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A voice from the signal-box/A voice from the signal-box; or, railway accidents and their causes



My experience has clearly taught me that our Railway system is at present very defective, and it is with a view of bringing into prominence the causes thereof that I venture to pen the following lines. I have had eleven years experience as a signalman upon one of our chief railways, and the greater part of that time at one of the most frequented and complicated junctions to be found in this country, situated within a hundred miles of St. Paul’s. My hours of duty are eight per day all the year round. Nearly five hundred trains pass my box in twenty-four hours, requiring the moving of four thousand eight hundred levers, and six thousand signals to be given on the block telegraph. If these are divided into three parts, it will be seen that I and my mates have each sixteen hundred levers to shift, and two thousand signals to give daily on the telegraph during the time we are on duty. This refers to ordinary times. In the busy seasons of the year, our work is increased by about one-fourth, and upon extraordinary occasions it is nearly doubled. I will deal first with—

Accidents caused through the Insufficient Training of Signalmen.

On this Railway—I cannot speak for others—but, from what I have learnt from other companies’ servants, I believe it is the same elsewhere—the signalman’s training is very imperfect, considering his very responsible duties. In a few weeks, or it may be in a few months after joining the service, he is sent to learn his future duties at a small station where the then signalman is, through some cause, about to leave or be removed. He may thus be placed at a very great disadvantage. Possibly, the man who teaches him has been called upon to resign through carelessness or inefficiency, and can it be expected, if he did not take any pains for his own benefit, that he will trouble himself for the benefit of others? The consequences are these:—

When the new beginner is asked the usual question by his superior, viz., “Are you able to undertake your duties?” he, for fear of being considered longer than others in learning, and, at the same time, hoping soon to get a small rise in his wages, will answer “Yes,” although he may be very little better informed upon the principal points relative thereto than on the day that he first entered the signal-box. He departs from the head-office a signalman in name, and amid doubts and fears, takes to his new post with the fullest intention of doing his best, no doubt; but, alas! on account of his inefficiency, he may deal out death and destruction all around him. There are “careful” and attentive signalmen, and under the present system of teaching them their duties, the careless man is not found out until he has made some great blunder, and the careful man has often to suffer for the careless one. Suppose the man leaving be the careless one, and the man sent to take his place the careful one; perhaps the latter, with good and proper training, would be the right man in the right place: but he may learn from his predecessor to make the following mistakes:—Not properly to place signals at danger after a train has passed, thus allowing another train to follow too soon; to let shunting take place across the main line when fast express trains are due; to neglect to telegraph to the next station on the passing of a train; and other irregularities too numerous to mention. Possibly none of these things have been pointed out to him in a proper manner; he may, therefore, make a mistake, and be sent for to headquarters, and most likely dismissed from the company’s service, his prospects being blighted for some time to come, for no fault of his own whatever, as we have seen. On the other hand, suppose the man leaving be a good and useful signalman, going to better himself, and the man sent to learn the duties a careless man, who pays but little attention to what is told him: the former is quite ready to show him all he can, but yet he may plainly see that this new hand is not the proper sort of man to make a good and trustworthy signalman. His time comes to leave; he has done his duty, and he leaves his post in charge of his successor, pretty well convinced that without a slice or two of good luck the consequences will be disastrous. But this is no business of his; he is seldom asked any questions upon the subject, nor is it any part of his duty to make a report of what he knows to be the fact under the present system.

It is essential, therefore, that some good and experienced signalmen should be appointed to superintend the training of all new hands, remaining with them until they are able to give a favourable report to their superintendents, stating that the men thoroughly understand the responsible duties they are to perform.

Moreover, a signalman’s pay should be commensurate with his responsibilities. At present it is not so by any means, and I can emphatically assert that the dissatisfaction and inattention thus caused is a source of great danger.

Accidents caused by Signalmen being Removed from a Level Box to an Elevated one without proper Training.

The same causes which operate in preventing signalmen from learning their duties in the first instance, lead to the following important faults in connection with their work when they are removed from a box level with the ground to an elevated one. They may learn which levers to pull over to let a train pass, but that is not all; the question is, when to pull them; and when they have been pulled, to know whether the points have answered the movements of the levers. For instance, when a pointsman is letting a train in or out of a siding by hand signal upon the ground, or attending to main line points, during shunting, he is generally upon the spot, and has, of course, the points close under his eye, so that he can at once see whether they are properly closed or not. Very different is it in the high box, for the points may be a hundred, or a hundred and fifty, yards away. Between the lever in the box and the points, there are five or six cranks and double as many pins to connect them together, so that allowing for the wear and tear, it is generally found that between the lever and the points there is a certain amount of “loose motion;” and this, combined with the weather, may greatly deceive the signalmen as to the position of the points. If you pull a lever to open distant points during the time it is raining, you will find that they move very easily; but if you do the same thing after a hot sun, a dry wind, or a frost, and put an equal amount of power on the lever, you will find that it is not over in its proper place by, perhaps, two or three inches. Now, the man newly appointed to the high box, who has not had proper instruction, after giving the lever the usual pull, and finding that it does not come properly over, will most likely press it into its appointed place by the weight of his body; which pressure will, perhaps, be great enough to tighten up the “loose motion” previously referred to, and will allow him to get the lever into its proper position without moving the points any more after giving them the first pull. They will, therefore, be standing far enough open to throw the next train off the rails that approaches them in that (facing) direction. The man who knows his work, when he finds that a lever does not come over properly at the first pull, will put it back again, and give it a much sharper pull than before. This will, without doubt, have the desired effect, and should be done in all cases before a signal is lowered for a train to pass through the points.

