The Rail and Road Pod Episode 16: Railway staff safety: learning from our past

21 December 2022
The Rail and Road Pod discusses the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death project’, which takes a look back at railway worker accidents in Britain and Ireland from the late 1880s to 1939.
Cover Image
Great Western Railway staff safety image from 1914

In this episode we're joined by Dr Mike Esbester, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Portsmouth. Dr Esbester's work on the Railway Work, Life & Death project aims to make it easier to find out more about past employee incidents on the railways. It is a joint initiative between the University of Portsmouth, the National Railway Museum and the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick. We've been pleased to be able to help the project.

Paul Wilkinson, knowledge project lead in ORR's Railway Safety Directorate also joins the discussion. We explore some historic incidents, how safety has developed as a result, and how our archives continue to provide valuable insights to our colleagues in His Majesty's Railway Inspectorate. Paul notes that while Britain has one of the safest railways in Europe, "there's no complacency, we still look at these reports, we're still learning." 


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Introduction, Kenny Walker: Hello, this is the Rail and Road Pod, and I'm your host, Kenny Walker. This episode, our 16th, follows on from a recent blog published on ORR's website and one of the most read this year, on the Railway Work, Life & Death project.

Dr Mike Esbester: There's one particularly large case as far as staff go, that happened on the 9th of November 1932 at Watford Junction, and a gang of track workers were hit by a train, unfortunately. Five of them were killed. 

Paul Wilkinson, knowledge project lead, ORR railway safety directorate : Accident rates to railway worker fatalities has come down to make it one of the safest railways in Europe at the moment. There's no complacency we still look at these reports, we're still learning.

Mike: Unfortunately, a bridge had been opened to allow a ship into dock, but the driver failed to spot the fact that the bridge was open and drove the loco towards where the bridge should have been. Of course, it wasn't, and it ended up in the dock.


Kenny: I'm joined today by Dr. Mike Esbester, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Portsmouth, and Paul Wilkinson Knowledge Project lead in the Railway Safety Directorate at the Office of Rail and Road. The Railway Work, Life & Death project takes a look back at casualties to British and Irish railway staff before 1939. Can you start off, Mike, by explaining a bit about the project and why it came about?

Mike: Yes, sure. Thanks, Kenny. I was aware from some of my earlier work on the safety of railway employees in the past that there was a vast body of records of accidents to railway workers that was available in hard copy at various archives and repositories. The ORR have copies, but also places like the National Railway Museum in York, the National Archives in London. The problem was that no one really knew about them and all the important and really interesting information within them. It's far too much for me as an individual to do anything about, and working with colleagues at the National Railway Museum and at the Modern Record Centre and at the National Archives, we've been working to make the information that's contained within these reports more freely available online and hopefully get people using them from all walks of life, whatever their research interests in the current rail industry and beyond.

Kenny: Thanks Mike. To bring in Paul, Paul, can you explain just a bit about how ORR has helped with this project, and as Mike mentioned there as he discussed, was the ORR archives.

Paul: Basically there's three types of records that we retain. There's accident reports contained in the annual reports on railway safety. Then there's the large public inquiry reports done into major train accidents such as Clapham Junction, Ladbroke Grove et cetera. Then the third type of report that we used to produce, which of the work on Mike's project was white reports. There were so-called white reports because of the white cover. These were done by railway employment inspectors, and they were usually into staff fatalities or serious injuries to members of staff. The initiative was that these were widely distributed throughout the railway industry so that lessons could be learned.

Kenny: Thanks Paul. In a recent guest blog by Mike posted on the ORR website it states that around 17,000 more cases were added to the database, meaning all this staff and incident investigations carried out by ORR's predecessors, the railway employment inspectors of the Railway Inspectorate that exist are all now included. That's around 21,000 cases in total. That is a lot of cases and a lot of information. There must be some that stand out from others. What's grabbed your attention the most Mike?

Mike: Absolutely. There are so many cases that are investigated, unfortunately, because of course, each one of them represents an individual who's had something unfortunate happen to them. It should be said also that because of the way that the inspectorate is staffed at that point, at any given time, there are only five inspectors trying to investigate accidents. What we've got is probably only around 3% of all the staff accidents unfortunately that happened in the early 20th century. Even so that's produced these 21,000 or so cases.

Sometimes it's hard to pick out cases because there are so many, and obviously lots of them are very similar sorts of things, but there's one particularly large case as far as staff go that happened on the 9th of November, 1932 at Watford Junction. A gang of track workers were hit by a train. Unfortunately, five of them were killed, SG Hunt, AJ Kent, AG Money, JC Saunders and Jay Woolhead and two were injured, F Moore and Robert Bolton. What's particularly interesting when I think about this case and why it speaks to us today is that the work was being undertaken, it's open line working so in and amongst moving traffic.

Unusually for its time there was a lookout appointed. Again, there's a long history here in terms of lookouts being seen as the answer to track work safety. Whereas we know now that's actually there are other much better ways and methods importantly of keeping track workers safe. However at the time it was very much seen as the gold standard. The tragic thing about this case is that there was a lookout present. He saw the signals changing to say that there was a train expected on the line that they were working on. He alerted the gang to that and said, "There's a train coming."

He was expecting to give a second warning when he saw the train, but there was another train passing by on a separate line and the steam and smoke from that train obscured his vision. He didn't give that crucial second warning. The report was very critical about the practices understandably and made a large number of recommendations as to how to improve safety on this one including things like making sure the drivers were informed about work being undertaken, that there were flagmen posted further out to be able to warn drivers in advance of reaching the work site, better warnings for the staff on track from the lookouts, better training of lookouts and that the workers themselves should give a prompt response to warnings. Again all of these sorts of issues albeit in slightly different contexts are still live issues today although fortunately the use of unassisted lookout working has decreased massively, I think has been phased out entirely now.

Kenny: Some valuable learning points there from the past. How about a second case?

Mike: A second case that really caught the eye that took place on the 19th of February, 1923 at Milford Haven in Wales. Here we had four staff on a loco moving and unfortunately a bridge had been opened to allow a ship into dock, but the driver failed to spot the fact that the bridge was open and drove the loco towards where the bridge should have been. Of course, it wasn't and it ended up in the dock. Two of the men were rescued, but unfortunately, WG George and William Williams drowned. One of the interesting things I think about this and we can see again learning points for the present is that in the first place it was possible to drive an engine over into an open space. There wasn't anything physically stopping them.

The men had been given or driver in particular, had been given instructions that the bridge was going to be opened later that day when they signed on in the morning, but presumably had forgotten that, that was the case. Again, this disconnect in time between being told something and having to apply it. It's interesting again after that case the report notes that stop boards were put up, gates and lights were installed, so there were physical solutions to try to prevent that sort of incident happening again. That could obviously have been in place before it had happened, but unfortunately weren't.

Kenny: Well, thanks very much Mike, from those two really fascinating examples particularly on the first one, the cloud of steam blocking the lookout's line of vision which is something you can't really imagine in this day and age. Also like you say in the second incident the fact that a loco was actually able to use to go off the track and into the water it kind of blows the mind a wee bit when you think about that. If I can bring in Paul. Paul, we've only heard there of two examples from 21,000 records that are on the database. Can you just explain the importance of learning from such tragic accidents, the importance of learning from history?

Paul: If we take a look at the figures they're quite staggering on fatal accidents to railway workers at the time. For example, in 1922 there was over 240 railway fatalities to members of staff. It remained in the high 200s fatalities right have until the 1960s. It's a staggering figure.

What we do in the inspectorate is when we have quite a few of the new trainee inspectors come to us, they're made aware of the archives and so they can look at similar accidents. Mike mentioned about the bridge. In fact, there was a fatal train accident where a locomotive fell into a river. That was the Glanrhyd Bridge accident in 1987 resulting in three fatalities. Not just railway workers, unfortunately a passenger. Again, you can see Mike's accident and 50 years later it's occurring again. There is an important message here, is to learn the causes of those accidents and to ensure that they don't happen again.

