC225 in the late 1980s, being able to easily pull the heavy passenger train at up to 225kph/140mph thanks to a power output of 4830kW/6480hp. Each Class 91 measures 19.4m/64ft in length at a weight of 81.5 tons. The locomotives feature body-mounted motors (rather than having them sit on the wheel sets/”bogies”), reducing unsprung mass, and underslung transformers to lower the center of gravity. This reduces track wear at high speeds but also leads to an oddly empty locomotive body compared to other electric locomotives. An odd feature of the locomotive’s design are two distinctly different ends, with one end being streamlined nose for high speeds on one end and a vertical “blunt” end section on the other end which also holds a driver’s cab. This was done since the Class 91 is meant to run in fixed units as IC225 but still has to theoretically be able to work with either end leading a train. And indeed Class 91s have been spotted pulling trains “blunt end first”, which limits them to a reduced speed of only 180kph/110mph. Locomotive 91023, the one pushing the train on the day of the accident, had been involved in another accident 4 months prior without suffering any damage.
On the day of the accident the train carried a driver, two crew members in the passenger cars and 99 passengers, a low number due to the early departure (4:45am) from Newcastle. Responders later applied letters to each of the passenger cars to easier identify them in the wreckage. Starting behind the DVT those were:
- Coach M First Class 46 seats
- Coach H First Class 46 seats
- Coach G Service Vehicle
- Coach F Second Class 72 seats
- Coach E (labelled B for some reason) Second Class 72 seats
- Coach D Second Class 72 seats
- Coach C Second Class 72 seats
- Coach B Second Class 72 seats
- Coach A Second Class 72 seats (end)
- Class 91 locomotive number 91023
Travelling in the opposite direction was freight train 6G34, a sixteen-car freight train operated by the Freightliner-Group, a London-based freight train service provider not to be confused with the North American heavy vehicle brand “Freightliner Trucks”, which is a Daimler AG subsidiary. Running from the Immingham docks on the eastern coast to Eggborough power station the train carried coal, bringing each of the cars to a weight of 102 metric tons including 74 metric tons of coal. Pulling the heavy freight train was a British Rail Class 66 (also called EMD Class 66), a six-axle diesel-electric freight locomotive introduced in 2000. Weighting 129.6 metric tons at 21.4m/70ft long the Class 66 has an output of 2460kw/3200hp from a centrally mounted 139.2 liter two-stroke diesel V12 allowing speeds of up to 105kph/65mph despite the incredibly high weight of the trains it usually pulled.
On the 28th of February 2001 at approximately 6:05am Mister Hart was driving his Land Rover 110 westbound on the M62 motorway, approaching the bridge over the ECML just north of the town of Great Heck. As he drove along in the left-most lane (in Great Britain one drives on the left side of the road) his car, towing the trailer with the Renault Savanna, slowly crossed the paved shoulder/breakdown lane, mounted the curb and headed down the grassy embankment towards the train tracks. Travelling a little over 115m/378ft the car and trailer covered a downhill height-difference of approximately 3.5m/12ft, coming to a stop 11m/36ft south of the M62 bridge. Had the car left the road a little later or at a sharper angle the accident could’ve been avoided, as the path it took had it narrowly miss the beginning safety-barrier meant to protect the rail line. Breaking through two minor fences and some bushes the car and trailer jackknifed (describing the process of an excessive angle, causing the corner of the trailer to hit the towing vehicle) and separated. The trailer dug into the soft soil and came to a stop at the bottom of the embankment while the Land Rover ended up getting stuck with its forward section on the southbound track, being beached on the rails. The Renault had partially slipped off the trailer and was blocking the right hand (British driver’s side) door of the Land Rover without occupying the track itself.