Accidents from the above cause are of daily occurrence, and they greatly impede the attainment of punctuality, and endanger the lives of the public.

Accidents caused through the imperfect Working of Distance Signals from the High Box.

These incidents are particularly frequent upon those lines where the “Disc” and “Cross Bar” signals are in use, as the leverage in the high box is much shorter than it is upon the ground, and the signalmen is apt to consider that so long as he has got the lever into its appointed place, and the spring into its proper groove or catch, after the passing of a train, that the signals are properly at danger; this is a great mistake.[1] With the “Cross Bar” system you have a much better purchase in pulling the signal round to show “all-right” than in pushing it back to “danger.” In the former case you are assisted by the weight of the body, but in pushing the lever you have not this advantage, and if great care be not taken, in some weathers, the signal may be standing at “all-right,” or nearly so, when it should be at “danger,” the way in which the lever has been moved being just enough to tighten up the slack wire without moving the signal round. In this case the driver will be unable to pull up before reaching the home signal, and so an accident ensues. The experienced signalman in working these high boxes is generally able to tell by the travel of the wire, the strain he feels upon the lever, and the force he uses in putting it over to “danger,” whether the signal has properly acted or not, as he is able to allow for the action of the weather upon the signals and points. The failure of signals to act properly in this way causes many accidents, and also much contradictory swearing between the engine-driver and the signalman. It is easy for the signalman to prove that the lever moving the signal was in its proper place, consequently, the engine-driver is blamed for running past it when it is supposed to be dead against him, whereas the very reverse may be the case. Inquiries into these matters should be taken in hand very carefully, by men who thoroughly understand the practical parts connected therewith; and in the end they will not fail to trace the blame to its proper source; namely, to the unskilfulness of the signalman in not being able to tell, after moving his signal, whether it has acted properly or not.

I will name a case that occurred at the junction where I am doing duty.

I was in the act of pulling over a pair of junction points, when they became disconnected from the rod attached to the lever in my box, through the key coming out of the pin, and thus allowing it to gradually work out of the crank. Now this pair of points generally worked very easy, so that there was but the slightest difference in the strain upon the lever; still I detected a difference, and it was very fortunate I did, for I was putting the points right for a fast express to pass, which would otherwise have been thrown off the rails, as the fault did not in any way prevent my putting the signals to “all-right” for this purpose; and had I not discovered that something was wrong (as the box is worked upon the interlocking system) the result might have been something fearful. The experienced signalman is able to detect as slight a difference as two pounds in the force used to pull levers over, and men who can do this are, in my opinion, invaluable to Railway Companies.

Accidents caused by Engine-Drivers disregarding signals at Junctions, Points, or Sidings.

Engine-drivers sometimes disregard signals at junctions and sidings, if the latter are protected by signals alone, as there is nothing to prevent them running from the siding or branch on to the main line, perhaps into a passing train; and before railway travelling can be made safe, these dangerous sidings and junctions must be altered. They should be protected both by signals and “Protection” or “Safety Points,” which should lead off into a dead end, blocked up with ballast, and interlocked with the main line signals. So that all the time the latter are standing at “all-right,” for a train to pass along the main line, the “safety points” would stand for the dead end; and should a train start from a siding against the signal, it would, to the driver’s great surprise, run into the ballast “stop,” thereby avoiding the danger of a collision. It would be much better to cause a shock to the branch train than hurl two trains to destruction. In cases where junctions are so constructed that there is no room for these “safety points” to be put in, a signal-box should be placed at some convenient distance from the junction; say a quarter of a mile. The branch train should be kept at it, under the block system of telegraph, until the signalman at the junction could admit it on to the main line. In the case of sidings, I see nothing to interfere with the “safety points” being used. They would make all junctions, sidings, and level crossings quite safe, and would be the means of making engine-drivers very careful to keep a good look out; for they would know that if they overran the points, they would run their trains into a “dead end.” Thus would, at once and for ever, be done away with, one of the most fearful classes of railway accidents.[2]

