Norton Fitzwarren Rail Crash
The winter of 1940-1 brought fears of bombing raids from Germany.
Stations that were hit included Bristol, Birmingham, Birkenhead and Plymouth but serious damage also occurred at the South Wales docks especially Swansea. In the winter of 1940 there was also a grave accident at Norton Fitzwarren where a King class locomotive was derailed and 27 passengers lost their lives.
The crash occurred at a point on the railway where four lines were reduced to two.
Instead of the usual practice of locating signals on the left-hand side of their respective tracks, the signals were located to the left of one track, but to the right of the other.
The driver of the train left Taunton station observing the indications of the right-hand signals (all green, indicating "proceed"), not realizing his train was travelling on the left-hand track. Wartime blackout conditions at night contributed to this misapprehension. The train driver only realised his mistake when another train overtook him, by which time it was too late to stop before the track ended.
The pairs of signals were badly placed as an economy measure. If at least one pair of signals had been correctly placed - requiring a gantry or a bracket - then the driver of the train would have been more likely to recognise which track he was on and which signals related to it. It would not have helped that Great Western locomotives had the driver on the right hand side, when his signals were generally on the left hand side.
The signals at Norton Fitzwarren railway station were fitted with the GWR Automatic Train Control (ATC) which alerted the driver, in the cab, audibly that the approaching distant signal is at "caution". A warning signal has to be acknowledged or the brakes are applied. Unfortunately, drivers can be so used to cancelling the warning, that they may do this subconsciously. This would especially happen if the driver is reading the wrong green signal. There is no reason to believe that the ATC equipment was not working properly.
The guard of the overtaking train was alarmed by strange noises, which later turned out to be ballast thrown up by the now-wrecked train. He applied his own brakes under the "Stop and Examine" rule to check what might be the problem. Finding nothing, the overtaking train proceeded on its way with a small delay, the guard only later learning of the accident.