They Shall Never Grow Old: The 1915 Quintinshill (Scotland) Train Collision and Inferno

Max S
20 min readMar 3, 2024


Quintinshill was the name of a signal box 1.3km/0.8mi north of Gretna, a town of 3110 people (as of 2020) in southern Scotland. Gretna is located right on the border with England, 35km/22mi east of Dumfries and 104km/65mi south of Edinburgh (all measurements in linear distance).

The location of Quintinshill in Europe.

Quintinshill lay on the Caledonian Main Line, a rail line between Glasgow and Edinburgh which opened in 1847. The line was eventually integrated into the West Coast Main Line (WCML), a 642 km/399mi double- to six-tracked main line connecting Glasgow (Scotland) with London (England) as one of the UK’s main rail corridors.

The site of the accident seen from above today. The signal box no longer exists, it sat by the gray area to the right of the marker. The local train and the sleeper train approached from the east (right side of the image), the troop train from the west (left side of the image).

At the time of the accident the rail line at Quintinshill was double-tracked, with each side also having a siding to facilitate the overtaking or storage of trains. Scottish rail traffic, similar to their road traffic, operates in so called left hand traffic, meaning one’s oncoming traffic (be it cars or trains) passes on the right. The northbound main line track was referred to as the “Down Mainline”, making its siding the “Down Loop” (sidings which merge into the main line on both ends are sometimes referred to as “passing loops”), while the southbound track was the “Up Mainline” with its matching “Up Loop” siding. The signal box building was standing on the northern side of the tracks, halfway along the Up Loop, and acted under the superiority of the Gretna station’s stationmaster.

The track layout at Quintinshill Signal Box (not to scale), with the distances to the next signal box on each side.

The Trains Involved

Please Note: Some specifics of the trains involved have been lost to time, if they were ever recorded at all, so some usually included information is missing.

At the time of the accident a freight train (often referred to as a “Goods Train” in British English) was parked in the Down Loop. Nothing specific is known about its configuration, and its role in the ensuing disaster is largely limited to occupying the Down Loop as it had to wait for passenger trains to pass after it arrived at Quintinshill at approximately 4:55am. Another freight train consisting of empty coal hauling cars was travelling southbound on the Up Mainline. Similarly, any specifics about it have been lost to time.

A local passenger service was using the Down Mainline as part of its journey from Carlisle (England) to Beattock (Scotland). It was operated by the Caledonian Railway and was meant to depart Carlisle at 6:10am, right after a 6:05am sleeper train. It usually departed at 6:17am, though. It always had to depart no later than 6:25am as, otherwise, it would have to be held for significantly longer as a 6:30am express service by a competitor received priority at that point. Its delay would also continue to other trains which had to wait for its arrival at Beattock. Because of that the train was usually dispatched somewhat on time if the sleeper was delayed and would then be directed to a passing loop/siding as soon as the sleeper train would catch up to the much slower regional service. Quintinshill was one of those locations that allowed it to be moved aside to let the sleeper train overtake. It’s unknown how many cars the regional train contained on the day of the accident, but it is known that it was pulled by “903-Class” number 907. The Class 903 is a steam locomotive introduced in 1906 for express trains, running on two leading and three driven axles while pulling a four-axle tender which held the coal for the locomotive. Each Class 903 had a weight of 71 metric tons empty in addition to a 55.9 metric ton tender.

A 903-Class steam locomotive, identical with the one pulling the regional train, as pictured in a 1907 book.