Another important recommendation I have to make is, that some small instruments, known as “indicators,” should be employed between sidings where shunting is done, or where goods trains are put by for fast express trains to pass, and the interior of high boxes that are far from them. A siding may be a hundred or a hundred and fifty yards from the signal-box. On a dark, and perhaps foggy night, the usual way of performing shunting at the present time is, for the signalman to depend upon the man in charge to show him a white light by hand lamp, or give a signal on a gong worked by electricity, when the main line is all clear for another train to pass. Now the former is a very dangerous system, for where shunting is taking place, the guards and the men in charge have each lights in their hands; there are also lights on the engine, and on the train which is being shunted. All these are moving about in different directions at the same time, and the signalman may easily take one of them as a signal that the line is clear before it is so. I have known many accidents to occur through misunderstandings under these circumstances. Moreover the gong is not always to be relied upon, for the signalman may forget what number of beats has been given.

To prevent such mistakes, a lever should be placed in a convenient spot as near to the points in the sidings as possible, and this should be attached to a small arm, or indicator, placed in the signal-box. It should be kept locked over by means of a padlock, so as to show the “all-right” signal (in the box) when no shunting is being done, the key being in charge of the signalman; when any shunting is required to be performed, he should hand it to the man in charge, who ought to be held responsible for locking the lever over to “danger” as soon as the shunting commences, and keep it so until everything is put back into the siding, and the main line all clear; then he should lock the indicator over to “all-right,” which would show the signalman for certain that all was right. The indicator in the box should interlock with the main line signal lever, so that it would be quite impossible for the signalman to let a train pass in that direction during the time the former was at “danger.” This simple suggestion could be carried out at a very trifling outlay, and would save thousands of pounds.

Warnings of Signalmen Disregarded.

The warnings of signalmen are, fortunately, too often disregarded by the officials. Some time ago I pointed out where there was great danger of a collision occurring, but this (from a signalman) was thought of no importance, and was therefore not then attended to. Only a few weeks afterwards a collision did take place under the very circumstances that I had pointed out, and the company have since had to pay thousands of pounds for compensation; whereas, had my warning been attended to at once, such accident could not have occurred, as the protection I had asked for was very simple, but quite effective.

There was another dangerous point to which I called an official’s attention, but, like the former, it was left too long without remedy; for a few nights afterwards (I was not on duty myself) it was only by a miracle that a collision was averted at the very spot; and as soon as it became known to the higher officials, it was at once seen that such an improvement as I had pointed out was urgently required. This has since been done, with very good results; but, to some extent, it puts me in mind of the old saying, “Locking the stable-door after the horse is stolen.” I may here remark that men are sometimes appointed to the position of signal-inspectors who have never done one hour’s duty in charge of a signal-box in their lives. Just fancy an official of this kind being entrusted with the very important duty of seeing that signalmen thoroughly understand all the important points connected with their duties that I have named! How is he to know whether those placed under his charge thoroughly understand their duties if he does not possess that knowledge himself? If any knotty point is brought under his notice, the only answer is—“Oh, you must do the best you can,” which is certainly very good advice under the circumstances. But it often happens that before a signalman becomes acquainted with the dangers I have enumerated from his own experience, he has done immense injury, and although the mischief may not have met the eyes of the public, it enters deeply very often into the pockets of the shareholders in respect of compensation for break-downs upon the line, detention of goods, damage to rolling stock, permanent way, &c.

Officials have come round to visit me during the night to see that all was well, and report the same the next morning, who perhaps have never moved a signal or point lever in their whole railway experience; and, comparatively speaking, they scarcely know the difference between a signal and a pair of windmill sails. Suppose a signalman be taken ill, or seized with a fit while on duty, and trains are waiting to cross the junction, and a man of the above experience makes the usual call to see whether all is right, instead of being able to enter upon the duties at once, and keep the traffic going, he can do nothing, and the traffic must be kept waiting until a man is found who is competent to do the work.

Engine-Drivers and Signalmen influenced by the “Inquiry System.”

This Inquiry System, which I shall presently explain, has its bearings upon a certain class of Railway Accidents, and mostly concerns engine-drivers, guards, signalmen, and foremen porters. At busy junctions it often happens that there are three or four trains, from different branches or directions, all signalled at once, and wanting to cross over the junction at the same time. It is simply impossible for the signalman to get all these trains across, and past, without detention to some of them; and a day or two afterwards he will have letters of inquiry sent to him, asking why such and such trains were detained at his “signals,” in something like the following terms:—

“Superintendent’s Office, __________, date __________, 7.45 p.m. Express from __________, stopped one minute at __________ signal, __________. This is very serious. Let me have your full report upon this matter.”

“Superintendent’s Office, __________, date __________, 7.40 p.m. train to __________, nearly stopped at No. __________ signal. This is very serious. Why was it?”

“Superintendent’s Office, __________, date __________, 7.50 a.m. train from __________, stopped at No. __________ signal. 3 minutes lost. Inspector, make inquiries into this, and let me have your full report at once.”

