They dropped a Bridge on it: The 1957 Lewisham (England) Train Collision

Max S
14 min readApr 16, 2023



Lewisham is a district of 285431 people (as of 1961, population in 2021: 300553) in southeast London, located in southern England 8.6km/5.4mi southeast of central London and 16.5km/10mi west of Dartford (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Lewisham in Europe.

The district is crossed by several rail lines, including the South Eastern Main Line, a double-to-twelve-tracked electrified main line connecting London’s Charing Cross Station with Dover on the coast of the English Channel. Opening in sections between 1842 and 1844 the South Eastern Main Line is one of England’s main railway-corridors, seeing mostly passenger usage with everything from commuter trains to long distance express services at speeds of up to 161kph/100mph (as of 2023).

The site of the accident seen from above in 2010, the captured train is on the same track as those involved in the accident. Both involved trains approached from the northwest (top-left of the image).

The district is also home to the Greenwich Park branch line, a double-tracked electrified branch line from Lewisham station to Peckham Rye, opening in today’s expansion in 1929. The line splits off the South Eastern Main Line at Lewisham station and turns west, passing over four Main Line tracks by means of a two-part bridge just west of Thurston Road, with a support pillar between the eastern and western two tracks.

A sketch from the report showing the Bridge over the Main Line as it stood before the accident, looking north (opposing the trains’ direction of travel).

The trains involved

The 5:18pm service from Charing Cross station to Hayes station (referred to as the EMU going forward) was a ten-car regional passenger service consisting of two British Rail (BR) Class 415 units and a trailing BR Class 416. The Class 415 is a four-car electric multiple unit (EMU) introduced in 1951, measuring 78.7m/257ft in length at a weight of 137 metric tons. The units had a combined power output of 750kW/1000hp, allowing a top speed of 121kph/75mph. They had a maximum seating capacity of 386 passengers.

A preserved Class 415 in 1950s livery, similar to the one involved in the accident.

Running at the back of the EMU-train was BR Class 416 unit 5766. The Class 416 is a two-car electric multiple unit similar to the Class 415, consisting of only two cars per unit, and was introduced in 1955. Each Class 416 measures 39m/128ft in length at a weight of approximately 70 metric tons. The Class 416 has a combined power output of 370kW/500hp and can also reach 121kph/75mph. They were fully compatible with the Class 415, allowing multi-tractions to mix the two types depending on demand. Each two-car unit had a seating-capacity of 186 passengers. All in all, including standing passengers, the EMU carried almost 1500 passengers at the time of the accident, according to the report.

A BR Class 416 photographed in the late 1980s. At the time of the accident the units wore the same green livery as the Class 415 pictured above.

Following behind the EMU was an express train from Cannon Street station (London) to Ramsgate, consisting of 11 four-axle passenger cars hauled by a BR “Battle of Britain”-Class steam locomotive. Introduced in 1945 the “Battle of Britain”-Class is a type of midsize multipurpose steam locomotives mostly used for express passenger services. They run on a “Pacific”-type wheel arrangement with 2 leading, 3 driven and 1 trailing axle, usually paired with a three-axle tender for coal. Each locomotive of the type measures 20.54m/67ft in length at a weight of 87.4 metric tons and can carry 5.1 metric tons of coal. They have been logged in service at up to 167kph/105mph even with a heavy express train behind them. The locomotives were built with streamlined paneling above the wheels running along most of their length, giving them a rather boxy appearance and coining the nickname “Spam Can” after a type of canned meat. Hauling the express train with approximately 700 passengers on board at the time of the accident was locomotive number 34066, christened “Spitfire”. At the time of the accident the locomotive was manned by two drivers and a fireman, running under the command of Mister Trew.

BR 34066 “Spitfire”, the locomotive pulling the express train involved in the accident, photographed back in service in 1966.

The accident

The 4th of December 1957 was a foggy day, with heavy fog hanging over London in the evening hours causing trains to run late due to the low visibility messing up operations. Visibility near the site got worse as darkness rolled in, with estimates placing it at around 6–15m/20–50ft. By 6pm the schedule had gotten mixed up so much that trains were running out of sequence. The signalman at St Johns cleared a train headed to Hastings to continue to Park’s Bridge Junction in Lewisham and instructed his coworker there of as much, but described the EMU which was running the service to Hayes. In usual operation the train to Hayes would have passed Parks Bridge Junction ahead of the train to Hastings, but due to the messed up schedule the signalman at St Johns had released the trains in the wrong order. The signalman at Parks Bridge Junction trusted his coworker’s information, likely believing he had simply confused the destinations, and let both trains reach Parks Bridge Junction, planning to hold them at red signals a short distance apart.

He thus set the path for what he thought was the train to Hastings, leading to the following train getting a red signal further back along the line. The EMU to Hayes came to a stop at the red signal a short distance past the Greenwich Park branch line overpass at approximately 8:12am. Normally, the driver would have used the telephone provided on the signal to call dispatch, identify his train to the signalman and be sent on his way. The train further along the line would have done the same thing after coming to a halt at its red signal. The switch-up between the two trains that had occured was nothing dramatic, within a few minutes of bringing the two trains to a halt the phone-calls would have cleared up the situation and the issue would have been resolved.

The EMU had its brakes applied as the driver stepped off to use the phone in order to keep it in place on the slightly inclining track. Both trains were protected by a red (“stop!”) and two yellow (“caution”/”slow down!”) signals behind them, in theory the situation could have been resolved in a few minutes without any extraordinary event. But this wasn’t to be.

The succession of signals ahead of a red signal the way following trains would have encountered them.

Following behind the EMU at a relatively short distance was the express train to Ramsgate. As usual the driver of the “Spitfire” was positioned on the left hand side, with the conditions along with the design of the cab and boiler (especially its aerodynamic covers) making it difficult for him to spot the trackside signals, which were placed to the right of the tracks. The express sped right past the two yellow signals warning the train to slow down for an upcoming stop, he only acted when the fireman, standing on the right hand side of the cab, yelled to him that they had just passed a red signal at speed. The driver immediately applied the brakes, but it was too late. The “Spitfire” struck the back of the stationary EMU at 6:20pm, travelling at approximately 48kph/30mph. The Spitfire destroyed the rear driver’s cab of the Class 416, killing the guard inside it, and pushed car 10 into car 9. Car 9 proceeded to climb the frame of the car in front and was forced through the interior of car 8 (a motion referred to as “telescoping”), destroying it in its entirety, before stopping ahead of hitting car 7. Most cars ahead of car 8 suffered minor damage from impacting each-other, except for two cars in the forward-most Class 415 which collided and forced each other upwards, lifting the colliding end a few feet off the ground.

The impact separated the Spitfire from its tender, which derailed to the left and struck the support-pylon of the overpass, which proceeded to come crashing down on the express train, crushing two of the passenger cars beneath itself. 89 people died in the collision, more than half of which aboard the express train, and 176 people required medical attention for injuries and severe shock.

One of the express train’s cars that got caught under the collapsing bridge. The vertical line in the center is an unfortunate effect of scanning a folded photo.


Moments after the accident had occurred a third train was approaching the overpass on the branch line when its driver spotted a steel girder from the bridge sticking up and towards his train in an “odd” fashion. He triggered an emergency stop, bringing the train to a stop at the last moment. The leading car partially derailed on the damaged track ahead of the destroyed bridge and leaned to one side, but nobody on board was injured.

Survivors from both trains were the first people to render aid to those injured in the collision and collapse, having to be extremely careful as the “third rail” running along each of the four tracks still carried a strong current that could kill them if they touched it. The first professional responders reached the site at 6:25pm, accessing the wreckage from the adjacent Thurston Road.

Conditions encountered by responders were later described as “Dante-esque”, with responders walking a foggy landscape among strewn debris, luggage, victims and survivors, with the twisted steel of the bridge looming over the site as screams and cries of those trapped in the wreckage echoed through the fog and darkness. Until specialized equipment arrived a lot of the trapped survivors aboard the express train could only receive basic medical care, with doctors going around administering morphine if they could somehow reach the survivors, marking those who had received a dosage with Ms drawn onto skin or clothing.

A photo taken during the rescue-operation shows the twisted overpass leaning down onto the main line. Note that the photo shows wooden supports installed during the rescue-effort to stabilize the bridge.

By 10:30pm the last survivor was rescued from the wreckage and taken to hospital, anyone still left aboard the trains had not survived the accident. Heavy steam-powered cranes and recovery-crews arrived an hour later and set to work dismantling the wreckage at an increased pace. The train on the branch line, the rear cars of the express and leading six cars of the EMU were towed away from the wreckage while workers stabilized the overpass with wooden beams as work started dismantling the bridge from the top down. By the tenth of December the overpass had been completely removed and the wreckage below was subsequently cleared far enough to rebuild the main line’s tracks (which had been severely damaged) in time for the line reopening on the 12th of december. Work had to proceed quickly as the main line’s interruption was wreaking even worse havoc on the rail services than the fog had ahead of the accident. It would still take until mid-January the following year for the overpass to reopen, using a temporary bridge constructed by the British Army.

Workers dismantling the collapsed overpass, in the picture most of the structure along with the tracks is already gone.

The driver of the EMU was soon cleared of wrongdoing as he had obeyed signals to stop where he did, similarly the signalmen had done nothing wrong, acting completely within guidelines by stopping the two regional services at red signals to try and sort out the mess. There was no on-board radio system yet, so the trackside telephones were the only way for them to speak directly to the drivers. The signaling-system had also been in perfect working order, with the EMU stopped the signals behind it had displayed the proper indications that should have allowed the inbound express train to safely slow down and, if needed, stop behind it. In theory, the worst that should have come of the initial situation was a slight delay for the express and a slightly longer delay for the EMU.

Several days passed after the accident before doctors cleared the Spitfire’s crew to be interviewed by investigators. The fireman was seriously injured as he was thrown around the cab, while Mister Trew was not in a mental state allowing an interview until the 10th of January 1958 (the report notes that he was still suffering from the shock/trauma by May of that year).

It became clear that the collision had happened because Mister Trew had failed to obey the two yellow signals ahead of the overpass, leaving him at a too high speed to stop when he went past the red signal. A reenactment of the Spitfire’s trip showed that, in the conditions, the driver simply couldn’t see the signals at all, requiring 73m/80yrd of visibility to see them before they disappeared behind the boxy boiler-covering of the locomotive. In the conditions Mister Trew would have had to step over to the right hand side of the cab or instruct the fireman to observe and call out signals, but he did neither. As such the fireman, trusting in his superior’s decision-making, only called out the red signal, previously believing that Mister Trew had seen the two yellow signals. It was also recommended to enlarge the locomotive’s windshields to improve forward visibility without requiring drivers to stick their head out the window.

One of the windshields on a “Battle of Britain”-Class steam locomotive.

The act of a steam-pulled express train rear-ending a stationary EMU was always going to be a tragedy claiming lives, but two more factors made the outcome at Lewisham significantly worse. Firstly, the EMU was parked uphill with the brakes applied. This was the correct way to hold the train at the site, but it also meant the resistance when being rear-ended was higher, arguably worsening the telescoping encountered. Secondly, and most importantly, the back of the train had ended up just short of an overpass with between-track supports. Had the accident happened out in the open between fields it would have still been fatal, but the tender and leading car of the express would have just run off the tracks and eventually gotten stuck in the soft ground. Here they instead struck the support-pylon of the overpass, bringing the heavy steel bridge down on the express train. The two cars struck by the overpass suffered a near-total loss of survival-space, causing a majority of the 49 deaths aboard the express.

Mister Trew was put on trial for several cases of negligent manslaughter on the 21st of April 1958, as the sole person to stand trial for the events that led to the accident. However, the jury disagreed with the public prosecutor’s interpretation of his actions and their role in the accident, leading to Mister Trew being acquitted on the second day of the trial (May 8th) with the court ruling that the deaths were accidental and not due to criminal fault by Mister Trew.