The sleeper train, which had departed after the regional service due to delays, consisted of at least four sleeper cars and had departed London (England) with an unknown delay beyond its 6:05am departure time on its way to Edinburgh (Scotland). It was following another sleeper train from London (England) to Glasgow (Scotland) which, also with a delay, passed Quintinshill without incident. The train was intended to pass right through Quintinshill on the Down Mainline, with the regional train having been shunted out of the way for it and the previous sleeper train. It was pulled by two 721-Class steam locomotives, a type introduced in 1896, meaning it had two firemen and two drivers on board. Like the regional train it too was operated by Caledonian Railways. Minor modifications had seen them split into new classes by the time of the accident, with the sleeper train being headed by a Class 43 and a Dunalastair IV-Class (which appear to be largely identical). The Class ran on two driven axles and two leading axles and usually pulled a six-axle tender transporting the coal. Each Class 721 had a weight of 48 metric tons empty. They had proven to be better at hauling express trains than the younger 903-class, and were thus often seen in that role.

A Caledonian Railways Class 43 steam locomotive, identical with the two locomotives pulling the express train, photographed at an unknown point in the 1910s.

Lastly, there was a troop carrier from Larbert (Scotland) to Liverpool (England). The United Kingdom was in the middle of the first world war, with British and French soldiers having just recently landed in Gallipoli (Turkey) where sluggish trench warfare had developed. The government had reacted by mobilizing the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots, at the time the oldest and most senior infantry regiment of the British Army. Increased rail traffic to move troops and materials across the UK had vastly increased the demand for rolling stock, forcing the 500 soldiers who were prepared to go to war to board 21 outdated wood-body passenger cars. These cars were fitted with gas-powered lighting, fed from underslung tanks mounted between the axles. The train was meant to go from Larbert to Liverpool were the soldiers would board a ship to take them to Gallipoli. The Troop train was finished up by an undefined number of baggage cars carrying additional supplies and equipment. It was hauled by locomotive number 121 of the 139-Class, another version of the 721-Class mentioned above.

A Caledonian Railways 139-Class locomotive, identical with the one pulling the troop train, photographed at Carlisle at an unknown point.

The Accident

The morning of the 22nd of May 1915 saw a freight train parked on the Down Loop, which left both mainline tracks and the Up Loop for the following trains. Mister Meakin is the signalman on duty at 6:00am, working the night shift in cooperation with Mister Thorburn, the stationmaster at Gretna station. Mister Meakin would usually be relieved by his colleague Mister Tinsley at 6:00am, who would work the early day shift. The local train arrives at approximately 6:30am, delivering Mister Tinsley to the signal box. It has to make way for the following northbound sleeper train, and with the Down Loop occupied Mister Meakin decides to have the local train pass the signal box on the Down Mainline before reversing over a set of points connecting the two mainline tracks on the western end of the site. This leaves the regional train parked on the Up Mainline, facing the wrong direction, right outside the signal box.

At the same time an empty coal train is standing at the main signal northwest of Quintinshill, waiting to move southbound, with the troop train queued up behind it. Mister Meakin had so far been unable to report “section free” for the track between Quintinshill and Kirkpatrick (the next signal box to the north) to Kirkpatrick’s signal box as the coal train was occupying that section of the Up Mainline. Since certain messages in the signaling and communication system could only be sent in predetermined sequences this meant that he also had been unable to report the parked local train sitting on the Up Mainline at Quintinshill. Once the local train stopped on the Up Mainline Mister Meakin could finally let the coal train advance into Quintinshill, directing it into the Up Loop where it stopped shortly after 6:30am to let the following faster troop train pass.

Mister Tinsley disembarked the local train once the coal train had come to a stop and walked over to the signal box, relieving Mister Meakin who remained in the signal box. One of the two men (it was never determined which one) reported “section clear” to Kirkpatrick, referring to the coal train being out of the way. Mister Meakin began reading the newspaper which Mister Tinsley had brought with him, and the two signalmen were joined by the conductors (referred to as “guards” in the UK) from the freight train and coal train. The men engaged in a discussion about the war news in the paper Mister Meakin was reading.

The Quintinshill signal box, photographed in 1967.