If all the superintendents upon the line had been at this junction when these detentions occurred, they could not have prevented them, yet these inquiries go on from month to month and from year to year; and to waste time and stationery upon them—particularly when they occur at busy junctions, where it is well known that detentions cannot be avoided—is, I think, something outrageous; it can only serve to worry the men and cause them to commit blunders. I have no hesitation in saying that the signalman often makes mistakes through being flurried, and under the dread of the above-named inquiries, as when the traffic is great he often cuts things too near to save himself from them. He has done the same thing, perhaps, many times before, and all went well; and why not try it just once again?

The same remark applies to engine-drivers, when they find a distant signal standing in the position I have previously named. The engineman has instructions to pull up his train if he is in doubt about the signal, but these “Inquiries” often influence him to chance it; and, although it is not properly at “all-right,” on he goes—sooner than be blamed for losing time—and he will do this, day after day, until he meets with an accident, sooner or later. Now, the question to be answered, when trains clash together at junctions, or crossing points, under the foregoing circumstances, is—which is the quickest and safest way to get them away without delay? and who, it may also be asked, is the best able to tell: the signalman, who is on the spot, and has to deal with them daily, or his superintendent, who is, perhaps, miles away? Why do the company place the signalman there, if they have not the fullest confidence in him?

I have often thought, when I have seen express trains rushing past my box, how little the passengers know the anxiety their trains have cost me to get them past without check or stoppage. There is very little to encourage the signalman in his difficult task, and he stands but very little chance of promotion. So long as he is able to keep all things right, the higher officials, or those in authority, hardly ever trouble to consider, that for his long and useful services, he expects a share in the promotions and appointments. I may here say, that when once a man gets out of a signal-box—either for good or bad deeds—nobody can ever get him to take to it again. A signalman may see men join the service years after him, placed in positions just under the eyes of the authorities, and promoted over his head. He wonders when his turn will come; but, alas! he hopes in vain, for, most likely, his turn is as far off as ever. In fact, he is treated like a “machine,” and, so long as his “machinery” does not fail, he may stop in this responsible and trying position until his hair turns grey. I would remind the reader that signalmen have no chance of receiving any of those useful things—so much needed now-a-days—called “tips,” to help them out with their scanty pay. His duties are quite heavy enough to impair the strongest of minds in a few years; and anyone has only to look at the careworn and anxious faces of the majority of signalmen to be fully convinced of this statement.

Accidents at Facing Points.

The cause of accidents at facing points is often very difficult to discover. It baffles some of the most experienced and practical men. I have been much struck by the number of different opinions on this important subject. When an accident occurs at facing points through some part of the train continuing on one line, and another part running on another until the lines widen, whereupon one or both parts are either dragged off the rails, or the couplings and chains give way, there can be to the practical mind only one opinion, viz., that the points have shifted during the time that the train was passing over them. The question is, how, and by what means, has this been done? At junctions where the signals and points are worked on the interlocking system, so long as the signals are at “all-right,” it is impossible for the signalman to move his points while a train is passing them; but if the signals are put to “danger” before the train is quite past the junction points, they are at liberty to be shifted, so far as the interlocking gear is concerned. Opinions differ very much (as I have remarked) as to whether facing points can be moved from the signal-box during the time that a train is passing them, so as to alter the course of some part of it after the signals have been put to “danger,” but I have not the slightest hesitation myself in saying that it can be done. It does not altogether depend upon the distance the wheels are from each other upon the carriages, or the space that there is between the wheels of one carriage and the wheels of that following it; it is the amount of strain that the signalman is able to put upon the thin end of the point with his lever. This is very great, and constitutes all the danger there is in placing the signals at “danger” before the train has passed through the points. The rod leading from the lever is attached to the weakest part of the points, viz., about two feet from the thin ends. The length of facing points is from sixteen feet downwards; the space between the wheels upon the different classes of vehicles runs from fourteen feet downwards; and the distance between the wheels of one vehicle and those of the next one following it—measuring from that part where they rest upon the rails—is from twelve feet downwards, but this distance is increased according to the strain upon the drawbar, which depends upon the length and weight of the train in motion. The thin end of a pair of facing points can be jerked far enough open, while a train is passing over at great speed, for the wheels of any carriage to strike them on the reverse side, as soon as the wheels of the previous carriage have travelled about two-thirds the length of the points. Thus it will be seen, that in any of the above-named distances between the wheels upon a vehicle, or between the wheels of one vehicle and those of that following it, if the signals are placed at “danger” before the whole train has passed, the facing points can be jerked open.

