The following story may contain triggering and/or sensitive material. Topics discussed include detailed and graphic descriptions of a train crash.
There have been some dark days in London’s history, and in the history of the London Underground, amidst bombing raids and outbreaks of the Black Death—but perhaps one of the darkest days during peacetime is what happened at Moorgate Station in 1975.
I begin this story at some point in the early 1970s, before what will come to pass three or four years into the future. Passengers and workers at Moorgate Station on the Northern Line report seeing the apparition of a man in blue overalls, sometimes in the tunnels, sometimes in the terminus. When approached, the expression on the apparition's face becomes one of absolute horror before he vanishes into the walls.
It is worth noting, for reasons that will soon become evident, that this particular station is a dead end. Trains approaching the station must slow to 15 mph and come to a complete stop, but there is a twenty metre overrun track and buffer just in case of a minor overshoot. After that, there is a solid concrete wall.
On February 28th, 1975 at 8:46 AM, a train coming from Drayton Park arrives at Moorgate station, platform 9. However, it does not slow to the aforementioned speed. The train actually accelerates into the terminus, travelling at somewhere between 30-40 miles per hour. To some witnesses, the driver, Leslie Newson, appears to be in a trance, staring straight ahead. The train goes right through the station like a bullet, into the overrun tunnel, where it slams into the wall at the end.
As the first compartment collides with the wall, it is forced upwards into the tunnel ceiling, crushing the driver's cab and the first fifteen passenger seats. Before the crash, the first compartment is sixteen metres in length, but after the crash, what remains is just six metres long. Upon impact, the second compartment collides with the first, essentially collapsing it like an accordion, and the third rides up over the second. Forty-three people, including Newson, are killed, and seventy-three people are injured.
Rescue crews begin arriving within five minutes of the crash, where they discover a scene of true horror. First responders describe all-encompassing darkness, thick dust-laden air, screams of pain, bodies heaped on top of one another and arms reaching out for help from the twisted metal. To make matters worse, the ventilation is no longer working, as air travels through the tunnels via the force of trains travelling back and forth, otherwise known as the piston effect.
With no trains running, oxygen levels drop and the temperature shoots up to 49 degrees Celsius in the tunnels. Rescuers are also unable to communicate via radio between the station and the surface, as they are separated by twenty-one metres of soil and concrete. They have to make do with runners, though messages often do not arrive on the surface as they have been given at the station.
The last survivor is removed from the mangled wreckage at 10:00 PM, eighteen hours after the crash. At that point, the rescuers cease all noise, to listen for anyone left alive, but only silence greets them. Anyone left has most certainly perished.
In the following five days, members of the Fire Brigade endure the heat and the stench of decomposition in order to remove all the bodies, detangle the compartments and then winch them out of the tunnel where they can be properly examined. The last body to be removed is that of Newson, on March the 5th. At the same time, the wreckage is taken away, and the investigation begins.
The train, one of many built in 1938, is thoroughly examined, but no technical defect or equipment fault can be found. So it seems like the only one responsible is Leslie Newson, a father of two who rarely drank, who was carrying money on him to buy his daughter a car that day.
The investigation concludes that it was Newson to blame for the crash, but they still don’t really know what happened. His blood alcohol levels were above average, but the body produces alcohol after death, especially after five days of decomposing in the heat, so investigators turn to his co-workers. They all say that Newson was behaving normally that day, and he’d been running the train for two and a half hours before the crash without fault. All of this makes the crash that much stranger.
At the moment of the crash, experts deduce that Newson was sat bolt upright, still holding the dead-mans-handle to keep the train going, making no attempt to shield his face from what was coming right towards him. What could cause a person to behave in such a way? Well, no one ever figured that out.
What we did figure out from Moorgate is that the London Underground needed multiple fail-safes to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again, and that’s exactly what happened. Three years after the crash, the ‘Moorgate Control’ was installed at all dead-end stations. Should a train approach a dead-end at a speed above 12.5 mph, the Moorgate Control automatically applies the emergency brakes, and the train will come to a stop before the hydraulic buffers, not after it hits a concrete wall. Another six years after, tracks were fitted with resistors to prevent acceleration into stations.
And now, we think back to that apparition at Moorgate, which appeared several times before the crash. Was it an omen, trying to warn us of the horrors to come? Maybe, maybe not. That’s up to you.
1,324 firefighters, 240 police officers, 80 paramedics, 16 doctors and several nurses were involved in the valiant rescue and clean-up efforts. 43 people perished in the crash, 73 people were injured. If you happen to pass by Finnsbury Square, lay some flowers at their memorial.
What do you think happened at Moorgate? Tell us in the comments or tweet at @atticvoices!