Fatal Fracture
The Railway Magazine|November 2017

In the fourth of our series looking back at major railway accidents, Fraser Pithie recalls what was a terrible accident in terms of loss of life – an event that took place 50 years ago, in 1967. Much was learnt from the tragic and profound events that arose from a fateful Bonfire Night at Hither Green, London on what was then British Rail’s Southern Region.

Fraser Pithie

IT WAS three years since Harold Wilson had become Prime Minister having coined the phrase before his election in 1964 ‘thewhite heat of technological revolution’. For the railways it was a time of very mixed messages because of the scale of modernisation being undertaken. This ranged from railway lines being closed and services axed through to the advent of the InterCity brand and the modern fast travel it represented.

Freight handling was to change out of all recognition, with the universal requirement to carry everything removed, and the development of specialised freight services based on containerisation and bulk haulage such as ‘merrygo-round’ coal traffic for power stations.

Behind all of this the railway infrastructure was undergoing major change; the complete replacement of steam, the introduction of diesel and electric locomotives, together with diesel and electric multiple units. The removal of steam was welcomed by operating staff who no longer had to face on a daily basis the dirty, exposed and often back-breaking work that steam involved.

A warm driver’s cab and power at the end of your fingertips that you could notch up and down with some accuracy was a different and much improved prospect. Wilson’s ‘white heat’ had surely arrived on the railways and understandably for many there was no looking back.

However, it wasn’t just motive power where changes and modernisation were taking place. British Rail’s civil engineers were also busy adapting the railway infrastructure to better cope with the changed operating circumstances so as to obtain the full benefits from investment in new rolling stock and motive power. These elements would bear examination following Bonfire Night (November 5) 1967, as things would never be the same again after 49 railway passengers lost their lives at Hither Green, South London.

Unique

Hither Green is situated on the main line south from London’s Charing Cross; in 1967 the principal route was to Dover. Immediately south of the station at Hither Green the line diverged south and east. South, the line headed for Chislehurst, Sevenoaks, and Tonbridge, where the line split again for Tunbridge Wells and Hastings, while east was for Ashford and Dover, but also serving Dartford and Gravesend.

Like so much of the UK’s rail network in the South East the railway was subject to intensive usage. In 1967 the Southern Region’s prevailing type of rolling stock and its traction was largely made up of electric multiple units (EMUs) with some diesel-electric multiple units (DEMUs).

The Southern DEMUs were different to other types of DMU that had been introduced widely across the network, which had driving coaches with underslung engines operating with mechanical transmission. There were seven classes of DEMUs, ranging from Class 201 to 207. Classes 201 to 204 (2H) were referred to as ‘Hastings’ units (in later years they became known as ‘Thumpers’ because of the unique noise from their diesel engines). Trains using the Tonbridge to Hastings line were subject to restricted clearances, which applied to several narrow tunnels along the route through East Sussex. Classes 201 to 204 (2H) were specifically built for use on the line and met the requirements for such a narrow coach width.

The basic difference between Class 201 and 202 units was determined by coach length and weight and a consequential difference in passenger capacity. A Class 201 coach was 58ft long, leading to a six-coach unit weighing 225 tons, with seating for 242 passengers. Class 202 coaches spanned 64ft, leading to a combined weight for a six-coach unit of 231 tons that could seat 288 passengers.

The line’s restricted clearances also led to a maximum side movement of the ‘Hastings’ units of three inches (7.62cm) at can trail level. To ensure this restriction was not exceeded the bogies of the units were also of a special design and among other things included the fitting of coned rubber stops. These stops limited any movement either way between the bolster and bogie frame if such movement exceeded ¾in (1.9cm). In the event of such movement then there would be sharp contact with the rubber stops that would prevent further movement.

If a track irregularity caused any sideways movement that exceeded one inch (2.54cm) on motor bogies or 1½in (3.8cm) on trailer bogies then the action of the bolster coming into sharp contact with the rubber stops would exert a degree of shock to the vehicle. This is a factor in considering the events at Hither Green as such movement in the case of a low rail joint, for example, could cause a bogie to turn quickly into the joint and back out again. Consequently, this would lead to a sharp sidewards movement to the coach body that would increase in proportion to the lowness of the joint and the speed of the train.

The normal unit formation for Classes 201/202/203 comprised of six vehicles.

A motor saloon brake second (MSBS), a trailer saloon second, a trailer first (corridor), two further trailer saloon seconds, and finally a motor saloon brake second. The MSBS coaches weighed between 54 and 55 tons.

A critical element of the MSBS was the amount of unsprung weight because of two axle hung traction motors on each of the two MSBSs that were included in the six-coach ‘Hastings’ units. The result was a severe pounding being exercised upon the permanent way, combined with the frequency and speed of the Southern Region’s passenger services.

Bonfire Sunday

November 5 fell on a Sunday in 1967 and consequently many people had taken the train to the South Coast for the day. Together with others, returning daytrippers swelled evening trains back to London. The 19.43 HastingsCharing Cross was no exception; its passenger capacity was full and formed of two six-coach ‘Hastings’ units: Class 201 No. 1007 and Class 202 No. 1017.

At Sevenoaks, driver D S Purves relieved driver Baines and took over the service; it was his duty to work up to Charing Cross. He was joining guard J Gray, who had worked the train all the way from Hastings and was continuing through to Charing Cross.

Purves had nine years’ experience working the Hastings line while Gray had two years’ experience working the route. By Sevenoaks it was apparent the train was now well filled. Further stops at intermediate stations added to the numbers on the train. At some of these intermediate stops passengers had to board using the leading coaches because of short platform lengths.

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