THE .AISGILL ACCIDENT.
T ESS than three years ago, near Hawes, on the Midland line, there was a terrible railway accident in which the train caught fire after the collision and several persons perished. The rapid burning of the wreckage was caused by the escaping of the compressed gas used for lighting the train. Another accident has now happened almost on the same spot on the same line, and the features of the previous accident have been repeated—the rapid burning of the wreckage and the death of passengers in the flames. No wonder that so startling a coincidence has caused much misgiving. After the Hawes accident Major Pringle issued a report in which he made certain recommendations for reducing the risk of fire and for releasing passengers imprisoned in the wreckage. The first thought which must have occurred to everyone who read the accounts of how fourteen lives were lost at Aisgill was whether Major Pringle's recommendations had been adopted, and if so why they were comparatively unavail- ing; and if they had not been adopted, what reason there was for the omission. These are questions which concern us all very closely. We are in the habit of travelling with- out so much as giving a thought to the possibility of an accident, but we are bound to say that if some of the statements made in the newspapers about the Aisgill accident should be confirmed at the inquest and the official inquiry most people would feel considerably less secure until they were assured that the dangers of fire and the opportunities for human error in signalling had been somehow reduced. On behalf of the Midland Railway Company it was announced that in the opinion of the doctors all the persons who lost their lives were dead before they were burned. We earnestly trust that the state- ment is well founded, but some of the narratives of survivors are in positive contradiction of it ; and it cannot have been possible for doctors to have arrived at their conclusion by post-mortem examination of the bodies, as identification was accomplished in most cases by mere fragments of clothing ar some charred piece of personal property. One's natural desire to avoid dwelling on horrors which may never have happened has to correct itself by remembering the import- ance to the public of dealing with facts and of resolving that everything shall be done in future, so far as newspapers may be able to insist upon it, to prevent the recurrence of such awful disasters.
The Times correspondent says that in his opinion the wreckage at Aisgill caught fire from the red-hot embers of the engine, and not from escaping gas. He probably has good reason for expressing this belief, and we dare say that the evidence will eventually confirm it. But that would not alter the fact that if gas was used on the train without the application of the safety appliances recom- mended by Major Pringle, the Hawes accident might easily have been reproduced with even greater exactness. One of the most important of Major Pringle's recommendations was that the gas cylinders should have automatic valves which would close when the pressure of escaping gas exceeded a certain point. We must wait for the official inquiry to be satisfied on this subject. It seems that gas was used for lighting the train except in the sleeping com- partments, but whether with or without the proposed appliances we do not know. Of course, electric lighting throughout trains woald be infinitely safer than gas, but no one expects railway companies, which, after all, have to answer• to their shareholders for their expendi- ture, to go beyond what is officially required of them. The natural course it to replace old apparatus gradu- ally as it is worn out. In any case we imagine that gas has to be carried on trains for cooking. It may be that even the cooking could be done by electricity, but we fancy that for trains this method is still a little in advance of commercial science. Electricity for the lighting of all trains is certainly the ideal which ought to be achieved within a measurable period. Already a few hues, we believe, use nothing but electricity for lighting. Yet we do not suppose that the Midland Company is behind its rivals in the application of modern methods in most respects. Indeed, it is notorious that in consulting the comfort and convenience of passengers this company has in many ways set an example to all the others.
