Salisbury train crash caused by wet leaves and unprepared driver, report finds

The crash caused four train carriages to derail and left 14 people in need of hospital treatment. Credit: RAIB

A serious train crash happened when wet leaves meant a train could not stop in time for a red signal after its driver braked too late for the conditions, inspectors have found.

The South Western Railway (SWR) and Great Western Railway (GWR) collided at Fisherton Tunnel, near Salisbury, in October 2021.

The crash left 14 people in need of hospital treatment. Two people - including the SWR driver - suffered serious injuries. Ten passengers were treated for minor injures at the scene.

A report from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) says the SWR train driver had not been effectively prepared to deal with conditions caused by leaves on the line, which caused the crash.

Investigators listed Network Rail's failure to effectively manage risks associated with leaves coming down in autumn as a probable factor in the crash.

The final report also revealed a potentially much more serious crash involving an earlier train travelling in the opposite direction was "avoided by less than a minute".

SWR has since changed its driver training and Network Rail has updated how it manages autumn leaves.

Two people were seriously injured in the incident. Credit: RAIB

The driver of the SWR train said he "immediately felt" something was wrong after braking on the approach to a red signal near Salisbury.

He told investigators he could feel the wheels sliding under his seat. When he realised there was little he could do to stop the crash, he got out of his seat to try to exit the cab but tripped over his bag and fell to the floor.

The train then careered into the back of the GWR train at around 54mph. The GWR train was travelling at around 20mph at the point of impact and both trains continued a significant distance into the tunnel before coming to a stop.

The SWR driver was left trapped inside the cab with serious injuries and had to be cut free by fire crews. He spent three weeks in hospital.

Evacuation routes blocked by 'jammed' doors

People on the train were seen on CCTV trying to open jammed doors using their hands. Credit: RAIB

Investigators discovered three of the train's doors became jammed which blocked evacuation routes. It also meant train staff could not get to some carriages to help passengers.

CCTV from the train captured people trying to prize the doors open using their bare hands.

The report says that while no injuries occurred because of the doors being jammed, blocking escape routes is "undesirable" and could have resulted in passengers "panicking" or hurting themselves by trying to find an alternative way out.

Chief inspector for the RAIB Andrew Hall described the crash as a "very serious accident".

He added: “The phrase 'leaves on the line’ may cause some to smile. But the risks associated with leaves being crushed onto the top of rails by the pressure of trains’ wheels, resulting in a slippery layer, is very real and long known.

"As with many accidents, this one resulted from a combination of many different circumstances coming together, both in the time before the accident and on the day. As a result, the barriers put in place to avoid this type of event did not work effectively.

“Accidents like this are thankfully very rare, but it is vital that we learn the lessons when things do go wrong. Along with action already taken by industry, the 10 recommendations we have made today will minimise the chances of an accident like this happening again.”

The driver had to be cut free of the cab of the train. Credit: RAIB

Network Rail's Wessex route director Mark Killick added: “The incident at Salisbury nearly two years ago will live long in our memory and our thoughts remain with those customers and colleagues involved in this accident.

“We welcome the RAIB report and accept its recommendations. We have been working closely with RAIB over the past two years to implement a number of responses following the initial findings and our own internal investigation, to make improvements in the way we manage the risk of poor rail adhesion during Autumn.

“Autumn is the railway’s most challenging season and we work closely with our industry partners to keep trains running safely and reliably.

"Ahead of last Autumn, we utilised train mounted high-definition cameras to complement the efforts of our fleet of specialist autumn leaf busting trains, and this year are also testing the use of drones to enhance our rail head leaf fall inspections.”

SWR managing director Claire Mann said the safety of its customers and staff is its "number one priority".

She added: "The incident was a stark reminder of the challenges autumn poses to the railway and we continue to work closely with Network Rail and the wider industry to learn the lessons, continuously improve and reduce the risk of it happening again."