50 injured as two trains collide near new £130m signalling centre
by Michael Hornsell and Michael Bailey
British Rail and the Department of Transport were trying last night to establish the cause of a collision between two trains on the main line between London and Brighton, near a £130 million signalling centre opened in January.
Southern Region of British Rail said that there had been no signal failure, which leaves three possible causes of the accident: brake failure on one of the trains, and error by one of the drivers or an error by a signalman.
About 50 people were treated in hospital after the collision and 13 were detained last night with head, neck and leg injuries. The drivers of both trains were treated for shock.
The accident occurred at Copyhold Junction, about a mile from Haywards Heath, West Sussex.
Both trains, the 1am from Victoria to Brighton and the 1.35am on the reverse journey, were travelling at 15mph on a straight length of track on the same London-bound line.
It is believed that the two drivers realised they were heading for a collision had braked, although there is a question mark about the efficiency of the braking system on one of the trains, which is also to be examined by investigators.
Experts conducting the inquiry were concentrating their attention on the new signalling centre at Three Bridges nearby, which has replaced 110 signal boxes along 280 miles of track on Southern Region and which covers 564 points and 715 signals. They want to know why the new signalling system had not prevented the crash.
Driver error appears to have been unlikely. Each train has an automatic alarm set off by magnets in the track if a train goes through a red light and the train brakes automatically if the alarm is not cancelled.
A near-normal service was being run yesterday after British Rail had towed away the two trains, neither of which had been derailed. Some of the carriages in four-coach the trains were slightly buckled.
Many of the total of 65 passengers involved were on the Brighton Victoria train after attending a Guy Fawkes celebration at Lewes.
Rescuers, who used emergency lighting, were hampered by the inaccessibility of the crash scene.
The emergency services which included six ambulances, were forced to carry stretchers 600 yards across fields and through the garden of a cottage to a steep embankment above the scene. Passengers waited for more than an hour in darkness to be rescued.
They were taken to Cuckfield Hospital, designated as an emergency accident hospital where teams of medical and 'nursing staff were on stand-by.
Those detained, two of whom were children, included nine with head or neck injuries and two with broken legs. Several people were also treated for facial injuries. Those with head injuries underwent two-hourly neurological checks but none were said to be in a serious condition.
Nineteen people who escaped injury were taken to Haywards Heath police station and then home by taxi.
The injuries were caused by passengers being thrown from their seats in carriages which were littered with broken glass upon impact.
Mr Alan Place, the hospital administrator, said: "There was a delay in getting to the scene because ambulances couldn't get there. We had a constant stream of injured people for about two hours.
"Fortunately, the speed of the impact wasn't as great as it might have been because I understand the drivers had time to brake. That meant we were incredibly lucky and the nature of the injuries wasn't more serious."
The two injured children, Mark Packham, aged nine, and his sister. Tracey, aged seven. received head injuries but were said to be "comfortable" last night.
They had caught the train at Gatwick airport to return home to Brighton after returning with their parents from a two-week holiday at Disney World in the United States.
The Times 7 November 1985
See earlier Copyhold rail accident 1841: Early local rail accident
Artwork by the contributor.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.