Penistone: The Worst Accident Black-spot on The British Railway Network

Apr 24, 2024 0 comments

Approximately 40 kilometers southwest of Leeds and 50 kilometers east of Manchester, nestled in the foothills of the Pennine Hills, you'll find the unfortunately named town of Penistone. The town was originally called Peningston, which likely meant "the farmstead at the hill called Penning," in recognition of the prominent ridge to the town's south. However, over time, the innocuous name morphed into its current variation. The town’s awkward name aside, Penistone holds a far more embarrassing reputation as the site of the most frequent railway accidents in Britain.

A platform sign at Penistone railway station, England. Photo credit: Ian Kirk/Wikimedia Commons

The railways first arrived at Penistone in July 1845 with the laying of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway. Shortly after its opening, Penistone witnessed its first accident when a Sheffield bound train struck a cow, when a drover from Penistone market was crossing the tracks with his herd. The impact caused the locomotive and carriages to derail and the cow was killed instantly. Such was the force of the accident that the cow was almost entirely cut in half. Fortunately, none of the passengers suffered any injuries other than some minor bruising.

Ironically, this unfortunate incident had been foreseen over two decades ago when the parliamentary committee was debating whether to grant George Stephenson permission to build the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. At the time, Stephenson's visionary ideas about the potential speed and future of railways were met with skepticism, with some members expressing concerns about the possibility of trains colliding with livestock. When asked about the potential awkwardness of such an event, Stephenson, with a sparkle in his eye and in his distinctive Northumbrian accent, quipped, “Oo, ay, very awkward for the coo!”

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, a number of accidents occurred in Penistone, some of them serious leading to many deaths. Countless other minor collisions and mishaps have occurred in this stretch of line, many of which remain undocumented. These unfortunate events have contributed to Penistone's notoriety as the accident black-spot on Britain's railway network.

The Penistone railway station in 2005. Photo credit: DaveGorman/Wikimedia Commons

Bullhouse Bridge accident, 1884

The first major accident in Penistone occurred on 16 July 1884, a few miles to the west of the town, near Bullhouse Colliery. The accident is often referred to as being at "Bullhouse Bridge", where the road to Huddersfield passes beneath the line. An express passenger train traveling from Manchester London Road to London King's Cross had exited Woodhead Tunnel and was gaining speed on the downward slope toward Penistone. As it navigated the curve at Bullhouse, the locomotive's driver sensed an unsettling sway, but before he could react, a loud crack echoed through the air. One of the driving wheel axles had fractured, causing the wheels to veer off course and sending several carriages careening off the rails. Nineteen passengers were killed at the scene, and five more at the hospital. The cause of the axel failure was identified as metal fatigue.

Barnsley Junction accident, 1885

The second unfortunate incident took place on the other side of Penistone Station, between Huddersfield Junction and Barnsley Junction, within six months. On January 1, 1885, a special excursion train carrying passengers from stations in the Sheffield area to Liverpool was climbing towards Penistone. At the same time a train of empty coal wagons travelling in the opposite direction to return the wagons to collieries in South Yorkshire and North Nottinghamshire was descending the gradient and had just passed the Huddersfield Junction signal box when one of the wagons derailed and struck the locomotive of the excursion. The collision caused the fifth, sixth and seventh carriages of the train to be wrecked and the following three were brought off the track. Four passengers were killed in the accident and 47 others were injured, many of them very seriously. On examination, the wagon that derailed was found to have a fractured axle again caused by metal fatigue, a phenomenon poorly understood at the time. The enquiry recommended a thorough inspection of all rolling stock of the railway.

Huddersfield Junction accident, 1889

The next serious accident occurred four years later on 30 March 1889. This was the day of the F.A. Cup Final where the Preston North End were playing the Wolverhampton Wanderers at Kennington Oval. Many people from Lancashire, Southport and Wigan took the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway to London to watch the teams play. As the train ran down the gradient towards Penistone station, the locomotive, having no leading wheels to guide it, jumped the tracks taking along with it the tender and 17 out of the 19 vehicles composing the train. One person was killed and many injured. Another incoming train, the King's Cross to Manchester Mail, managed to stop at the nick of time but not before it had already collided with the tender of the derailed locomotive that lay across the tracks.

An enquiry into the evidence and circumstances connected with this accident and collision lead to the conclusion that the accident was caused by the fracture of the leading axle of the engine of the excursion train, which again rose the important question of how many miles an axle should be allowed to run before being submitted to an exhaustive examination as to the existence of flaws.

Penistone accident, 1927

On 27th February 1927, the London and North Eastern Railway Company's up express passenger train, Manchester Central to Marylebone, travelling under clear signals, collided head-on with a light engine belonging to the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company, which, after having been turned at the turn-table on the down side of the main line, was in process of being transferred across the main line on its way to the latter Company's Huddersfield branch. The signalman, who was new on shift, forgot to set the correct points for the LMS line causing the collision.

The driver of the light engine was seriously injured and thirty-eight passengers suffered minor injuries or shock. Other crew members of LNER also suffered minor injuries.

The Penistone viaduct accident of 2 February 1916.

Minor accidents

1 September 1886: A through coach to Huddersfield on the King's Cross to Manchester express was detached at Penistone and placed to await collection by the local train. The Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway locomotive and the leading brake backed onto its train, the impact sending the six coaches, dining car and rear brake into the ticket platform. Twenty passengers were slightly injured.

9th December 1896: A Lancashire and Yorkshire Goods train was detained at Huddersfield Junction waiting for the passing of an Up Passenger train. After this train passed, the signalman cleared the Huddersfield Junction signals for this train to depart, the movement obstructing the Down Main line in the process. Because of its weight the locomotive had trouble starting and slipped to a stand across the Main Line. In the meantime, the signalman, contrary to regulations, accepted from Barnsley Junction another express from London to Manchester. Running under clear signals, this train rammed straight into the goods train overturning one wagon and derailing two others.

10 October 1897: An accident at Penistone station when a light locomotive collided with a carriage. Three people were injured, one later died of concussion

2 February 1916:  A train from Huddersfield was paused over the Penistone viaduct, about 50 yards from the Penistone station, so that shunting operations could be conducted when the embankment below the viaduct subsided. The collapse was slow and the crew jumped to safety before the arch fell down. The cause of the collapse was stated to be scouring of the foundations after prolonged heavy rain, together with the strain of exceptionally heavy traffic over the high road.

27 August 2021: A train from Huddersfield to Sheffield was travelling at around 30 kmph when it struck the stabilizer leg of a lorry that was parked next to the track, about half a kilometer to the south-east of Penistone station. The train crew and 25 passengers on board the train were unhurt by the collision, but the lorry's stabilizer leg was damaged.


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