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Published February 7, 2020

The morning commute is a familiar routine for people all around the world. For many living in the suburbs around London, it means hopping onto a train into the city. Their biggest concerns are often whether or not they’ll get a seat, and whether the train will be running on time. One morning in 1952, commuters abruptly found themselves concerned with whether they would get out alive. 

There were probably a few irritated commuters on the 7:31 train from Tring to Euston on the morning of Wednesday, the 8th of October, 1952. The service that usually followed it had been temporarily suspended because of improvements work happening at Euston, which meant a lot of people who’d usually take that had opted for the earlier service – so the train was particularly busy. As it stood at Harrow and Wealdstone station, an estimated 827 people were on board, across 9 carriages with 74 compartments in total. The total seating capacity was only 756, which meant some of the passengers would have had to stand. While the number of standing passengers was noted at the time as 71, there could have been more – the carriages were the old-fashioned type with no corridors, so you could only change compartment while the train was stopped at a station. There was no chance of moving along and finding a space once you’d got on board, so if you were running late for your train you had to jump into whatever compartment you could reach.

Fortunately, there was now less than twelve miles to go till the train terminated at London Euston, and despite the crowding and some patchy fog it was only running about seven minutes late. 

Harrow and Wealdstone station had originally opened in 1837, when it was a rural stop surrounded by fields. By 1952, it was at the centre of a busy suburb. Six lines ran through the station; from east to west these were the Up Slow, Down Slow, Up Fast, Down Fast, Up Electric and Down Electric lines. The Tring to Euston train had changed from the Up Slow line to the Up Fast line shortly before arriving at the station, so it now stood at Platform Four, very nearly in the centre of the station complex. Because it was a long train, it took up the whole platform.

It had pulled in at 8:17, and anyone on the station platform who was waiting to board had to be quick, because just two minutes later the guard would have the carriage doors shut, and the train would be ready to get on its way once more.

One, named as Mr Dick Zeale, would usually join friends in one of the rear carriages, but having seen how full they were he decided to run along the platform and try to find space in one of the front compartments. That split-second decision would save his life.

A Mr John Bannister was already on the train, probably in the sixth or seventh carriage. He later told a reporter;

“It all happened in a second. There was a terrific crash and glass and debris showered on me. There were 15 people in the compartment with me and we were all jammed together in a mass of broken wood. I blacked out for a moment, and when I came round I found I was lying on the railway line with debris on top of me. I managed to free myself and drag myself up on to the platform. The scene was indescribable, with people groaning and crying for help all round me. I dragged several from the wreckage, including an old lady.”

Another passenger, Mr. Pelham B Swann of Harrow, had just got on board.

“Suddenly there was a terrific jolt. The carriage rocked, the windows flew in and a storm of splinters flew about us. There were eight more jolts, presumably from the buffetting rear coaches. There was no panic, no hysteria. No one knew what had happened and we were too stunned to think it out. I flung open the door of the compartment and we tumbled out. The station was in chaos. Telescoped carriages zig-zagged across the lines. It was a terrible and heartrending scene. Even the bridge across the lines was broken.”

At that moment, they had no idea what had happened. 

hw_crash_3-1024x745-8956098 Source: Wikimedia Commons

While Zeale, Bannister and Swann had been preparing to start their journey into the city, another group of travellers were looking forward to the end of theirs. They were on an overnight train from Perth, north of Edinburgh, and just like the local train their destination was London Euston. 

Amongst them were two groups of soldiers; men from the 8th Royal Engineers Training Regiment, based in Elgin, and men of the Black Watch. It was later reported that some of them had been singing all night long, and as they approached Harrow and Wealdstone were in the middle of a rendition of “There’s a Pawnshop on the Corner in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania”.

Their song was abruptly stopped when their train, speeding along the Up Fast line, smashed into the back of the train from Tring.

And that wasn’t the end of the tragedy, either. At the same time, yet more travellers were speeding north, aboard a train from London Euston bound for Liverpool. Amongst them was Mr Victor Scott, a physicist from Chelmsford. He said:

“Breakfast was just being served and the attendant had just passed our compartment when we felt a terrific swaying and immediately flung ourselves to the floor. We were in the first coach of the train which was telescoped, but I escaped without a scratch. I pulled an elderly lady down on to the floor with me as we crashed. People were screaming for help and the noise was tremendous. Clouds of steam and smoke hindered the rescue work, but all of us who could tore at the debris in order to help those still trapped.”

A little further back, in the train’s fourth carriage, was a Mr William Ingham.

“It just fell to pieces around us,” he said later. “About twenty minutes after we left Euston, with no warning at all the carriage just seemed to float up into the air. We were thrown about all over the compartment, and then there was a crash and our coach was on the platform – or what was left of it.” 

When the overnight Perth train hit the back of the local train, wreckage had been thrown onto the adjacent Down Fast line – which was the line occupied by the train to Liverpool. A tragic coincidence of timing meant that it was coming through the station at that very moment, and ploughed into the wreckage just seconds after the initial crash.

Immediately, it was obvious that the death toll would be high. The last three carriages of the Tring train, the engine and the first five carriages of the Perth express, and the two engines and first seven carriages of the Liverpool train were now one enormous pile of debris, extending across platforms 2, 3, and 4. According to contemporary documents, there were 89 passengers on the express from Perth and 192 on the train to Liverpool. That meant, in total, 1,108 passengers on the three trains had been involved, plus an unknown number of commuters who had been standing on the platforms waiting for other trains.

A British Pathé newsreel described the scene.

“The injured and the dying lay there; the typists, the clerks, the soldiers, the fathers and mothers and children. It was like a battlefield, reported our cameramen, who would rather go into battle again than film tragic scenes like these.”

Just seven years after the end of World War Two, those cameramen no doubt knew exactly what they meant when they made that comparison.

Survivors began to clamber from the wreckage – and for many who were able, their first actions were to help those worse off. 

A Mr D M Rowland, of Watford, who was in the local train, told reporters. “The first thing I did was to help the girls in my compartment, and then went along the platform to try to help those trapped in the other trains.”

Ingham, from the Liverpool train, recalled, “There were two elderly ladies in the next compartment. They were badly shaken about and we helped to free them. Alongside of our carriage was one of the locomotives. It was ghastly. The screams and groans from underneath were something I never want to hear again.”

One of the survivors was Mr F. W. Abraham, Motive Power Superintendent of British Railways, Midland Region. He was in one of the last intact compartments of the local train, and as soon as he got out he went to work. He would soon be in charge of the rescue and recovery operation.

Meanwhile, the station clerk had dialed 999 immediately – without even turning to look first, according to newspaper reports – so police, fire and ambulance services were on the scene quickly. So, too, was an army of locals; volunteering their labour to help in the rescue and attend to the injured, bringing sheets and blankets to tear up into makeshift bandages and providing the essential British response to any tragedy – lots of cups of tea.

According to the official investigation report;

“The first ambulance and doctor arrived within three minutes of the collision at 8.22 a.m. and Police and the first Fire Brigade at about the same time. From 8.23 a.m. onward, ambulances, doctors, nurses, additional fire brigades and police arrived in increasing strength, and a medical unit of the United States Air Force under Lieutenant Colonel Weideman gave valuable service. The fire brigades extinguished a few minor fires in the wreckage before they became at all serious, but their main contribution lay in the knowledge and skill which they applied to the extrication of the injured. Others who gave their help included priests and ministers of several denominations and members of the Salvation Army and the Women’s Voluntary Service, and offers of assistance were accepted from local residents and from engineering firms in the neighbourhood who lent staff and equipment.”

