Monday essay: Stonehaven answers

Stations in Scotland and many in England and Wales will fall silent for a minute on Wednesday at 09.43, one week after the derailment south west of Stonehaven in which two members of ScotRail’s staff and one passenger tragically lost their lives. The time has been chosen to mark the moment that the incident was reported. But this train was the 06.38 from Aberdeen to Glasgow Queen Street, which left punctually and was apparently still on time at Stonehaven (booked departure 06.54). Although the RAIB has issued a first statement, there were several questions remaining. Now most of these can be answered, as Sim Harris reports.

RARELY has there been a railway accident in which so many vital details have remained vague for days after the crash.

The key facts about accidents in the past were usually clarified almost at once – trains involved, time of accident, immediate consequences, and so on.

Of course the complete picture would take railway inspectors months of intricate enquiries to assemble, but it was known very quickly after the Clapham disaster in December 1988 which trains had collided and when. Even the cause was suggested with amazing speed, when the British Railways Board chairman Sir Bob Reid was questioned by reporters a few hours later.

The traditional answer in these circumstances was a ‘holding’ one: ‘This will be a matter for the inquiry to determine ... no one will be helped by speculation at such an early stage ...’ (etc.), but Sir Bob had already been briefed sufficiently to allow him to break with tradition and say frankly that it looked like ‘a problem with the signals’. He was, of course, right.

Winding forward almost 32 years, the first days after the Stonehaven derailment were notable for a lack of clarity about, well, almost everything.

The site of the crash was a remote one, and the best way of describing it seemed to be ‘near Stonehaven’. In fact, it was about 2km short of the next signal box and former station at Carmont.

The emergency services had been called at 09.43, but where was the train heading at the time?

Some reports said it had been travelling south of Stonehaven when it encountered flooding, and that it had been ‘switched to an alternative line’. This theory gained ground when Network Rail published a video on Twitter showing what appeared to be the Glasgow-bound up line almost out of sight in murky brown floodwater, while the parallel down road was dry.

But crossing to the down for the purpose of working ‘wrong line’ would have first meant reversing back to Stonehaven (again, working wrong line on the up line) where there is a crossover.

Assuming that this had been done, the train was now presumably using the down line when it came to grief at Carmont. The ‘wrong line’ school of thought was further supported by another report that both the driver and conductor had died in the leading cab, because there should be a second person in the cab during wrong line working.

In spite of these appearances to the contrary, there was no wrong line working at this point and the train did not reverse back to Stonehaven on the up line.

Thanks to a briefing from the RAIB which was published on Friday afternoon we know that the train was travelling correctly on the up line (and had already passed Carmont), when the Carmont signaller advised the driver by radio that a landslip had been reported beyond Carmont, between there and the next station at Laurencekirk.

The train used another crossover at Carmont to join the down line with the intention of returning to Aberdeen. It was on the first leg of this return journey between Carmont and Stonehaven that disaster struck, when the train collided with another landslip and became derailed.

Even now there had been some pieces missing.

Media reports had speculated that it took quite a while (more than a couple of hours, seemingly) before the alarm could be raised, because the crash site is in a communications blackspot.

Actually the crash occurred at 09.40 and the alarm was raised three minutes later, as the RAIB has reported.

Industry sources have now added to what the RAIB said on Friday. 

This was the sequence of events.The driver of train 1T08 had been running on time until he had been alerted about the landslip nearer Laurencekirk by an emergency GSMR call at 07.00, not long his train had passed Carmont box. He was authorised to set back, working wrong line, as far as the crossover at Carmont.

This is where the main hold up occurred. The points had to be secured by a Mobile Operations Manager who had to drive to Carmont for the purpose, and the movement across to the down line could only be authorised at 09.34.

The journey back towards Stonehaven began at about 09.36, and now there were only a few minutes left. Police Scotland received an emergency call at 09.43. At the same time the smoke from the fire in the derailed leading power car could be seen in the sky by the signallers, who also raised the alarm.

But why was 1T08 travelling fairly fast in an area where landslips had been reported and parts of the railway were submerged in floodwater?

We now have some clarification, which is welcome. But there must be more to come.

The August print edition of Railnews, RN282, was published on 30 July. The new edition and some previous issues can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.

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