Railway operations in the UK at the time followed a number of set rules, one of which was Rule 55. This rule, introduced after several accidents occurred when signal box crews forgot about a parked train, required the train’s fireman to head to the local signal box and remind the signalman of the train’s presence if they had been stopped at a signal for a certain time. The driver of the local train thus sent his fireman (Mister Hutchinson) to the signal box, interrupting the men’s discussion once the local train had been stopped for over 3 minutes. Mister Tinsley handed Mister Hutchinson a pen over the former’s shoulder (without even looking at the visitor), which Mister Hutchinson used to enter the local train into the logbook. He left the signal box by 6:45am, failing to actually remind the signalmen of the location and timing of the local train as the rule required.

The first of the two sleeper express trains passed Quintinshill on the Down Mainline without incident at 6:38am as the five men were in the signal box. Their conversation was then interrupted by the Kirkpatrick signal box at 6:42am, “offering” them the southbound troop train (which, especially due to the wartime mindset, was more of a “the train is coming” than a “can it come?”). Mister Tinsley accepted the train and dutifully announced it to Gretna’s signal box, having received a “train approaching”-message from Kirkpatrick. Gretna’s signal box immediately accepted the troop train, so Mister Tinsley set the signals for it to pass right through Quintinshill. Apparently, he had forgotten all about the local train.

The troop train thus reached Quintinshill with the expectation to pass right through, leading to it crashing head-on into the parked local train at 6:49am while travelling at full speed. A lot of the old wooden cars disintegrated on the back of the massive obstacle that had appeared in their path, leaving no chance of survival for those in the forward cars. The signalmen, witnessing the catastrophic event in front of them, hurried to turn the approach-signal on the Down Mainline red, but only managed so after the second sleeper train had passed it, leaving it to crash into the wreckage at speed as the crashed trains were obstructing the Down Mainline. Parts of the sleeper train were propelled into the parked freight train, involving a fourth train in the devastation. Lastly, gas escaped from the troop train’s ruptured reservoirs and ignited on the locomotives’ fireboxes, setting the wreckage ablaze.

The express train’s locomotive sits atop remains of the troop train after the fire.


The first outsiders to come to the rescue of survivors were the Dunbar couple, who lived at the nearby “Old Blacksmith’s Shop”. Mrs Dunbar later recalled hearing the crash and assuming a bomb had been dropped nearby, telling a newspaper “I thought the Germans had come”. Seeing what had ensued at the nearby rail line Mrs Dunbar went back to call doctors at Carlisle while her husband attempted to rescue survivors from the blaze. The fact that a troop train was involved in the accident created a whole different problem for survivors and responders, as the flames heated up ammunition until it “cooked off”. The term refers to ammunition being heated to the point that the explosive propellant in the cartridge detonates, launching the bullet as if it had been fired from a gun. This effect, suffered by ammunition strewn throughout the wreckage, caused bullets to streak through the wreckage in all directions at random times. Railway staff and the Carlisle fire department tried their best to battle the flames regardless, struggling with a lack of water at the site along with the fire feeding on the gas (the reservoirs had been almost full), the wreckage’s wood and the coal from the locomotives. They eventually succeeded, but over 24 hours passed between the initial collision and the fire being extinguished.

Many of those who had survived the initial collisions were trapped in the wreckage, facing advancing flames. Responders cut and pulled the debris apart to free survivors as fast as they could, with some survivors only getting to leave the wreckage after doctors performed on-site amputations of trapped limbs.

Mister Stoddart, the last person to be rescued and survive, was interviewed about the accident by a reporter in 1985. He said that he saw generals, seeing no other chance for their men to escape the flames, shoot trapped soldiers, and that he had heard of some soldiers in the same hopeless situation shooting themselves. The statement, which was neither confirmed nor denied by the Army, was backed up by other contemporary witnesses. Among them was Mister Watson, a retired royal Scots Colonel, who went on record for a 2015 BBC documentary saying:

All those that could be rescued were rescued. Many of them had amputations carried out underneath burning carriages so that they could be rescued. But many, of course, were trapped in such a position that they couldn’t be got out or else the fire had taken hold, and they couldn’t be got to. And, of course, since then, we’ve heard stories of some soldiers being shot and some soldiers possibly taking their own lives. It’s never been formally documented. My own personal belief is that it probably did happen, in a sense of compassion, of mercy killing. It’s almost impossible, sitting here, to comprehend what it was like that morning.