Several of the rescuers were noted by name for their exceptional assistance. Mrs Lilian Culverwell worked for twelve hours, taking only one break to rush home and put her children to bed. A fourteen-year-old Boy Scout, Gilbert Powell, applied the first-aid skills he’d learned; his only worry was that he was absent from class, so he asked one of the ambulance sisters for a chit to take into school. 

Mr Sidney Blackford, from Harrow, was frequently referred to by the press as “The Thin Man”. 

He had volunteered to help in the rescue of a railway clerk named David Dean, who lay pinned under the wreckage for four hours. Blackford took advantage of his slim build to worm his way through the wreckage. He then kept Dean company for two hours, chatting to him, bandaging his leg and giving him a morphine injection under a doctor’s instructions.

773px-drawing_of_abbie_sweetwine_treating_injured-773x1024-2316590 Drawing of Abbie Sweetwine. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another prominent helper was Abbie Sweetwine, one of the responders from the US Air Force. The nurse used her lipstick to mark casualties who’d been treated already, particularly those who’d already received morphine, to ensure that no time was wasted and no overdoses were issued. Because of her initiative, the Daily Mirror dubbed her, “The Angel of Platform Six”. This is particularly notable because racial prejudice at the time meant that African-American women like Sweetwine were rarely acknowledged. Another mention, albeit small, was made of an Indian doctor and his wife who were amongst the first responders – he was lowered into one of the damaged carriages, and she passed equipment to him through the hole.

Speaking of the US Air Force team, a Middlesex ambulance man said, “It was wonderful what they did. They had the right equipment for a major disaster like this. They were able to do things on the spot which we could only do in hospital. Many of the injured owe their lives to these Americans.”

The Daily Mirror also relayed the story of one of the manual workers brought in to help in the rescue, Mr Edwin Stretch. Equipped with an oxy-acetylene burner, he was called to help cut through the huge pile of wreckage. Immediately, he was painfully aware that the carriages at the very bottom came from the train that his only daughter took to work each morning. 

“When I was called to the crash I realised that the train at the bottom of the debris was Brenda’s. At lunchtime I phoned her office. She had not arrived. Then I went home to my wife. She is still there, waiting for news.”

Eventually, Brenda’s name would appear on the list of the dead.

The Evening Express carried a detailed description of the crash scene, and the rescue and recovery efforts, written by their London Staff Reporter James Campbell.

“Two fast express trains and the local Wealdstone working man’s train lie broken and twisted among the torn up tracks of this suburban station. Piled high on top of the rear portion of the local train is the front of the Scottish express… Switch your eyes slightly to the left and there, in the shadow of the waiting rooms, lie the two huge grey-painted engines which pulled the Manchester-bound train into the wreckage thrown in its path. Above, to the left and right, is the covered-in-black rail bridge spanning the station’s two platforms. You can see the blue sky through the hole in the centre of this footbridge where a broken eggshell of a carriage has torn through. Rescue workers are clambering over and around the 40ft high mountain of wreckage like ants…

With one rescue worker I climbed into one of the broken carriages which had been cleared. A broken carriage – it was really an eggshell. Pieces of glass from the windows were embedded in the upholstery. A bloodstained newspaper, the strap of a woman’s handbag and a torn turquoise scarf lay on the floor. Farther along suitcases and travelling hold-alls spilled their contents on the track. Father M. Eyden from nearby St Johns (Greenhill) Parish, his black cloak and black skull cap covered in dust from the wreckage, muttered last sacrament over the dead and dying. Said Father Eyden in his soft voice: “I have been saying it all morning – all I have seen are the dead.”

hw_crash_6-1024x471-2985564 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Clearing the wreckage was a difficult task. Abraham, the former passenger now in charge, explained to reporters, “Because the pile is so near to the bridge, and because of other wrecked coaches and engines around, it is impossible to remove the top coaches first without danger to the rescue work.”

Huge cranes were brought in to move what the army of rescue workers and volunteers could not; the first arrived at 9:40, not even an hour and half after the crash. 