Unfortunately, some do, but however with the work of these reports and circulating them throughout the industry, thankfully the accident rates of railway worker fatalities has come down to make it one of the safest railways in Europe at the moment. There's no complacency, we still look at these reports, we're still learning and ensuring that our safety is paramount.

Kenny: Thanks, Paul. Just on that I think we've discussed before we've started recording about how difficult it is to find some of these records and to add to the archives. Obviously the high profile incidents as we've discussed there would've been covered in the media at the time, but media coverage for a lot of these instances, some of those figures that you've given about how many instances there's been, it was quite staggering. It's true to say that there wouldn't have been much coverage in the papers as what we're talking about, in the papers at the time.

Mike: Yes absolutely. If I can jump in on that as well.

Kenny: Of course.

Mike: This wasn't news, unbelievably at the time. Paul's mentioned about that incredibly high number of fatalities and it was when the Railway Inspectorate annual reports were released, there was usually a brief mention although typically the focus was on the passenger safety record. Workers got that brief moment of looking in the national press, but other than that nothing much. You might find something in the case of fatality in the local press, but these events were so unexceptional. They were so unfortunately every day that it wasn't considered newsworthy.

Finding out information about exactly what happened and the circumstances, who was involved and so on, can be really difficult were it not for these reports which is one of the reasons why it's absolutely brilliant to hear again that the ORR is making use of these actively today in their current training. Also again with great thanks to you all that you've been able to support the work that we're doing in the Railway Work, Life & Death project in terms of making these available to a much wider audience through the database that our volunteers have put together.

Kenny: Just to lead into that, I've had a quick look at some of the cases and just a quick glance really before we come on. Two stood out mainly for me, given the ages of those involved. One involved two men aged 76 and 72 I believe and one involving a 12-year-old boy. Can you give us some detail on these, Mike?

Mike: Yes, sure. Again, it's really interesting to see what we can get out of these reports and how we can understand the nature of work on the railways for the time. At the older end of the spectrum, you mentioned there was an accident that happened to two brothers unfortunately. Henry Baylor who was 76 and Frederick Baylor who was 72. It took place on the 30th of January, 1902 at Birkenshaw in Yorkshire. Again, both men quite old, still well within working range. Again, this is a time when we don't have old age pensions and the social welfare provision is rudimentary at best, so they had to work.

Now, they were out collecting rubbish on a siding. It was considered light work so suitable for men of their age. Unfortunately they didn't see a shunt that was taking place on that line, the movement and the wagons hit them. Frederick, so the younger of the two men was killed and Henry lost his left foot. We get some sense from this of family connections, again, this idea of the Railway family. Railway work running in particular families, which again, unfortunately, we do see in the project database, but also again, this idea that these men were doing work at quite an old age, because they had to.

Then at the other end of the spectrum, a really, really tragic case of Eric Harding who's a 12-year-old boy. It seems almost incomprehensible to us that in 1936, as this accident took place on the 22nd of June 1936, that we could have a 12-year-old working on the railway. By this point, the school leaving age was I think 14, so he should have been in school and what's interesting again, about this, we get some sense of the local kind of community patterns of work, that he would have been at school normally, but he was in a village called Swanwick in Hampshire, and all of the schoolboys for the village were given time off school to go and help with a strawberry harvest and in particular, to help load the strawberries onto railway wagons for onward distribution.

This idea about seasonal work comes into play. In fact, he was there on that site with his two brothers also working, and unfortunately, Eric went between two of the wagons as they were being moved, and he was crushed and died. What I think is really interesting again, about this report is that the responsibility is ascribed as, it's been put down to Eric's thoughtlessness. Again, I suspect if it were looked at and investigated these days, we'd come to a very different conclusion, but how could a 12-year-old boy know what to do in and around a railway environment like this?

Also what's interesting is that we see from some of the testimony in the press at the time, that although the railway, all the workers employed there on a temporary and permanent basis were told not to go between the wagons, they were all doing it, probably because it was quicker. They were saving time and again, speed was very much of the essence.

