This week marked the 37th anniversary of the Moorgate tube disaster. At 8.46am On February 28th 1975 a southbound, Northern Line train from Drayton Park entered Moorgate station, the terminus on that branch of the line. Instead of braking and stopping at platform nine it appeared to accelerate. Witnesses on the platform said the driver, Leslie Newsom, 56, was staring straight ahead, no emotion on his face, as the train hurtled past. The train went past the platform, into the overrun tunnel, over a patch of sand and slammed into the tunnel end at an estimated 40mph. The front carriages concertina'd on impact. The rescue crews worked in oppressive heat in the mangled wreckage for days freeing the survivors and then the dead. More than 70 were injured and 43 died - the highest number of fatalities on the tube until the 7/7 terrorist bombings.
The cause of the crash was a mystery. Newsom was a non-drinker, in seemingly good health and a reliable and experienced driver. There were traces of alcohol in his system, but it took four days to recover his body and the contents of his stomach had fermented in the tunnel heat, which might have explained it. In his pocket was £300, which, apparently, he had withdrawn to buy his daughter car once his shift had finished. Not the behaviour of a man who was planning to end his life, and so many others, in such a dramatic fashion.
Yet the post-mortem revealed that Newsom hadn't even lifted his hands to protect himself when it smashed into the wall. Nor had he lifted his fingers from the 'dead man's handle'. This was put in train cabs in case a driver suffered some kind of heart attack or seizure at the controls. If he or she lifted his hands from the handle then the train would brake and stop. But Newsom's hand was still firmly on it. He had taken no steps to stop the train, which one might have expected him to do had there been a technical fault. Some people believe this is evidence it was his intention to crash the train. Others speculate that he suffered some kind of white-out or seizure in which he froze. On a discussion thread on a London Underground forum I read a convincing theory written by a current tube driver which said that Newsom's mind probably wandered. He switched off completely, and by the time his focus returned it was too late. There are other theories, similar to the ones that people claim lay behind many car crashes, where a driver thinks about something - for example, what it might be like to drive their car into the next lane into the face of oncoming traffic - and seconds later they are doing exactly that. Did Newsom imagine what it might be like to drive his train through the station into the tunnel end and it became a reality? Only a week before a train he was driving overshot the platform by a carriage length. Was he reliving that experience? Or was that, as some claim, a dry run for his suicide?
The fact is we will never know. The only person who might be able to tell us is dead. What we do know is that it can never happen again. As a direct result of the accident, tube trains entering dead-end tunnels like Moorgate stop automatically. All across the network, tube drivers do less and less driving. There has even been talk of phasing them out altogether and having fully automatic, driver-less trains, like the Docklands Light Railway. However, proponents of driverless train were given pause for thought this weekwhen a child was saved from death by a quick-witted driver. He had noticed the boy had fallen between the train and the platform and stopped the train setting off and crushing him. If he hadn't been there the child would have died.
Humans make mistakes - baffling ones, like Leslie Newsom - but they also have the ability to rectify them and react.