I very much doubt whether there would be any indication on the points to show how this had been done. Again, this movement can be more easily effected where the points have had great wear. They thus become very much weakened, and will the more readily answer the strain of the lever. The oscillation of a train passing at great speed through facing points would be in favour of my statement, for this reason: at the same instant that the jerk was given upon the lever by the signalman, the part of the train then passing the points might oscillate in the same direction as the jerk, in which case it would ease the points to a certain extent, and let them more readily answer the movement of the lever. There is one more way in which some part of a train’s course may be altered during the time it is passing through facing points, and this arises chiefly from the unskilfulness or insufficient training of the signalman himself. In hot and dry weather, points require a much sharper jerk to close them than in wet sloppy weather, and if the signalman has not had this well pointed out to him while learning, it will greatly deceive him. The dust and dryness of the fittings between the points and lever will, in adverse weather, make them work very hard and stiff; and if he moves the lever over with a gradual strain, instead of with a good sharp jerk, all the “loose motion” in the fittings—which, through long wear, may become very great—will be taken up, and the points be left partly open. If a crowbar be placed in this opening, it may perhaps be possible to prise the thin end of the points nearly over to the wrong side; therefore it is possible that in bad weather, when a train is passing through facing points at a great speed, the thin end of the points may be jerked far enough open by the oscillation of the train upon the heel for some of the wheels to take them on the reverse side, because the lever in the signal box (under such circumstances) does not hold them firmly. But in such a case, I should expect to find the points strained, or the fittings injured to a certain extent.

These are the only ways in which any part of a train can be turned from its proper course when passing through facing points. I think it impossible for the flanges of the wheels to strike dead against the thin ends of a pair of points, as the ends are so very thin, that a train travelling at great speed must take them either on one side or the other. Of course a vehicle may jump off the rails at points, the same as at any other part of the line; but in that case, it would most likely jump all sorts of ways, rather than run smoothly on to some other pair of rails; therefore, when a train is divided while passing through points, it has most likely been done by the shifting of the points under one or other of the above-mentioned circumstances. I should like here to express my sense of the inestimable value of Messrs. Saxby and Farmer’s great inventions in connection with points, particularly of their interlocking apparatus and locking bars.

Accidents caused through Engine-drivers not being able to see Distant Signals in Foggy Weather.

Accidents are often caused through engine-drivers being unable to see distant signals in foggy weather. Some of these signals are as much as forty feet high, or even more. How are they to be any guide to the engine-driver when he can hardly see three feet above his head? He might as well look for the “man in the moon,” as try to get the faintest glimpse of a distant signal under such circumstances. What is he to do? Is he to pull his train up and wait while his fireman or the guard goes back and climbs the signal-post to ascertain how the signal is standing? Just consider for a minute the position of an engine-driver with an express train, timed to run at fifty miles an hour without stopping! how many distant signals he has to pass in that distance which he never catches the least glimpse of whatever! and how many times he has to trust to chance, sooner than lose time! He knows that if he pulls his train up to be certain about these signals, he will be severely questioned foe losing time, as some reckless driver, who is more willing to risk these dangers, will be able to keep better time; and if one man can keep good time, others are naturally expected to do the same, until they meet with a sad disaster. I have heard engine-drivers complain bitterly of their inability to see these signals in foggy weather as they pass them.

What I advise under such circumstances is this,—place another signal arm with lamp upon the post, about the same height as the driver on his engine, and let them work together. Engine-drivers would thus be enabled to see how the signals stood under any circumstances, even in cases where the lights are blown out by the wind. I would observe that all extra arms, locking bolts and bars, add additional labours to the signalman’s already responsible duties; but never mind that; shorten his hours, increase his pay, and give him all the help possible in the busy seasons of the year, and he will willingly submit to any additional labour, so long as it is for the protection of the travelling public, for the safer railway travelling is made the better he is himself protected.

Accidents caused through broken Springs, Axles, and Tires.

It is an undoubted fact that many accidents are occasioned by the breaking of springs, axles, and tires of vehicles. These may be traced to the following causes—namely, violent shunting, bad joints in the rails, the great length and weight of trains, and fast travelling. I have had many opportunities of witnessing the violent manner in which shunting is often performed, and I am sure that this occasions very many railway accidents. I have seen vehicles “fly shunted” one against the other with so much violence as to cause some of them to jump off the rails, and upon such occasions the rust, or old paint, may be noticed flying from the springs or axles in clouds, showing plainly what great shocks they sustain. I have even seen springs snap clean into two parts under these circumstances, and there must be a corresponding strain upon the axles, journals, and tires. I have seen vehicles knocked over the “stop-blocks” by the violent way in which they have been struck in shunting, and perhaps afterwards dragged twenty or thirty yards over ballast rails and sleepers by an engine to some crossing to get them on the rails again. The greatest strain must thus be put upon the springs, axles, and tires, and it seems nothing but reasonable to expect that many small fractures, unseen at the time, are caused in this way. Nothing is more likely to fracture iron than a sudden jerk or a great shock, and fractures may be hidden from the eye of the “examiner” until the part affected in time becomes very weak, and when running at great speed over badly joined parts of the road, give way, causing a break-down. Therefore the greatest care should be exercised by railway companies with regard to the usage of their rolling stock, both for their own interests and for the safety of the public at large. It appears to me that the latter are somewhat to blame in regard to this and other classes of accidents for requiring the railway companies to run trains at too great a speed. The laws of the country are also in fault for allowing railway companies to do so, and Parliament would bestow a great benefit upon the people by passing a Bill fixing the highest speed to be allowed upon any Railway at forty miles an hour. Any persons wishing to travel faster than that not only endanger their own lives, but the lives of all who travel with them. If Railway Companies are allowed to go on competing in respect of speed, there is no telling where we may find ourselves in the end.

