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.