There are two other important subjects besides that of lighting which are brought before us by the Aisgill accident. The first is the system of signalling, and the second is the provision of rescue apparatus. So far as we can judge from what is already known, the accident was one of that kind which should never have happened, and of which it might be said that it is incredible that it should have happened. The express was in two portions. The second portion started twelve minutes behind the first. The first portion came to a, stop for want of steam on a steep gradient, and the second portion somehow entered the same section of line and ran into the first train. It is obvious either that a signal was put at safety which should have been at danger, or that the driver of the second train disregarded the danger signal. According to one of the published statements the driver actually said that he did not know whether the signal was at danger or not, as he did not look at it. He was " otherwise engaged," and so was his fireman. They were absorbed in oiling the engine. Of all the reports this is the one most likely to make people feel that the sphere of human error is much too large. " Surely," they will exclaim, "if we are so much at the mercy of one man's alertness when we travel by train, we are not justified in feeling safe for a moment." The problem of reducing the margin of human error in the management and recognition of signals is, of course, a very old and a very difficult one, and we are not at all tempted to fall into the easy mistake of dogmatizing upon it. Whatever system is adopted, the opportunity for human error remains. Imagine a, completely automatic system, like that in use on the underground railways of London, by which a train that has overrun a signal is brought to a. standstill independently of the action of the driver. Even then the apparatus, which is extremely complicated, requires human attention, so that human failure may still play its part. Moreover, such a system, as is pointed out in the Times, works very well on the covered lines of underground railways, but would not answer in exposed positions where snow, frost., landslides, and so on are possible. Again, we gather that a mishap to a single signal would automatically hold up the traffic all along the line, or at least on a very long section. There are other systems which are not com- pletely automatic, but which reduce in varying degrees the opportunity for human error. Thus there is the system by which visible signals are reinforced by sound signals, so that if a driver's eyes fail him his ears will warn him; and there is a system, which the Times says is used on part of the Great Western line, whereby the outside signals are duplicated by smaller signals which appear in the cab of the engine. The disadvantage of the ratter is that a driver may depend entirely on the signals in his cab and fail to do what after all is an essential part of his duty—look ahead along the line to see that it is clear of obstructions. Although we have no thought of dogmatizing on these matters, which are beyond us, we cannot help saying that human ingenuity would forfeit every title to respect if it could not effectually prevent the repetition of such a, collision as that at Aisgill. The guard of the first train actually walked back along the line waving a red light which was not seen or was disregarded, and some of the passengers, recognizing from the approaching noise that the second train was overtaking them, had time to climb up the embankment into safety before the collision occurred. Why should not railway companies imitate the very simple and efficacious example of seamen who use " flares " as signals that something is wrong? No one can fail to see a brilliant flare a long way off. It is small, easily carried, and easily used. If a flare had been burned on the line behind the -first train we venture to say that the accident would not have happened. A dim red light, of which the glass is perhaps not very clean, is too easily overlooked. If (as the railway companies already recognize) it is necessary for the guard of a train that has unexpectedly come to a standstill to supplement the ordinary signals of the line and warn the train behind, surely he ought to do it by means of a signal which it is physically impossible not to see. Besides waving his red lamp the guard at Aisgill placed detonators on the line at intervals, but it seems that these were not heard.
We pass to the provision of tools for rescue, fire- extinguishers, and so forth. Such things were provided and were used at Aisgill, but we doubt whether they were adequate for the purpose. At all events we read of rescuers appalled by the sight of persons pinned beneath the wreckage whom they were unable to rescue. Rescue tools and fire-extinguishers ought to be placed in a prominent and accessible position in every carriage. Every- one who has travelled on some of the German State railways has noticed the glass-covered boxes containing axes and saws. What strikes us invariably in reading the stories of British railway accidents is the picture of general impotence splendidly but ineffectually relieved by acts of noble daring and self-sacrifice. All want to help, but the proper means are generally wanting. We have no doubt that the life-saving appliances ought to be increased. And there is another point. In writing of the wrecks of the `Oceans' and the Titanic' we ventured to point out the need of some system for what we called the policing of disaster. We suggested that some officer should be trained in the duty of controlling and if necessary coercing the alarmed passengers who may only too easily spoil the whole plan of rescue, which must depend in most cases on coolness and orderliness. We are glad to know that our suggestion was adopted in the report on the Titanic' disaster. It is clear that the same kind of scheme would not be applicable to trains. There is no officer in command ; the passengers are not amenable to such a discipline as can be imposed on the passengers in a ship. At the same time, it would be perfectly possible for the guards habitually to direct the rescue work done by passengers. The guard ought to have a reserve of tools for the purpose and thoroughly understand their use, and he should dis- tribute these among the persons whom he thought most likely to use them properly. In the United States the conductors are entrusted with tasks of this sort. It is true that we should not care to have in Britain such peremptory officials as the American conductors, but our guards in their less dictatorial way would, we are certain, be quite equal to any occasion. So long as it was under- stood as a matter of course that the guard was the custodian of extra tools and "first aid" medical appliances, and that he was "in charge," he would be looked to as the natural organizer of the operations.