Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A Williamsburg tragedy, a century-old disaster - and why crashes don't reflect the law of averages

When I was a regular traveller on the West Coast Main Line, the UK’s busiest long-distance rail route, I would keep a careful lookout for the two loops of track either side of the line just north of the England-Scotland border. They marked, I would tell more or less interested travelling companions, the site of the UK’s worst-ever rail disaster.
A lesson in negligence: a carriage burns at Quintinshill.
Photo: Illustrated London News

On May 22, 1915, a mistake by signallers led a southbound troop train to collide at Quintinshill, in Dumfriesshire, with a stationary northbound local stopping train that had been shunted into its path. A northbound express train, which the local train had been moved aside to let pass, then collided with the wreckage. The crash and a fire on the troop train – whose carriages were wooden and lit by gas lamps – killed an estimated 226 people. The burning of the soldiers’ regimental roll in the fire means the death toll has never been precisely known.

The disaster has been in my mind the last few days because of a debate following a crash in Williamsburg, not far from where I currently live in Brooklyn. On Friday morning, a bus driver negotiating a corner apparently drove through a crosswalk as Jiahuan Xu, a 15-year-old girl, was crossing with the right of way. The bus hit her and trapped her leg, which she’s likely to lose. The driver has been charged under road safety legislation passed last year with hitting a pedestrian who had right of way in a crosswalk.
A New York City bus: this one isn't being badly driven -
but that doesn't mean it should be above the law

The incident is linked in my mind with the far more serious incident at Quintinshill because it was through reading about the rail disaster as a child that I first encountered the idea someone might face criminal charges for negligence at work. The Scottish courts in 1915 jailed both George Meakin and James Tinsley, the two signallers whose negligence led to the crash, for culpable homicide – manslaughter, in English legal terms, negligent homicide, in US parlance – and breach of duty.

I've been surprised, nearly 100 years on, to find that neither New York’s main transport union nor a group of city council members seems fully to support a principle to which I'd assumed pretty much everyone assented.

Last Thursday, the council members - Daneek Miller, Peter Koo and Donovan Richards – introduced an amendment to New York’s right-of-way legislation – introduced only last year - to exempt bus drivers. Reginald Prescott, another bus driver, in December became one of the first people charged under the law after he killed Jean Bonne-Annee with his bus in East Flatbush.

"Your choices behind the wheel matter": a message that,
100 years after Quintinshill, shouldn't need spelling out -
but clearly does.
Then, on Friday, John Samuelson, president of the Transport Workers’ Union Local 100, protested after the arrest of Francisco de Jesus, the driver who hit Jiahuan Xu, that his members had a difficult job and it was unreasonable to hold them accountable.

“To arrest an operator for an unintentional accident is really just absolutely outrageous, illogical and anti-worker,” Samuelson said.

Samuelson’s view probably reflects many people’s feelings about prosecutions for dangerous driving. In the UK, juries are notably reluctant to convict drivers – probably on the grounds that they feel just such an incident could easily befall them. In November, Cyrus Vance, district attorney for Manhattan, explained his failure to bring more than a handful of prosecutions over road deaths to their being “accidents,” not results of criminal negligence.

“What should be criminal and what shouldn’t be criminal is obviously subject to very subjective and emotional reactions,” Vance told Aaron Naparstek, a safe streets activist, at an event in November

A rescue locomotive prepares to haul a train at Crewe, on the
modern West Coast Main Line. Such operations are far more
safely performed nowadays, thanks to the lessons of past
disasters such as Quintinshill.
Nevertheless, the principle that negligence can be criminal seems to me pretty clear from the Quintinshill case. The mistakes started with an unacceptable piece of risk-taking. To save themselves a mile-and-a-half walk from Gretna, the nearest station, the signalmen would occasionally, when starting work at 6am, take a local train to Quintinshill and get out as it was being shunted out of the way of the express. Because the train arrived around 6.30am, whichever of the men had been working overnight would write down train movements after 6am on a scrap of paper. The new man would write them in the official logbook in his own handwriting, to disguise the late start.

On the morning of the disaster, the filling in of the logbook so distracted the men that they forgot to place locks on the appropriate signal levers to remind them the local train was blocking the main line and prevent their letting a train onto the track. They also neglected to warn the next signalbox north that the main line was obstructed. One of them, forgetting about the local train’s presence, then accepted from the next signal box north the southbound troop train, setting off the calamitous sequence of crashes.