Finding himself unable to reverse off the train tracks or proceed over them to the other side Mister Hart abandoned his car through the left hand door, distanced himself from both the cars as well as the railway line and called the emergency services. At the same time the IC225 is approaching the overpass from the north at approximately 210kph/130mph with 99 passengers on board, many of whom had only boarded the train about 12 minutes earlier at York station. GNER senior conductor Mister Robson has just started checking the tickets in the forward part of the train as the DVT reaches the motorway overpass. The driver sees the light grey car in his path and triggers an emergency stop, but he likely knew the train was doomed.
At 6:13am Mister Hart’s call to the emergency services connects, before he says a single word one can hear the train brakes screetch, followed by a deafening crash as the DVT tears through the Land Rover at 200kph/125mph. The impact of the DVT’s left-hand buffer into the land rover behind the front wheel rips the car’s body in two as the car is spun 495 degrees (almost 1.5 rotations), ripping the section ahead of the rear seats off the car’s frame. The impact rips the engine out of the car, throwing it clear of most of the Land Rover’s wreckage which spreads out over 150m/492ft of railway track.
Investigators later find out that, most likely, a piece of debris from the obliterated car gets forced under the right hand leading wheels of the DVT, lifting it out of the track. Had this not happened, the whole thing could have been over with no fatalities and only minor injuries, at worst. The way it did happen the derailing DVT began to pull the rest of the train off the tracks to the right an angle of 6–9 degrees off the straight line. It slowly moved towards the oncoming track, where the northbound coal train just came into view. Due to its high velocity the Intercity passed under Pollington Lane Bridge, a small road overpass approximately 565m/1853ft south of where the DVT had struck the Land Rover, as it reached the oncoming track and with that the coal train.
The nose of the DVT, by then decelerated (according to calculations) to 142kph/88mph barely passed the oncoming freight train, which was moving at 86kph/54mph and already decelerating as it approached a slower speed zone. Striking the DVT just behind the driver’s cabin the Class 66, being a considerably higher-riding vehicle, mounted and and passed over the DVT’s frame, cutting the driver’s cabin clean off the DVT. The DVT’s leading bogie was torn off and thrown from the wreckage also, while part of the Class 66’s leading bogie became detached and penetrated the forward right hand side of the leading passenger car (Coach M). Getting stuck there it scraped along the Class 66’s fuel tank, causing fuel oil to spray onto the forward cars of the Intercity. Both locomotives derailed further, pulling all their cars along. The rapidly slowing DVT was rear-ended by the leading passenger car, tearing the coupler and shearing off what was left of the DVT’s body’s rear section. In a similar fashion the leading freight car became lodged underneath the rear of the Class 66, lifting its remaining wheels off the ground and turning it into a fast, heavy sledge.
With its front jammed under the Class 66 the DVT was forced to rotate clockwise, taking the leading end of coach M with it and mowing down a support pole for the overhead wire just south of Pollington Lane Bridge. Car H, the second passenger car, struck the underside of Pollington Lane Bridge, the impact-shock traveled down the length of the train and caused the cars to collide with one another. Car G, the service car, got forced up against the northern edge of the underpass, flattening the front half and ripping the roof off the remainder, before the following car’s roof was torn open also. An unnamed passenger later recalled sitting at a table inside car G, having just ordered a coffee when he felt a rumble, saw dust fly up outside the windows (displaced ballast as the train derailed) and then being violently thrown across the car before slamming into a wall and looking up at clear sky as the roof had been torn off. He survived, the attendant he had ordered the coffee from did not as he had been in the crushed section of the car.
Managing to separate from the wreckage of the Class 66 the severely damaged DVT left the tracks and moved down the embankment, pulling the jammed-on car M which was still coupled to car H with it. Mister Robson was thrown from the train as he tried to the third car, his sister would later say she has to try and find comfort in the fact that he probably died in an instant before he could know what happened or suffer any pain. The remains of the DVT, barely resembling what it used to look like, came to a rest in a field some 105m/345ft south of Pollington Lane Bridge.
