WhatsDone: The 2021 Kirkby (England) Train Crash

Kirkby is a town of 41495 people (as of 2016) in western England, located in Merseyside County 10.5km/6.5mi north-northeast of Liverpool and 44km/27mi west of Manchester (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Kirkby in Europe.

Kirkby lies on both the Northern Line owned by Merseyrail and Network Rail’s Kirkby Branch Line. The former is a single-track electrified commuter rail line opened in 1977, connecting Liverpool (where it runs underground beneath the city streets) with Kirkby at speeds of up to 97kph/60mph. The line ends in a buffer-stop halfway down Kirkby station’s platform, just short of the Glovers Brow overpass. The Kirkby Branch Line is a 19.7km/12.3mi partially single-track non-electrified branch line running between Kirkby and Manchester. The line sees the occasional freight-train serving Potter Logistics near Kirkby, in contrast to the Northern Line which is only used for passenger services. The Branch Line also ends halfway down Kirkby station’s platform, coming from the opposite side and ending in a buffer stop just a few feet from the one terminating the oncoming Northern Line.

Kirkby station seen from above in 2018. The train involved in the accident came from the left (west).

After opening in 1848 the Branch Line ran all the way to Liverpool, only being split in 1977 when the stretch from Kirkby to Liverpool was electrified and received a higher traffic-density. This necessitated the unusual split at Kirkby station, as there was no space to have the tracks end side-by-side instead of end to end. The tracks now end on either side of the overpass, with a piece of the concrete platform stretching into the gap so passengers can switch between lines without having to leave the platform. Merseyrail had also adopted the rules introduced after the Moorgate Tube Disaster, instructing drivers to enter Kirkby station at no more than 16kph/10mph to ensure safe operation

The “meeting” of the two lines at Kirkby station, photographed from the Northern Line facing east.

On the 13th of March 2021 the 6:35pm service from Liverpool to Kirkby was provided by BR (British Rail) 507 006. The Class 507 is a 3-car electric multiple unit made between 1978 and 1980 by British Rail’s own Engineering division. Each unit measures 60.54m/199ft in length at a weight of 104.5 metric tons. After a refurbishment conducted between 2002 and 2005 at Alstom each 3-car unit now offers 192 seats, reaching speeds of up to 121kph/75mph. At the time of the accident the train carried a driver, 12 passengers and a conductor.

BR Class 507 006, the unit involved in the accident, photographed in 2008.

On the 13th of March 2021 58 years old Mister Hollis is driving BR 507 006 towards Kirkby station, having just departed Fazakerly station at approximately 8:49pm. The train is barely occupied, with just 12 passengers spread out through the 3 cars. The speed limit on that section of the line is set at 24kph/15mph, but after reaching that speed the train keeps accelerating. At 8:51pm the train reaches Kirkby station, logging 64kph/40mph at a distance of 18m/59ft from the start of the platform. Four times as fast as the speed limit to be obeyed at that point. It is at that moment that an emergency stop is triggered, either by the driver realizing what is going on or by someone else on the train. The train dumps air-pressure, applying full brakes, but only starts to slow down well after it should have.

At 8:52pm BR 507 006 breaks though the buffer stop at the end of the Northern Line, logging 45kph/28mph as it goes off the end of the rails. The leading car crashes through the platform extension between the buffer stops and collides with the underside of the Glovers Brow overpass. The three consecutive impacts along with resistance from the train digging into the ground bring the train to a stop with the nose just past the overpass, severely damaged but upright and structurally largely intact. Only the driver is injured as the cab partially caves in, the passengers evacuate the train physically unharmed.

A photo taken by a witness a few minutes after the accident.

Responders reach the site at 9:05pm, finding the train already empty. All 14 people who were aboard are evaluated and treated on the platform, only the driver requires hospitalization. By 9:40pm the site is handed over to the investigation, with investigators starting by examining the train’s braking-system and recovering the data logger. The line has no automatic train control keeping trains from speeding, it is entrusted to the drivers to maintain sufficient attention to their speed and position. The train shows no sign of a pre-existing defect to the brakes or throttle-control, moving focus to the driver.

Another look at the leading car, showing where it obliterated part of the platform.

Mister Hollis is interrogated by law enforcement and has his mobile phone confiscated, with the police suspecting that he was negligently distracting himself from the task of driving the train. After the police finds a messenger-conversation he maintained via WhatsApp at the time of the accident Hollis is arrested on the 31st of March, being charged with endangering the safety of the railway before being released on bail. He is subsequently fired by Merseyrail in September, ending a lengthy career as a train driver. Investigators later reveal that he had been chatting with a friend about the death of former BBC-commentator Murray Walker, with his phone logging the last message being sent from his phone 26 seconds prior to the accident. It is unknown if he had been speeding by accident or on purpose, trying to complete the trip faster, but the investigation places the blame for neglecting to brake in time for the stop on him being preoccupied with his phone.

The final position of the leading car, just a few feet from the oncoming Branch Line.

The trial against Mister Hollis starts in February 2022 and ends on the 8th of March with him being sentenced to 180 hours of community work along with 12 months of jail set out to probation for 2 years. Mister Hollis admitted to illegally using his phone while driving the train, which fulfilled the charge of negligently endangering rail traffic (and with that the safety of his passengers).

BR 507 006’s cars being taken to the scrapyard in September 2021.

Kirkby station was repaired once the train was recovered, with BR choosing to write off the 43 years old train as the second set to face that fate. They explained this with the advanced age of the train (regardless of refurbishment) and the replacement-program, although delayed, being already in progress. Merseyrail had signed a contract with Swiss Stadler Rail in 2016, ordering 53 new “Class 777” electric multiple units with an option for another 60, which are intended to start service in 2022 which means the end for the old class 507. The new trains can operate directly electrified by the third rail or a short distance on battery power. This facilitates the extension of the Northern Line past Kirkby station to Headbolt Lane station (scheduled to open in 2023), which might do away with the head-to-head character of Kirkby station instead of just moving it 1.3km/0.8mi northeast. The new trains are equipped to run with ETCS-2 train control, which, if introduced on the line, would allow the train to automatically adhere to speed limits.

A new BR Class 777 photographed during testing in July 2021.

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