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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘accident’

Cofiwch Abermiwl

Like a train, this post is slightly late

A couple of days ago, it was the hundredth anniversary of a significant event in British railway history. If you’re a train nerd, you’ll know what it was from the title of this post. If you’re not, let’s start with this photo of the Severn Valley in rural mid-Wales.

The Severn Valley just west of Abermiwl

I took that photo a few years ago from the ruined battlements of the 13th century Dolforwyn Castle, and looking at it you could be forgiven for not even noticing the train in the middle of the picture. It’s on its way from Birmingham to the Welsh coast, on the former main line of the Cambrian Railways. Before 1922 the Cambrian was the largest “Welsh railway company”* in terms of route mileage, but not in terms of profit or revenue. Its main line was (and is) more like a long, rambling branchline; single-track, through small towns and tiny villages, from the Marches through to Aberystwyth and the curving coast of Cardigan Bay. That includes the line along the Severn Valley through Welshpool and Newtown, passing under the battlements of Dolforwyn Castle near the village of Abermiwl (or Abermule in its English spelling).

if you look closely you can see the train, its single track threading through fields and past farmhouses. See the white house on the left with the three chimneys? See the railway line passing behind it? A hundred years ago this week, two trains, going in opposite directions, collided head-on at that precise spot. Seventeen people were killed, including Lord Vane-Tempest, director of the Cambrian Railways and High Sheriff of Montgomeryshire.

The significant thing about the Abermiwl crash is that, in theory, it should not have happened. In theory, the single lines of the Cambrian Railways were protected by a “token system”. Without going into too much detail: the rules of a token system state that all trains travelling from “token station” to token station must be carrying a token, an arbitrary “thing” with the names of the token stations engraved upon it. The physical form of the token varies: a baton, for example, or a large key. The Cambrian Railways used “tablets”, metal discs a few inches across. Each section of line has a set of tokens, but they normally sit locked in machines called “token instruments” at each token station. The instruments are electrically wired together in a similar way to a pair of light switches at either end of a staircase, so that if you unlock one token from one instrument, you then can’t take any more tokens out of either, until a token has been locked back into one of the instruments. Ergo, assuming the drivers follow the rule on not setting off without a token—and it is one of the gravest rules in the Rule Book—nothing can go wrong.

On 26th January 1921 a westbound slow train arrived at Abermiwl and handed over its token, for the Montgomery—Abermule section of line. It was booked to wait to pass the Aberystwyth—Manchester express heading in the other direction, but the station staff were collectively unsure whether that would be happening on this particular day, or where the express currently was. In reality, the express was steaming hard in the middle of the Abermule—Newtown section of line, but none of the station staff actually knew that, and only one knew that a token had been issued for it at Newtown. Through something best described as a gruesome stage farce, or a nightmarish pantomime, the Montgomery—Abermule token was passed hand-to-hand among the station staff and back to the loco crew, who assumed it was the Abermule—Newtown token they were expecting, and didn’t look at it to check. Without anyone who knew the location of the express noticing, the slow train set off carrying the wrong token. A mile outside the station, the two trains collided. The station staff, by that point, had already realised what they had done and that the trains were doomed, but were unable to stop them.

The accident investigation report made it very clear just how the event had happened, and “Remember Abermiwl” became a watchword across railways worldwide. In India, it was written in Urdu inside the cabs of locomotives. It became standard practice for train crew to shout out the names of the stations on each token to each other, and pass the token around the cab for everyone to read aloud, so the identity of each was double- and triple-checked at each token station. If you go and visit a steam railway, you can still see and hear that happen, if you’re in the right place at the right time. The peaceful green fields in the photo above had an impact on railway working around the world; and the lesson is worth remembering in other fields too. Avoid passing jobs hand to hand; always make sure everything is clear and agreed. Cofiwch Abermiwl.

