Tragedy and Turnaround: A History of St Johns Station – Part 2

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In part one we recalled the history of St Johns station up to World War II. In that time the the station had already been subject to more change than most stations have in their entire lifetime. After World War II though, it did seem that this had come to an end. The station, and the immediate surrounding area, had now remained largely unaltered, and uninteresting, since 1929 and there was no reason to believe that this would change in the years to come.

A very foggy day in December 1957, however, changed all that.

Another train crash at St Johns

That day, the service had been considerably disrupted and in the confusion the signalman at St Johns forwarded a Hastings train to the next box down the line, Parks Bridge Junction. Whilst doing so he erroneously described it, using the describer apparatus, as an electric train for the Mid-Kent Line.

On the assumption that the train description given was correct, and thus believing it to require a clear path to the Ladywell loop, the Parks Bridge signalman held the Hastings train at a red signal further down the main line.

The Parks Bridge signalman had little reason to suspect that the train description was erroneous, for if the trains had been running in the correct timetabled order then the train in question would  have been the Hayes train. Unfortunately, due to the disruption, the Hayes train was actually running behind the Hastings train, and was currently stationary with it brakes firmly applied, due to the rising gradient.

Had either signalman realised the true situation, the Hastings train would have been sent on its way. Whether this would have prevented the subsequent accident, or simply resulted in it taking place at a different location, is something we shall never know. Either way, the number of deaths and injuries would have been dramatically lower – perhaps even avoided entirely.

Indeed the understandable error committed by the St Johns signalman in the confusion of the fog, and the consequent service disruption taking place, should not really have mattered. Nothing irregular had so far occurred, and the stationary trains were each protected in the rear by a bright colour light signal. This should have been sufficient to ensure there was no danger. What should have then happened was that, in accordance with procedure, after a couple of minutes of being stationary the driver of the Hastings train would have phoned the Parks Bridge signalman to ask about the delay. In identifying the train the signalman would have realised the error and then cleared the appropriate route to allow the Hastings train to continue on its journey.

Unfortunately the minor issue of the signalman wrongly identifying the trains never got a chance to be resolved. The driver in the following steam train to Ramsgate had failed to observe two “caution” signals (a double yellow and a yellow) which warned that the signal ahead would be danger (red). With his speed unreduced when the red signal was observed a collision was now inevitable, and the Ramsgate train crashed into the stationary Hayes train ahead at around 35mph.

A rear end collision at slightly under 35 mph by a steam train into an electric multiple unit was always likely to cause a number of fatalities in the rear coaches of the electric train. A tragedy, certainly, but not one that would rank as one of the worst in the history of railways. Unfortunately, it was here that the location of the crash changed everything.

As the Ramsgate train ran into the rear of the train in front, its tender dislodged one of the critical supports of the Nunhead Viaduct. Its support now critically weakened, the heavy metal girder bridge came crashing down onto the carriages of the Ramsgate train. It was believed that 49 of the 90 deaths occurred in the Ramsgate train. Undoubtedly far fewer, if any, would have happened in this train had it not been for the bridge collapse.

Although the collapse of the overbridge was described in great detail in the subsequent accident report the significance of it was limited to one further paragraph. Whilst undoubtedly the immediate cause was the failure of the driver of the stream train to observe signals, no-one at the time seems to have grasped the crucial lesson to be learnt from the failure of the infrastructure involved.

This is not meant to be an article about the human side of at tragedy. It has been written about a number of times. Diamond Geezer, in his own inimitable way, poignantly records the details and the accident report thoroughly covers the factual details of what happened on that fateful day.

The accident report mainly concentrated on factors such as the weather, the good working order or otherwise of the signals, the interviews and recollections of those involved, the subsequent brake tests and such like as accident reports do. Amongst these there are some illuminating details which which are hidden away.

There is a sentence on the first page of the report buried as a part of the narrative. Its significance is very easy to miss. The last paragraph on the first page starts:

At first it was difficult to assess the magnitude of the disaster in the fog, but as the true situation became known, the emergency services were deployed at increasing strength, and many doctors and nurses arrived on the scene;

Nothing subsequently indicates that anything out of the ordinary has occurred – and that’s perhaps significant. Anyone who has read our account of the Harrow & Wealdstone accident – the worst peacetime railway accident in Britain – a little more than five years earlier would be aware of the failure of the fledgling National Health Service to provide immediate first aid from doctors and nurses at the scene in the “golden hour” after the accident. Indeed it was largely because of American Servicemen who acted on their initiative and got a local American army medical unit to the scene that deaths at Harrow & Wealdstone were not higher still than the 112 souls who perished. Since Harrow the NHS, and the Ambulance Service, had begun to move towards a model that placed more of an emphasis, during large accidents, on effective care and decision-making at the scene. Although it is frustratingly light on detail, the above paragraph, if accurate, suggests that this had begun to come into play at St Johns.

From the point of view of lessons for the railway industry to be learnt from the accident, the tragedy at St Johns is actually, for the most part, unimportant. The immediate cause was because of signals passed at danger in thick fog. It was already accepted that some kind of further protection was necessary but that there was a limit to how quickly this could be introduced. The report’s author accepted that lines such as the one from Waterloo to Exeter with higher speeds but still reliant on semaphore signals were more of a priority than the locations in the Southern Region suburban area already equipped with colour light signals. The problem in general of visibility from the cab of a steam engine was not really addressed despite, incredibly, steam engines still being built at the time. The fact that the Hastings train that was unnecessarily halted in front of the Hayes train was diesel-electric shows that there was already a policy to try and remove steam from the Southern Region. Furthermore work for the Kent Coast electrification scheme was already well underway and phase 1 was implemented less than a year after the report was published. It is not therefore surprising that the report emphatically has amongst its conclusions that “[t]here is, therefore, no need to make any alteration to the siting and spacing of the signals on this line.”

Although they could not have known it at the time, there was also the fact that dense fog would become much less of an issue in future with the coming of natural gas and the benefits of the Clean Air Act a few years later. A further reason for this was, of course, the eventual elimination of steam railway engines and their emission of soot-laden smoke.

The second significant part of the report is a solitary paragraph about the collapse of the bridge:

102. It is a stroke of great misfortune that the collision took place under a heavy rail overbridge and that one of the supporting columns was knocked away, thus precipitating the girders of the bridge on to the train below. The design of the bridge and its supports was sufficiently strong to carry all normal loads with an adequate margin of safety, and I know of no other case in which a bridge has collapsed in this way, but in view of the serious consequences of this accident the problem will be considered in future bridge design. I understand that, where practical, safeguards will be included to reduce the risk of collapse if the supports of an overbridge are struck accidentally.

With the benefit of hindsight this does seem to be a remarkably complacent attitude. The railway inspecting officer seems to accept that a single point of failure can produce a catastrophic failure yet he is suggesting it is enough to “reduce the risk where practical”. There was no suggestion that bridges should in future be designed so that the collapse of one support column would not cause the collapse of the entire bridge. He also appears to be failing to offer recommendations for the future, which is surely the purpose of the report, and is merely commenting on the current school of thought in engineering circles.

One would have thought that at the very least an investigation of sites where something similar had a high risk of happening would have been recommended. This would be with a view to implementing damage mitigation measures. Is this a case of the inspecting officer, Brigadier Langley (Royal Engineers), being too reluctant to criticise his own profession? It would take a disaster at Eschede in Germany in 1998, which also led to a bridge collapse, for the world to fully wake up to the danger of this – but something good could have come out of the disaster at St Johns in 1957 if only people had realised it.

Facing the Future

In 1957 before the calamitous accident, St Johns station was probably quite pretty and the sort of photogenic spot that railway photographers like. Even afterwards it still was – provided that the new bridge was out of shot. Indeed the cover of the Middleton Press volume “Charing Cross to Orpington” features a steam train passing St Johns with a field of flowers in the background.

The accident, however, was the start of the station’s descent from attractive to harsh in architecture and landscaping. It was necessary to replace the bridge pretty quickly as at the time it was used by a busy and vital freight route that connected South East England to places north of London. A very ugly temporary military bridge was erected. Given the disaster that had happened here and the need to quickly replace this important bridge this was to be no slender graceful object. It was to be a very heavy duty girder construction made available by the army and set in masses of concrete. There was to be no repeat of this disaster. The “temporary” bridge remained for decades until it was finally officially decided to designate this bridge a permanent feature – to the surprise of nobody. It is now sometimes referred to on railway documents as “the military bridge”.

Siding fulfil one last major use then are closed

The sidings at St Johns play a disproportionate part in the history of the station, despite fulfilling no apparent intended useful purpose. Part of the investigation of the accident involved testing the brakes of the Ramsgate train as the driver implied that they were not working as they should. For that purpose the carriages that were not severely damaged were shunted into the sidings at St Johns (almost certainly the one very long siding) and tested. The brakes on the carriages were found to be fully in order.

In 1960 the continental sidings opened at Hither Green and the sidings at St Johns were abandoned. This does strongly suggest that the purpose of the sidings was as an overflow area for the previous continental sidings, located on an extremely cramped site just to the south east of Blackfriars Bridge. The usage, however, must have been extremely limited. The St Johns sidings would have been insecure, so mainly of use for empty wagons and vans, and the arrangements to get them from and to the Southwark sidings must have been extremely awkward with no means of getting the engine from one end of the train to the other. There do not seem to be any photographs in existence of the sidings actually being used for freight wagons.

The station was by now (1960) just a two island platform station on a four track railway.

The 1970s bring changes

By the early 1970s St Johns station was very lightly used. Trains would rarely, if ever, stop at the southernmost island platform. Space was needed for a new flydown (we have covered this in a separate article). Consequently the almost-unused southernmost island platform was demolished in October 1973. In the same month an unattractive open-to-the-elements utilitarian footbridge replaced the previous one with a protective roof. A new embankment for the flydown was being built to allow trains from Lewisham to cross over the military bridge and subsequently join the main line. Unfortunately on 10th December it collapsed and killed two workmen in the process.

During the Easter weekend in April 1976 the flydown came into use. At the same time St Johns signalbox ceased to be operational and all train movement was transferred to the new large signalling centre at London Bridge.

The 1976 arrangement with the flydown built over the former location of the sidings (not shown). It has a single bi-directional track. This diagram extends further to the west than the previous ones in order to show the flydown.

With the reorganisation of train services to London Bridge from Easter 1976 St Johns got an improved train service but it was nothing like the major improvement seen by some lines. Basically the off-peak service went from a half hourly one to a twenty minute one. This was still not sufficient to be regarded as turn up and go. Announcements for down trains at London Bridge would seem to invariably be announced either as “fast to …” or would be followed by the warning that it was “not stopping at St Johns”. Only the Hayes trains via Lewisham escaped this otherwise compulsory mantra. Despite the fact that hardly any trains stopped there, the station was often printed on tickets to south east London suburbs many of which bore the legend “via St Johns”.

Decline in the 1980s

The 1980s were a period when the British Railways Board felt that it was necessary to be seen to be making economies. Many of them did not actually save much money but, importantly, gave the impression to the government that everything possible was being done to cut costs. So it was that the station was closed on Sundays and at one point on Saturday evenings as well. Given that the station then, as now, was often left unstaffed, it is difficult to see what significant real saving was being made.

By this period one got the impression that as far as the railway management was concerned St Johns station was just a nuisance. By Southern suburban standards it hardly had any passengers, especially off-peak. Those that were to be had only made short journeys and contributed little to the revenue stream, but used the railway at its busiest stretch on the approaches to the London terminals. Moreover it was the only station stuck on a critical two track stretch of line leading to and from Cannon Street, so any train that stopped there reduced track capacity. Most likely, management just hoped that they could close it in a few years time.

One would have thought it couldn’t get much worse, but then around 1990 the station’s one redeeming architectural feature – the booking office – was burned down in an arson attack. The management seemed to be in absolutely no hurry to replace it. Maybe they were hoping if they left it long enough the station would be closed and it wouldn’t be required. After all, Lewisham station was only a short distance away.

Entrance to the station and site of the former booking office at the start of the recent works

It is difficult to imagine now, but the scene in the picture above would probably have been quite attractive 100 years ago. Since the picture was taken the roadway has been barricaded off for construction work. We cannot be sure how this scene would have looked as there do not appear to be any photos available of the front of the booking office.

The 1990s and yet another tragedy

In 1992 the platforms were extended in an abortive plan to lengthen the suburban trains to 12 cars. To do this it was necessary to replace the arched bridge at the London end of the island platform so that the platform could be extended. Unfortunately the demolition contractors seemed to be quite clueless as to the internal forces present in a multiple arched bridge, and did not adopt a safe means of demolition.

There are essentially two ways to safely demolish a multiple arch bridge. The first is simply to ensure that no-one is located in any position where their safety is at risk – i.e. that no-one is anywhere near the bridge when it collapses. The second is to safely remove it by reversing the procedure used to build it in the first place. Unfortunately, instead the contractors decided to begin demolition by “pecking” at the arches from the top without any support under the bridge.

If they had known the history of construction fatalities at this location due to collapses they might have investigated the risks more carefully. An intriguing comment by Unravelled suggests that it is possible that they would have got away with their unsafe approach to the work it were it not for a sudden downpour that occurred prior to the work starting. Another comment suggests that the situation may have been made a lot worse by reversing a lorry onto the bridge after the structural integrity had been destroyed.

The sudden collapse of the bridge led to the third occasion at St Johns where a construction accident had resulted in the death of two of the workforce. As in the 1864 accident, there were other workers who were injured as well.

The replacement bridge (covered in a previous article) enabled the platforms to be extended. It may well be the case that after this the management woke up to the fact that if they attempted to close the station now, questions would be asked about why the bridge had been needlessly and expensively replaced both in terms of cost and lives lost. Eventually a new small ticket office was built on the platform facing the steps down to it.

A surprising revival

That really ought to be have been the end of the story, with the station continuing in use serving a small number of passengers and rather sidelined compared with other stations. It seems, though, that whenever St Johns has appeared about to enter into a “steady state” the next change comes along.

The only street sign to help you when you leave the station.

In recent years St Johns has seen a remarkable increase in station usage. One can be suspicious of the accuracy of the official figures but by any measurement or simply anecdotal evidence the station usage seems to have at least more than doubled in the past five years. A major factor has without doubt been the demand for travel to nearby Lewisham College. There are also various parts of Goldsmith’s College for which St Johns is the nearest station. The traffic delays on Lewisham Road, making bus journeys less attractive, probably also play a part as does the multi-occupancy of the surrounding Victorian houses.

What has really changed though is the train service. Instead of a half-hourly grudge service there is a train every ten minutes to/from Cannon Street during the day plus two extra trains an hour that do not fit into the even interval service. This means that the service has become a “turn up and go service” for many and for others there are now direct trains to many more destinations. During the evenings and on Sundays there is a still a half-hourly service which is to/from Charing Cross at present.

Doubling of the flydown

The other change, as regular readers will be aware, is the doubling of the Tanners Hill flydown. This is now in service, although the full benefit of it will not be made until the timetable changes to take into account the opportunities provided by the revised layout.

The rebuilt bridge at St Johns. The metal frame is quite adequate to take the weight of the bridge.

Something that should now be apparent is why it was necessary to envelope the metal frame support to the modified road bridge in masses of concrete. It is not there to hold the bridge up. It was quite apparent during construction that the metal frame was quite adequate to hold up the bridge. The reason is because, finally, a lesson has been learned at St Johns from that accident so long ago at the other end of the platform. That a single point of failure is a very dangerous thing, and the railways can be a very fickle mistress indeed.

In order to take into account the possibility that the train could knock the metal supporting structure down it is encased in concrete.

2013 layout amended 3

Diagram of the track layout today. The facing crossover on the brick viaduct (marked in light grey) is currently out of use but has not yet been removed.

St Johns today – not pretty but functional

We started part one of the article by saying that St Johns is not a pretty station. It is also a station that is needlessly difficult to access, with an indirect route to the platforms from the road that involves a descent to where the booking office was once located, followed by a flight of steps up. Indeed it seems to have the worst of everything: a colour scheme that is almost unmitigated battleship grey, platform paraphernalia on a scale unmatched elsewhere, an ugly military bridge that lacks any grace and a more recent replacement bridge for the road that just looks like a bodged solution, with an asymmetrical shape and clearly consisting of two non-matching portions bolted together. The join isn’t even located above the intermediate support. To make matters worse the older part of the bridge is heavily graffitied on the faded green background and contrasts with the new portion.

To add insult to injury, the contractors have re-erected the station totem without even bothering to give it a clean, let alone remove the fading dog-eared Network SouthEast sticker that adorns it. The station really has a feeling of being unloved, as if it was chosen by the late unlamented Silverlink trains as a showpiece for their corporate standards. To some extent one is constrained by history and the infrastructure present, but one can always dream and imagine what London Overground would do with it if they were ever able to take over responsibility for this station.

The station is but a shadow of its former self. It is not strategically placed. It is unstaffed for much of the time. It is not a welcoming place and any architectural merit that it had is gone. And yet is almost certainly busier than it has ever been previously and, as we have seen, a long and often tragic history that eclipses many stations far larger and better known. It also has a service that users of most stations can only dream of and it fulfils a useful transport need for the local community.

One can hanker after the good old days, but for St Johns they were often anything but, and the reality is that in practical terms and functionality it perhaps now really is “the best of times”.

Thanks once more to Swirlythingy for his diagrams. Also to Unravelled for his incredible set of pictures of recent developments at this site. His set of St Johns pictures at the time of writing contained over 600 photos and can be seen here.

Written by Pedantic of Purley