100 years since disaster on Burntisland railway

A photo montage of the accident produced at the time. Supplied by John McDonald
A photo montage of the accident produced at the time. Supplied by John McDonald

Monday, April 14 marks the 100 year anniversary of a tragic railway accident which took place at Burntisland.

At 4.50 a.m. on that date in 1914, the 3.55 a.m. Edinburgh to Aberdeen (overnight express from London), collided with a Carlise to Dundee goods train which was being shunted from the main line into the goods yard to allow the express to pass.

All but the engine was clear of the main line when the express, travelling at under 40 mph, struck the goods engine.

The impact lifted the goods train, which remained on the rails, throwing the engine and tender of the express, which was of the Atlantic type and weighed 112 tons, over the four foot embankment on to the Links, derailing the leading coaches and three luggage vans.

One of the leading coaches caught fire but the forethought and quick thinking of guard William Trotter extinguished the flames before the disaster could become any worse.

As it was, the driver of the express, John Dickson, and his fireman, William McDonald, were killed in the incident after being pinned under the wreckage, while 12 passengers were injured, four seriously, though all made full recoveries.

Four of the eight coaches were extensively damaged beyond repair.

At that time, there were two signal boxes at Burntisland - Burntisland Junction, which was on the station side of the Lammerlaws Bridge, and Burntisland East, which was at the underbridge near the present leisure centre.

The former was closed in 1936 and the East signal box, renamed Burntisland Junction, was closed in 1979, in connection with the Edinburgh signalling centre taking control of the route.

The subsequent inquiry into the incident concluded that the accident had been caused by a signalling operational error.

The Fife Free Press of April 18, 1914 reported that there had not been such a tragic occurrence on Scotland’s railways since the Elliot Junction catastrophe during a blizzard in December eight years previous.

However, the report came to this conclusion:

“When we keep in view the immense number of people who travel by rail each day and each hour of the day, we are forced to the conclusion that there is far less danger on our railways than on our streets, where, in view of the ever increasing number of motor vehicles, and the danger that lurks at almost every turn, one must walk warily to keep free from danger.”