The Great Heck Train Crash

On the morning of February 28 2001 I was woken by my mum sometime before seven o'clock who said "Paul, there has been a train crash on the East Coast Main Line near Selby". When you are awakened suddenly, there is often a period of disorientation before you realise what is going on, but I was awake instantly and running downstairs within seconds to watch the TV.

At the time, I worked for Westinghouse Rail Systems, and we were working on a major resignalling project in the south east of the country know as WARM - the West Anglia Resignalling Project. The project was based in Stratford in the east end of London, but our offices were in York. For those of us involved in the project, the 06:00 from York to London Kings Cross was the train to catch to make sure that we could be in Stratford for 08:30. This is why I was so anxious, and so quickly alert - did the crash affect any of my friends?

As soon as I could get through to our offices, I asked our Team Organiser, Christine "Were any of our people on that train?". "No", she answered, "we are sure that no-one was on board". This came as a great relief because it was quickly becoming apparent that the crash was serious, and there was a real potential for a disaster. I spent the next few hours glued to the TV as more details emerged of what was soon apparent to be a major incident.

Then, something weird happened - one of those twists of fate that you can agonise over for years afterwards, but are no more than unusual coincidences. In my case, my mobile rang. It was Steve Reynolds, the Network Rail Project Director, and it turned out that, in fact, he hadn't meant to ring me at all, but had left his phone unlocked in his pocket, and my number was on a speed dial. I didn't get to it in time, so rang him back. "Hi Paul", he said, "are you ringing to ask about Alan? We don't know anything yet, apart from the fact that he was on the train". "What do you mean" I replied, "I was told that none of our people were involved? Steve then said "No, Alan was on board, he was coming to a meeting here in Stratford at 8:30". An icy chill descended upon me, and as soon as my call ended I rang Alan's mobile. No response. So I rang it again...........

Alan Frederick Ensor was a Senior Project Manager with Westinghouse Rail Systems. Following privatisation, our company didn't really have the financial acumen to deal in the world in which we found ourselves, and we quickly identified a need for experienced project managers who could deal with the demands of delivering major signalling projects to time and budget. Alan was the first such appointee, and he joined us just as we were tendering for the WARM project. His track record was formidable, and he was an obvious candidate.

He had been involved in the Thames Flood barrier, the Sellafield B Visitor's Centre, the dam at Petra in Jordan (Alan was in Iraq at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war) and many other high profile projects. He was just what our company needed - a hard man, but astute, and fair. He took me under his wing, and I became his assistant. I learned many things from him, and one episode springs to mind where he brought an under-performing sub-contractor into York to talk about their performance. For a solid hour he lambasted them and they had no defence. They were cringing and apologetic. At the end of the meeting Alan turned to the sheepish team and said "Right, who's coming for a pint?". They were aghast, and asked him how he could berate them for an hour and then go for a drink with them afterwards. "That was business", he replied, "but we are all men, and we need to work together as friends and colleagues". It was a lesson for all of us, and it really worked as performance and relationships improved immeasurably.

The day before the crash, Alan had been at Stratford. Knowing that he was going to to be in Stratford for an early meeting the nexy day, he expected to stay over. Unbeknown to all of us, however, it turned out to be Parent's Evening for Alan's children that night, so he returned to York to attend the school. He was a family man, and things like that were important to him, so he made the extra personal effort to get back, although it would add a significant amount of travel to his day. That was how Alan, instead of travelling the short distance to the Project Office, ended up on the 06:00 from York, and that was how he came to be killed on that terrible day along with nine other people.

So, What Happened at Great Heck?

The crash happened at about 06:13 on 28 February 2001. The 06:00 from York to Kings Cross was travelling at its maximum speed of 225 km/h (125 mph) just before it impacted with an obstruction on the East Coast main line. The obstruction was caused by a Landrover towing a trailer with a car on it which ran off the M62 motorway just before a bridge that crossed the East Coast main line. The vehicle ran down the embankment after leaving the motorway and ended up on the UP (southbound) line of the railway. The driver of the vehicle, Gary Hart, after trying without success to reverse the land Rover off the track, got out of the car and tried to call the emergency services on his mobile phone. As he was trying, the car was hit by the train travelling at high speed.  

  Intercity 225's of the type which made up the train have two similar looking driver's cars, one at each end of the train. One is a locomotive, and the other is a Driving Van Trailer - operationally there is no difference, but the DVT is lighter. In this case, the DVT was leading the train and, upon striking the land Rover, the front bogie of the DVT was derailed, but the train stayed upright pushing the landrover. As it ran forward, however, the train/car ran into some points at a nearby siding which then deflected the movement of the train, and pushed some of it outwards so that it then came into collision with a Freightliner train carrying coal from Immingam to Ferrybridge, and travelling in the opposite direction. At this point, the accident became catastrophic.

The DVT was almost completely destroyed, and the rest of the nine carriages that made up the Inter City 225 suffered damage that ranged from moderate to severe. With the exception of the trailing locomotive, nearly all the rest of the coaches overturned and slipped down the embankment, some coming to rest in the gardens of local residents. One of the First Class coaches was severed from the train completely and ended upside down in a field, such was the force of the impact. The freight train also suffered severe damage - the locomotive was derailed due to debris from the DVT which exploded its fuel tank. The loco then rolled over and sustained major damage. The first nine wagons of the freight train were also derailed.  

