On This Day in History – The Reading Train Crash

On 6th November 2004 the 17:35 Paddington to Penzance train was derailed when it struck a parked car on a level crossing at Ufton Nervet, near Reading.  Tragically the car driver, train driver and four passengers died at the scene; whilst another passenger died a few hours later in hospital.  Fortunately though, this was the last in the long series of mass-casualty incidents on UK railways going back twenty years; indeed the Stonehaven derailment earlier this year, with three fatalities, is the worst incident since then.

Firstly I should like to discuss the lessons identified from the crash for major incident planning; in doing this I am indebted to three members of staff at the Royal Berkshire Hospital for a detailed analysis of casualties published in  the Emergency Medicine Journal in 2006.  As previously stated, six people died at the scene; 61 casualties were taken to the Royal Berkshire Hospital and a further nine to Basingstoke Hospital.  Of the 61 taken to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, 45 were treated as minor injuries and 16 were admitted (one of whom subsequently died).  What is striking from these figures is how closely if fits the old 1/3:2/3 rule that was (maybe still is) used in the military.  Applying that rule you would expect that 2/3 of the total casualties (roughly 52) would be “walking wounded” and, of the remaining 25, 2/3 (roughly 16) would be seriously injured and the remaining 1/3 (roughly 8) fatalities.  It is probably just a fluke, but it is interesting that a rule-of-thumb developed on the battlefield predicts the breakdown so accurately.  More importantly though, the authors of the article propose mandatory reporting of such data following all major incidents in order to share learning and inform better MI planning; it is not know if this has been adopted.

Secondly I wanted to look at the crash from the perspective of risk management.  The safety of level crossings remains a controversial issue in the UK, with collisions with road vehicles still running at around six per year and trains striking pedestrians at a similar level (including two fatalities in the last reporting year).  Many crossings have been closed or replaced in recent years but, ten years after the Reading train crash (during which time there were another four fatalities), the Ufton Nervet level crossing was still open.  Finally, in December 2016 the crossing was replaced with a bridge, at a reported cost of £7m.