If you want to know the full details of exactly how the accident happened, who said what to who, and precisely how the Montgomery token ended up in the wrong place, it is all spelled out in the accident report written by the Board of Trade’s Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways, John Pringle. There is a postscript to this, though. Despite the importance of Abermule in railway history, a similar event almost happened in August 2019 on the miniature Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in Kent. There, the trains saw each other with enough warning to stop before colliding. However, the causes of that event were similar enough that the official government report on the incident includes Abermiwl under the heading “Previous Similar Occurrences”. Remember Abermiwl, indeed. The safest of systems can be defeated if the proper processes are ignored and slowly slip away over time. Cofiwch Abermiwl.

* Technically speaking, the head office and engineering base of the company was not in Wales, but slightly over the border in Oswestry. However, if you were to consider all of the railway companies which had the majority of their track mileage in Wales (including Monmouthshire, let’s not get silly now) as Welsh railway companies, the Cambrian was the longest.

Road safety

In which the area is notorious for something

You often see stuff about road safety on the telly. Less often, things about specific roads. And it’s very rare for this area – the Forest, if you like to think of the Symbolic Forest as a physical place – to get on the telly at all. So when I heard that there was an hour of Channel Four last night solely devoted to road safety in this area, I had to watch it. Even more specific than that: it was purely about one road, the one from here down to Somerset.

We didn’t manage to watch the whole thing; the catalogue of deaths was just too depressing. It wasn’t helped by my habit of saying “That’s the bend coming out of Fir Park” or “That’s just by Cottagers’ Plot” when random stretches of road were shown on-screen; I spend so much time trying to get out of this area, I know all the main roads out of here in great detail. As we didn’t see it through to the end, I don’t know if the documentary tried to offer up any reason why that particular road is so dangerous. All we got was: people round here are crap at driving.

This may be true. Certainly, in my experience, it is true. People in London, say, may have a reputation for bad, aggressive driving, but people in this area are good at sloppy, careless driving; or drunk, too-fast driving; and that’s what leads to so many people dying on a fairly short, fairly ordinary road. It’s because, paradoxically, this area is quiet and isolated, compared to the rest of the country. The question is: is there anything we can do about that?

Facing points (part two)

In which we go over some railway history

More notes on the Lambrigg and/or Grayrigg train crash from a couple of weeks ago. Continued from here.

As I said in the first part, it was known for many years that junctions are a dangerous thing. Any place where a train has a choice of routes to take is a danger point, and the railways, for a hundred years or so, got around this by avoiding them as much as possible. A freight train, going into a siding, would have to run past it, stop, and back up slowly into the siding.

This is a very safe and careful thing to do, but it is very, very slow. Trains take a long time to slow down, and a long time to stop. Backing up has to be done very slowly, too, and the whole operation blocks the main line for rather a long time. If the train could run directly into the siding, things would be a lot faster.

Similarly, if one line of a pair has to be closed for engineering works, trains have to run in both directions over the remaining line. The old way of doing this was very slow indeed – the train would have to stop, reverse backwards onto the other track, then reverse again so it was going forwards. All very fiddly and slow,* and it would have been easier if there was a faster way to do things.**

So, in the 1960s and 1970s, an awful lot of the rail network got simplified and redesigned. In particular, “emergency crossovers,” like the ones involved in the Lambrigg crash, were installed every few miles on the main lines. Essentially, all they were there to do was let trains switch across to the other track if one line had to be closed for maintenance. This, though, meant greatly increasing the numbers of relatively dangerous, maintenance-heavy facing points on high-speed main lines. Cost was no longer so much of an issue – greater automation and mechanisation of the railways meant that all points were fitted with exactly the same locking equipment, so the legally-required and previously expensive locks on facing points were now provided for free. Maintenance still mattered, though.

Note that I said “relatively dangerous”. Facing points are maintenance-heavy, purely because they are intrinsically more dangerous than trailing points. This isn’t an issue, though, so long as the maintenance gets done. And, over the years, all points started to be given the same level of maintenance – there is in many ways no longer a distinction between facing and trailing points, maintenance-wise, because as I said above they nearly all have the same fittings.

