Sixty years ago a train plunged into Kirkcaldy harbour basin. William Miller, the fireman on board, recalls the events that lead to the accident ...
On November 13 in 1954, a 35-tonne locomotive with 13 waggons careered out of control smashing into the concrete barrier and plunging into the 10 ft deep icy water of Kirkcaldy’s harbour basin.
Driver James Adamson jumped clear seconds before the the crash but fireman William Miller was thrown from the engine landing on the stone steps of the East pier suffering a fractured skull.
Today William (81) remembers what he believes was his lucky escape like it was yesterday.
“I was only a young lad of 21 at the time and I wasn’t even supposed to be on that route in the first place!” he said.
“As the relief worker, I was asked to go as the fireman scheduled for that shift hadn’t turned up. It was just pure chance that I happened to be on that train on that day.”
The locomotive left Thornton and on reaching the track heading down towards the harbour, the engine sped down the steep gradient track at an alarming rate.
“As soon as we came to the Hutchinson’s flour mill, I knew that we were going to crash,” William continued.
The driver, who was on the path side, jumped clear to safety but William was faced with a catch 22 situation.
“I can’t swim!” he said. “So there was no way that I could’ve jumped into the sea. I was thrown on to the steps and narrowly missed getting hit by the concrete block as it rolled back down the steps.
“I was taken to Kirkcaldy Hospital at around 9.00 a.m - just over an hour after I started my shift!”
An investigation into the crash revealed that the train was overloaded stopping the brakes from functioning efficiently.
Three engines were deployed from Glasgow to help pull the train from the water - a task that took three hours.
“The harbour at the time was used to deliver grain and flour to Hutchison’s and cork to Nairns linoleum factory. But because of the crash, no ships could get in or out that weekend,” William said.
Following in his father footsteps in to life on the railways, William’s accident hasn’t dispelled his passion for trains.
“I started cleaning the engines before reaching the age of being able to actually work on the trains.
‘‘I lost some confidence after my accident.
“But you can have many jobs throughout your life and there will always be the railways.”
Grain, paper & potatoes spilled over the track
The accident in 1954 wasn’t the first time that a train had crashed in to the water at Kirkcaldy Harbour.
For the second time in 53 years, in April 1901, a train ended up in the harbour basin.
A goods locomotive with 15 waggons filled with produce was travelling along the branch line towards the harbour when the driver suddenly lost control.
With the locomotive speeding out of control, he had no way of stopping the train in time before it plunged straight into the safety barrier.
Smashing into the concrete block at the end of the track, the engine and three waggons were thrown over the quay at the East pier and into the freezing water of the harbour basin.
Luckily, the driver was able to leap free from the train just minutes before it hit the barrier.
He escaped without any serious injuries although he was taken to hospital as a precaution.
The last few feet of the track was left torn up and the waggons that didn’t land in the sea ere left piled on top of one another in a heap of broken wood, wheels, and ruined produce.
They had been loaded with goods coming from London including grain, potatoes and paper which spilt out over the tracks.
A large steam crane had been sought from Glasgow to help raise the engine and the waggons.
Following an investigation, it was found that not only was the train travelling too fast to be able to stop in time, due to the sloping of the track leading towards the harbour, the brakes also failed.
Put together with the bad weather over the previous few days, the tracks were slippy adding to the speed of the train.