It's a lovely day - bring a flask

Blimey. Was it really 25 years ago? It seems like only yesterday in some ways - but in railway terms it really was another lifetime. 

It was the summer of 1984 - July 17. Thatcherism was in full sway; the battle was well under way to expose BR’s contrived plan for closure of the Settle & Carlisle line as the sham it was and the closure of Swindon Works - once unthinkable - was in the minds of BR’s top men. In 1985, it would happen. 

The CEGB and BR are now both long gone; former CEGB boss Walter (later Lord) Marshall, who spearheaded ‘the flask smash’, is dead; Baroness Thatcher is long retired and increasingly frail and Swindon Works is now occupied by a museum, shops, houses, pubs, new industry and car parks. 

Swindon’s legendary ‘A’ shop went for razor blades, but happily the ‘S&C’ is blooming, and continues to benefit from track renewals, signalling enhancements and a thriving passenger/freight business. They all combine to expose the BR closure programme for the disgraceful, wrong-headed manipulation that it really was. We need ‘the Long Drag’ today. 

One day, there came an invitation to visit what was then known as ‘the BR test track’ at Old Dalby, where all manner of interesting things happened, in conjunction with the Railway Technical Centre at Derby, whose depot alongside the main line near the station always commanded attention. 

Frequently stabled outside was a sprinkling of the exotic beasts in its care, including a Hymek diesel hydraulic, a Co-Bo diesel and a Class 24. But Old Dalby was a closed book to the wider enthusiast community (and journalists), so the diary was cleared. 

The test track was a roughly eight-mile section of the former Melton Mowbray-Nottingham Midland line, closed in 1966 but retained by BR for testing, trials and development. A visit to see a specially-staged 90mph-plus train crash was a ‘must see’ - this was a new development the likes of which we had only  witnessed before, in the movies American woodburners smashing into each other on a black and white ‘silent’ or maybe a doomed Stanier ‘Black Five’ in the Virgin Soldiers.

I was then working as a freelance, writing about railways, and it was in this capacity that the Old Dalby invitation fell through my letterbox. I naturally planned to take pictures, so I packed the tripod, Canon AE1 loaded with the then-newish and revolutionary XP1, and checked the auto-winder was working and loaded with fresh batteries. But as I was strictly attending to write about the flask smash, I invited linesider Chris Milner to come along and take photographs. Chris went on to become assistant editor of The Railway Magazine, a job he still holds. We duly turned up at Old Dalby (once we’d found the damned place) late morning on a glorious summer’s day. 

Considering what was about to take place, there was a relatively relaxed atmosphere in terms of security - today’s paranoia was some way off. Technicians pottered about on the track, which had been slewed to the left as it approached the tunnel on a long sweeping curve - to end in a sea of ballast - with no buffer stop.

Lying obliquely across the track, a few metres from its end, was the chassis of a flask carrier, complete with nuclear flask, attached to which were various cameras and other instruments, including accelerometers, to collect data at the planned 90mph-plus impact. The flask was carefully aligned so that the joint of the massive lid would be hit by the ‘Peak’s steel drawhook. The flask was filled with water and pressurised, so that it would be very obvious if there was any leakage, or distortion of the 50-tonne steel flask. Steel bars inside simulated spent Magnox nuclear fuel rods.

These flasks were used for carrying irradiated nuclear fuel rods from the ageing Magnox nuclear power stations around Britain to the British Nuclear Fuels reprocessing plant. This was sited on the bleak and isolated west Cumbrian coast at Windscale, near the town of Sellafield which gave its name to the plant in a ‘PR’ move doubtless intended to disconnect the plant in the public memory from the disastrous fire there in 1957. 

Although happening just over 25 years before, it had seared into the public mind as a result of the major leakage of radioactive iodine from one of its twin towers. There had also been damaging media stories about the alleged dangers of nuclear flask trains travelling slowly through built-up residential areas en route to Sellafield, or even being stabled within yards of sleeping children. 

It was troublesome and emotive stuff for the CEGB. Under top man Walter Marshall, it resolved to stage this test to ‘finally prove’ that the flasks would never leak their lethal cargo, even in a major, high-speed, high-energy, rail crash. No one seemed to consider that the flasks were even more dangerous on lorries, on busy roads, but when did logic ever have any bearing on scare stories such as this?

So there we were, waiting for a train crash. There was a major media presence among the 1,500 invited guests, for whom a raked, seated grandstand had been built, not quite at right-angles to the railway, in a neighbouring field. We all sat in the sun waiting for the action. A helicopter chattered overhead as I made my way to the top of the stand, where I set up my tripod, alongside the back row. From here, a 300mm telephoto lens could be trained on the flask carrier, sitting awaiting its fate, while we glanced repeatedly over our shoulders for a glimpse of the approach of the doomed ‘Peak’ and its three Mk 1s.

There was a mood of relaxed anticipation. This is what it must have been like at Cape Canaveral, when crowds for an ‘Apollo’ launch. Or maybe at Tyburn, or around the guillotine...

Then from nowhere some nuclear protesters appeared, broke through the fences, set up a banner and made some noise where the press cameras could see them. There was a delay while the thin blue line went to arrest them and drag them away, western saloon-style, feet dragging in the grass.

At Edwalton, about eight miles away, 46009 was being readied for its spectacular last journey. A Viking funeral would have nothing on this! At the top of the steps, Chris and I had been joined by a gaggle of other photographers and we were all trying not to kick each other’s tripods as we did what photographers do: repeatedly check that cameras were wound-on, full of film (no digital then) and ready to go, auto-winders and motor drives all switched on. I repeatedly squinted through the viewfinder to check and re-check the critical focusing and exposure. 

The PA suddenly announced that 46009 was rolling and accelerating to the 90mph-plus planned for the crash - there was talk of 100mph. The anticipation really did crank up now, and all banter between the photographers ended as those endless checks continued in deadly earnest. No one wanted to screw this one up. No repeated run-pasts today.

I unscrewed the lock on the cable release and looking back over my shoulder, off the back of the grandstand, caught a glimpse of a yellow warning panel in the distance, flashing through the trees. The PA droned on with the commentary about the imminent crash, but the photters were paying no heed at all now.

I watched the rail blue ‘Peak’ and its train of three blue and grey Mk 1s powering at full speed between the trees of the wooded approach alongside, from our elevated spot. 

The most vivid memory I have of that day is of that moment. It was a highly-charged, adrenaline-driven sensation: on the one hand it was very exciting to be at the lineside, in pole position, in perfect light, to photograph a train crash at the moment of impact and as the destruction rolled before us. On the other, it runs completely against the grain and instincts of any railway lover to watch in relative detachment and just wait for the bang. Part of me wanted to shout and wave my arms, to try to stop the crash unfolding before us.

But no time for reflection now. Eye to the viewfinder… thumb on cable release button ready… hold my breath… into the left hand side of the frame streaked the ‘Peak’ and I started shooting...

I remember being slightly disappointed at the surprisingly muted rolling rumble of the crash after the initial ‘crack’ of the first impact. Through the viewfinder I saw the ‘Peak’ rear up at about 30 degrees as it was thrown upwards by the impact with the flask. The engine was still roaring and smoke billowed in the exhaust as the engine briefly burned oil and diesel combined. It looked like - and was - the dying breaths of the locomotive, which ploughed on in a generally straight line, trailing its Mk 1 coaches in its dusty wake to destruction. The train bucked and jumped but then the rising dust cloud obscured the scene, as the high energy of the crash was rapidly dissipated as the train came rapidly but inexorably to rest, ploughing into the ballast.

Movement stopped… silence fell… the dust slowly cleared… and it was all over. We all straightened from our cameras, but no one, it seemed, quite knew what to say. 

The helicopter thwacked around overhead, slowly circling the clearing wreckage while technicians and engineers emerged from their safe hiding places and started pottering amid the wreckage. Engineers from the CEGB connected their pressure gauge to the flask to see if there had been any leakage. 

It’s hard to imagine such a major crash even being staged in today’s world of health and safety oversensitivity, but what happened next is even more inconceivable in the context of today’s nanny-state safety paranoia.

After a short inspection to make sure the wreckage was stable, we were all allowed to leave the grandstand and go and wander amidst the ploughed-up ballast, wrecked bogies, discombobulated wheelsets and the twisted remains of the once mighty ‘Peak,’ which lay on its side, wrecked.

We were allowed to wander at will on the right side of sensibly-placed tapes and snap away happily at the wreckage. The flask suffered no more than scratched paint and some slightly bent external cooling fins. The 6.9 bar pressure inside the flask had dropped by only 0.02 bar - proving that during the crash the lid had shifted only infinitesimally. 

The CEGB was delighted and Walter Marshall joyously proclaimed that nuclear flasks were “completely safe”. The figures seemed to bear him out. Over the preceding 30 years, flasks heading for Sellafield travelled six million miles in 14,000 separate journeys, with no problems at all. 

It was fascinating pottering around the wreckage. The pictures pretty much tell their own story. The ‘Peak’ and its train were written-off, but they enabled engineers and physicists worked out the energy required to tear wheelsets free, catapult a 50 ton flask into the air and cartwheel the flask carrier.

I was shaken at the time by the spectacle of a train so comprehensively wrecked and strewn around the landscape like a giant’s toys. At that point, the fact that I would do the same thing at such close quarters for real, and in utterly horrific circumstances, at Ladbroke Grove, Heck and Hatfield was way in the future. What struck me at the time, though, was that despite the running gear wreckage, the ‘Peak’s’ carriages remained generally upright and in line.

And that was it. Or very nearly it. The news that evening, and the next day’s newspapers, were full of ‘Operation Smash Hit’. The BBC’s news report, read by John Humphrys, is on YouTube.

Today, all the ‘Peaks’ and Mk 1s are gone from everyday service and the BR test track is no more. Unwanted after privatisation? Well, no - but no one wants to pay for it. 

It had a spell in use when Alstom leased it and electrified it at a total cost of about £25 million, to carry out pre-introduction snagging on its Class 390 ‘Pendolino’ trains. Ironically, I visited the same location a few years ago for one of Virgin’s many ‘390’ launches - this one was to demonstrate them at 100mph for the first time. I think a revolving tent stood where the crash site was, to enable us to see the ‘390’ shoot out of the tunnel.

The line has also seen sporadic use for Tube train testing but that’s about it. Privatisation has had many benefits - but one major drawback has been the loss of a genuinely world class research and development programme. 

And at the very centre of that excellence was the test track at Old Dalby, where 25 years ago, 1,500 folk gathered to watch a train crash. 

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  • Mark Sherratt ( railwayman at the time) - 10/01/2016 14:34

    It was a fiddle! Look closely and you will. see the diesel engine fly through the roof on impact lessening the impact The holding down bolts had been burnt through Never trust any government to tell the. truth

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    • Morgan Brown - 18/02/2022 20:14

      Nonsense. The highest (most damaging) acceleration is from the heavy front bogie hitting the flask, regardless of the diesel engine shearing its bolts. In addition the carriages did not add to the potential for damage, because they crumpled as they would in any crash, and did not impart an impact greater than that of the front bogie.

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