The BBC chose not to broadcast the interview with Mister Watson.

Firefighters hose down the burned skeleton of a train car.

15 of the troop train’s 21 cars were consumed by the fire, only leaving six that had broken away and rolled back during the collision. Four of the sleeper train’s cars and some freight cars also burned down. The locomotives’ steel tenders survived the fire but were found empty, with all the coal burned away.

The final death toll came in at 230*, most of whom were soldiers from the Royal Scots. Another 246 people required hospitalization for their injuries. This death toll includes remains which appeared to be from four children. It’s unknown how they ended up at the site, as there were no children meant to be on the troop train, and nobody from the sleeper train or their relatives ever claimed them. Neither were there any missing children in the area at all. Some victims’ remains were never recovered, with their loss only being registered as their fellow soldiers could point out who was missing. The regiment’s member list was also destroyed by the fire, leaving only those statements to be relied on.

The surviving members of the Royal Scots who didn’t require hospitalization arrived at Liverpool the next day, where they underwent a medical examination. All but six of them were deemed unfit for service and sent home. A newspaper reported that locals mistook the soldiers on their way from the harbor back to the train station for hostile prisoners, leading to the poor men, on top of everything they had endured, being heckled and pelted.

*The official death toll is usually listed at 226, excluding the four children for unknown reasons. I chose to include them.

Roll Call of the surviving soldiers who didn’t suffer serious injury. Depending on the source just 58-62 out of the 500 were present and proceeded to Liverpool.

The British Board of Trade appointed Mister Druitt from the Royal Engineers on the 24th of May to lead the investigation into the cause of the UK’s deadliest accident ever, with King George V sending a telegram to the Caledonian Railway’s general manager in which he demanded to be kept in the loop both on the investigation and on the recovery of those injured. A recruitment meeting had been held at Edinburgh the prior day, intending to form a new battalion. The rail line through Quintinshill was reopened on the 25th of May, running on a single track as the wreckage hadn’t been completely cleared yet. The express train’s locomotives would be last to be removed, having been temporarily stored in one of the passing loops with all their paint burned off.

The main funeral procession for the soldiers, attended exclusively by other soldiers.

The first puzzle piece in the chain of events didn’t take long to discover. A piece of paper was found in the Quintinshill signal box containing data on trains arriving between 6:00am and 6:30am, looking like a rough sketch of a logbook entry. The signalmen admitted that they had secretly introduced an informal agreement moving the shift change by half an hour to 6:30am. This allowed the day shift’s signalman to get up a little later, and in the case of Mister Tinsley, who lived at Gretna, it meant he could take the local train to work on days when it would be shunted at the signal box’ sidings. He would simply head to the signal box at Gretna and be told if he could use the train for the remaining way to work. This rescheduling hadn’t been approved by the company, so the men had agreed to record any train movement after 6:00am on a piece of paper. The arriving signalman would later copy the notes into the logbook and sign off on a 6:00am shift change, subsequently getting rid of the note from his colleague. The investigation figured that Tinsley having to fill out the logbook with the notes from his colleague (in order to match the handwriting to the claimed shift change) may have distracted him from his duties as a signalman, including the briefing on train locations, which would explain why he accepted the troop train despite the troop train’s path being blocked by the parked local train.

Firefighters work on extinguishing the last smaller fires as locals watch.