Meakin and Tinsley must have safely accepted trains from neighbouring signalboxes hundreds of times. They had no more intention that morning of causing a catastrophe than any of Mr Samuelson's members ever does. It is certainly true that the Caledonian Railway could have fitted better safety equipment at Quintinshill. The fire would probably have been less serious if the carriages had not been wooden and gaslit. The fireman of the halted local train was meant to check the proper safeguards were in place but failed to do so. 
My bike in Prospect Park: I'm very unlikely to kill or main
someone else while riding it. But I recognise my moral
obligation to exercise due care.

Yet, even as an 11-year-old, I came to realise after some initial reluctance that the men’s attitude was so cavalier as to be criminally culpable. Tinsley was sentenced to three years’ hard labour in prison, while Meakin was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. No mysterious force prompted the signallers to make their errors. They acted with casual disregard for their responsibility for the fates of the hundreds of people moving about on trains around them.

Bus drivers, thank goodness, have never unleashed a catastrophe on the scale of Quintinshill and are unlikely ever to do so. Few probably make a string of decisions as poor as those of the Quintinshill signal workers. But they have just as sure an obligation to move their buses only when it is safe to do so as James Tinsley had an obligation to accept a southbound train only if the track was clear. Although Nicole Gelinas, a transport expert, has since put a kinder construction on events, initial accounts suggested de Jesus was turning fast through the crosswalk when he struck Jiahuan.

It was no more inevitable that the bus would move through the crosswalk that than that someone at Quintinshill would ring the bell to tell the neighbouring signalbox to allow the troop train to proceed. His union insists that de Jesus had a good safety record. That may well be true – but I on my bicycle, drivers in their motor vehicles and anyone whose actions could harm another has a responsibility to exercise reasonable care every single time.

Bus drivers in New York City have difficult, complicated jobs. But it is symptomatic of many drivers’ faulty assessment of the causes of street dangers that John Samuelson, president of Transport Workers’ Union Local 100, complains the police aren’t getting pedestrians out of his members’ way. That assessment flies in the face of the multiple pieces of research that show drivers cause the big majority of crashes between motor vehicles and pedestrians and cyclists, not the other way round.

The outcome of a driver's negligence in Inwood - or, if you're a
member of Transport Workers' Union Local 100, a
statistical inevitability
"They navigate incredibly difficult streets loaded with pedestrians, and they do this without any enforcement on the pedestrian end of things,” Samuelsen told the New York Times.

Another union representative, JP Patafio, portrayed bus drivers as nearly helpless victims of circumstance on the roads. That view is hard to square with the fact that, according to Transportation Alternatives, the pressure group, eight of the nine pedestrians who died under New York City buses last year were hit when in crosswalks, crossing with the light.

“We drive for a living on the busiest streets in America,” Patafio told the New York Daily News. “The law of averages has it we’re going to get into an accident.”

This is not, of course, to say that transport workers are automatically to blame whenever there is a crash. The High Court in Edinburgh acquitted George Hutchinson, fireman of the local train at Quintinshill, of culpable homicide and breach of duty on the grounds that he bore relatively little of the blame for the incident. Bus drivers are frequently involved in crashes for which they’re not responsible. Perhaps, as Nicole Gelinas suggests, de Jesus will be acquitted. Drivers should expect public sympathy and gratitude after being involved in incidents they did not cause, not blame.

There are also many different degrees of negligence - and it may well be that de Jesus, if he was negligent, was guilty of only a momentary lapse. Negligence, meanwhile, lies at the lower end of a scale of motor vehicle misuse that runs from inattention, to recklessness and can stray into acts most people would regard as terrorism.

