How Whitby escaped a major rail disaster

editorial image

Whitby and the surrounding area have been remarkably free from railway accidents. But there was one near miss which, had it occurred a few seconds later, could have led to a major disaster.

At about half past nine on a July evening in 1927 a return excursion train from Whitby to Hartlepool passed through Sandsend station travelling at approximately 30 m.p.h.

The gradient up to the next station, Kettleness, was a steep one at 1 in 57; it lasted for almost three miles and drivers on the line, if they were not booked to stop at Sandsend as this excursion was not, liked to build up as much speed as possible so they could take a run at the gradient as it was difficult work for the fireman.

It had been a lovely, warm and sunny day in Whitby and the returning excursion was packed. It was a very long train, nine carriages, and so it was necessary for the train to be ‘double-headed’ which meant that two locomotives would be used on the steep gradients and sharp curves between Whitby and Saltburn, where the line to Hartlepool became easier.

Had this derailment taken place a few seconds later, inside Deepgrove tunnel, then there would have been terrible consequences, for the most dangerous of all railway accidents take place in tunnels.

The Kettleness station master reported that, luckily, the locomotives and carriages had remained ‘head on’ and had not slewed across the track. In the narrow confines of the tunnel this is exactly what would have happened and massive destruction and even possibly fire would have occurred. It was because the train remained ‘head on’ to the track that only two casualties (minor injuries) were reported.

The cause of the accident was straightforward. Because of the length and weight of the excursion train it had been necessary for a more powerful engine to be attached ahead of the ‘train’ engine.

The weight of this engine, plus (possibly) the speed at which the train was travelling caused the track to ‘spread’ and cause some of the wheels of both engines and six of 
the carriages to become derailed.

It appears that lessons were not learned from this accident as the same problem occurred ten years later at Prospect Hill Junction (Whitby) when a train to Scarborough was derailed with the same class of engine.

Luckily the train was travelling slowly and there were no casualties. After this second accident the entire class of engine (a J39) was banned from use in the Whitby district.

At Deepgrove, the derailed train was cleared, the track quickly relaid and normal operations resumed at four o’clock in the afternoon of the next day.

An emergency train was sent from Saltburn. It made its way through the tunnel from the Kettleness end and picked up the stranded passengers. It seems the poor holidaymakers did not return home until early the next morning