In London today, railroad workers are exempted from Britain’s new conscription law because their occupations are considered vital to the war effort. Waging a hard fight against the conscription acts, MP and trade unionist J.H. ‘Jimmy’ Thomas and the National Railway Union have lobbied hard to keep the men who operate and maintain Britain’s railroads out of harm’s way. The new system requires each company to certify its employees with local recruiting officers — indeed, the railway trades have suffered much loss to recruiting already, with consequent impacts on passenger safety, line performance, and the delivery of munitions and troops to the battlefront.
As if to underline the point, at about 8:25 AM this morning a six-car southbound passenger train on its way from Tunbridge Wells to Brighton derails (see above), injuring the driver and five passengers. Disaster strikes just after the locomotive crosses Burnt Oak bridge about halfway between Crowborough and Buxted and enters a curve in the line. According to the testimony of fireman P. Savage, this particular engine
has a habit of rolling when it goes round a curve. I thought that the roll which we felt on this occasion was the usual roll which we feel on that engine when going round a curve. The next thing that l knew was that my mate said to me “We are riding on the chairs.” I at once turned round to apply my hand-brake, the driver at the same time shutting off steam and applying the Westinghouse brake. After going a few yards the engine left the rails, turned sideways, and overturned. My opinion is that at first it was not all of the engine wheels which were derailed. My impression is that at first it was only the four front wheels of the engine which were derailed. I estimate the speed of the train when passing under the Burnt Oak Bridge at 25 miles per hour. The brakes seemed to act well as soon as they were applied. I do not think that any of the vehicles of the train were derailed before the engine was derailed. No further conversation passed between me and the driver. I think I have probably run over this line on the same engine about half a dozen times and I have generally noticed that the engine rolled about when rounding the curve near Burnt Oak Bridge. I have been mostly employed on the same class of engine No. 273 was becoming a little rough at the bunker end and was therefore liable to roll. I do not however consider that the rolling was sufficient to derail the engine. Big engines also roll when rounding curves.
As the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway clears away the wreckage with cranes, repair work continues on the section of the line where the accident occurred. Indeed, the workmen are first responders to the incident, and later, witnesses to the official inquiry in May.
Permanent way Inspector Walls, when walking along the line a few days previous to the accident, had noticed that the line under the overbridge was “a bit washy,” and he had accordingly instructed ganger Tidy to take out the clay from underneath the sleepers [railroad ties], and to substitute for it some hard core and ballast. In accordance with these instructions, ganger Tidy and platelayers Hart and Parsons had been at work at this spot both on the day previous to the accident and on the morning on which it occurred. There were in all eleven sleepers under the bridge which had to be dealt with by them, and the work at eight of these had been duly completed on the 4th April, leaving the remaining three to be done on the morning of the 5th. Work on these three remaining sleepers had accordingly been started early that morning. Assistant-ganger Tidy, who was in charge of the work, states that it was only under the inner rail of the curve that new ballast was being laid, and that the work of placing the new ballast under the portions of the three sleepers immediately underneath that rail had been entirely completed before either of the two trains which preceded the 8 a.m. train had run over the line. The work, however, of packing up the line in the four-footway between the rails was still in progress right up to the time before the arrival of the 8 a.m. train, and the packing was not actually completed until the morning of the day after the accident.
[…] The condition of the line under the over bridge was carefully examined after the accident; it was found to be generally in good condition, but it was noted that for a short distance both rails were slightly low. The evidence of the driver and fireman points to the road under the overbridge having slightly given way when the engine passed over it, and this occurred at almost the very spot at which the men were at work; the work, too, was not actually completed at the time the train ran over it. In spite, therefore, of the opinions expressed by the ganger and platelayers, that the line was at that time in a thoroughly fit condition, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this derailment, which fortunately had not more serious results, was connected with this work.
In short, three men in wartime were doing the work of five or six in peace when a locomotive prone to rolling just happened to arrive in the wrong time and place. War-related manpower shortages — as well as relaxed standards — are having serious effects on the domestic safety and tranquility of British rail passengers and everyday workers alike.
Nor will war permit the protection of railroad workmen as a class forever. In April 1917, Parliament will meet again to weigh changes to the list of exempted occupations, eventually limiting the definition to railway workshops, where much of the munitions effort takes place. By then, the bloody grand opera of attrition at the Somme has made it to necessary “to alter the systems hitherto in force and to call upon the workmen of the country for further efforts in the replacement of men fit for general service.”
Fighting a rear-guard action in defense of its members, the National Railway Union wins an agreement with Prime Minister David Lloyd George to limit conscription to no more than ten percent of the most physically fit railroad employees, with single and younger men going before married or older men. Theirs is one of many conscription bargains to be renegotiated as the conflict drags on, seemingly without end, into its darkest phase.