The investigation also found that the signalmen had failed to follow proper procedures when communicating with the neighboring signal boxes. The signalmen failed to tell the Kirkpatrick signal box about the Up Mainline being blocked after they had received the coal train, possibly because they had been excessively focused on the coal train, which had left the main line. The fact that they had still parked the local train on the Up Mainline thus went unnoticed. Kirkpatrick wouldn’t have been allowed to even offer the troop train under a “line occupied”-status. The men at Quintinshill had told Kirkpatrick that the coal train had left the main line, which left Kirkpatrick’s signalman to assume the line was clear and ready to accept the next train. This took place at 6:34am, right around when Mister Meakin was in the process of handing duties off to Mister Tinsley due to their unauthorized delayed shift change. The guidelines also demanded that the signalman places a collar on the control lever of a main line signal if the main line is used to park a train, which prevents the signal from being switched to green. Neither Tinsley nor Meakin placed the collar on the signal lever after parking the local train, with Tinsley failing to ensure the presence of the collar when he was briefed on train locations during the shift change. This oversight was especially staggering as Tinsley had just stepped of said parked local train. The absence of the collar was confirmed by Mister Hutchinson, who survived the accident as he had not quite made it back onto the locomotive when the collision occurred.

Mister Hutchinson was blamed for another part in the chain of events, heading to the signal box to report his train’s position in accordance with operating rule 55, only to leave again after signing the train’s entry in the logbook without reminding the signalmen that the train was parked on the main line in what would momentarily become the path of the troop train.

Workers walk next to a torn-open passenger car after the fire is extinguished. The dark “markings” in the background are likely just dirt on the scanned photo rather than smoke.

The people in the signal box on the day of the accident also broke a rule simply by the fact that they were there and by how long they were present. Various people involved with running a railway are required to visit the signal boxes for some reason, but it’s expressively forbidden for anyone to stick around longer than necessitated by the reason for their presence. In contrast, signal boxes did provide a rather comfortable place to be, offering shelter, a stove, kettle and the company of the signalman. Mister Tinsley arrived at Quintinshill signal box on the morning of the accident just as the conductor of the freight train was about to leave, having stuck around for about ten minutes, while the conductor from the coal train had reached the signal box just before Mister Tinsley did and would stick around until the collision 15 minutes later. Mister Meakin also remained in the signal box after handing duties off to Mister Tinsley, providing yet another source of distraction.

The distractions present in the signal box along with the failure to follow proper operating procedures eventually led to Mister Tinsley forgetting about the parked local train, despite it being parked in clear sight of the signal box’ trackside windows. He thus allowed the troop train to approach by turning the relevant signal green, which was only possible since the collar meant to prohibit this hadn’t been attached. The troop train’s crew had no reason to doubt the signalling, and thus the accident was unavoidable as soon as they received the order to head to Quintinshill.

An artist’s impression of the sleeper train speeding into the wreckage, published by the Royal Scots.

Mister Druitt presented his report on the 17th of June 1915, placing the blame squarely on Mister Meakin and Mister Tinsley. He explained:

This disastrous collision was thus due to want of discipline on the part of the signalmen, first by changing duty at an unauthorized hour, which caused Tinsley to be occupied in writing up the Train Register Book, and so diverted his attention from his proper work, secondly by Meakin handing over the duty in a very lax manner; and, thirdly by both signalmen neglecting to carry out various rules specially framed for preventing accidents due to forgetfulness on the part of signalmen

He proceeded to explain that Hutchinson deserved criticism for his failure to comply with Rule 55, which could have been a “last chance” moment to avoid the disaster. He further criticized Mister Thorburn, the stationmaster at Gretna, who must have been aware of the irregular shift changes and chose not to report this departure from established rules and procedures.

The report also explained that electric lighting in the train cars might still have led to a fire, but perhaps a slower spreading one due to the absence of gas tanks throughout the wreckage. Lastly, it was criticized that Quintinshill wasn’t equipped with electrical interlocking of the signals, which would have prevented Mister Tinsley from allowing the troop train to approach as it would have detected the stopped local train. Such systems were in the process of widespread installation, but its simple layout and good visibility had given Quintinshill low priority regarding the upgrade.

A crane picks the remains of the train cars apart as several locals watch on.