Newspaper reports quickly acknowledged that many were likely to lie dead at the bottom of the wreckage. 

One rescue worker was quoted as saying, “We’ll never get anywhere near them before tomorrow. God knows we’re trying hard enough, but there can’t be a living human being under that mess. We’ve listened again and again for a faint cry, but always there is silence.”

At about midday, rescuers found some of the soldiers who had been on the Perth express. Fifteen were brought out dead, but newspapers reported that;

“There was one with them, alive. Both his legs had been cut off, but he was still conscious. He smiled and made a joke about being sorry he couldn’t walk for himself before a doctor gave him morphia.” 

Black Watch Lance-Corporal Max Pratt was far more fortunate.

“I have had the luckiest escape of my life. I went for a shave in the toilet next to the last coach, which was smashed. I passed out for a few seconds, when I came to I was pressed in between the walls, with the wash-basin against my chest.” 

It was reported that, when he got out, he asked a rescuer what day it was. When they said Wednesday, he replied, “That’s my birthday, what a celebration!”

The wreckage was cleared enough for the Slow lines to reopen early the following morning; the rest of the debris was cleared by Saturday, and by the evening of Sunday the 12th, the fast lines and the footbridge had been repaired and reopened.

The final death toll was 112; 98 passengers and four railway staff killed outright, and ten passengers who died later from their injuries. The official report stated that;

“Of the 108 fatalities to passengers, there was evidence that 64 occurred in the local train, 23 in the Perth train and 7 in the Liverpool train; the remaining 14 were not located, but it is probable that some passengers who were waiting on the island platform between the Down Fast and Up Electric lines were caught by the derailed engines of the Liverpool train.”

This made it Britain’s worst peacetime railway disaster; the only train crash to exceed that number was the Quintinshill disaster, which happened in 1915 during the First World War.

harrow_and_wealdstone_train_crash-1024x744-7855592 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The investigation began immediately, even before the wreckage had been cleared. What had happened was fairly obvious – the Perth express had failed to stop for the local train ahead of it – the question was, why?

The West Coast Main Line, like many other train services, operated using a system called Block Working. Essentially, each train line is split up into short stretches, or blocks, which are only allowed to accept one train at a time. Signals indicate to the train driver whether or not they are allowed to proceed. The relevant signals were colour lights at the Up Fast Distant signal, 2,102 yards north of the point of the collision, and semaphore signals at the Up Fast Outer Home, 628 yards north, and the Up Fast Inner Home, 188 yards north.

It was standard practice to give the local train precedence over the express, which was running late, so if both were to reach the same point at the same time, the express would have to wait for the local train.

According to the regulations for block working, with the local train crossing onto the Up Fast line and entering the station ahead of it, the Perth express could be accepted into the block between the Up Fast Distant signal and the Up Fast Outer Home, but it was supposed to stop there. That meant that the Up Fast Distant would have been set at Caution – meaning slow down and prepare to stop – and then the Up Fast Outer Home and Inner Home would both be set to Danger, meaning Stop.

That was the accepted practice in clear weather, and in foggy weather, the same was allowed so long as there was a fogsignalman stationed at the Outer Home.

There had been patchy fog that morning; according to the official report:

“Fog was widespread through the night and early morning in the Midlands and the Northern Home Counties. At the time of the accident it was clearing fairly quickly at Harrow as the sun broke through, and the visibility around the station varied from about 200 yards to 300 yards or more, though it was probably more restricted in the open country by the Up distant signals. There was very little wind.”

Whether the weather was foggy or not, for the purpose of block working regulations, was defined by whether the signalman could see for more than 200 yards from the signal box. There would either be a “fog object” set, or the signalman would use a suitable landmark. From the Harrow No. 1 signal box, they used the Up Slow Home signals as their fog object; they were 303 yards away from the signal box, so they were actually being over-cautious there.