The rest of the train broke up, with car G (the bistro/service car) hitting the third freight car head-on, forcing the following second class passenger car into the second freight car. Suffering severe damage in the impacts the two passenger cars rotated off the track, coach F forcing its following car (E) upside down as it rolled over. Remaining upside down coach F slid across the adjacent field until it struck coach G, squashing the rear half of the service car. In the process it was severely buckled, eliminating survival space as the floor met the roof in the right forward section in an area stretching from the forward end of the car 12 seats far down the side of the car.
The Class 66 locomotive proceeded to cross underneath the bridge, scraping along the roof of the underpass, still travelling northbound but severely damaged and completely derailed. It made contact with the remaining cars and locomotive of the Intercity before leaving the tracks to the left (west), falling on its side and sinking into the soft soil of an adjacent garden, coming to a stop 55m/181ft north of the Bridge. Within seconds, two large trains, a car and trailer with another car had turned into a field of debris approximately 725m/2378ft long. Both drivers, two of the Intercity’s crew members and six passengers were killed in crash, while 52 passengers survived with severe injuries.
Alarmed by Mister Hart and subsequently by residents and survivors emergency services began to reach the scene at 6:33 am, the first one being Humberside Fire Service responding to the location of Mister Neil’s emergency call. He had called about his car being stuck on tracks/struck by a train, and would repeatedly claim to be unaware of what had unfolded down the line. While he soon saw himself under arrest and removed from the scene responders set up temporary headquarters at the nearby Heck Hall farm, which is also where the survivors and victims were brought. Two Royal Airforce helicopters from RAF Leconfield aided in the transport of survivors, along with a civilian rescue helicopter.
The responders saw themselves faced with a chaotic field of debris, hearing and seeing survivors all over the place while also having to deal with snow and freezing weather as well as the muddy field that you sunk into if you stopped walking for too long. Miss Dunn, the widow of the freight train’s driver, would see the site in person the next day and liken it to a giant walking through a model train display and kicking train cars left and right, stepping on a few in the process. Her husband was one of the victims of the crash while an instructor riding with him miraculously survived the disaster, likely because he had been on the other side of the cab.
The large number of responders combined with the low passenger-number allowed a relatively fast rescue/recovery operation, the whole wreckage was declared cleared by 12:45pm. An unusual aspect of the emergency response was the need to set up disinfecting procedures for anyone on site due to the foot and mouth epidemic in existence throughout much of the UK at the time of the incident.
Mister Hart was charged with ten counts of causing death by dangerous driving, charges he vehemently denied. He insisted that a technical fault had occurred on his car, causing it to suddenly veer off the road and down the hillside. Doubting this, in part due to the angle of the tracks found in the grass between the road and rail line, investigators combed through the scene to collect as much of the Land Rover as they could find. Reconstructing the vehicle the only flaw found was a pierced front tire, which was traced to the car breaking through a wooden fence on its way down the hillside. The Land Rover ending up on the tracks was found to be the cause of the catastrophe, with neither train driver having any chance to avoid the unfolding events and being posthumously cleared of wrongdoing of any kind.
The investigation found that Mister Hart had slept very little at least the night prior to the accident, if not several nights, and most likely had suffered poor concentration/slow reaction as a consequence. He might even have completely fallen asleep behind the wheel. The investigation found that, had he applied the brakes the moment his car mounted the curb, he would have most likely come to a stop before reaching the train tracks. During the trial it also transpired that he had spent significant time talking on the phone until late at night to a woman he had met through a dating agency, which most likely caused his insufficient sleep. Mister Hart eventually gave in and admitted that there likely had not been a defect causing loss of control but that he had been unfit to drive. On the 13th of December 2001 he was sentenced to five years in prison followed by a five year driving ban. The defense did not protest the ruling, and Hart was released from prison in Juli 2004, having served half his sentence, when the remaining time was turned into probation. He since caused upset by claiming what happened was “fate”, and that he was “meant to be there”, just like everyone on the trains. He further insisted that he is not at fault for any deaths, since no one died when the train struck his car. In his opinion he went to jail for driving while being unfit to drive, with none of the deaths and injuries being his fault and him being used as more of a scapegoat.
