Overhaul planned for Yorkshire Dales railway disaster building

The signal box at Garsdale Station. Photo: Bill Harrison.

The government body responsible for ensuring safety on Britain’s railways has unveiled plans to repair and refurbish a decaying listed building which was once the centre of a railway disaster in the Yorkshire Dales.

Network Rail has applied to the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority for permission to carry out an essential programme of works to ensure the weatherproofing and long-term structural preservation of the signal box at Garsdale, near Hawes.

When it was built in 1910, the timber and Welsh slate building, which features an operating floor at first floor level and a locking room to the ground floor, was among 13,000 signal boxes nationwide.

By 2012, only about 750 remained in use and it was anticipated that most would be rendered redundant over the next decade.

However, papers submitted to the park authority state the Settle to Carlisle railway building’s importance largely stems from its role in the Hawes Junction Rail Disaster on Christmas Eve, 1910, just six months after it was built to replace two signal boxes.

Signalman Alfred Sutton had been on duty in the signal box for nearly ten hours and had dealt with 58 trains when he forgot about a pair of light engines waiting for the all-clear to continue on their journey north. They were still waiting there when Mr Sutton set the track down for a midnight sleeper heading to Glasgow.

When the signal cleared, the light engines set off in front of the faster express train into the same block section. The 378-ton Scotch Express ploughed into the back of the trains around one mile down the track. Twelve passengers died, a further nine were injured and eight enginemen were injured in the impact and resulting fire.

Mr Sutton told a government inquiry into the disaster: “I have not found any greater difficulty in working the traffic with a single signal box than formerly. In fact, I have found it easier in several ways, nor do I think the responsibility is greater.”

The Hawes Junction Rail Disaster of 1910.

As a result of the disaster, rail operators changed signalling practices across 900 services to prevent similar accidents occuring.

In the accident report it was recommended track circuits, designed to detect the presence of a train on the main lines, should be installed and the Midland Railway company immediately rolled them out across its expansive network.

Despite the building being awarded listed status as recently as 2013, Network Rail said the structure had fallen into a poor state of repair, with “extensive decay”.

When it was given the status, John Minnis, senior architectural investigator for English Heritage, said: “Hawes Junction played a major role in one of the biggest railway disasters in the Edwardian period and had major ramifications across the country.”

A Network Rail spokesman said the proposed package of repair works were all essential to ensure the weatherproofing and long-term structural preservation of the signal box.

He said: “They will be undertaken using historically-appropriate materials, and carried out using sensitive methodologies. The works, including the replacement timber cladding, doors and staircase, will all enhance the visual appearance for the listed structure, and by extension the setting of the conservation area. Doing so will facilitate an appropriate and sustainable continued future use of the signal box in its original purpose.”