The worst railway disaster in Britain happened 100 years ago – at 0649 on 22 May 1915. The Scottish Government has included the disaster in its Official Commemoration Programme for 2015. Quintinshill was the name of a signal box midway between Gretna Junction and Kirkpatrick boxes and is just north of Gretna Green village. The main function of the box was to control the access to long loops which could hold freight or slow trains allowing expresses to pass through at speed. The accident was caused by a combination of factors involving the irregular operation of the signalling by two signallers. Five trains were involved, and a sixth narrowly missed involvement in the disaster.
The night and day shift signalmen were meant to end/start their shifts at 0600 but the box was isolated and a mile-long walk alongside the tracks was involved so the men arranged that the day shift man would come on the down local which reached the box at about 0630. On the fateful day the 0450 Carlisle to the north goods was in the down loop and an empty coal train occupied the up loop. The local stopped on the down main line but the late running London to Edinburgh express was bearing down on Quintinshill and there was nowhere for the local to go to get out of the way. The night shift signalman told the local to reverse over a crossover and stand on the up main line to allow the Edinburgh train to rush through some 30 minutes late. The day shift signalman arrived off the local and the two men chatted and as a result the night shift signalman forgot to put collars on the signal levers protecting the local. With the collars in place the road could not have been set for any Up train. Next on the scene was a troop train that had started out at 0345 from Larbert in Central Scotland and was heading for Liverpool carrying over 200 soldiers heading for Gallipoli. Military trains had to be given top priority so the day shift signalman set the road clear for the troop train not realising that the local was blocking the way. Had the collars been in place the road could not have been set for the troop train and the disaster would have been avoided. The troop train ran into the local and some of the elderly wooden coaches sustained severe damage with wreckage spilling over the down main line. A few minutes later the London to Glasgow night express running 30 minutes late crashed into the wreckage which exploded into a horrific inferno. The wooden coaches had gas lighting using gas held in massive cylinders some of which had been ruptured. In all 216 people died at the scene or soon after in the hospital in Carlisle. Many were so badly burned that they could not be identified and a mass grave for all the victims was used in Edinburgh. The signalmen were found guilty of culpable homicide and served long terms in prison.
On the centenary day ceremonies are being held across Scotland. Wreathes are being laid at Larbert station, at the barracks of the Royal Scots in Leith, at Rosebank Cemetery in Edinburgh, and in churches in Leith and Gretna, while the son of a survivor will lay a wreath at Quintinshill itself. Thanks to electrification trains now rush past this spot at 100 mph making it difficult to catch sight of the Quintinshill name board beside the track. There will be military parades in Gretna and Edinburgh. No list of the names of those killed has been erected anywhere until now but a Roll of Honour is to be unveiled on 22 May in Gretna Old Parish Church with the entire community, including children, involved. A tree will be planted close to the War Memorial and a specially written poem commemorating the disaster will be read.