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Railway accidents

By 1848 about 5,000 miles of railway line were in operation in the United Kingdom, of which about 400 were in Ireland. It was becoming clear that the wasteful competition and monopolies were becoming dangerous and state control of railways was debated seriously. Parliamentary Acts were needed to authorise construction and normally maximum charges were fixed, but there was virtually no general legislation or control. Following a Select Parliamentary Committee in 1839 Acts were passed in 1840 and 1842, giving the existing legal powers of the state to a railway department of the Board of Trade. These powers were designed to protect the interests of the travelling public. The department had the right of inspection, collected statistics of traffic and accidents, and could undertake legal proceedings for neglect or illegality. It inspected new projects For practical purposes the work of the department ceased after 1845 though the Board of Trade retained a general responsibility for railway matters.

From: Report of the Officers of the Railway Department to the President of the Board of Trade, February 1842 (Parliamentary Papers xli, pp. 15 ff.)

Number and Nature of Accidents upon Railways attended with personal injury reported to the Railway Department under the provisions of the Act 3 & 4 Vic. c. 97 for regulating railways.

Class I Accidents attended with Personal injury of Danger to the Public arising from causes beyond the control of Passengers. Total for 1841: 29 Accidents 24 killed 72 injured

Class 2 Accidents attended with Personal injury to Individuals owing to their own negligence or misconduct.

Total for 1841: 36 accidents 17 killed 20 injured

Class 3 Accidents attended with Personal Injury to Servants of the Company under circumstances not involving danger to the Public.

Note: this return is incomplete, as the Board of Trade has not called upon Railway Companies to make returns of accidents which are not of a public nature.

Total for 1841: 6o accidents 28 killed 36 injured. (summarised report)

From this return, it appears that the number of railway accidents of a public nature has considerably diminished, the last five months of the year 1840 showing 28 accidents, 22 deaths and 131 cases of injury, while the 12 months of 1841 give only 29 accidents, 24 deaths, and 72 cases of injury.... It is very satisfactory to observe, that a marked diminution has taken place in the class of accident, such as collision, arising chiefly from mismanagement or defective arrangements. A great proportion of the accidents which occurred in the end of 1840 and beginning of 1841, were of this nature, no fewer than 17 accidents having occurred in eight months, from August 1840 to April 1841, from the single cause of collisions by trains or engines overtaking others travelling on the same line. During the nine months from April 1841 to January 1842 only five collisions of this nature occurred, and those with one exception unattended with fatal consequence. The diminution in the number of collisions appears too great to be the result of accident, and may fairly be attributed in a considerable degree to the more general adoption of the precautions suggested by the Inspector-General and recommended by this Department, viz, the erection of proper fixed signals at stations, the adoption of a better description of tail-lamps and hand-signals, the enforcement of more attention to signals on the part of servants, and the adoption of proper time tables for all trains including luggage trains, with a view to preserving regularity in the traffic, and proper intervals between successive trains.

The returns of the past year also show a marked diminution in the number of serious accidents occasioned by the misconduct of engine drivers. . . . This result may be attributed partly to the beneficial result of more extended experience, and of the measures taken by several railway companies, to raise the character of that important class of men, the engine-drivers, and partly to the salutary example of the prosecutions which have been instituted.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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