The Battersea Park Collision

At 0949 hrs on 31st May 1985 a collision occurred at Battersea Park station, when the 08.51hrs East Grinstead to Victoria “Thumper” was hit from behind by the 0920 hrs Gatwick express service. The closing speed was believed to be around 20 mph, but both trains stayed on the track.

Both trains were heavily loaded, carrying around 800 passengers, with 118 of them being injured, with the most serious one staying in hospital for around two weeks. So what happened?

Just north of the station there are a number of crossovers with points and signaling being controlled from the Victoria signaling center at Clapham Junction, a few miles south of this location. These control the routes into and away from the platforms at Victoria station. In the 1980’s, on approaching a signal, a horn sounded in the cab if the signal is displaying a caution or stop aspect. The brakes are applied a few seconds later. The driver can over-ride this sequence by pressing a “cancel” button. On the approach to a clear signal, a bell briefly sounds and no action is required by the driver. As you will see, this question of the driver warnings was scrutinized by the inquiry and may have contributed to the collision.

The “thumper” consisted of Hampshire unit 1113 at the front of a six car set, with the DMBSO at the front; and Oxted unit 1309 at the rear with the DMBSO at the rear. Behind the “thumper” was a Gatwick express consisting of class 488 and class 489 carriages with a class 73 locomotive.

The thumper was routed on the fast up line through Clapham junction and had stopped at the station, before continuing on towards Battersea Park. The Gatwick unit was following and had caught up with the thumper so that the driver of the Gatwick unit was confronted with a series of single yellow aspect signals, which the driver had cancelled, as he was fully entitled to do, reducing the speed of the unit to around 30 mph. Meanwhile the “Thumper” had stopped at a red aspect signal ( VC 564) at Battersea park, and had been stopped for about 2 min’s. The signalers plan was to route the thumper over to the down slow line after another southbound Gatwick express had passed, having just left Victoria. This was because at 0922 hrs a signal problem had been identified at a nearby signal and S and T staff had been dispatched to investigate. It later emerged that no fault could be found and that this had no relevance to the collision.

The Gatwick bound, Gatwick express duly passed by and the signal had then changed, allowing the “Thumper” to move forward. It had reached no more than 10mph when it was struck from behind by the Gatwick unit that had been following it through Clapham junction. The S and T staff that had been dispatched to the signal problem, were on site at the time of the collision and were able to give good, independent eye witness accounts. One of them, Mr Harvey, went to the drivers cab of the Gatwick unit and spoke to the 24 year old driver, J Short, who told him that he “ had not been concentrating”.

Although there had been no derailment, the energy of the collision had rippled through the length of both trains, causing damage throughout. The worst damage was sustained by the leading passenger coach of the Gatwick unit, which had buckled at one end and telescoped ( compressed) at the other. On the thumper, both diesel units had been displaced from their mountings; minor structural damage had been sustained and the buffering gear was damaged. The Gatwick express had suffered considerably more damage.

At the Inquiry, driver Short explained that the journey was uneventful until he had arrived at Clapham junction. He had cancelled at least 3 successive signals approaching the station and as he exited the platform, the red aspect changed to yellow, so he again cancelled the warning. This happened on two more occasions and he admitted that he saw that signal Vc564, was at red, protecting the rear of the Thumper. He stated to the inquiry that he saw the southbound gatwick express pass and believed that he knew the driver to be the son of the guard on the thumper unit and had waved to him. He then looked across at another train approaching Battersea park on another line. At that moment the AWS sounded a warning in his cab and he cancelled it.

As a result of these distractions, driver Short had passed the signal protecting the rear of the Thumper, without consciously observing the aspect of the signal. As the train rounded the bend he saw the thumper ahead but concluded that it was on a different track; a few seconds later he realized that it was not and admitted that he froze. He freely admitted to the Inquiry that he must have passed the signal at danger and had allowed himself to become distracted.

There is no doubt that the error was with driver Short, but the Inquiry were quick to thank him for his honesty which had quickly identified the cause of the collision.

Several questions as to the AWS were raised at the Inquiry and to the ability of a driver to over-ride a potentially catastrophic warning. It was noted that the system employed in signal boxes did not allow signal staff to make such conflicting movement mistakes and that BR should investigate further this technology to assist drivers.

The crashworthiness of the Gatwick expresses MK 2 carriages was also questioned as there has been considerable damage to the passenger compartments, with doors becoming jammed by the distortion of the frames, windows breaking and general distortions of the carriage shells. It was noted that in a derailment, lots of the energy is lost through the contact with the ground and that this process does not occur to the same degree when the carriages remain on the track.

Ultimately driver Short had succumbed to a natural human fallibility; he had become distracted and the technology was not there to override the drivers mistake. The situation had been made worse by the system which meant that drivers were often required to over-ride a succession of warnings which did not differentiate between cautions and a direct demand to stop the train.

The thumper units involved were subsequently reformed. The Oxted Unit , 1309, re-entered service in November 1985 with a different DMBSO. The original DMBSO ( 60134) had borne the brunt of the impact and was scrapped, being replaced by an old Hastings DMBSO, unit number 60045, which had previously been on unit 1037. This combination lasted until September 1987. 

The Hampshire unit and the front unit 1113, faired little better. The DMBSO (60112) was withdrawn in April 1986 together with centre carriage 60662. The DTC (60812), formed part of unit 206101 from April 1986 until September 1987. The unit features in the celebrity section of the website. Click here

Click here for a link to the Railway archives and a link to the official report.