“I WAS standing at one window and my wife was at the other as we couldn’t get a seat,” Mr JW Roe, 64, of Shildon, told reporters exactly 50 years ago on July 31, 1967.

He’d joined the East Coast Main Line express at York expecting to get off at Darlington, but at 3.17pm, as the train neared Thirsk… “Suddenly, where the wife was standing, the coach seemed to dissolve in mid air, and the doorway fell around her,” he continued.

Mrs Roe – she was never given a first name, only an initial M – was lucky. Although seriously injured, she appears to have made some form of recovery.

Seven people that day, though, were killed and 43 wounded, at least of them 15 severely.

The accident had happened when a cement train travelling from Kent to Glasgow had derailed on the “down slow” line about three miles south of Thirsk.

The rear half of the train had toppled down the embankment into the cornfields of Dalton Cottage Farm, but the wagons at the tail had whipped round so that wagon 23 remained upright but straddled across the “down slow” line and – disastrously – jutting out into the “down fast” line.

The guard, Harry Wake, jumped out of his van and ran up the line in search of a telephone post from which to raise the alarm. He threw warning detonators onto the tracks and waved his red flag because in the distance he could see the midday express out of King’s Cross approaching at 80mph.

In its cab, driver Jack Evans, of Blaydon, was already applying the brakes. His suspicions had been aroused when the track ahead appeared shrouded in a cloud of dust, and then he saw the frantic guard waving like a lunatic. He already had the vacuum and the air brakes on, but realising a collision was inevitable, he removed his foot from the dead man’s pedal and turned his engine off in the hope that it would prevent it from exploding.

Then he waited. By the moment of impact, he’d brought the diesel loco’s speed down to a little less than 50mph.

But wagon 23 weighed more than 30 tons. It smashed into the left-hand side of Mr Evans’ cab and then tore into the first three passenger carriages until the force of the collision flung it 60 yards through the air into the cornfield.

The sides of the three carriages were ripped into matchwood. Fortunately, they were compartment carriages and it was the corridor side which was struck – had people been sitting along the side as it was unpeeled, the death toll would have been much greater. As it was, those standing in the corridor, like Mr and Mrs Roe, were sucked out onto the tracks, amid the debris and lost luggage.

The dead included Sheila Brodie, 13, of Newcastle who was returning with her parents from holiday; Helen Craigie, 18, a WREN from Gateshead who was due to be chief bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding a fortnight later; John Moore, 40, of Redcar, who worked for the railway as the keeper at Fishermen’s Crossing at Warrenby, and Alfred Watts, 58, who for 15 years had been a kitchen hand at the St John of God Hospital at Scorton.

In his combine harvester in the cornfield, Brian Taylor saw the disaster unfold and managed to reach a phone before the sprinting guard. The pilot of a light aeroplane overhead radioed through that this was a major disaster, and a fleet of ambulances were soon ferrying the injured to Northallerton’s Friarage Hospital.

Indeed, when the Darlington & Stockton Times appeared five days after the crash, its report was headlined “N Riding’s emergency services triumphed in train crash”, and it begun: “Within three-quarters of an hour of the train crash three miles south of Thirsk on Monday afternoon, all the uninjured passengers were receiving treatment at the Friarage 15 miles away. From the moment of the first call, police, firemen and ambulance services were working smoothly, and two hours after the crash, the wreckage had been searched for the last time and uninjured passengers were aboard another train on their way to Darlington.”

Others thought there were more serious issues to contend with. Richmond MP Tim Kitson immediately tabled a motion in the Commons calling for radio telephones to be installed in guard’s vans. “In this computor age (sic), it’s ridiculous that when an accident occurs a guard has to run up the track waving a red flag,” he said, although the digital age was so new, The Northern Echo had difficulty spelling computer correctly.

The main cause of the crash was the cement train, and abrasive cement dust was known to penetrate deep into the wagons’ wheel mechanisms, causing the wagons to waddle wildly when they reached any sort of speed. The inquiry into the disaster therefore lowered the maximum that laden cement wagons from 50mph to 35mph so that they wouldn’t jump off the tracks again with such devastating consequences.

  • With many thanks to Richard Barber of the JW Armstrong Trust for his help