Quintinshill, near Gretna, witnessed the worst railway disaster on 22 May 1915. A troop train, carrying soldiers of the Royal Scots, to fight at Gallipoli, was heading south at high speed in the early hours of the morning. The local signalman, George Meakin, who had shunted a local passenger train on to the main line for operational reasons, should have been off-duty, but due to an informal arrangement between himself and the relieving man, James Tinsley, he continued to work until his arrival. He had also omitted to place a locking collar on the levers of the southbound signal. Tinsley, preoccupied writing his log from the notes left by his colleague, overlooked the passenger train standing in full sight of the box and accepted the troop train from the north, clearing the signals for the approaching train.
As the train approached at 70mph, Meakin realised to his horror what was about to transpire, the crew having no time to slow, far less stop their train. Seconds later it ploughed into the stationary passenger train, creating instantly a scene of devastation and carnage. Despite Meakin’s efforts to prevent an extension of the disaster by placing the northbound signals to danger, within about a minute, a northbound express ran into the wreckage causing further destruction and killing and injuring many who had survived the first impact. To add to the horror, hot coals from the locomotives then set fire to escaping gas from the troop trains lighting equipment and the debris of the timber carriages quickly became an inferno.
227 persons were logged as killed, including 82 who were unrecognisable and 49 whose bodies were never found. 246 individuals were injured, many seriously, and it is probable that the overall death toll was higher. The incident was, and is still, Britain’s worst rail disaster. A curious coincidence, of course is the proximity of the site to Lockerbie, the scene of Britain’s worst air disaster when in 1988 270 people died including 11 on the ground.
Both signalmen were put on trial afterwards, as well as the fireman of the local (who allegedly failed to protect his train). The latter was found not guilty, but the signalmen were both committed to jail. Curiously however, the sentences were thought controversial at the time, perhaps because of the men’s previously unblemished record and recognition of the burden of guilt they would carry till the end of their lives, and both men were released
The Gretna & Springfield Heritage Trails initiative has produced useful guides of the area which includes the munitions and the worst rail disaster in British history, Quintinshill.