But it is a piece of the purest cynicism – reminiscent of that of Ray Kelly, the former NYPD commissioner, who suggested “accidents” were inevitable – to suggest crashes are an immutable fact of life. The evidence from everywhere that has made a systematic effort to improve transport safety is that dramatic improvements have been possible. On the UK railways, for example, there has been only one passenger fatality in an incident caused by the rail system since 2002. The UK’s speed camera programme and other improvements helped sharply to reduce the number of road deaths before politicians grew nervous of continuing with it. Scores more people in the UK are leading productive lives and enjoying their families’ company than would be doing so if rail safety regulators or local authorities had shrugged and accepted the “law of averages”.
A sign seeking to improve safety on a road in The Wirral,
north-west England - defying the inevitable,
if one's Ray Kelly or a TWU leader

It also makes a mockery of the conscientious efforts of careful bus drivers, rail workers and ordinary citizens who act safely to pretend that the actions of the negligent are inevitable.

The highest stakes, after all, are not those that confronted Meakin and Tinsley – who both went on to live until after the second world war – or de Jesus, whose right-of-way charge carries only a $250 fine. They are those confronting the passengers, pedestrians and others whose bodies are at risk of mangling beneath or inside negligently-operated trains, cars and buses.

The consequences can be out of all proportion to the sometimes momentary negligence responsible. At Quintinshill, the soldiers of the Royal Scots, trapped in the wreckage and burning alive, are said to have begged their officers to shoot them to ensure a less painful death. On the street in Williamsburg, meanwhile, Jiahuan Xu grasped the hand of her father who came to comfort her and spoke to him in Chinese.

“She grabbed my hand and said, ‘Dad I felt pieces of my ripped up leg,’” her father, Jingxiang Xu, told CBS News.


  1. One thing that always strikes me is the whole "us vs. them" attitude of TWU 100 leaders. In European or Canadian cities I have always seen the transit unions acting in solidarity with the people of the city. "We are with the people fighting the government for decent funding and service" is the attitude that I consistently see in those cities.

    But not in New York.

    1. Kevin,

      Thanks for your comment. The joke has obviously been to suggest that the TWU is taking advice on appealing to the city's people from the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. Both seem thoroughly suspicious of the people around them in the city, to an almost paranoid extent.

      Last Thursday night, I encountered a very aggressive bus driver as I cycled home. He kept pulling out into my path as I rode home. The TWU's statements have made me think that such drivers are simply furious with the presumption of people such as cyclists at trying to share the roads with them and determined to give them no quarter.

      All the best,


    2. Their war on Paul Steely-White is especially nuts in light of TA's activism in favor of BRT, which would both simplify the street environment bus drivers have to operate in, as well as lead to more, better-respected bus driving jobs.

    3. What is really disturbing is that I am used to union leaders being on the forefront of advocating for safety. Safety for their members and for the public.

      Can one imagine the leader of a miner's union saying, "Mine accidents have always happened and always will. If someone is a miner long enough the law of averages will catch up with him."

      Ridiculous, isn't it? No miner's union leader would ever say such a thing.

      What I would like to see in New York is a transit workers' union that has not only a "safety first" attitude, unlike the bus driver you encountered. But also one that considers itself to be the people of the city.

      It is very informative to compare the TWU Local 100 website, at:


      With Toronto's ATU Local 113 website at:


      The Toronto union's different attitude starts with their website name and continues with their comprehensive plan to improve transit in Toronto. Something that is entirely missing from TWU Local 100.

      And I love their report. And their video! We are the people who build, maintain and operate the system that belongs to all of the people. We too are frustrated at the lack of government investment that results in delays. Here is our plan to make things better. Yes, this will result in more union jobs. And that is a good thing because we believe that everyone should have a good job.

    4. Alan,

      Thanks for your comment. I was astonished to see their going after Paul Steely White in the unpleasant way they did. You are quite right that organisations like Transportation Alternatives (of which I'm a member) are some of the best friends transport workers could have. Their intemperate, personal attack on him will achieve nothing.

      All the best,


    5. Kevin,

      The Toronto Transit Workers sound a significantly more switched-on bunch than the TWU.

      All the best,


  2. Happily, most transit drivers have a more enlightened attitude.

    1. Steve,

      As you may remember, my father was a professional engineer all his adult life on transit systems, so I have no animus at all against bus drivers as a group at all. It is just very unfortunate that this group seems hell-bend on confrontation with the people of their own city.

      It's a pity because I like to take buses and trains when I can't cycle and I've had many positive experiences with staff.

      All the best,


    2. One of my sisters drives a bus in Seattle. Mostly, she rides her bike to work.

    3. Steve,

      I'm sure your sister is an excellent driver and could teach the members of TWU Local 100 a thing or two about driving around vulnerable road users.