The signalman at Harrow No. 1 box that day was A.G. Armitage. He was a District Relief Signalman; that meant that he wasn’t permanently stationed at that signalbox, but instead trained to work at a number of signalboxes in the area, as needed. The report was careful to point out that he, and other District Relief Signalmen, had to pass stringent examinations to hold that post. 

On the morning of the accident, they had had fog working in place between 6:35 am and 8:10am – nine minutes before the crash. Therefore, the visibility should have been good enough for the driver of the Perth express to see the signals.

They had been running late due to the fog overnight, but had stopped as signalled at Watford Tunnel and obeyed the speed restriction through the tunnel. Then, with clear signals through Watford, Bushey and Hatch End, and with a downward slope on that route, they had picked up speed. 

At 8:11am – just after Armitage resumed normal weather working at Harrow No. 1 – he received the signal offering the Perth express from Hatch End. It was accepted, as per the regulations, up to the Up Fast Outer Home. 

At 8:17 am, as the local train pulled into Harrow and Wealdstone station and stopped, the Perth express passed Hatch End; the signalman there thought it was running at around 55 miles per hour at that point. 

In his evidence, Armitage said that he had received the signal for the approaching local train at 8:14am, and had immediately signalled for its acceptance ahead to North Wembley. That would mean it was clear to leave as soon as the passengers were aboard. He had waited until the train ahead of it – another express from Scotland – was signalled clear before he changed the signals and the crossover to allow the local train onto the Up Fast line and into the station. As soon as the train passed the crossover, he put the Home signal to danger.

“ A minute or so later he was astonished to hear the sound of the Perth express approaching at speed, and he said that when he first saw it it was ” coming out of the mist and passing my Outer Home signal on the Up Fast ” (this signal is nearly 600 yards from the box). It was making no attempt to stop, so he immediately put the detonators on the Up Fast line by lever No. 40.”

Those detonators were supposed to alert the driver by making a loud bang as the train passed over them; because they were found exploded, the investigators knew they had gone off, and the driver should have heard them.

Armitage also threw the lever to change the Down Fast signal to danger, as he knew that the Liverpool train would be approaching on that line. However, just as he did so he heard the buzzer signal that it had entered the section.

“Armitage was questioned closely on whether he might have decided in the first place to let the Perth train run through unchecked on the Up Fast line and cleared his signals accordingly on receiving the acceptance from North Wembley at 8.14 a.m…. and whether he might have then changed his mind as to the order of precedence of the two trains, restored his Fast line signals and reversed the crossover for the local train. He was also asked whether he had intended in the first place to send the local train through on the Up Slow and not to cross it over.

He was, however, unshaken in his statements that he had at no time had any intention to vary the booked routing for the local train and that he knew well that the local trains had precedence over late running expresses at that time in the morning. Armitage also explained that if he had cleared the Fast line signals for the Perth train and then changed his mind he would have had to replace his Fast line signals and reverse the crossover. With the interlocked block controls and sequential locking he would have had to ask North Wembley to cancel the acceptance and give him another before he could have cleared the signals for the local train. There was no reason to suppose that any such cancellation had taken place.”

There was evidence from eyewitnesses who had checked both the levers in the signal box and the signals themselves. As reported in the Daily Herald:

“Mr S Williams, signal and telecommunications engineer, said that he himself on the day of the accident got out of his compartment in the train, and… went to the signal box to see what had happened.“I checked on the levers. I did not touch the levers until we had a senior operating officer present, but I was able to try the catch handles and satisfy myself that the mechanical locking was in order.”Mr Williams continued: “The block indicators were all at ‘train on line.’“I satisfied myself that the signalman, who was more than a little bit concerned, was all right to such an extent that I was able to say to him: ‘All right chum, don’t you worry. As far as I can see you’re all right.’

“I found my telephone linesman and told him to check up the distant signal and come back and tell me what he saw. He told me it was a good yellow both on the fast and the slow.”