Despite the massive destruction the investigators complimented the structural engineering and construction of the Mark 4 Intercity cars, saying that, if one considers that they are not engineered for more than a low-speed rear-ending collision the fact how much survival space some of the cars maintained is still quite impressive and that lesser, not even necessarily older, cars may have fared much worse. Even the worst-damaged cars (the first-class cars at the head of the train) still looked recognizable rather than, as one may put it, closer to the remains of the DVT.
During the trial there was also attention drawn to the seemingly insufficient design of the safety barriers along the motorway, saying the Land Rover shouldn’t have been able to leave the road 27m/89ft ahead of the barrier and proceed to the train tracks at the angle it had with only two minor wooden fences in its path. In 2003 the Highway Agency reviewed barriers and bridges and found 3 bridges’ barriers to be lacking. The one at Great Heck was not one of them, and was deemed sufficient. By October 2003 Hart’s insurance had paid out over 22 Million British Pounds (24.5 million Euros/29.3 million US-Dollars in 2020) to GNER, the survivors and relatives of the victims. They went to court in Hart’s name attempting to sue the Department for Transport to be partially repaid, but were struck down by the High Court (one of England’s highest 3 courts) pointing to the Highway Agency’s review.
After the investigation finished most of the freight train, the DVT and all passenger cars from the Intercity were scrapped, along with what was left of the Land Rover. Class 91 number 91023, the locomotive pushing the Intercity only suffered minor damage from parts of the freight train scraping along its side and the derailment. It was repaired and received technical upgrades, but rather than just adding “100” to the number (Example: 91001 became 91101) it was renumbered 91132 and named “City of Durham”, formally putting 91023 to rest. Some railway enthusiasts joked about the locomotive being cursed, having been involved in two large accidents, and that that’s why it received a new name. GNER no longer exists, after financial troubles the company folded in 2007, running its last train (London King’s Cross to Newcastle) on the 8th of December 2007. Being initially placed in storage in the late 2010s with an option of returning to service it was eventually retired and scrapped in April 2021. This makes it the first Class 91 to meet its end without damage or a defect.
The IC225 is in the process of being replaced with new British Rail Class 800 multiple units, placing all remaining IC225-sets in storage in January 2021. However, in May 2021 a few sets were reactivated due to problems with the new Class 800 creating a rolling stock shortage. Likewise Freightliner has started to replace their Class 66 with new Class 70, but the type is far from disappearing off British tracks.
In February 2011 Reverend Cyril Ashton, Bishop of Doncaster, held a memorial service at a church near Great Heck, praising the courage of the affected families, the exemplary conduct of responders, media and railway companies and the tireless service from responders and relatives even long after the accident. He drew attention to J. Dunn, the son of the freight train driver, who had moved on to become a train driver himself despite losing his father in such a tragic way.
Freightliner honored their driver, Stephen (George) Dunn, by naming Series 66 number 66526 “Driver Steve Dunn (George)” and attaching a plaque reading “In remembrance of a dedicated engine man Driver Steve (George) Dunn was tragically killed in the accident at Great Heck on 28th February 2001”. Barry Needham, another Freightliner employee who died aboard the Intercity, was similarly honored by naming Series 60 number 60087 after him, moving the plaque and name to number 60091 when the former was retired.
GNER honored their driver, John Weddle, by naming a driver training center in his hometown of Newcastle after him in July 2002. A sign telling about him was unveiled by his daughter and can be found on the outside of the building. A memorial was also constructed near the site of the initial collision, reminding visitors of what happened. Mister Dunn’s son, who was only 9 years old at the time of the accident, has since become a train driver himself, saying his father’s passing only made him more determined to follow in his footsteps when it came time to learn a job.