Magazine article The Spectator

The Canonbury Rail Disaster

Magazine article The Spectator

The Canonbury Rail Disaster

Article excerpt

1881

An accident which occurred on the North-London Railway on Saturday 10 December has created much interest in London. The place was between Canonbury and Finsbury Park, in the tunnel under Highbury, which is always a scene of excessive traffic, the trains being rarely four minutes behind each other. A little before nine a.m. a train was passed on from Finsbury Park to Canonbury, but stopped by signal at the southern end of the tunnel. Every train behind it should have been stopped too, but the signals went wrong, and a second train came up, and also stopped in the tunnel, doing no injury. A third train, however, came on, and dashed into the second, doing damage, but not killing anybody; and then at last came a fourth train, which 'telescoped' a carriage in the third train, killed five passengers, wounded fifteen seriously, and injured slightly some fifty more.

The general cause of the accident, which might happen on any suburban line any day, was the overwhelming amount of traffic, which bewilders the employees and renders all precautions comparatively useless, but the immediate cause was the state of the signals. It is certain that one signalman did not understand the system, and had to consult his book; and that another deposed that the electric repeater in his signal-box for the distant up-signal was out of order, and that he had not even reported the fact. The horrors that must always accompany the wreck of a train were in this instance intensified by almost every circumstance that could contribute an additional element of terror. One train was heaped upon another; the victims were first imprisoned and then slaughtered, and the imminence of the danger to which they were exposed only revealed itself to them by degrees. The crash was followed by no speedy rescue for the dying or the wounded. The sufferers lay with the broken fragments of the carriages heaped above them, with the feet of the panic-stricken survivors treading carelessly upon their broken limbs. Other railway accidents - the fall of the Tay Bridge, for example - have been more impressive, but it would be hard to recall one so rich in all the features that go to make up real misery. By itself, however, the reflection does but add to the unavoidable terrors of human life; if these accidents are inevitable, it is of no use to dwell on them. But then it is not quite true that they cannot be averted. No doubt, the methods of prevention at present in use are altogether inadequate to the demands made on them; but there are other methods that might be employed which would remove the special risks of this particular traffic. …

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