On Thursday 4 December, 1851, a collision took place near the Salperton tunnel in Gloucestershire, part of the Great Western Railway that ran between Gloucester and Swindon.
At around midday on 4 December, a goods train had left Swindon, and got as far as the Tetbury Road when it reached an incline, and was found to be so heavy that the engine couldn’t move it forward any further. As a result, part of the train was left on the mainline, guarded both by a local policeman and signals on either side.
The main part of the train then continued on its journey, with the intention being to pick up the remaining section on its return leg.
But then a mechanical failure occurred. The brake on the wheels of the abandoned carriages gave way. As the carriages had been left on a hill, they immediately ran backwards, soon reaching speeds of up to 20 miles an hour, zooming past both Tetbury Road and Kemble stations.
A train was approaching Kemble station – the driver spotted the runaway carriages, tried to reverse his engine, but was unable to stop, and the carriages ploughed straight into him.
The goods carriages were completely destroyed, with debris strewn across the railway line. The engine and tender of the passenger train were also smashed up – but miraculously, driver and passengers all survived, albeit with serious cuts and bruises.
Being stoic Victorians, the majority of the passengers continued their journeys – presumably by other means, as the railway line was blocked for several hours after the accident.
Although contemporary newspapers described the accident as a “fearful collision” and “fearful accident”, it is amazing that the driver of the oncoming passenger train escaped without serious injury – perhaps testament to the high standards of Victorian workmanship that could be found even in the provinces.
One wonders, though, what any passers-by thought when they saw the goods carriages hurtling at high speed down the hill, as though possessed by spirits…
Source: The Era, 7 December 1851