I was going to start this by roughly describing the events that happened 25 years ago today just outside Clapham Junction station, but then I thought “No.”
The people who read this will know the events well enough, and those who don’t can easily Google “Clapham Junction Crash.” The accident that happened at Clapham claimed 35 lives. Today was about remembering those who perished that morning, but just as much about remembering those who were left behind. This morning I was stood on the east side of Spencer Park, overlooking the deep cutting that takes the South Western mainline from Clapham towards Wimbledon, as a public service of remembrance was held on the 25th anniversary of the Clapham Crash. I wasn’t alone, not by any means. Railway staff were there in strength, as were members of the London Fire Brigade, the police, former pupils from Emmanuel School who were first on the scene, and of course some of the survivors. Many were there to pay their respects, some to remember lost friends and colleagues. One man, though, was there to say thank you.
The service lasted 30 minutes, it was cold but the sun shone with impeccable timing as the Chaplain of St George’s Hospital said “may the Lord make His light to shine upon you”, there was a quiet dignity to the whole affair upon which neither the muted rumble of trains nor the sound of London traffic could impinge. We were slowly starting to disperse when I noticed a man, perhaps in his mid-50’s, dressed in a grey shirt, black tie and dark coat, stood alone from the rest of the crowd, weeping. In the midst of all the handshaking and fellowship it felt wrong. I asked a friend if he had a tissue. Because men are inevitably poorly prepared for such eventualities he said “No.” I asked a few other people and a few clean sheets of tissue were duly produced. I walked across to the gentlemen and offered them.
“You look like you could do with these”, I told him. “Thank you”, he responded and began to wipe his eyes. I asked him, in that slightly daft way we all do when faced with someone crying, if he was OK. “This is the first chance I’ve had to thank the Fire Brigade”, he explained. “It’s been 25 years.” He pointed towards the cutting where the trains had collided. “They got me out of the wreck. I was sat in the front coach of the Poole train.”
I can’t quote accurately beyond that, dear reader, because that revelation rather knocked me sideways. I remember putting my hand on his shoulder while he gathered himself together. I asked if he would be OK to make it to where ever he was going afterwards. Oddly I didn’t ask his name. It seemed somehow impertinent. I suppose it might have been impertinent to have approached him at all – but how could I leave anyone in that place, on this day, so obviously in distress? “It’s brought it all back”, he said. I asked him once more if he would be all right, and he assured me that he would. We shook hands and went our separate ways. As I sit here writing this, I regret that I didn’t wish him a Merry Christmas.
I’ve told more than one person that Clapham casts a long shadow over the rail industry. Today it is mentioned as the catalyst that brought a new culture into Britain’s railways. it brought in acknowledgement of the pressure under which staff worked, it ushered in new ways of working, new attitudes towards stress and fatigue and the consequences of ignoring them. But today it became personal to me. Today it became about a man who said thank you for a tissue and a gesture of support from a stranger. And about a glance down into an empty railway cutting, and the words “I’m lucky to be here.”
I think that’s all there is left to say.
PostScript: I now know that the gentleman I spoke to after the ceremony was Mr Lee Middleton, from Winchester. You can see him speaking to ITV News here: