Thirty years ago this month occurred one of Britain’s worst rail accidents. It happened just after 8.00am on 12 December 1988 near Clapham Junction station. A wiring fault allowed signals to randomly show a red, yellow or green aspect.
It was during one of those sequences when a driver of an approaching train from Basingstoke saw the signals switch. Perturbed by this he immediately brought his train to a halt and proceeded to phone the signalmen to find out what was wrong. The signals were in fact supposed to be green, and likewise the preceding signals were also without a doubt green.
An express train from Bournemouth rounded the curve just west of the stationary train and ploughed straight into it. Many injuries and deaths occurred. Those who made it out alive and clambered onto the tracks were hit by another train in the opposite direction, this third train also smashed into the wreckage of the two stricken trains, and the shocking toll rose alarmingly.
Vandalism the previous day had shut the Bournemouth-Poole line and left trains in the wrong place so British Rail had to press into service older stock to provide a balanced working from Bournemouth for the cancelled 06.14am train from Poole. The old stock proved to be a contributory factor in the extremely high number of fatalities at Clapham Junction.
Passengers were ferried by bus from Poole to Bournemouth to catch this replacement train. This train stopped at Brockenhurst, Southampton, Winchester and Basingstoke before running non-stop to Waterloo. As we sadly know, the train never reached its destination. It ran into the back of the 07.18 service from Basingstoke and all hell was let loose.
The accident site November 2018. The memorial has been obscured for some time by foliage on the embankment.
On that day I was at work and clearly remember the news came up live on television just an hour or so after it happened. Our television screens ran all day with live news coverage of the accident. The evening papers and the following days papers were full of reports on the disaster. One of those papers I kept was Today for 13th December 1988. The publication was short lived, lasting just nine years. At the time Today was the only newspaper capable of producing colour images on plain paper.
I have taken images of the edition’s pages and they are reproduced here. Due to the paper’s age and the fact its pages were folded, I placed these under a large sheet of glass and ensured the sheets were flat as possible before taking photograph of these. Some of the news reports have been cleaned up and are depicted below in a larger and more readable size.
The disaster has been considerably covered elsewhere, especially on You Tube where quite a few in-depth newsreels and reports can be found. Wikipedia has a page. Here is footage of the wreckage being cut up and removed.
Perhaps the best archive video of the day’s events is the BBC’s long report. As well as the accident site itself and the ongoing work to rescue people, this has interviews with Paul Channon MP (Transport Secretary), Thatcher, Richard Hope (Railway Gazette), John Prescott MP (Labour), Michael Portillo MP (Transport Minister), as well as Gordon Pettit, who at the time was BR’s boss for the Southern region.
The London Fire Brigade’s current commissioner, Dany Cotton, was a rookie at the time of the Clapham Junction disaster.
Next is the newspaper coverage which as I have previously said, is from my archives. Be warned there may be some distressing images. Also people’s personal experiences of the disaster includes very graphic descriptions of the dead and injured.
The Today newspaper coverage of the disaster:
Front cover of the Today newspaper 13th December 1988.
Death on the overcrowded express & images of the rescue services hard at work. Artist’s drawings show how the events unfolded. Extract shown below.
Shocking images of the dead and injured. Readable extracts from the pages shown below.
Should trains have guards or not? The disaster showed a clear example where driver only trains would have proved useless.
Pupils from Emmanuel school describe the horror and their rescue attempts. Readable extracts from the pages are shown below.
No dodging or hiding at the inquiry, and the Queen shocked by the news. Extract shown below.
The newspaper published another four pages with pictures of survivors and more aerial views of the site. Two pictures from these other pages are shown below:
The public inquiry mentioned above was chaired by Anthony Hidden QC. It took almost a year to produce and was a damning report on the railway’ maintenance regime.
Announcing the report in Parliament, Viscount Davidson gave a brief outline of the findings:
Sir Anthony Hidden concludes that the accident was caused by faulty wiring work carried out on Sunday 27th November 1988 during a major investment programme to modernise signalling on the lines into Waterloo. That faulty work could and should have been discovered through routine checks, but the wiring was not checked and the fault was not found. During later resignalling work on Sunday 11th December a wire that should have been removed two weeks before was accidentally moved. This made an electrical connection into the Clapham Junction signal box which passed false messages to one of the signals on the main line into Waterloo.
The rest of this quite lengthy debate in the House of Lords on 7th November 1989 can be read here.
Shocked survivor led to safety by fellow passenger.
Double page spread showing aerial view of the wreckage just two hours after the calamity.
The public inquiry found numerous faults within British Rail and over ninety recommendations were made. The report also called for a better means of protecting trains. This was initially seen as being far too expensive.
However when the 1999 accident at Ladbroke Grove happened, the Government and the railways were left with no choice but to begin the long task of introducing a new safety system to ensure the UK’s trains were absolutely safe. This is known as TPS or Train Protection Warning system and it complements the other safety systems that are already in place.
The inquiry by Anthony Hidden. 230 pages. Published November 1989.
British Rail eventually admitted liability for the accident.
Recently the BBC reported the railways are apparently once again lacking in their quest to ensure absolute safety of those who use the railways. The incident at Waterloo in 2017 involving rogue signalling wiring prompted Network Rail to admits it was a ‘wake-up call.’ A further report on this can be found at Rail Technology Magazine.