In summary, the investigators were convinced that Armitage had set the signals correctly, and they were working.

hw_crash_5-1024x752-6517746 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Evidence was also given by the drivers of the other express, which had gone through the same route ahead of the local train. Despite the fog overnight, he said “that he had had no real difficulty in observing the signals, semaphores as well as colour lights… He had a clear view of the Harrow No. 1 Up Fast Distant at Green at a range of about 50 yards, and he said that he could not possibly have missed it; when asked whether he first saw the signal at a couple of engine lengths’ distance he replied that it was a little more than that.”

The crew of the Local train gave evidence that they had had a good view of their signals on the approach to Harrow, agreeing that there had been patchy fog but it was clearing up.

The enginemen of the Perth express, Driver R.S. Jones and Fireman C. Turnock, had been killed in the collision, so what they had actually seen would forever remain a mystery. However, a surviving guard, J Kent, was able to give some evidence. 

“He said that Jones had seemed in good health when he had spoken to him and had remarked on the fog and difficulty he had had in backing on to the train; he had not, however, displayed the least anxiety about the journey and had told Kent that he would do his best in the circumstances.”

Following the stop at Watford Tunnel, he said:

“The train was “just getting into its swing again ” when the collision occurred and he thought it might have been travelling at 50-55 m.p.h. The first indication to him that something was wrong was a severe application of the brake, and he had noted that his van vacuum gauge had gone to zero almost instantaneously. This brake application was followed at an interval which he estimated as about 5 seconds by three violent forward lurches and then by an equally violent rebound. His impression was that the driver ” had spotted something just too late “.”

In keeping with that testimony, the position of the controls in the engine indicated that, “ Driver Jones had made no attempt to stop until the very last moment.”

Driver Jones had been with the railway service for some time, and by all accounts was good at his job. The report said:

“ He entered the railway service in 1927 as a cleaner, and was passed for firing duties in 1934. He was appointed Fireman in 1937, and was approved as competent to act as a driver when required in August 1946, after the usual verbal and practical examination, in which he gained 84 marks out of a possible 90; the minimum required for a ” pass ” is 65. He was appointed Driver in January 1948…  he had signed the route card to confirm his knowledge of the Crewe-Euston line on 31st March 1950. From that date until the end of September 1952 he had worked a total of 41 trips from Crewe to London, 29 of which were with express passenger trains…

 On Wednesday 8th October he was called at his house by the shedman at about 1.45 a.m. and had booked on duty at 2.45 a.m. At about that time he was told by Running Shift Foreman J. Hallmark that he was to work the Perth train forward from Crewe… in place of the regular driver who was on leave… The engine had been prepared by another crew, and Driver Jones had plenty of time to read his notices and ” oil round ” before leaving the shed at approximately 3.45 a.m… From his experience of Driver Jones at the shed, Hallmark was entirely satisfied with his work and regarded him as a steady, even tempered man and a good driver, and he said that Jones had seemed perfectly normal when he had spoken to him that morning. Evidence about Driver Jones was also given by Firing Instructor W. S. Davies, who had known him practically all his service. He spoke of him as a ” methodical young man ” who showed a keen interest in his work and was in the habit of attending improvement classes in his spare time.”

In terms of his health, it was said to have been good when he had a medical examination on passing his driver’s exam in 1946,

“ and his sight at that time, including his colour vision, was normal in every respect. There was no record that he had been off duty for any sickness except for a week’s absence with bronchitis in 1947. A general post-mortem examination disclosed nothing to suggest that he was not a perfectly healthy man and it was stated in Dr. Donald Teare’s report that he was not suffering from the effects of diabetes, alcoholism or carbon monoxide poisoning at the time of the accident.”

As for Fireman C. Turnock;

“He was 23 years of age and had joined the Motive Power Department as a bar boy in 1943 ; he became a cleaner in the following year, and was appointed fireman in 1945 at the age of 16. He had worked fairly regularly on London turns since he returned from his military service in 1949, and records showed that he had fired express passenger trains to London on 21 occasions in 1951, and on 13 occasions in 1952, including three trips in June, one in July and two in August. He had also fired an express passenger train to London on 3rd September, five weeks before the accident.

