Kemp said: “One of the great problems [for the rescue teams] was the intense heat down there. It must have been 120 degrees. It was like opening the door of an oven.”
Along with the money to buy his daughter’s first car, Newson’s bag contained the working timetable and other notices, his copy of the Rule Book, and two notebooks (one containing notes on dealing with defects and train failures) with plastic covers to protect them from wear - an action that one of the investigators of the incident thought “underlined the fact that Motorman Newson conducted himself in a most conscientious manner in respect of his job on the railway”.
Newson was described at the inquest as a quiet man with orderly habits. Not a sickly man, nor a daydreamer, not a runner of red lights when driving a car, or someone known to drink excessively. His wife and a close friend (a bus inspector for London Transport) said that he was not depressed, and that he loved his job.
He had been passed as medically fit, and had only two days of sickness absence noted on his staff record. The only other record was on June 21 1974, when Newson went to the aid of a woman who was being annoyed by another passenger. He was assaulted by the passenger and suffered a cut on his eye and bruising to his cheek.
In the inquest that followed Moorgate, everyone tried to understand the events leading up to the final collision. The 1938 Tube Stock involved was carefully inspected for all possible defects, but all the brakes and traction equipment were found to be in working order. They had simply not been used.
X-rays taken of Newson’s hands and forearms confirmed the eyewitness statements that he had not raised his hands before impact, even though it is a natural human instinct to protect your face.
Newson had not been electrocuted. The cause of his death was “shock from multiple injuries” on what otherwise appeared to be a “perfectly healthy man”. The medical examiner found no dissolved drug or poison matter, nothing to suggest a seizure or brain disease of any kind, and no indication of a heavy drinking habit.
However, another examiner concluded that the 80mg per 100ml of alcohol in Newson’s blood indicated that he had been drinking on the morning of his death.
This became the subject of much disagreement between the examiners. Some felt that the level was high enough to make a person more susceptible to a lapse in concentration, while others did not. In particular, one examiner said that the level of alcohol might have been caused by the growth of micro-organisms and fungi in a decomposing body (made more prevalent from four days in a high-temperature environment).
The colleague with whom Newson had shared milk confirmed that it did not taste of alcohol. And none of the people who had been in contact with Newson that morning were suspicious of his behaviour.
The suggestion was made that Newson had been daydreaming, perhaps even thinking about the car he was going to buy his daughter. But the consensus was that the sudden change in environment from tunnel to station - and the difference in noise level and lighting - should have been sufficient to bring a daydreaming man round from a lapse in concentration.
Several medical conditions were suggested, including those akin to ‘locked-in’ syndrome whereby the individual is aware of his surroundings but suffers from total paralysis. However, there was no evidence to support this.
Whatever was happening to him, it was a condition that allowed him to retain balance and muscle tone throughout. Newson took no positive action of any kind, and it was this that the inquest determined was “the most notable feature about this sequence of events”.
The inquest deemed that the incident was accidental.
We must be thankful that 40 years on, Moorgate still represents the highest peacetime loss of life on the Underground in a single incident. But it will always be remembered for the questions that remain unanswered.
Was Newson the kind of man who would have wilfully taken so many lives in order to take his own? Had he been drinking that morning, and was it enough for him to lose concentration to such an extent? Was he victim to an unexplained medical condition?
The survivors of the crash… the families of the victims… the railway will never know. It is a sobering reminder that advances in technology, no matter how significant, cannot answer every question. We can legislate for how the railway reacts to human error and how it prevents an accident, but we cannot legislate for the human mind.
- This feature was published in RAIL 769 on March 4 2015