So long as the maintenance gets done. That is the key. Railways just aren’t maintained in the same way that they used to be. There’s no longer a man walking every stretch of track, every day of the year, looking out for faults, like there used to be. If facing points aren’t maintained properly, they become dangerous, and they’re likely to cause accidents, such as Lambrigg and Potters Bar. The problem is, they’re vital to being able to run the railway smoothly and flexibly. If you want to run a flexible railway, it’s going to cost you more. You have to be willing to pay the price, however you want to pay it.

* there are lots of other rules involving people waving flags and people whose job is just to be unique, but I won’t bore you with them.

** This has nothing to do with the closing of alternative routes, incidentally, which people sometimes go on about as being a Bad Thing in connection with the rail network. Alternative routes are often a lot less useful than people think.

Facing points

In which we delve into railway history following a recent accident

Some notes on the Lambrigg rail accident (also known as the Grayrigg crash in the media).

Facing points are a bad thing. Facing points have always been known to be a bad thing. This has been known ever since the railways were first created.

A facing point is, essentially, a junction, where one line of rails splits in to two. The opposite is a trailing point: a junction where two lines come together to become one. You will quickly realise that a facing point becomes a trailing point if you stop your train and reverse it, and vice-versa.

Facing points are dangerous; trailing points are safe. You can drive through a faulty trailing point, or a trailing point set the wrong way, and you’re unlikely to have your train come off the track. You’ll probably wreck the point, unless it’s designed for you to do that to it,* but your train will be unharmed. Do that with a faulty facing point and your train is going to end up all over the place.

Now, this was never a problem, because for years main-line railways only ever had tracks in pairs, one track for each direction. Going the Wrong Way was strictly against the rules. The main reason for this was to stop trains meeting head-on, but it had a secondary benefit: it meant that engineers could get rid of as many facing points as was possible. This was partly an expense issue. Anyone who’s ever had a train set will know that if you switch a facing point whilst a train is on it, Bad Things will happen as different parts of the train try to go in different directions. This isn’t what happened at Lambrigg/Grayrigg, but it has the same result; and when the government realised, they quickly insisted that all facing points be fitted with a complex arrangement of locks and train-detectors to make sure you can’t do that. Back then, that involved mechanical locks which needed a lot of careful and regular maintenance and adjustment. Now, most of it is done electrically, but there is still a mechanical lock somewhere in the point’s machine that holds the various moving parts of a point fast when a train is nearby. Of course, that’s only any use when the rest of the point is mechanically sound too.

So, anyway, as I said, if all lines are one-way only you don’t need facing points. Not until you get to big junctions, at any rate, where you have to live with them. Freight lines didn’t need the expensive facing point locks, so freight trains always backed into sidings. And the railways happily ran like that for a hundred years or so, and facing points rarely caused accidents. In modern times, though, it didn’t really work.

The second part of this article continues here

* Lots of points on rural lines, nowadays, are what’s called “sprung points”. They’re not controlled, they just sit there. Use them as a facing point, and they’ll always send you the same way.** Use them as a trailing point, and you can approach them from either route without problems.

** Left, usually, on British main line railways at any rate.

Crash

In which I am driven into

It’s Friday lunchtime. I’ve popped into town just to get out of the office for an hour, and now it’s time to head back to work. Into the car, and I’m gently drifting through the car park towards the exit with an Add N To X album playing loudly on the stereo, when…

Something is moving too close to me, but before I can respond – BANG!

A big, dark car has driven right into the side of me. I jump out of the car in a great panic, forgetting to turn off the engine or even try to take the key out.

I had absolutely no idea what to do. I’ve been in crashes before, but only ever as a passenger. This was the first time that anything bad had happened to my own car. I was shaky, jittery, shocked and adrenalin-flooded. No idea what I should be doing, other than taking down the other driver’s name and address. Looking back, though, luck was on my side. I’m not hurt, and the shock went away after a few hours. The car still works. I can still drive it, even if it does have a big, nasty dent in the side. If I’d been hit a foot further forward, the door would probably be unusable; and I’d have possibly been hit too. If it was a foot further back, the back axle might well have been wrecked. As it is, though, I just have a big dent until the garage can manage to get hold of some replacement panelling.