The majority of accidents caused by fractures to machinery occur to goods trains, and this goes far to prove my statement that a great number of such fractures are caused through violent shunting. It may not be out of place here to say a few words on behalf of the men whose lot it is to perform this dangerous duty. What with the vast number of “shunts” they have to make in marshalling the trains before starting, pulling them to pieces on their arrival, the short space of time between the arrival and departure of trains and, in most cases, the poor accommodation for such work, they have to hurry it over in the best way they can, risking their own lives, besides exposing the travelling public to the greatest dangers. Many fine hale young men are killed or maimed, their wives made widows, and their children fatherless through this dangerous employment; moreover, they are exposed to all weathers, which is very trying in the strongest constitutions. These men, therefore, deserve the greatest consideration from their employers. The only way to diminish the danger to which they are exposed, is to make better accommodation in the way of shunting room, and provide more men to do it. This would give them time to use the rolling stock with more care, and do away with much of the hurry and violence in shunting. It would save the men’s lives, and save Railway Companies thousands of pounds in expenses for repairs to rolling stock, compensation for accidents, and damage to goods.

In the case of goods guards’ work, I wish to point out that both the length and weight of goods trains are, generally speaking, excessive, considering the number of men and the brake power provided. A goods train consisting of between twenty and thirty waggons is often started from stations under the charge of one guard. The night may be dull and foggy, and the train may have to stop at several stations to put off and take on trucks. At some small stations the guard has everything to attend to himself, having to detach, hook on, and give signals to the engine-driver. Is it possible for one man to attend to all these things without losing time, without endangering his life, or exposing the rolling stock to great injury? When he has waggons to take on at a station, he will most likely leave his brake van and part of his train standing on the main line while he goes into the siding. Here is the danger: the engine-driver may be backing into the siding too fast, through not being able to see the guard’s signal, either on account of the dullness of the night or otherwise. This will prevent the guard from going between the waggons to catch them together; consequently, they will come into violent collision, and those he intended to attach will be knocked twenty or thirty yards along the siding, or sent crash against more waggons at the end. The engine-driver will feel the shock of this collision, and it will put him in fear of again moving his engine until the guard has traversed the whole length of the train to tell him what he wants to be done. The same thing may occur when the engine is backing with the waggons to the rest of the train left on the main line. Thus, as I have remarked, the rolling stock incurs serious injury. By the time the train is ready to start on its journey a passenger train may be due, in which case the goods will have again to shunt to allow it to pass. Perhaps it will be found that there is not room enough for the whole train to stand in the siding well clear of the main line by the length of, say, one waggon, and some minutes more will be lost in trying to make room. Probably the guard will have to divide the train, and run the first part a short distance a-head, so that it can be brought back with great force, and by this means crush the train by main force into the siding, clear of the main line. Thus more fractures may be caused to fittings in the rolling stock. While these things have been taking place the driver of the passenger train may have disregarded the signals, or the signalman may have taken it for granted that the goods train is clear of the main line; he may be in doubt of having missed seeing the guard’s signal, consequently the passenger train may rush forward to find, perhaps, the engine of the goods train only half way in the siding, and foul of the main line—a collision being inevitable.

There is another great danger connected with dispatching goods trains from stations with too many vehicles. To get them in motion the drivers are often compelled to start with a sudden jerk, and many times I have seen the coupling chains snapped in two under such circumstances. With shorter trains the engine would be able to start with ease, and this would greatly lessen the danger of breaking or fracturing the coupling chains. The same observations apply to passenger trains. Moreover, during the time passenger trains are at the stations with only one guard, delays and mishaps often occur through his being overburdened with work, such as sorting parcels, letters, &c., and attending to luggage when he ought to be looking after the flurried passengers. Passenger trains, for the safety and convenience of the public, should never be allowed to run with more than fifteen vehicles, and never with less than two guards. As a rule, and for the purpose of avoiding delays at stations, there should be one guard to every five passenger carriages.

Accidents caused through Proper Intervals of Space not being kept between Trains on the Road.