Mr. C. R. Campbell, the Divisional Motive Power Superintendent, knew Turnock as a very promising fireman, and he was well spoken of by Firing Instructor Davies, who had taken him out on express passenger work in 1949. Davies described him as ” exceptionally good, and out to learn all he could and build himself up to be a good driver.””

The mystery would, therefore, remain. The signals had been set correctly, and should have been visible to the engine crew. And yet, despite their experience and abilities, these two men had either failed to see the signals, or failed to respond to them correctly. 

However, even with that question unsolved, there was plenty to learn from this accident.

It was noted that a comparatively small number of fatalities had occurred in the Liverpool train, despite seven of its passenger coaches being involved; and that, “ the 4th and 6th coaches which were built in 1951 and 1952 to the new British Railways standard design, with all-steel welded bodies which were welded to the underframes, both kept their form as integral structures without very severe disturbance of the internal partitions and fittings.”

Older carriages had been made entirely of wood – this had been a notable problem in earlier crashes because of injuries caused by splinters and the added risk of fire. Other designs in use at the time combined sheet steel panelling with wooden frames; this removed those risks and offered a little more strength, but not by much. All main line rolling stock by that time had heavy steel undercarriages; these had the potential to reduce the risk of the vehicle being crushed but there was also the risk of them telescoping into each other.

The report noted that, “ It does seem possible… that the wreckage at Harrow might have been less compact, and the killed and injured fewer, if a greater proportion of the rolling stock had been of the latest all-steel type and rigidly coupled.” 

hw_crash_2-1024x745-6379971 Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the subject of the signals, and the drivers’ awareness of them:

“The way to guard against the exceptional case of human failure of the kind which occurred at Harrow does not lie in making the regulations more restrictive, with consequent adverse effect on traffic movement, but in reinforcing the vigilance of drivers by apparatus which provides a positive link between the wayside signals and the footplate. This is known as Automatic Train Control. The type known as ” Warning Control ” which gives an audible warning in the cab and a brake application when a Distant signal is passed at caution has been installed on the lines of the former Great Western Railway for many years, and is in use on the Tilbury line of the former London Midland and Scottish Railway; …  there are now firm prospects of its extension to other routes on a comprehensive scale.”

The Great Western Railway’s Automatic Train Control system – better described as an automatic warning system – had in fact been introduced in 1906, almost fifty years before this crash. However, despite previous recommendations that similar systems be introduced on all Britain’s main lines, there had been little progress. Many of those who made such decisions felt that, if the signals were working and the drivers were well trained, such accidents wouldn’t happen. Harrow and Wealdstone proved them wrong, and finally the introduction of warning systems gained traction. 

In that way, the death of these 112 passengers and railwaymen meant that train travel in Britain would grow safer. No train crash in the UK has exceeded that terrible death toll since – and it’s to be hoped that none ever will. 

hw_crash_4-1024x752-4563811 Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Sources, References and Further Reading

Railway Disasters of the World – Peter Semmends

Wikipedia article on the crash

Wikipedia article on Abbie Sweetwine

Wikipedia article on the station

BBC – Boy rescuer remembers devastation

Official report on the crash – PDF

Summary of the accident on the Railways Archive (Includes links to several contemporary documents)

View of the crash scene from above

My London News – Harrow & Wealdstone crash in pictures

National Archives blog – Harrow & Wealdstone Rail Crash 1952

Harrow Online – Heroism and Tragedy: The Harrow & Wealdstone Rail Crash

Harrow Times – Survivors remember crash victims

British Railways (appears to be a personal site) – Harrow and Wealdstone Disaster

I also consulted a large number of contemporary newspaper articles through the British Newspaper Archive.

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