So some real issues here about the job, the systematic factors, the work processes in place. I think there's one final kind of really tragic coda to the cases is that Eric's father was, he fought in a First World War, he was disabled, he was working in the village, and as word spread that there had been an accident, he heard and apparently from the the press report threw down his tools he said, "My God, I've got three sons up there." Round to find obviously, that I think Eric was his youngest son, had been killed.

It's unbelievable now, but really staggering to think just the obviously the important factors about railway work, but then the emotional impact of that on that family and on the village and again, really important for us to think about and try and understand it and remember it.

Kenny: Yes, a truly, truly tragic incident that, and like you say, a 12-year-old boy working next to the railway lines and when the older workers and now two more seasoned pros as you would say are walking between the wagons, even though they might have been told not to,  look if your're a 12-year-old boy and you see others doing it, you'll follow suit, so it really is remarkable. That takes us on to an area, occupational health and safety. It's an area we hear more and more about these days, though I expect it wasn't widely reported or recorded back pre-Second World War. Were incidents of occupational health and safety recorded pre-1939?

Mike: Paul, do you want to go?

Paul: Yes, certainly. No, they weren't. They thought it was okay. I suppose that nobody really knew the effects of, for example, asbestos could have on the working population. It's not until I'd say recently that ourselves and the industry have taken more interest in occupational health and raised it up I would say. There have been lots of unfortunate incidents involving occupational health, as mentioned asbestos, people suffering from hand-arm vibration, and we are trying to raise the profile and working with the industry to ensure that lessons can be learned from these incidents.

Mike: Just to echo that, what we see in the reports is very much focused on the accident side of things. The safety aspect of occupational health and safety and the physical incidents where you can see that an accident happened. Generally, there is a physical injury that is visible at the time. Occupational health doesn't feature so much in anyone's consciousness, railway industry and beyond for much of the early to mid-20th century.

What you can find in some of the reports is really early understanding of it, where they're not really clear about what things mean. They talk sometimes about people suffering from shock. Now, I don't think it's shock in the same way that we would understand it today, but it's there nonetheless. There are ways in the reports that you can look for these issues and get to them sideways if you know what to look for.

By and large the occupational health has always been the thing that has suffered and played very much second fiddle to say... it's a really difficult thing to try to address because there is such long-term causes who knows when an exposure to a particular agent caused a fact to happened. It's really, really difficult. It's really important that it's being addressed and increasingly these days. Likewise, again, just to flag up something that's increasingly important these days we've seen the rail industry and others are doing brilliant work on is to do with mental health as well.

Again, think of the trauma that must have been evolved for people witnessing these accidents and other work colleagues did see these accidents taking place. Virtually nothing was said about that at the time and the impact it might well have had on people. Again, you see tangential references every so often in history recordings, autobiographies saying, "Oh yes I saw some terrible things, but I don't really want to think about it." We didn't talk about it. Again, that was the way it was done then. What's really brilliant and important is that that is very much not the case now that there are systems in place, support in place to help people who either witness terrible things or are in other ways dealing with mental health issues.

Paul: Yes. It's also worth mentioning that just recently there's been the Rail Wellbeing Week, promoted by the railway industry. That's lots of people to log into that and attend the seminars.

Kenny: Thanks both. So what's does the future hold for the project, Mike?

Mike: Well, actually it's quite pertinent that it comes after that question touching on occupational health in that we are working on transcribing more records from original sources to make them available through the database on the project website. One of the runs of data that we're working with the sources is coming from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants Trade Union, which went on to become the National Union of Railwaymen. Again, both are predecessor unions of what's now the RMT.

In amongst the various different information that they've recorded, there's quite a lot on occupational health of railway staff. I think we're going to get a really good impression of the sorts of things that workers encountered, experienced and suffered from in and around their workplaces. That's really interesting. I think there's going to be a lot to be said about that.

We're hoping to release that early in 2023. At the moment, we think that so far that's going to add around 25,000 further cases to the project database. There's a huge amount to come from that source and there'll be more to come from that as well because that's incomplete. We're still working on transcribing that. Also we are working with a team of volunteers at the National Archives to transcribe and make available the records that the railway companies themselves kept.

