Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Moorgate Disaster

38 years ago today and in the middle of the morning rush hour, a Northern line train moving at between 35 and 40 miles an hour drove in to a wall.

What we know about the results of the Moorgate crash is truly, and without hyperbole, horrifying. On failing to stop on the stopping mark, the train continued in to an overrun tunnel and hit the end wall. The overrun tunnel is approximately 20 metres long, each car of the 1938 Tube Stock train was 16 metres long. The first three cars of the train "telescoped" in to one another, as well as riding over each other, until all three of those cars - normally taking up over 42 metres - fitted within the 20 metre overrun.

This already disturbing fact is made worse when you realise that, due to the exit at Moorgate being at the front of the train, most of the passengers on board were travelling in the first two cars.

In fact, the Moorgate death toll of 43 killed (including the driver) out of around 300 people on the train was exacerbated by another coincidence. The stretch of track on which it occurred was the Northern City Line and was known at the time as the Northern Line (Highbury Branch); today it is part of the FCC franchise. The Northern City Line was always an oddity in the London Passenger Transport Board network and had been built by the Great Northern & City Railway in 1904 to allow mainline trains in to the heart of London from a proposed junction at Finsbury Park.

All of this is a long way of bringing me to the point that the tunnels at Moorgate are bigger than a normal tube tunnel. Built to accommodate mainline trains, the tunnel diameter is over five metres when a normal tube tunnel is around four. This allowed the cars space in the tunnel to ride over each other, something which could not have happened to a tube train in a tube tunnel and something which undoubtedly increased the number of lives lost.

What we know about the cause of the Moorgate crash is almost nothing. Motorman/Guard Leslie Newson was an experienced driver who was well acquainted with the Northern City Line route. He was known as a conscientious man and had a wad of cash in his pocket with which he intended to buy a car for his daughter after his shift. He was seen by staff as he entered the station to be upright at the controls and looking straight ahead. I am unfortunate enough to have seen the pictures from the wreckage and can tell you that he died in this same position.

There are several hypotheses seeking to explain why Newson did not stop the train. The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death for all victims, including Newson. Despite this, some people (most prominently some of the families of the victims) believe that this was suicide by Newson. The coroner ruled out suicide and I too am unconvinced. The people who knew Motorman Newson did not believe that he was depressed or suicidal. He had spoken to several colleagues that day and was, as explained above, intending to buy a car for his daughter later in the day. A second hypothesis is drunkeness. The post-mortem recorded 80mg of alcohol in 100ml of Newson's blood, and London Underground at the time had an ingrained drinking culture which did not draw a distinction between drinking off duty and drinking at work. However, Newson was not known as a drinker, and the alcohol in his blood was put down to the effects of the decomposition of his body while underground. Gruesomely, Newson's body was not the only one to go in to advanced stages of decomposition after the disaster - the recovery took several days to reach all the bodies, while the ambient temperature was above 38C (100F).

Look at the Wikipedia entry for the crash and you will also find hypotheses of neurological disorders that Newson could have had. It seems to me that the truth was a lot more prosaic. Gary Fitzgerald, a friend and colleague of mine, has done a great deal of research in to Moorgate and also used to drive 1938TS trains. He believes that Newson simply missed his visual cues to stop, and so he didn't. Driving a train is a job which becomes automatic after a while, as any driver reading this will probably attest to. Many if not all drivers seem to me to drive in an almost trance-like state, reacting to cues which are normally visual although sometimes also aural, to remind them that a station, signal or other known slowing/stopping point is approaching. Miss those cues because your mind wanders for a second or two, and you could pass a signal at danger. Or, you could overrun a platform and hit the end wall.

Tomorrow I want to talk about what has been done in the years since Moorgate to try to prevent anything like it from happening again. Today, I will think about those who lost their lives for no reason 38 years ago.


Anonymous said...

A good deal of what you have posted here is straight out of the official report.

Anthony Bright said...

Anonymous is quite right about the post being reliant on the RI accident report. The said report should have come with the caveat E & OE: Errors & Omissions Excepted, of which there are many. It is a shame that so many accept it's contents as gospel. The said report was designed to divert attention away from the facts that the leading three-car unit was sent to Drayton Park Depot from Neasden Depot with existing defects which included cut-out motors, cut-out brakes and, as on most other units, a defective deadman's handle. The said unit was due for scrapping and maintenance on it was sub-minimal. In the meantime, the Rolling Stock Engineer's staff at Neasden spent most of their time stealing anything of scrap value from the units instead of maintaining the trains. Gorden Hafter, Rolling Stock Engineer received an OBE for his part in the cover up that his staff were thieves and that all 1938 Tube Stock was entering service in defective condition.

Anonymous said...

Yes i totally agree with the above from Mr Bright, Hafter should return his award & should be heavily prosecuted (with others)It's a damn disgrace for this to drag on for 40 years, The case should be re-opened now & the truth & verdict should be made public as to what did go wrong that morning.

Anonymous said...

Not forgetting that one of the carriages (012167 or 012263) was leaking fluid Why has'nt that been mentioned? That's got to be a fault on the train So was the driver Leslie Newson set up as some have stated, London Transport should be held Responsible for the crash.

Anonymous said...

Gordon Hafter died in 2006 aged 85,I found this out some time ago,I remember the Moorgate disaster myself,watching it on the BBC and ITN news coverage of it in the part of the West Country I live in,I was on half term holidays from junior school(I turned 49last month) at the time,I watched it thinking "What the hell happened here",Years downthe line I have never believed this was an accident and that Les Newson was not to blame and the cause of the crash was due to mechanical defects on the train,being now we know that was the case,what was it doing on a railway track in the first place,and to make things worse finding outLT and HMRI officials colluded to coverup the cause of the crash and that evidence,namely the Coroner's Inquest Witness Statemets is being kept under lock and key until 2051.
It really is time for a new senior judge led inquiry into the crash and ALL evidence to be made available at it,and any of those LT & HMRI officials involved in the cover up and who are still alive should be facing appropiate criminal charges inc.perjury.

Anonymous said...

Yes It will be 42 years this year,A very long time to get some answers, This should be brought up in Parliament as H.Wilson,& Co til now have just shoved it under the floor boards & have done nothing about it, They'ed rather fall asleep & make the odd noise, SHAME ON THEM It's a damn disgrace that we have been thrown to the back of the queue as usual & they put Abroad 1st before us, Sheer disgrace that we have had NO feedback what so ever apart from the year of 2051 when they say It will be Published It should be now not 2051, I personally Thank Richard Jones & Brian Goodfellow for the great job they did by putting up the equipment nearby the station as LT would'nt allow it.These lads should be Honoured & Medalled for what they've done. Well Done Lads.

Paul Lawlor said...

What "Anonymous" is referring to regarding the report into the Moorgate disaster being closed until 2051 is the Coroner's Inquest Witness Statements,
the Inquest Transcripts which are over 500 pages long are available to view at the London Metropolitan Archives -the address is:
Nearest rail station-Farringdon-Circle,Hammersmith & City,Metropolitan Lines on the Tube.
The Witness Statements were never entered into evidence at the original inquest which only lasted 4 days!!-other documents not entered into evidence were the following;
1-Highbury Branch,Northern and City Line Working Timetable no.128,10/2/75 and Until Further Notice.
2-Train Registers from the Moorgate and Drayton Park Signal Cabins
3-Technical details of the workings of 1938 Tube Stock Units inc. references to the braking pressures.
4-Duty roster of the Rolling Stock Engineering staff at Drayton Park Depot
featuring the actual duty times.