OFF THE TRACKS - DERAILMENT IN NORTHALLERTON AUGUST 1979
The 28th of August 1979 was an absolute scorcher of a day which saw myself and two other young boys of a similar age on the down platform of Northallerton railway station. Northallerton being the county town of North Yorkshire. I was fifteen at the time, the two other boys Peter & Mark, (apologies if my memory has failed me) were a year older. The reason why we were sitting on the extreme southern end of the platform was so we could watch the trains. Yes, we were (and probably still are) train spotters.
Northallerton station was a fantastic location for watching trains, the East Coast Main Line thundered right through the middle of it and running immediately to the south of the station was the Middlesbrough branch. The best viewing point was exactly where we were, and we had an excellent view of the trains as they sped toward us on the four line “racing” section which stretched all the way to York. Looking down to our right we could see not only the Middlesbrough branch, but into Sunter Brothers Heavy Haulage yard, which always had something interesting going on.
These were also the days when trains had proper engines at the front of them and the class 55 Deltic was still king. Invariably these engines were all painted the blue and yellow of British Rail, Class 47’s, 40’s, 45’s and 37’s all working hard. Some were known by their nick names, class 20’s which we regularly saw pulling coils of steel from the Lackenby steel mill on Teesside were known as choppers for example.
Another reason for sitting at the southern end of the station platform was to catch the unforgettable warble of the Deltic’s engine as they hove into view around a slight bend some two miles down the track. For me, the distinctive sound of a Napier Deltic engine at full chat is as evocative as that of a Rolls Royce Merlin which powered the iconic Spitfire’s in World War Two.
Unfortunately, as much as we loved our “Deli’s” there was a nasty little blot on the horizon and the kings reign was gradually coming to an end. The Inter City 125 had arrived and was slowly taking over the express passenger work on the east coast main line. To say we despised this faceless, streamlined monstrosity would be an understatement and woe betide any spotter seen writing any of their numbers in his book. Going back to the nick names given to different classes of engines, the 125 was rather ignominiously known as the zit… such was our contempt.
The layout of Northallerton station buildings has changed substantially from how it was in the 70’s. Back then the main station building was still the original North Eastern Railway brick and timber affair. This was on the up platform and comprised of a waiting room, toilets and store rooms. If my memory serves me correctly, there was still an old-fashioned canopy over the section in front of the waiting rooms. It wasn’t the full length of the platform though.
The only person on the up platform was a railway photographer with an expensive looking camera set up. We had been talking to him earlier and he told us he had travelled down from Darlington to take some quick snaps in Northallerton before carrying on to York. He was much older than us and once again if my memory is correct worked for British Rail.
The down platform, the one we were on, was an island platform meaning it had railway tracks on both sides. On one side was the main line and on the other a spur which in days gone by served the Wensleydale Branch. The platform fixtures and fittings comprising of little more than an uninspiring Perspex “bus stop” type waiting room.
This pretty much set the scene, three boys sitting on the red-hot melting tarmac of the down platform and an older guy with his camera on the other side of the tracks on the up platform when the streamlined nose of a “zit” emerged through the shimmering heat haze. The three of us immediately took no more notice and went back to talking a load of rubbish as young boys do. Suddenly Mark looked up and yelled out in alarm that the zit was on fire.
Now if you are ever wondering what the definition of mortal terror is, or what it is like to stare death in the face, I can tell you. It’s five hundred or so tons of derailed train bouncing toward you at seventy miles per hour. This is exactly what we were faced with. The front power car was only a hundred feet or so away with great sheets of flame shooting out from under its wheels. We didn’t know it at the time but the reason for this was because the front bogie was completely off the rails and the steel wheels were running on the concrete track sleepers.
We all three turned and fled in unison back along the platform safe in the knowledge we were about to die. We hadn’t gone far when the front power car thundered past us in a great cloud of dust and smoke. I remember an ominously solid thud as the side of the train hit the platform a glancing blow and felt for sure its carriages were about to concertina and wipe us out. All around us the air was filled with flying track ballast which was being torn up and flung like the shrapnel from a hundred hand grenades. It was a truly terrifying ordeal for anybody, let alone a trio of school boys.
I really thought we were going to die, how many trains come off the tracks at seventy miles an hour and stay up right? None that I could think of and as we ran for our lives I distinctly remember hunching my shoulders in readiness for the impending impact. Mercifully, a hand grabbed hold of my arm and pulled me down onto the track on the opposite side of the platform from the crashing train. I can’t remember whether it was Mark or Peter who had the presence of mind to take shelter under the lip of the platform where the Wensleydale branch used to terminate, all I can say is thank God they did.
The banging and thumping seemed to go on for ever as the train repeatedly crashed against the platform, as did the flying stone ballast which ricocheted around us. Eventually the nightmare came to an end and like three shell shocked Zombies we emerged from our hiding place and regained the platform. Unbelievably the 125 was still upright even if it was snaking from one side of the tracks to the other and back again.
We had all heaved a collective sigh of relief when we realised to our horror there was another 125 hurtling toward its derailed sister from the north. Fortune smiled however, the driver of this train applying his emergency brake and averting a potential disaster.
All along the stricken train carriage doors started to open and shocked passengers either alighted on to the northern end of the platform or directly down on to the track. One or two of them even asking us if we took any photographs of the train crashing toward us. The polite answer they got off a fifteen-year-old school boy being somewhat different to the one they would have got off me today.
For me, the prize for the luckiest escape goes to the railway photographer who was on the opposite platform. Whether he got any photographs of the ill-fated 125 I know not. What I do know is it was a miracle he came through unscathed. Unlike us he had no where to hide and whereas we took shelter from the flying ballast under the edge of the platform all he could do was curl up into a ball and hope. All around him the old station buildings took a battering, the waiting room windows were destroyed and there were great gouges in the wooden facia boards where the stone ballast smashed into them.
How nobody was seriously hurt or killed that day I don’t know, and I think the very fact nobody was, is why this event has been largely forgotten by all but those who were either on the train or station platform when it happened. I mean this was a train off the tracks at seventy miles an hour in the middle of a main line station. Not just any train either, this was British Rails much vaunted new flag ship which in itself could be the reason why it was discreetly swept under the carpet.
For those who are interested on the Railway Archives website there is a very matter of fact, boring report, which in no way reflects the terror of the moment.
Ironically if it had been one of our much-loved Deltic’s which had derailed instead of a 125 the chances are I wouldn’t be writing this now. Without doubt the carriages behind it would have snaked and concertinaed with great loss of life amongst passengers and train spotters alike. There certainly hasn’t been a 28th of August go by when I haven’t thought about the events of that day and how differently they could have turned out.
Sadly, I couldn’t find any pictures of the accident. Should anyone reading this have one I would be most interested.
The above photograph taken from the down platform shows Northallerton station at the time of the derailment. We were on this platform running for our lives toward the camera before veering off and jumping down on the tracks which are out of sight to the right of the picture. The railway photographer was under the canopy on the up platform trapped in a maelstrom of flying ballast. The locomotive in the picture is a class 47 not a 125.