Devastation

The impact left a scene of total horror. 52 people were seriously injured, and a total of 10 people sadly lost their lives. The drivers of both trains, six passengers in the Intercity 225, and two staff on the 225 were those who died:

  • John Weddle (Driver of the IC 225)
  • Stephen Dunn (Driver of the Freightliner)
  • Raymond Robson (Train Guard on the IC 225)
  • Paul Taylor (Chef on the IC 225)
  • Steve Baldwin (Passenger on the IC 225)
  • Barry Needham (Passenger on the IC 225)
  • Robert Shakespeare (Passenger on the IC 225)
  • Christopher Terry (Passenger on the IC 225)
  • Clive Vigden (Passenger on the IC 225)

and

  • Alan Ensor (Passenger on the IC 225)


Because the impact was to all intents and purposes head on, the major damage occurred in the front part of the IC 225. It is usual that for trains travelling towards London, First Class is situated at the front of the train. Accordingly, the First Class coaches as well as the Restaurant/Buffet car bore the majority of the impact. It was usual for Alan when boarding the train at York to establish his seat in Standard Class, and then make his way to the Buffet Car after the train had left York to get his breakfast. It would not be unusual, therefore, for him to be in the vicinity of the Buffet Car when the accident happened.

 
Read the full ORR report into the crash

The Aftermath

The emergency services were quickly on the scene, and with them came the news crews. Helicopters meant that instant views were available for all to see (me included) which showed very quickly how serious it was. As well as emergency services, local clergy also went to offer assistance. The Rev Keith Dukes, vicar of Selby Abbey, who learned of the crash via his radio, drove to the scene and moved among the survivors offering comfort. He said: "I prayed with some people and just helped others. The survivors were numb with shock." Rev Canon Cyril Roberts also attended the crash site as soon as he heard what had happened. The church at Heck is within the Parish of Great Snaith, and Cyril knew that he would be needed. Both Cyril and Rev Dukes found a scene of utter devastation, but did all that they could do offer comfort and give more practical help. The church at Heck provided a space which could be utilised, and Cyril stayed as long as there was work to be done.

 

In time, a memorial garden was created, and a service held to bless the garden.

On the 10th anniversary of the crash, a special service was held at St Paul's in Hensall (the church at Heck is too small to accommodate the expected number of people who wanted to attend).

The Driver of the Landrover

The driver of the Land Rover, Gary Hart, was unhurt. An investigation revealed the likelihood that he had fallen asleep at the wheel of his car after he had stayed up the previous night talking to a woman he had met on an internet dating site. He was eventually convicted of causing death by dangerous driving, and was sentenced to five years imprisonment (of which he served half). I can remember feeling quite angry towards him at the time, especially when on the tenth anniversary of the crash he announced that his role in the crash was due to fate. I have now come to the conclusion, however, that he was just as much a victim as anyone else. There but for the grace of God.......  

The Role of the Telephone

The accident at Great Heck was one of the first disasters that featured prominently something that we all now take for granted - the mobile phone. Rev Roberts recalls the constant ringing of mobile phones as people checked on loved ones as one of the most harrowing features of the whole event. This was also something noted following the bomb attacks in London in 2005. As I mentioned in the first section, I was one of those calling. To even think about this is chilling.

As for Alan, we didn't know what had happened. It was obvious that he wasn't in a position to answer his phone, and we spent ages trying to find out what had happened. Victims of the crash were being taken to three different hospitals and there was much confusion. We knew, finally, when a WPC was stationed outside Alan's house.

The Memorial at Work

After the crash, we had a collection at work, and the company also contributed a sizeable amount. After consideration of various ideas, it was decided that we would commision a series of drawings representing Alan's life from the famous local artist, Alan Stuttle. Tragedy had also recently struck Alan as his daughter had been murdered whilst backpacking in Australia and, because of this, the commission took longer than would normally have been the case. Two copies were made, and the first was presented to Alan's wife. The second hangs in the "Alan Ensor" room at Saxby House in York as a fitting reminder of his loss.

In a different way, Alan's legacy bore fruit with the completion of the WARM Project after his death. It was largely due to his skills that the project was one of the most succesful contracts in the post-privatisation railway industry. He was influential not only within our company, but also in helping other members of the Alliance that delivered this £170m project. The words in the picture below sum it up perfectly:

 

Full Circle

I can't say that the crash at Great Heck didn't affect me - it did. Alan wasn't just a boss, he was a friend. I remember once when I was off work due to illness, and Alan had told me to turn my mobile off whilst I was not at work. One evening the phone rang at about 8:00pm and, recognising that it was Alan I answered saying "Hello boss". He replied "I told you to turn that bloody phone off." and hung up! He was very knowledgeable about many things, and had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the film "2001 - A Space Odyssey". We ended up knowing quite a bit about it as well as he had a habit of telling us all about it on long 4-hour car journeys when travelling back from Chippenham! I used to joke that one of the only reasons he kept me around was to buy his Kentucky Fried Chicken for him. Alan loved KFC, and in his memory those of us who knew him well try to get to one for lunch on the 28th February each year in his memory. It doesn't always happen, and we are split all over the world now, but it is nice to think that one or more of us will celebrate his life in this way.

For me, the circle became complete when Eleanor was appointed Rector of Great Snaith, and we moved here in 2013. The memorial garden is within easy reach, and I have been a couple of times already. Gary Hart mentioned fate - well, maybe it was fate that brought me here too, or something much more powerful.


Paul Robertshaw