On the railway lines between Waterloo and Wimbledon four tracks run through a cutting a mile or so to the country side of Clapham Junction railway station. The nearest track to the steep embankment running alongside a road called Spencer Park is the ‘Up’ Main line. Peak hour trains pass through that cutting on anormal working morning at intervals of less than two minutes. The signalling system upon which the running of the railway depends is designed to ensure that these intervals can be maintained with complete safety. There is nothing abnormal or intrinsically dangerous in that degree of separation between trains. Equally, there is nothing abnormal or dangerous about the physical state of the line as it runs the last mile before Clapham Junction, first along a straight, then descending in a gentle left-hand curve through the cutting.
Just after 8:00 a.m. on Monday 12th December crews at London’s South-west area fire stations are sitting down to their breakfast after completing early morning work routines. At Spencer Park three specific trains were running towards that cutting on their normal timetables. Two passenger trains were heading into Waterloo along that line, one from Basingstoke, the other, running behind it from the South Coast, the ‘Poole’ train. The third train, the Waterloo to Haslemere, was running without passengers out of London on the adjoining, and opposite, ‘Down’ main line.
At about 8:10 a.m. on that fateful morning the driver of the ‘Poole’ train, Driver John Rolls, having come into the cutting on his way into Waterloo from Wimbledon and having passed signals in his favour at all stages, cleared the visual obstruction of the steep bank on the left-hand curve. At that moment he must have come upon what was impossible! Immediately ahead of him was the Basingstoke train on the same line, stationary and within a distance in which the ‘Poole’ train could not possibly be stopped.
Despite full emergency braking the ‘Poole’ train collided head on with the rear of the Basingstoke train. That collision forced it out to its off-side where it struck the third “empty” train going in the opposite direction. This second impact was more of a glancing blow, which, while it derailed part of the Haslemere train, probably kept the ‘Poole’ train from moving further to its off-side across the other tracks. An appalling accident had happened. This was immediately apparent to people nearby who heard the noise of the impact or saw the cloud of dust rise from the cutting.Their telephone calls triggered a response from the emergency services, a response that the subsequent ‘Hidden’ Rail crash inquiry commented; “was totally admirable in its speed and efficiency. The emergency services worked together at the site in an exemplary manner to carry out the rescue operation.” The disaster would leave 35 dead and 113 people injured.
The first call to the London Fire Brigade (LFB) was received at 8.13 a.m. A call made by a member of the public. The London Ambulance Service (LAS) had its first call from a member of the public at 8: 16 a.m. Six minutes later LAS records show a call from the LFB to “make ambulances 8-medical team required”. The cooperation between the emergency services was illustrated by the evidence of one of the first members of the public to the scene, Mr George Cannon, a schoolmaster at Emanuel School. He was in the Staff Room when he heard”a tremendous bang”. He ran out and down to the bridge. He jumpedover the edge of the parapet and worked his way back down the side of the embankmentuntil he was able to climb into the third carriage of the ‘Poole’ train.This was the coach with a large luggage cage; passengers in the coach had received serious injuries and some were trapped in the wreckage? He was there for some time assisting passengers. It seemed to him that “the rescue services” as he called them were there within about three minutes. He said: “I thought they were marvellous. They seemed to restore order, provide help. The whole organisation seemed to be very smooth and efficient.”
For the emergency service there were problems in getting access to the site. There were tall metal railings, a steep wooded embankment followed by a 10 foot high concrete wall to be negotiated before it was possible to get down to the track.The first three carriages of the ‘Poole’ train had suffered enormous damage.The first carriage had totally collapsed. The second carriage, the buffet car, had been devastated more particularly upon its left near-side. The close proximity of all three trains on the track made for great difficulty. Within four minutes the first fire appliance from Battersea had arrived at the scene, followed almost immediately by the second, carrying Temporary Station Officer Glenn Mills, who took charge of the incident. As he crossed the railway bridge beforeSpencer Park, he was able to look downon the accident and immediately sent a priority message making “pumps eight”. He then ordered his crews to use short extension ladders to get to the scene with allavailable first-aid kits. He sent further messages at 8:19 a.m. and 8:20 a.m. requesting the attendance of eight ambulances and a surgical unit. He climbed down the embankment to assess he situation and directed both fire brigade and ambulance crews, plus the police as they arrived. He decided to allow the ‘walking wounded’passengers to leave the train. He saw more and more injured passengersand became aware of the many fatalities. The full extent of the crash was now clear and he sent the priority message declaring the incident a “MAJOR INCIDENT”.
At 8.27 a.m. Mills sent “make Emergency Rescue Tenders 3.” However,when T/Stn. O. Mills declared a major incident to the LFB Croydon Control room the procedure called for the fire brigade to contact the LAS, whose duty it was to notify the hospitals that they were designated or supporting hospitals. That should have happened within a minute or so of Mills’ message. It should have led, amongst other things, to the immediate despatch of a medical officer to the incident. Unfortunately, when the LFB Croydon Control attempted to contact the LAS its call was caught in the queuing system for eight minutes! It was not until 8:35 a.m. that the message got through and by then it was only one minute ahead of the LAS’s own declaration of a major incident.
