Gable Ender: Recalling a fateful date in Scottish rail history

Our weather is relatively benign compared to the beginning of last century. On December 28, 1906, the same day as the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879, a railway accident at Elliot Junction resulted in the deaths of 22 people.

Saturday, 27th November 2021, 3:00pm
Gable Ender: Recalling a fateful date in Scottish rail history
The aftermath of the crash at Elliot Junction, which happened in appalling conditions on December 28, 1906.

Heavy snow had fallen constantly for two days and by Friday 28th, Arbroath was virtually cut off. At about 10.30 that morning, the North British Railway Company's Edinburgh–Aberdeen express arrived at Arbroath Station. The route north was blocked and there was no question of it reaching its destination.

South of the town, trucks from a local goods train had left the track between Elliot and Easthaven, restricting the railway to single line working. By mid-afternoon, probably under strong pressure from disgruntled passengers, the decision was taken to send the express back south. Before it left, however, a local Caledonian Railway train, with most of the passengers in the rear carriages because of its position at the platform, left Arbroath. That train was forced to wait at Elliot Junction because of another train on the stretch of single line in use. The express left Arbroath some 10 minutes later.

Driver George Gourlay had been told by the stationmaster at Arbroath “to go on very cautiously.” Gourlay had replied, “All right.” As the express travelled towards Elliot at between 20 and 30mph in poor visibility, the signals were in a ‘drooping’ position because of the snow. The rules were clear in such a situation; they should have been considered as danger signals! Gourlay failed to see the stationary train until too late and the express ploughed into it.

Gourlay was arrested, and Scotland’s first Public Inquiry was held. There, suggestions were made that Gourlay had been drinking, although other witnesses stated that he was not drunk. The jury found him at fault for not observing the instructions to proceed carefully. The evidence at his criminal trial was in line with that at the inquiry and again there was no suggestion of alcohol being a factor. Gourlay was found guilty of culpable homicide by majority verdict and sentenced to five months’ imprisonment, however public sympathy helped his sentence to be reduced on appeal. The railway company showed their faith in him by retaining his services.

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