Mister Tinsley, Meakin and Hutchinson made history in late June 1915, becoming the first men to ever be indicted for the same crime in two of the United Kingdom’s countries. 27 initial survivors of the disaster had died in England, which led to the men facing manslaughter-charges both there and in Scotland. The trial started in September of the same year in Edinburgh's high court, with all three men pleading not guilty. Their lawyer presented a notice to the judge explaining that Mister Hutchinson wasn’t of criminal guilt, which was accepted. The jury eventually discussed the case for a all of eight minutes before handing out their verdict. Mister Hutchinson was found not guilty as instructed by the judge, but the other two men were found guilty as charged. Mister Meakin was sentenced to 1.5 years in prison while Mister Tinsley was sentenced to three years of penal servitude (imprisonment for the purpose of forced labor).

Both defendants were released from prison in mid-December 1916, with Mister Tinsley returning to the Caledonian Railway as a maintenance worker while Mister Meakin became a freight train conductor before opening a coal trading business once that job became obsolete after a few years. He ran his business from a location right at the Quintinshill Loops until he switched jobs in the second world war, taking up a job in a local ammunition factory. He died in 1953, being outlived by Mister Tinsley by 14 years. Mister Hutchinson’s fate beyond the trial is unknown.

The era of the Royal Scots ended in 2006, just shy of their 400th anniversary, when they were merged with several other regiments to form the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

Open freight cars are used to collect and remove random debris.

There is no memorial directly at the site of the accident today, with the area being largely empty since the removal of the signal box at some point after 1970. A number of different memorial-installations exist at other places in the UK, though:

  • A small memorial was erected at nearby Gretna Green in 1995. It consists of a chest-high stone pillar carrying a plaque reminding readers of the 227 (the number of victims varies from source to source) victims and notes that the site is just half a mile away, putting it within sight of the memorial.
  • Another memorial was unveiled at Blacksyke Bridge, just west of the site, in 2010. It consists of a silver metal plaque affixed to the bridge over the rail line. It reads:

“In memory of The 7th Royal Scots, ‘Leith’s Own’
And all those here in the peace and tranquility of Quintinshill.
22nd May 1915
No wreaths to commemorate our glory days, nor tears to be shed on this permanent way. Just ‘Flowers of the Forest’ for youth in their prime. For the piper’s lament still the passage of time. No wreaths and no sorrow as memories unfold, just eternity’s promise
‘They shall never grow old’

The memorial at Blacksyke Bridge, on the side facing Quintinshill.
  • A memorial specifically dedicated to the children was erected at a cemetery in Glasgow in 2011, where they were buried. It’s assumed that they stemmed from Maryhill, a part of Glasgow (Scotland), and the memorial thus refers to them as The Lost Children of Maryhill. An effort was undertaken in 2018 to have their remains exhumed and DNA-tested to find relatives, without success. Who they were and how they ended up at the site may forever be unknown.
  • The largest memorial stands at Rosebank Cemetery, Edinburgh (Scotland), marking the mass grave of the soldiers who died in the accident.
  • A new housing development in Leith (Scotland) received streets named Quintinshill Place and Gretna Place in memory of the accident in 2017.
The memorial at Rosebank Cemetery, photographed in 2008.

Both wood-bodied and gas-lit passenger trains are a thing of the past, vastly improving passenger safety in the case of an accident. The UK’s railways have also since moved to automatic signalling and track occupancy reports, marking the end of local signal boxes and making manually operated signals the exception. The passing loops at Quintinshill still exist and are still in use, with a bare spot in the adjacent field marking where the signal box stood. The Quintinshill train collision remains the UK’s worst rail disaster, having claimed twice as many lives as the second-worst, the 1952 Harrow and Wealdstone train collision which also involved a third train running into the wreckage of two crashed trains.

The site of the accident in June 2009, facing east, captured on StreetView from nearby Blacksyke Bridge. I marked the location where the signal box stood.


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Max S

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