Medical teams had to perform surgery at the scene. Many of those trapped required the LFB to cutthrough the tangled carriages to reach them. The extent of the injuries meansome passengers have received operations at the scene. Extricated casualtieswere transported to St George’s Hospital in Tooting where its staff were on emergency alert waiting to receive ambulances bring those requiring urgent medicalcare.
One such passenger was Lee Middleton. He was a civil servant and travelling on the ‘Poole’ train in the front carriage when it slammed into the back of the stationery train. Lee, who was 39 at the time and a father of two children aged nine and 12, was pinned to the floor when part of the carriage ceiling fell on him. He recalls; “Quite honestly, I thought this is it. I am going to die. I just looked up at the sky. It was a nice sunny, dry day and the sky was clear blue. I heard crying and moaning. It was horrible. I thought it was curtains for me. In a perverse way the bar pinning me to the bottom of the carriage was good because it meant I didn’t see anything. I’m grateful for that because it meant I haven’t suffered nightmares.”
London firefighters battled to prise the metal from Lee’s neck. He was taken by ambulance to hospital with a broken collar bone and a badly broken leg. He was later transferred to Southampton General Hospital on December 23 and was discharged on January 11. Lee needed a bone graft and had nine months off work. The rail enthusiast spent months conquering his fear of trains. “Every year is always quiet reflection day for me. I always say a prayer and light a candle for the other commuters that day and to the families of all those who lost their lives.”
At 8.39 a.m. The Brigade sent an informative message stating;“2 commuter trains in collision; five carriages involved; approximately 150 casualties; unknown number of persons trapped, efforts being made to release.” At 08.48 pumps were increased to 12 and at 9.51 a.m. to 15. The informative message stated; “3 trains involved; 8 coaches damaged; 50 casualties removed; a number ofcasualties still trapped. Heavy British Rail ‘road’ crane ordered.”
By 10.00 a.m. it was confirmed that 15 live casualties were still inside trapped the train together with an unknown number of dead. By mid-morning a request was sent for an 18 pumps to attend as reliefs in order to release firefighters who had started work at 6.00 p.m. the previous night. By 11.21 a.m. Croydon control was informed that only 3 live casualties remained trapped, the first of which was removed at 11.58am, the other two would take until 13.04 p.m. to be removed due to the difficult conditions encountered in the attempt to release them. The LFB sent a radio message at 15.52 p.m.”All bodies now removed from remaining coaches – British Rail heavy cutting and lifting units in operation.”
Following the Clapham Rail Disaster the LFB constituted an ‘Honours and Awards’ Committee to examine the actions of Brigade personnel and to make recommendation to the Chief Officer. As a result the following awards were made:
Fireman Anthony Hanlon (Euston) was awarded a Chief Officer’s Commendation. A member of Euston’s ERT crew, Fm Hanlon initially worked on the extrication of several casualties before going in search of others in severely compacted carriages. He assisted in locating and recovering two live casualties before assisting a medical team trying to save another man. Fm Hanlon worked below the team with spreading gear in challenging circumstances. He then moved onto assist in the release of the train’s guard. This was a most difficult extrication carried outunder the most punishing and precarious conditions. For his skill, dedication and expertise in extrication work Fm Hanlon was subsequently awarded the BEM for Gallantry.
DeputyAssistant Chief Officer Brian James Ash (South East Area HQ) and Station Officer Charles Henry William Beauchamp and Sub Officer Stephen Nellies, both attached to Tooting fire station, were all awarded the Chief Officer’s Commendation. Station Officer Beauchamp attended on the ‘make pumps 8’; DACO Ash was the first principal officer to attend, both officers displayed outstanding professionalism and leadership. Sub Officer Nellies assisted in the difficult release of several fatalities with a high degree of initiative.
Divisional Officer Gordon Crompton (South West Area HQ) and Station Officer Glyn Michael Mills (Battersea) were both awarded Chief Officer’s Letter of Congratulations. Station Officer Mills was the officer in charge of the first attendance, Divisional Officer Crompton, one of the first senior officer’s to arrive. Their combined skills and leadership undoubtedly assisted is saving the lives of many of the victims of this disaster.
T/Sub Officer Stephen Paul Williams (Battersea), Firemen Stuart Edward Durrant (Wimbledon) and Thomas Michael McGovern (Wimbledon), were each awarded a Chief Officer’s Letter of Congratulations for the decisive actions they took which significantly contributed to the overall success, whilst working tirelessly to locate, release and comfort passengers. Leading Fireman Gordon Button (Clapham) and Fireman Michael John Harwood (Euston) were both awarded Chief Officer’s Letter of Congratulations for their high degree of initative and providing valuable assistance in the release of trapped passengers, in difficult and hazardous conditions.
British Rail said initial reports indicatethe crash was caused by signalling failures. It took more than a year for the 250-page report by Anthony Hidden QC to be published confirming those findings.