Leading Article: A signal failure of perspective

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The Independent Online
IT IS TIME to remember signalman Meakin and signalman Tinsley and the job that railway signallers do. Meakin and Tinsley did not join in last week's strike. They died long ago, their minds wrecked by what they had witnessed and what they had caused. They proved to be bad signalmen. At their cabin at Quintinshill on the Scottish border they were charged with the care of trains moving up and down the west coast line between Scotland and the south. Sometimes they would fake their log - the kind of fiddle practised by many people on a small scale and by some (accountants, say) on a much larger one. What happened was this. Meakin was supposed to finish his night shift in the cabin at 6am, when Tinsley was supposed to relieve him, but it sometimes suited Tinsley to arrive at 6.30am. During those 30 minutes Meakin would note the movement of trains on a scrap of paper, which Tinsley, after he turned up, would copy into the official Train Register. Their employers would notice no irregularity.

Traffic was unusually heavy at Quintinshill on the morning of 22 May, 1915, when Tinsley arrived at 6.30am and began his copying while Meakin read the newspaper. A local passenger train and two freight trains were already parked on three of the four tracks outside. A troop train was heading from the north, a Scotch express from the south. Tinsley and Meakin stopped neither, forgetting they had only one clear line. The troop train smashed at speed into the stationary local. The express then ploughed into the wreckage. The carriages were lit by gas. The blaze lasted 24 hours. Of the 227 dead, 215 were men of the Royal Scots regiment. Another 245 people were seriously injured. It remains the worst accident in British railway history.

The techniques of a signaller's job have changed since then, but the duty remains the same. Neglect of it, distraction from it, can have terrible consequences. According to their union, signallers on the lowest grade earn on average only about pounds 2.50 a week more than a supermarket check-out operator; some are paid less than carriage cleaners. You would not have to be Jimmy Knapp (or a Christian Socialist) to think this order of things wrong.