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Sevenoaks Accident

Some occurences in life are described after the event as having been "avoidable", and some as having been "an accident waiting to happen". The accident that happened at Sevenoaks on 24 August 1927 was certainly both of those!

The story of events leading up to the accident can be traced back in time ten years to 1917 when the SE&CR introduced the first of the K class tanks, a large 2-6-4T number 790, for handling their express services. Strangely enough, no more were built for some eight years, until well after the formation of the Southern Railway. This prototype was thoroughly tested and was quite successful, though suffered from water shortage on the longer Kent Coast runs. The clock now moves forward to 1925 when the Southern Railway ordered a further 19, numbered A791 to A809, nine to be built by Armstrong Whitworth & Co and ten by themselves at Brighton. One further locomotive was ordered, a three cylinder version called class K1 and numbered A890, which was built at Ashford in December of that year. The Southern Railway gave all 21 locomotives names, taking their inspiration from various rivers. In service the locos proved quite unpopular with loco crews as, having large 6' diameter wheels they had a high centre of gravity for a tank engine and tended to roll dramatically when running at speeds in excess of 50 m.p.h. For a while the first batch of locos was sent to work on the Central section where they performed very successfully, but as soon as they returned to ex-SE&CR metals, which were in a poor state of repair, all the problems of rolling returned. Rolling wasn't the only problem, either. In March 1927 the three cylinder A890 had derailed at Wrotham and in August A800 did the same at Maidstone. Again in August, just four days before the Sevenoaks accident, A890 and its whole train came off the rails near Bearsted, though fortunately no-one was hurt due to the low speed of the train at the time of the derailment. One other incident prior to Sevenoaks happened when one of the tanks derailed at speed, but then rerailed itself!

Now we move on to another contributing factor - the weather. 1927 was an exceptionally wet year with all the problems that entails for the maintenance of the track. 24 August was no exception, there were three heavy storms in the London area whilst in Kent it rained hard all morning, though ceased raining around 2 pm. At 5 pm A800, River Cray, left Cannon Street in charge of the Minster via Deal train consisting of eight coaches including the Pullman car Carmen. The driver knew all about the "Rolling Rivers" and breasted Knockholt summit at about 35 m.p.h. as he was anxious to keep the speed down for the four mile descent to Dunton Green, although despite this he kept his regulator open. His concern was due to the track at Dunton Green being a well known place for the Rivers to roll where a set of trailing points could start the motion. This is what happened on this particular day, worsening as the train crossed the floor of the Darent valley. Next thing that happened was the crew heard a knocking sound as the nearside front driving wheel mounted the rail and dropped down the other side, the noise being that of the wheel hitting the rail chairs. Driver Buss immediately closed his regulator and, when the knocking continued, applied his brakes as well, just where the gradient changes to 1 in 160 up and enters a cutting which, unfortunately, has an overbridge with a central supporting pier between the tracks. Without this all may have been well, but the by now wildly rolling engine struck the bridge with both sides, the left hand cylinder and front corner hitting the abutment and the right hand side of the cab hitting the central pier. River Cray continued for another 100 yards, taking the first three coaches with it, until it came to rest leaning against the side of the cutting. The fourth coach was crushed under the bridge and the Pullman car hit the central pier broadside on. Thirteen passengers were killed. The Driver escaped with cuts and bruises whilst the Fireman was unconscious for two days.

The really strange thing about the accident was that it was the leading driving wheels that came off the road, not the Bissel truck that carried the first pair of wheels!

What was the cause? Was it the locomotive? Was it the state of the track? The Southern's knee-jerk reaction was not to wait for the result of the accident enquiry but to withdraw all the engines which, subsequently, were rebuilt as far more stable 2-6-0 tender engines.

But were they correct to point the finger of blame at the locomotive? The class had, after all, behaved faultlessly on the Central section where the track was maintained to a far better standard. Should they not have turned their attention to the track instead? Shouldn't Maunsell, the locomotives' designer and the CME, have known that the locomotives were not suitable for the poorly maintained track? It was no secret that tank engines were inherently less stable at speed than tender engines with the water sloshing around in their tanks, despite baffles, and lacking the weight of a tender which adds stability to an engine. None of these questions seems to have been addresed at the time, and now it is far too late. However, one good thing that came of it all was they the joined family of Southern Railway moguls that performed so well for many years and were only withdrawn due to the disposal of steam engines policy in the 1960s. The K class became the U class and the solitary K1 became the prototype U1.

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This page was created 25 November 2003

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