It is essential, if accidents are to be prevented, that on every railway the “absolute block system of telegraph” should be in use, so as to keep intervals of space between all trains.[3] It often occurs if this system is not in use, where there is a space of six or seven miles between stations, that there are two or three trains following one another at short intervals upon the same line of rails; and, under these circumstances, there is great danger of one train overtaking the other. Suppose a stopping train arrives at Station A, and is timed to shunt at Station B for a fast express to pass, and the distance between the two stations is six or seven miles, as above suggested, there may be ample time for it to run on to Station B with safety, if no mishap occurs on the way. After it has passed Station A ten minutes it will receive no further protection, as far as signals are concerned, until the signalman at Station B has become aware that it has arrived within his distant signal, which he will then put to “danger.” Between this distant signal and Station B there may be a sharp curve, in which case the signalman will not put his distant signal to “danger” until the train has arrived in sight, if he have no other means of ascertaining that it is approaching. Therefore, the train may have passed the distant signal something like half a mile before the signal is put to “danger.” Now, after it left Station A, some mishap may have occurred to the engine, thereby causing its progress to be very slow. Should the express arrive at the former station ten minutes afterwards, it will be allowed to go on with the “all-right” signal (as the signalman will consider ten minutes sufficient for the stopping train to reach Station B and shunt for the express to pass). There may be a goods train waiting to follow, either from a branch line or from a siding, which will be allowed to do so; thus there will be the stopping train, the express, and the goods train, following one another between Stations A and B. Now, in consequence of the slow speed of the first train, it may arrive in sight of the signalman at Station B just as the express is passing his distant signal, and by the time that signal is put to “danger” the express may be past it. The engine-driver, as a matter of course, rushes on at full speed round this curve, to find the station signal dead against him, and the stopping train standing at the station, or shunting into the siding for him to pass—a collision of course ensuing. Or the slow train may come to a dead stop half-way between the two stations, and before the guard has had time to go back a sufficient distance to save the express, it may be upon him, particularly if the weather should be dull or foggy. Perhaps, again, before the guard of the express, in his turn, gets far back, the goods train may smash into it. That many accidents occur under these circumstances is well known to railway companies, if not to the travelling public. Nothing but the “block” system of telegraph will prevent such accidents; and the great pressure of traffic upon our railways at the present time has made it absolutely necessary that this system should be established throughout the whole length of our railways, boxes being placed at intervals of about two miles. That is to say, all stations under, say, three miles apart, should be worked from station to station, and where the distance is over three miles and under five, a signal-box should be erected half-way between; where the distance reaches seven miles, two signal-boxes should be so erected; and so on. By these means a safe space between all trains on the road could be maintained. Goods trains at the present time are frequently kept thirty or forty minutes at stations, waiting for fast expresses to pass, and excursion and slow passenger trains from fifteen to twenty minutes (in some cases these delays are much greater). Further, it often happens that after a goods train has been waiting some considerable time for an express to pass, a stopping train may arrive from a branch line, which must have precedence of this already much delayed goods train. The same thing may occur again at the next shunting station, and by the time it reaches its journey’s end it may be from two to three hours late. Whereas, if the system which I have explained were in use, a goods train could leave one signal-box for another with as little as five minutes precedence of a fast train, and with more safety than under a system where the space between trains is regulated by time only, with fifteen or twenty minutes’ precedence. It could easily be ascertained, by means of the single needle instrument, how far the fast train was off when the goods arrived at a shunting station. All signal-boxes should be supplied with this instrument, and the men well-instructed in their use. Moreover, at all two-mile signal-stations or boxes, there should be “cross-over roads,” and good siding-room for the accommodation of trains. If, under the conditions suggested, a breakdown or stoppage of any kind took place between stations, arrangements could be made for working by “single line” in a very short time, and with but little, if any, delay to the traffic. Most junctions, I may add, are already supplied with a single-needle instrument for each double line of rails.

Accidents under the Absolute Block System of Telegraph.

