On Britain's railways, the small village of Norton Fitzwarren near Taunton has similar associations. The Great Western Railway's mainline to the west runs through the village. The GWR had the proudest safety record in Britain, and went 50 years from 1890 to 1940 without a serious accident - an extraordinary achievement, reflecting the GWR's tireless efforts to prevent accidents. Yet the two disasters bracketing that period both happened at Norton Fitzwarren.
The 1940 Norton Fitzwarren disaster struck 70 years ago today, during the darkest days of the war. It's hard to imagine a set of circumstances more likely to cause a disaster than those of 3 November 1940. The night was wet and windy. Train driver Percy Stacey had recently been bombed out of his home in London as the capital endured continual night bombing. Driver Stacey and fireman Seabridge took over express locomotive King George VI at 8.25pm on that wet and windy wartime night, to work the 9.50pm express from Paddington to Penzance. They were due to work it as far as Plymouth.
The train was already running over an hour late when it arrived at Taunton at 3.30am, as a result of an air raid on Bristol, which held the train in the city for more than an hour. We can barely imagine the impact this would have had on driver Stacey, who had lost his home in an air raid in London just days earlier. But he pressed on.
The stage was set for tragedy. Stacey would have expected his train to have a clear run on the main line. But because of the delays, the signalman at Taunton decided to let a newspaper train run non stop on the main line, leaving Stacey's train to continue on the relief line, which ended at Norton Fitzwarren. Stacey mistook the green lights of the main line signals for those applying to his train. As Stacey's train approached the end of the relief line, the newspaper train overtook it on the main line. Disaster was inevitable.
At 3.48am on that dark November morning, the 89 ton King Edward VI jumped over a ditch and fell on its side. The overtaking newspaper train was showered with ballast thrown up by the crashing train. Tragically, fireman Seabridge and 26 passengers were killed.
Driver Stacey escaped from the wreckage and struggled through the icy waters of the neighbouring flooded field to raise the alarm. Can you imagine how he must have felt? He would have been desperately tired, cold and wet. He'd have wondered whether his family was safe after another night's bombing. But more immediately, he'd have been shocked to the core by the fact his train had been wrecked, leaving him wondering what he had done.
The irony of the disaster was that the GRW's pioneering safety measures should have prevented it. Over 30 years earlier, the company had invented 'automatic train control' (ATC), which automatically applied the brakes if a driver missed a 'distant' warning signal. The driver retained the ability to dismiss the ATC warning and the resulting brake application. At Norton Fitzwarren, driver Stacey did just that, which meant the ATC could not prevent tragedy.
Norton Fitzwarren 1940 was a rare blot on the GWR's safety copybook in extraordinary circumstances. For 50 years, countless reports on railway disasters urged companies to follow the GWR's example and adopt ATC. It took the 1952 Harrow and Wealdstone catastrophe in which 112 people died before British Railways adopted a national ATC system, called AWS. But the GWR system survived until the early 1980s on parts of the old railway's network. The Great Western wasn't perfect, but its commitment to safety remains one of its greatest, proudest legacies.
You can read the official Ministry of Transport inquiry report into the 1940 disaster by Lieutenant Colonel Mount here. I also recommend AR Kingdom's excellent account in The Railway Accident at Norton Fitzwarren, 1940, by ARK Publications (ISBN 1 873029 10 1).