The Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash of 1952 remains one of Harrow’s most tragic events. Sixteen vehicles were completely destroyed or severely damaged in the crash – destruction exceeded only by the loss of life seen. One hundred and twelve people were killed that October day not too long ago, and some 340 people were injured. The crash was catastrophic in every sense of the word. Between the heroes it created and the extensive impact it had, the full story of the Harrow and Wealdstone train crash is one that demands to be told in full. So, settle in, fetch a cup of tea (or the beverage of your choice), and read on.
The Tragedy and its Heroes
At its most fundamental level, the Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash is a tragedy. The collision involved three trains travelling on October 8th 1952 in the early morning. A heavy fog had descended upon the Harrow area, and this meant that the trains travelling at such high speeds generally had only a few seconds to glimpse that which they were passing. This was to prove the key part of the day’s disaster, with the driver of what is now known as the Perth train missing a caution signal that would have caused him to slow. After missing a further two danger signals, the Perth train driver was left realising only too late what had happened.
When the Perth train came speeding into the station, it crashed to the rear of a Tring to Euston train that had been held at Harrow and Wealdstone due to the fog, completely destroying the rear three coaches and driving the entire train twenty yards forward. Yet the chaos was not to end here. The leading carriages of the Perth train then piled up onto one another, in so doing spreading the carnage over onto the adjacent line, where another train – this one a Euston to Liverpool and Manchester service – collided with it at some sixty miles per hour, catapulting it into the nearby footbridge. By the time the dust had settled, some dozen people were already dead, and countless others in desperate need of help. The accident remains the worst peacetime railroad crash in the UK.
Yet, as with any such catastrophe, the disaster also saw a number of heroes too. The most famous of these was Lieutenant Abbie Sweetwine who, after her actions on the day, was dubbed the ‘Angel of Platform 6’. A part of a US Air Force medical unit which had been based at RAF Northolt, Sweetwine and the rest of her unit came to Harrow and Wealdstone to help the emergency services in rescuing the trapped and saving the wounded. At the station, Sweetwine was seen comforting the survivors of the day, handing out cigarettes and tea whilst simultaneously tending to the injured – in so doing earning her angel moniker, as well as a brief period of fame in local and national papers.
An Event of Great Significance
With the collision remaining the worst peacetime rail accident in British history, it is unsurprising that it had such a big impact at the time. For one thing, the crash permanently reshaped our local Harrow and Wealdstone station. Much criticism after the accident was directed at the layout of track at the station, especially how the junction between the slow and fast lines to the north was arranged so that a train, in this case the Tring train, had to wait on the fast line, opening up the possibility of a collision considerably. The junction was subsequently changed in 1962, and it remains so to this day.
Yet the crash also had impacts on a national scale, most notably national railway policy. The disaster saw the system-wide introduction of Automatic Warning Systems on British Railways. Though it had been invented and installed decades prior in some areas of the country, the Automatic Warning System had been met with resistance by those that saw it as unnecessary when an experienced and cautious driver was at the helm. The carnage caused at Harrow and Wealdstone demonstrated the emptiness of the argument all too clearly, with the driver of the Perth train having had ample experience, yet still having missed the warning signals all the same. The crash, then, ensured that rail travel was made a great deal safer, at the time and to this day, with by 1977 a third of British Rail track having been fitted with these Automatic Warning Systems.
On a similar level, the disaster also informed the practice of the NHS and the emergency services at crises. Much of this came down to Lieutenant Sweetwine’s actions on the day. The medic brought an end to the haste that predominated ambulance practice before the crash, with Sweetwine having stayed at the station to diagnose and mark the survivors on their foreheads with either a ‘X’ or an ‘M’ – designating whether they had already been treated or needed morphine respectively – thereby helping to prevent overdoses. This process highlighted the need for ambulance drivers to take a more active role at crises, and in so doing influenced the creation of the modern paramedic.
However, Sweetwine on that day also had an impact beyond her actions, one that stretches beyond the United Kingdom, due to her being African American. At a time when non-white people across the globe were fighting for civil rights, Sweetwine’s actions on that day in Harrow were a positive and powerful example, one elevated and exposed by the brief fame that she enjoyed. Sweetwine’s expertise and heroism which saved an untold number of lives that day served to undermine racist notions that black, and indeed, non-white people in general, were any less capable at demanding jobs. In the present, Harrow is a thriving multicultural community, one which by its very existence daily breaks down bigoted and racist ideas – yet with the 1952 crash, it seems, this was the case decades ago too.
The tale of Harrow and Wealdstone crash, then, is an epic of a local story and a deeply significant episode in history. Not only does it remain the worst reminder of the dangers and risks of rail travel, but it also saw a number of local, national and indeed global impacts that continues to inform modern life in a number of ways and in a number of areas. A plaque dedicated to the disaster was unveiled in 2002 to mark the 50th anniversary, but perhaps more clearly there is the mural painted along the road bordering the station which features, amidst the rest of Wealdstone’s extensive history, the tragic and costly crash of October 1952.
Written by Harry Turner
Image Credit: Get West London