From ten years experience with the absolute block system, I am prepared to say that accidents under it are rare, and what few do occur, are of a very trifling nature. They generally take place in this way:—the signalman at junction “A” signals a train on to box “B;” he goes on with his duties, having perhaps seven or eight more trains to get past in different directions. The first train may come to a dead stand between signal-boxes “A” and “B,” but out of sight of them both, and when the man has another train ready to follow in the same direction, he looks at the telegraphic disc, his only guide, and finds it indicating that the line is blocked. He becomes confused; perhaps what he has been doing since the train passed has made him forget that he ought to have received a signal from “B” to the effect that the line was again “clear” until the second train is ready. He asks himself, has he received “line clear,” and forgot to make the entry in his train book? or has he received the signal for the second train, and sent it on to the signalman at “B,” and forgot for the moment to put his signals at “all clear” for it to pass? At the same time, signalman “B” becomes alarmed at the non-arrival of the first train. He may likewise be in doubt whether it has passed him or not, and think he has forgotten to release the key and give back “line clear” to “A.” Under these circumstances, the inquiry system spoken of previously will have its effect, for both men will know that one or other of them will be called upon to answer for any delay that takes place in connection with the second train, and a fine, or the loss of his bread, may be the result. These thoughts will be quite enough to cause them to lose all confidence in themselves, particularly in the case of young signalmen. They will most likely rush to the single needle instrument; but their questions and answers being hurried and confused, one or the other will be misunderstood. Signalman “B” may come to the conclusion that the first train has passed all-right, or signalman “A” will chance that he has signalled the first train on to “B,” and forgot afterwards to put his signals to all-right. In the end, the second train is allowed to pass, coming shortly into collision with the first. Here I would point out other disadvantages under which many signalmen perform their duties, in cases where they are protecting long tunnels, as upon any of the underground Railways, or on a part of line where the view is obstructed. When a misunderstanding arises (such as I have described), the signalman has to trust entirely to memory, whereas the man in the open country, who can see from one station to another, can tell when a train is clear of the station in advance, or can see a train coming, that he might be otherwise in doubt about. This should be taken into consideration by railway authorities when mistakes occur, for, depend upon it, there is nothing gained by being too severe with good and trustworthy servants.

It, however, often occurs that men are appointed to the position of Superintendent or Station-master with no better recommendation than a few years service as clerk in the office of the General Manager or Superintendent. Men are frequently made inspectors through the influence of someone quite outside Railway management, or at the bidding of a superintendent’s clerk. It is seldom that such men do a day’s duty in connection with the outdoor work of the line from one year’s end to another. Inspectors or station-masters appointed thus, when a “block” occurs, are like ships in a storm, on their beam ends, and the first thing they most likely essay is, appeal to the signalman or foreman-porter to know “what is the usual practice in such cases.” In my opinion, the man who would make the most useful superintendent is the station-master or inspector of long standing, who has risen from the lower grades of the service, as a man then possesses a good knowledge of all departments of Railway work.

I have endeavoured in the foregoing writings, to the best of my humble abilities, to show how Railway Accidents occur, and how they may be prevented. If I have been successful, and if my remarks should be productive of any good, my trouble will be abundantly rewarded.

I would also add that the majority of railway servants are most terribly overworked, as well as underpaid, which of itself constitutes a serious danger to railway travelling. This question has been agitated by railway servants all over the country for some time past, by means of meetings, and through the Press, and particularly through the medium of that useful railway journal, The Railway Service Gazette, which has done, and is still doing, much good for the Railway Service.

No doubt it is a difficult matter to make arrangements so as to give enginemen and guards a regular number of hours on duty each day, on account of the different distances their trains are set to run; but their hours of duty should be arranged as far as possible as follows: no engineman, passenger or goods guard, should be kept at work longer than ten hours out of twenty-four, time to be calculated from arrival (by order) at the stations to their leaving them. This would give enginemen about eight hours on their journeys, as they are generally at work the greater part of an hour before starting, and about the same length of time on arrival back. The same remarks also apply to guards’ duties.

All pointsmen, signalmen and shunters should be placed on the eight hours’ system; other servants in uniform should work ten hours per day; six days to constitute a week’s work, and Sunday duty to be paid for as overtime. These arrangements, I think, would give satisfaction to all classes of railway servants. Extra enginemen and guards should be kept on duty at all the large stations, ready to take charge of any train of which the men in charge had been on duty this appointed time, in case it should have been delayed by bad weather, “blocks,” or other causes. If the men wished to travel on to their homes, they might be allowed to do so, but they should certainly be relieved of the responsibility of working their trains.

In conclusion I would say, in the words of the second and third verses of the Thirty-ninth Psalm,—

“Before, I was dumb with silence; I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred.

“My heart was hot within me; while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue.”


  1. I do not by any means wish it to be understood that I condemn those kinds of signals; but I think that more care should be used with them than with others; therefore the signalman who has to work them should be particularly well trained.
  2. It would not necessarily follow that under the system hero proposed a driver would run his train into the dead end if he overran the points (against the signal). I would advise that a crank be attached to the lower part of the signal post, with two arms, just long enough to reach the nearest rail, having claws at the ends with a fog signal in each claw. This crank should work with the signal, and when the latter was standing at danger, the fog signals (or detonators) would be resting on the rail. As soon as the signal was put to “all-right,” the simultaneous action of the crank would withdraw them clear from the line. Thus the driver would always discover what he was about in time to have a chance of pulling up before reaching the dead end. These throw off lines should be made as long as circumstances would admit.
  3. Many different kinds of Block Telegraphs have been invented. Amongst the best of those which I have seen are Messrs. Tyer and Norman’s, and Harborow and Spagnoletti’s. [The former’s plan is used very extensively on the leading railways, and an important work will shortly be issued from the press illustrative thereof, as well as descriptive of Tyer’s new Electric Interlocking Signals.—Ed. R.S.G.]