We're going to see some really interesting correlation between when we find individuals that we find in a state report from the Railway Inspectorate who might also have been a trade union member. We have detail from them and also the rail company's record, so we can put together a much bigger picture of both the accident and the incident involved, but also the railway workers' wider life and connections. There's plenty to come on this. Definitely keep an eye out for more, and I should say a huge thank you to all of the volunteers who are behind the project because this is a voluntary project and we're really reliant on and grateful to the teams of volunteers at the National Railway Museum, at the Modern Record Centre, at the University of Warwick and at the National Archives who've been doing fabulous work and put thousands of hours into making this information more easily available for us all.

Kenny: Thanks, Mike. Certainly plenty to come and indeed well worth recognising those who have helped the project on a voluntary basis. Before we go, just something that Paul mentioned earlier about families trying to trace family history using the project and archives. How does that work?

Mike: Yes, absolutely. Thanks to Paul for mentioning that because this is really important. We knew from the beginning that family historians would be interested in this because the records are so unusual, so detailed, they can really help people understand their family past particularly if there's a railway accident in it, but also, even if there's not, we get from the reports a really strong sense of what the different types of railway work involved in the past.

People who said, "I've got an ancestor who's a plate layer, so what does that involve?" This is a really good way of finding out a bit more about that. You can see the work that was evolved through the reports, but what's been really fantastic for the project has been that feeling that family historians would be interested in talking with them and working with them on this has proven to be the case. It's been really rewarding when we've had ancestor or descendants, sorry, of people mentioned in the database get in touch with us to say, "Oh, I found my grandfather, my great-grandfather in the database. I've been able to find out a bit more about what happened to them, and that's filled in some family mysteries for us."

Just one small example of that, that we were contacted about two months ago by a lady named Linda. She said that they'd found her great-uncle in the database. What's brilliant about this is that her aunt's father that was featured, a man called Charles Pastel, and her aunt knew that her father had died before she'd been born, unfortunately. He was killed in an accident in 1938, and Linda's aunt was born shortly after, but they didn't have any further details. Again, it was a complete mystery for the family as to exactly what happened. Through the report that came from the ORR's records and is in the database, they were able to find out more.

It wasn't an easy read, but what was brilliant that Linda said was that it did provide comfort for them and a sense of closure. We might think of these issues, these accidents which took place all before 1939 as being a long time ago in the dim and distant past. On one level, yes, absolutely, but in other ways we see this case from 1938, 84 years ago, but it still means something to people alive to this day. There's still a really important impact for families and benefits for families and family historians in looking through and understanding what happened.

Again, the work that the project's been doing with the support of the ORR and the volunteer teams who are involved has been helpful in that. I think that's really important and a great testimony to the lasting value of all of this work and these reports.

Kenny: Thanks Mike. Paul, do have you anything to add?

Paul: It's nice to hear that people have got some closure from this, after all these years. One thing I'd finally end with is, I'm from a mining village up north just outside Castleford and the accident Mike mentioned, the Watford one, 1932. Unfortunately in my local village in 1987, there was a serious track worker accident involving the deaths of four track workers and working with the lookout. These accidents, 50 years, unfortunately they do happen and it's important that we do learn the lessons from these accidents.

Mike: If I can just add on that one, if the work that the project has done and is doing can help that, then that's an absolutely crucial outcome for it. If by making this information more easily available, more easily searchable, findable that we can then use it in a way for learning points and try to help things today, then that's absolutely crucial and is really, really important.

Kenny: Thanks Mike. Thanks Paul. That's been a really interesting discussion today. I'll give you the final word, Mike, if people are looking to find out more about the project or indeed trying to trace their family history, where can they find out more information?

Mike: Great. Thanks Kenny. All of the work that we've been doing is detailed and including the database freely available from the project website, which is www.railwayaccidents.port.ac.uk and we're on Facebook again, if you search for Railway Work, Life & Death project, and also on Twitter where we are @RWLDproject and so you'll find plenty more information in any one of those roots. Thank you.

Kenny: Thank you and that brings to a close another episode of the Rail and Road Pod. Thanks to both Mike and Paul and to you all for listening. Until next time, goodbye.