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.
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
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
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
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.