At the end of ‘The Long Way Home’, Dafydd Thomas is involved in a railway accident at Abermule. This is based on a real event that happened one hundred years ago this month.
As the last of a series of blog posts giving background to the novel, it is only fitting to put a spotlight on one of the last scenes of the book and to explain the reasons for it.
On 26th January 1921, at approximately 12.06, a head-on collision occurred on the Cambrian Railways a few miles west of Abermule. A stopping train moving east from Abermule met an express train travelling from Aberystwyth . There were 17 fatalities and 36 more were injured.
Abermule is a small village four miles north-east of Newtown and about five miles south west of Montgomery. Its name is derived from the Welsh words ‘Aber’ – meaning river mouth, and ‘Miwl’ meaning mist. The village has grown over the years due to its location. Montgomery was the county town and seat of the Norman baron, whereas Dolforwyn castle nearby, was built by the last native Welsh prince – Llywelyn ap Grufydd.
During the industrial revolution, Abermule saw the development of transport links, road (the present day A483), rail and canal. Nearby Newtown was a centre for the flannel trade (and with Pryce Jones, the birthplace of the mail order catalogue).
The Cambrian Railways was the main railway operator in Mid Wales, being an amalgamation of five smaller railway companies (hence the plural in the name). By 1865, their network spread from Whitchurch in Shropshire to Oswestry, down to Machynlleth. The line then bifurcated to the north (Barmouth and Pwllheli) and west (Aberystwyth). Another line ran south from Moat Lane, near Caersws to just outside Brecon, via Llanidloes. The railway also had a few stubs of rural branch lines, one of which went from Abermule to Kerry. A lot of the line was single track, so the railway employed the electric token system as part of their signalling.
By 1921, the Cambrian had been in existence for 56 years. It was still recovering from the effects of the Great War – being one of the main legs for the ‘Jellicoe Special’ coal trains going from South Wales to the top of Scotland for the fleet at Scapa Flow.
Nevertheless, the railway’s operation had begun to return to normal. The token system is an established method to stop head-on collisions on a single line. Basically, the line is divided into sections, controlled by signal boxes. each section has a token – a metal key like tablet, on which is stamped the names of the two stations that are the end points of that section. In the signal box is a ‘tablet machine’, where the tablets are placed. The machines are linked to the neighbouring stations by telegraph, so signal boxes can ‘talk’ to each other via a coded system of bell chimes. Trains can be ‘offered’, the train entering and leaving sections can be reported, so signal boxes know exactly where trains are in the area. If you are given permission to proceed, the crew has the tablet for that stretch of line. They are said to be ‘in possession’ or ‘having the road’. the absence of the tablet from the tablet machine, means that all relevant signals are locked out. they can’t be operated. You cannot send another train into that section, until the one already there has reached the other end and the token is surrendered and placed in the tablet machine there. It stops a head-on collision. So why didn’t it happen at Abermule?
Due to the way the station had developed, the signal box was not by the station. This is not uncommon, but what was odd, was that the tablet machine was in the station, not the signal box. The tablets should only have been dealt with by the signalman (or station master at Abermule), but at that station, working practice had become slipshod.
On that day, there were four men working on the station. The relief stationmaster was at lunch. The signalman had acknowledged the request for the stopping train from Montgomery to proceed. He had checked the express and found it was at Moat Lane, between Newtown and Caersws. Thinking both trains should cross at Abermule, as per schedule, he went back to his box to prepare the level crossing gates and signals.
Newtown then asked permission for the express to proceed towards Abermule. As the tablet machine was in the station, the signalman did not hear this. The porter though acknowledged it and then went down to set the points for the express train. Remarkably, these levers were also not in the signal box, and away from the station. Thus, when Newtown sent confirmation that the express was on its way, nobody was in the station to hear it.
The relief stationmaster had returned from lunch, to be dragged away to deal with an issue in the goods yard. Meanwhile the porter found he could not set the points, but before he could ask the signalman, the stopping train arrived.
A young trainee, only fifteen years old, took the tablet (for the section Montgomery-Abermule) from the stopping train crew, but as he went to put it in the tablet machine, he passed the stationmaster on the stairs. Mumbling he was going to check tickets, the boy handed over the tablet, still in its leather pouch. The stationmaster did not enquire as to the situation , but assumed he was being given the tablet for Abermule – Newtown. Without checking, he gave the tablet, in its pouch, to the fireman of the stopping train. Without checking, the fireman hung it up and prepared to depart. Thinking everything was ok, and that the trains would cross at Newtown, the Porter pulled the signal to give the stopping train permission to leave.
And so the stage was set, the stopping train left with the tablet they had used in the previous section – Montgomery to Abermule, whereas they should have had the tablet for Abermule to Newtown. Had anyone checked, this would have been seen and as the correct tablet was locked in the tablet machine, they would know the express was en route. As it was, they did not and that decision was fatal for the fireman, his driver and fifteen passengers.
A few miles west, the line climbs gently up towards a cutting. Here, the fireman is very busy stoking the boiler to keep the engine in steam. David Burkhill-Howarth, in his book ‘The Deadly Tablet’, mentions that the fireman had served in the trenches and had been gassed. He theorised, that given the incline and the exertion, it was possible that the driver may have been helping the fireman stoke the boiler. As such, neither would have been watching the line ahead.
The crew of the express frantically tried to catch the attention of the approaching train, but said that if anything, the stopping train was gaining steam as it neared them. Just above the main road and a crossing, the two trains met. The express had been travelling at fifty miles per hour. Its crew had thankfully jumped before impact, as their engine corkscrewed vertically upwards with the impact. Injured, the express fireman still searched for the tablets. Finally he found them and from that how the awful tragedy had occurred. He then walked to Abermule station and placed the tablet into the machine and locked the line from any other train movements. The stopping train crew were dead. Hopefully killed on impact, because their bodies were baked by the contents of the firebox that was flung out by the impact and buried them.
Of the passengers that perished, the most notable casualty was Earl Vane-Tempest. A director of the Cambrian Railways, he had been travelling behind the express engine in his own private small carriage, which had become matchwood. Casualties included the goalkeeper of Llanidloes Town, another war veteran also the two sons of the local JP, Colonel Onslow, who were returning to board at Harrow School.
The perfect storm had consumed its prey, victims of negligence and complacency. Even in the 1950s, a railway correspondent noted that on visiting a working signal box in India, he was greeted with a big sign that read: