The crash that began Railtrack’s demise

At 2308 on Friday March 8 1996, a short distance south from the point where the West Coast Main Line diverges at Stafford into its Birmingham and Trent Valley routes, a Mossend-Willesden freight train operated by Transrail was making its way southbound towards Wolverhampton.  

A defective axle caused ten of its 23 wagons to derail either side of the track, sending two of them tumbling into the path of a Birmingham to Glasgow Travelling Post Office (TPO) train travelling in the opposite direction.

Amid the tangled wreckage, it is hard to believe now that the death toll was not much higher (one person died). And it easily could have been, had the TPO’s locomotive not mercifully come to rest on a bank just inches short of the side of a row of houses. Residents of adjacent cul de sac The Russetts, unaware of just how fortunate they’d been, emerged to a thick cloud of gas as several wagons laden with liquid carbon dioxide emptied their contents across the crash site.

Transrail had been acquired from British Rail only weeks earlier by Wisconsin Central Transportation, as part of the privatisation of all BR’s freight operations. Initial crash reports and the subsequent investigation were to raise serious questions over standards for wagon maintenance, throwing the decision by John Major’s government to privatise the railways firmly back under the spotlight of public scrutiny. 

At the time, the crash was the most serious to occur since Railtrack had assumed responsibility for rail infrastructure from BR in 1994. And it was just two months before it was opened up to private investors on the stock exchange. Critics of privatisation would go on to portray Rickerscote as an example of why taking the railways out of public ownership was (in their view) to the detriment of safety and maintenance.

On that fateful day, the Transrail freight had left Mossend Yard near Glasgow at 1440, arriving at Warrington Arpley Yard at 2038. Here it was routinely examined by the duty Rolling Stock Technician, who found nothing of concern. Made up of 23 wagons hauled by two Class 37s (37071, 37207), it passed a lineside hot axle box detector just north of Stafford at 2255, which detected nothing amiss. 

Meanwhile, heading north was a TPO operated by Rail Express Systems, also recently acquired by Wisconsin Central Transportation. Hauled by a Class 86 (86239), it comprised nine Mk 1 Royal Mail parcel vans and sorting carriages. It had been driven empty from London Euston to Coventry, where mail was loaded and six Royal Mail employees joined the train. A further stop was made at Birmingham New Street for mail and to pick up an additional 14 sorting staff. 

At 2304 the Transrail freight cleared Trent Valley Junction and accelerated under clear signals along the Up Fast. At the point where the line is joined by the Up Slow Birmingham line (and where three lines converge into two), the driver noticed his train’s air brake apply automatically, bringing it from 35mph to a stop. 

Travelling northbound, the TPO’s driver Graham Massey was braking from 90mph to comply with the 60mph speed restriction at Trent Valley Junction when he saw a dark object appear in front of him on his track.

Seconds later, the force of the collision split the freight train into three portions. The two locomotives and leading eight wagons did not derail and suffered little damage, but the following eight were strewn across the line. 

One had contained aviation fuel, but was fortunately empty. The other seven were filled with pressurised carbon dioxide, now leaking as a thick white pall across the shallow cutting. Two wagons loaded with starch lay derailed to the rear, while the final five remained upright and on the tracks. 

The TPO’s Class 86 absorbed much of the impact as it was forced up the bank and onto its side, its leading edge almost touching the end wall of a terraced set of houses in The Russetts. The following four coaches concertinaed together and lay astride the two tracks, while the remaining five managed to stay in position. 

For the postal workers, many of whom were on their feet as they busily sorted mail, the crash threw them across carriages or down their entire length, inflicting cuts, bruises and whiplash injuries. Remarkably, Driver Massey was able to crawl to safety through the side window of his cab, despite suffering a broken leg and severe pelvic injuries.

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