      All the best,


  3. In the UK there is the Rail Accident Investigation Branch and Air Accident Investigation Branch and they investigate incidents and near misses to determine what actually went wrong in order to improve safety, not to determine blame and liability. I think the legal authorities will step in depending on their findings.

    I'm not aware of any independent Road Accident Investigation Branch in the UK so it all gets caught up with the police, blame and liability straight away and there doesn't appear to be any mechanism to actually improve safety.

    Prosecuting a bus driver, banning him from driving and possibly other legal sanctions may be appropriate, but how much will this actually improve safety?

    1. Michael,

      Thanks for the comment - and sorry to have left it in the "awaiting moderation" queue for so long.

      I wrote a while ago about the contrast between how rail and road crashes are investigated and how the risks are managed: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-crash-on-brixton-road-backsliding-on.html The bottom line is that operator error seems to be regarded on roads as something inevitable that can't be eliminated. In other modes, it's regarded as a risk to be managed and reduced. At Quintinshill, there were, it seems to me, clearly systemic failings - but there was negligence that fully warranted the prosecution. The criminal law is the only current means of holding drivers accountable for their actions. There are many things to be done to reduce the risks of failures to yield in New York City. But I think the criminal law has a valid part to play.

      All the best,


  4. BRT = more buses driving more quickly + priority at intersections. Can't wait.

    1. Anonymous,

      I can understand that faster buses might have a downside. But we can only hope that bus drivers using proper dedicated lanes might drive more predictably and safely. It's hardly as if the current arrangements are working well.

      All the best,


  5. It was the 31 deaths at Ladbroke Grove and Lord Cullen who said enough is enough - up to then the rail industry had accepted an annual passenger death toll running in double figures, just for slam door 'incidents'

    He got CIRAS applied across the rail industry to capture the safety issues that slipped past the internal regimes, and it works. He got RAIB created and it works -

    CIRAS is now offered tio bus and other road transport operators, many can sign up at no exta cost as they already pay the levy for a rail operation.

    A Highways AIB is trickier - it should replace Section 39.3.a where the roads authority is mandated to investigate crashes but the in 39.3.b they are told to tell themselves what needs to be done to stop future crashes. Inherently flawed legislation with minimal guidance from DfT on delivery and almost always requiring an FoI request to get a minimal response.

    CIRAS is not funded by government, and shows a model by which we might also deliver HAIB and even a road regulator, robustly immune from any future bonfire of the quangos.

    Feel free to use me as a conduit to develop the way of delivering this - crowdfunding is a starting point, but longer term sustainability might come from a levy on all road users, and possible an enhanced level on those who use the roads for a commercial return (ie LGV, PCV, taxis, courier vans etc)

    The tide is turning, the special case of killing with a motor vehicle - why should this be 'sanitised' as "causing death by.... " when killing with careless or deliberate abuse of any other piece of equipment attracts a single basic charge of manslaughter (this would eliminate the distress and delay of debating the choice of careless or dangerous driving in the UK

    It is clear that in NYC you need the rigour of a TSB quality of crash investigation, whilst at the same time a certainty that the driver violating the law will be charge with manslaughter, and the Court being the place where the degree of carelessness, or even intent in the way the vehicle was being driven are determined.

    Charge all with manslaughter, but the Court then has the options to recognise genuine errors, against pooer driving, and ultimately intention use of the vehicle as a weapon, all within one basic and simple initial charge

    1. Dave H,

      As you'll see in the hyperlinks, I've looked in the past at the contrast between how road crashes are investigated and how incidents on rail and other modes of transport are regarded. There's a tolerance of operator error on the roads that's no longer regarded as appropriate on other modes.

      Unfortunately, the challenge at the moment in New York is to get the police to pay any attention at all to most crashes. The point of the Right of Way law is to create an offence that the police can prosecute in failure-to-yield cases. Given their reluctance to use the right-of-way law and the fuss over its application to bus drivers, we're a long way from seeing automatic manslaughter prosecutions for every fatal crash, I think.

      All the best,



Please feel free to leave civilised comments - positive or negative - here. I'll try to reply too.

Abusive comments will be moderated out and won't appear.