February 28

This Day in History

Disaster

Feb 28, 1975:

Subway crash in London kills 43

On this day in 1975, a subway crash in London kills 43 people. The driver of the train apparently made no effort to brake as the train headed toward a dead end. The reason for his inaction remains a mystery.

The southbound Northern City Line train was making its usual run into the Moorgate tube station before 9 a.m. It had left Drayton Park a few minutes earlier carrying commuters heading to their jobs in London. Though the line ended at the Moorgate station, the train did not slow as it passed the platforms. Instead, witnesses said it appeared to be accelerating. Past the end of the platforms, the rails headed toward an overrun tunnel, which was followed by a sand pit and a small water buffer. The train headed straight through the tunnel, pit and buffer, and directly into a brick wall at the end of the tunnel.

Rescue efforts were extremely difficult as the most seriously injured passengers were riding in the front two, most inaccessible, cars. It took 12 hours before the final survivor was freed and nearly five days until the authorities reached the front cab and the body of the driver, 56-year-old Les Newson. After investigators found no indication of a mechanical failure, they began to focus the inquiry on Newson.

The delay in reaching Newson's body made it nearly impossible to assess whether or not he had used alcohol before or while driving the train, but there were no signs of drug use. Newson was found with the device for braking in his hand, but there was no evidence that he had tried to use it, leading to some speculation that the crash was a suicide. Investigators at the time did not find this theory compelling, in part because Newson had 300 pounds in his pocket that was to be used to buy a car for his daughter later that day. Other speculation is that he was paralyzed by some sort of seizure or simply let his attention wander at the wrong time. No definitive conclusion was ever reached. Thirty years after the fact, however, a son of one of the victims made a documentary renewing the case for suicide.

Following this disaster, the London Underground installed an automatic braking system in end-of-the-line locations.

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