The investigation’s report concludes that the accident could have been prevented had the line been equipped with automatic train control of some sort, even if it were just a rudimentary system that would warn drivers who pass a yellow signal. Installation of such a system had been agreed on and started after a fatal accident in 1952, but lines with so-called semaphore signals (which display commands by the position of a physical bar) were given priority as those signals were easier to misread compared to the modern light-signals found at the site of the accident. Mister Langley, who led the investigation and wrote the report, explained:

Had Warning Control been installed on the Eastern Section main line through New Cross a siren would have been sounded in the engine cab on the approach to signals L.16, L.17 and L.18, and I am convinced that Driver Trew would not have ignored these warnings and that he would have got his train under control before he reached L.18 at Red. Alternatively, had Trew been in charge of an electric or diesel-electric train with no obstruction in front of the driver’s cab he could scarely have failed to see the powerful colored lights.

After the accident the introduction of AWS (Automatic Warning System, the control-system referred to in the report) was accelerated, reaching an expansion of 11000km/6835mi in 1992, covering most of the BR’s 16000km/9942mi of track. The system works based on electromagnets mounted between the rails at specific sites, with the train’s onboard receiver being able to detect sequence and polarity of the magnetic fields emitted by those magnets. A magnet with the south pole facing upward “arms” the system aboard the train, a following magnet with the north pole facing upwards “disarms” it. At a signal the “disarming” magnet will only be activated if the signal shows green (“all clear”), any other signal-setting leaves it inactive meaning the system remains armed. The system “arming” means a visual indicator (nicknamed the “sunflower”) turns black and a horn/buzzer sounds in the cab. The driver is then required to press and release a button in the cab to disarm the system. If the driver fails to do so within a certain timespan the train will trigger an automatic stop.

AWS-components in the cab of a BR Class 43 diesel locomotive. The “sunflower” turns black and the speaker sounds a horn if the driver is required to confirm a signal.

Today a small plaque at Lewisham station reminds passerby of the tragedy that happened nearby, simply reading “in Memory of those who lost their lives — Lewisham Train Disaster — 4th December 1957”. The “temporary” bridge erected to repair the overpass is still in place today, with no plans for a replacement appearing to exist. Then again, after over 65 years it’s certainly possible to simply ignore the “temporary” part of its designation.

The plaque commemorating the accident, located at nearby Lewisham station.

The Spitfire returned to service some time after the accident, remaining in regular use until September 1966. Plans for preservation fell through and the locomotive was scrapped in 1967. Sixty locomotives of the type were rebuilt between 1957 and 1961, removing the aerodynamic covers in the process. The overhaul reduced coal consumption and maintenance-issues, but also limited the routes available to the locomotives due to increased weight. Advancing electrification and development of new and better electric locomotives still spelled a nearing end, with the last locomotive of the type being retired in 1967. 20 locomotives of the type still exist as of early 2023, in conditions varying from “as new” to “poor condition parts donor”.

The Class 415 multiple unit remained in service until 1995, with a sole unit surviving to this day, which is not in operational condition and has been split between two locations. The Class 416 was withdrawn the same year, and the type found better luck with enthusiasts, seeing five units surviving to this day in museum settings.

BR 34072 “257th Squadron”, a preserved unrebuilt “Battle of Britain”-class locomotive, photographed in 2019.

The Support-Issue

Bridges with supports between or right next to railway lines have continued to be a source of death and destruction, probably most infamously during the 1998 Eschede Derailment in Germany (which started this blog), which claimed 101 lives when a derailing high speed train collapsed the supports of an overpass, causing the bridge to come down on the train. Nowadays, support structures in the path of a derailing train are generally avoided to reduce the risk of accidents unfolding this way.

The wreckage of the 1998 Eschede Derailment, showing the collapsed overpass in the wreckage.


A kind reader has started posting the installments on reddit for me, I cannot interact with you there but I will read the feedback and corrections. You can find the post right here.



Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.