MODERN commuters often complain about the disastrous effects of heavy snow on Britain's railways but are thankfully spared the catastrophes that befell earlier passengers in these conditions.
Sneddon gestured to the driver by hand as it passed, and, fearing it would crash into the train held back ahead, phoned to warn the next station. But the express had indeed seen the signal and safely stopped in time. Sneddon, distracted with relief when a fireman from the train appeared to sign the train register, then made the error of accepting the 4.30pm express from Edinburgh.
The station staff and fireman ran out to attach detonators to the track to warn the oncoming train that the Dundee express lay dead ahead - but they were too late. The men managed to lay one detonator before the Edinburgh express Grand Parade came thundering out of the snow and darkness at 70mph. David James Anderson, the 42-year-old driver of the train, applied the vacuum brake but, weighing 150 tons, the Grand Parade helplessly crashed into the Dundee train travelling at about a mile a minute.
The collision was devastating. Lt-Col A H L Mount, Britain's chief inspector of railways, described the carnage in his accident report: "No one could have remained alive in the six and seventh coaches of the Dundee train. These vehicles acted as a cushion, and their bodies were simply obliterated… One end of the underframe of the seventh [coach] was turned completely round so that the two ends were adjacent to one another."
In addition to destroying the last three coaches of the Dundee train, the front five were pushed forward 50 yards. The momentum of the Edinburgh train, calculated at 54,000 tons per feet, threw the engine 96 yards from the point of collision and destroyed some 70 yards of track. Amazingly, the solid steel Edinburgh engine saved the driver and fireman from serious injury while the driver of the Dundee train received severe injuries to his back.
Thirty-four passengers were killed instantly, one later in hospital, while the people in the Edinburgh train were killed as the force of the collision sent their coaches hurtling over the front engine. Astonishingly, the passengers in the rear of the Edinburgh train were entirely uninjured and, according to the accident report: "Stepped out on to the platform, and left the station to catch a bus, thinking that the train had come to a stand as the result merely of the derailment of the engine."
Despite the half-foot of snow on the ground, the relief effort was swift and effective. Doctors on the trains dealt with the injured and dying before more help arrived. After the initial scene had been cleared it took 300 men, working in relay shifts, 56 hours to remove the shattered trains from the line and repair the damage.
In his report into the accident, Lt-Col Mount found "signalman Sneddon was gravely to blame" for not checking the position of the Dundee train and for accepting the Edinburgh train, and admonished the two drivers for approaching the station at speed. The unions protested against the report's findings and called for the inquiry to be re-opened. Anderson, the driver of the Edinburgh train, was tried on a charge of culpable homicide on 30 March 1938 at the High Court in Edinburgh, but the charge was withdrawn the next day, while Sneddon was retained by the company but moved to a different job - on his express wishes.
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