It was the morning of February 28 1975, and it was business as usual along the Northern City Line of the London Underground public rapid transit system, also more commonly called The Tube. Passengers were buzzing along the platforms and rushing along on their daily business, engaged in their normal lives and with no notion that this was to be anything other than a usual day. At 8:46 AM, a train carrying 300 passengers from Dayton Park approached Moorgate station, the southern terminus of the line, and since it was rush hour scores of morning commuters were lined up along the platform waiting for the train to come in and stop to allow them to board, only it didn’t stop. As the train kept barreling towards the station, people began to sense that something was not quite right, and that there was no way it was going to be able to stop in time. This was a bit of a problem, because this was the terminus of the line, with nothing down the rest of the tunnel other than a concrete wall. The train continued right past the platform without even slowing down, and so would begin the greatest and most mysterious tragedy the London Underground has ever seen.
The train blasted right past the station, ignored the red warning lights, careened down the tunnel at a speed of 30 to 40mph, passed the then non-functioning hydraulic buffer, and smashed right into the wall at the end, sending the first carriage into the roof of the tunnel, collapsing the first three cars into each other like an accordion, and casting the entire station into darkness and chaos. Dust and smoke permeated the air as disoriented passengers in the station wandered about coughing in the gloom trying to figure out what had just happened. It did not take long for rescue services to arrive for what would go on to become a 6-day operation, which would eventually grow to involve 1,324 firefighters, 240 police officers, 80 ambulance workers, 16 doctors and numerous volunteers, all working down in a dim and dank tunnel 70 feet underground, with poor lighting, dropping oxygen levels, an oppressive cloud of soot and dust in the air, and high heat of up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Rescuers would later compare it to like being in a war zone, a hell scape of twisted metal and mangled bodies strewn about the soot covered rubble, survivors screaming out from the gloom in agony like the souls of the damned. When all was said and done, the Moorgate Tube Crash had left 43 dead and 74 injured, making it the worst peacetime accident in the history of the London Underground, which at the time typically smoothly serviced 3 million people a day with few accidents and was considered one of the safest forms of transportation around. So what happened? This is a question that is difficult to answer, and the investigation would uncover strange clues and anomalies.
As the rescue operation was going on, authorities were trying to piece together exactly what had happened. Witnesses including commuters and station staff would report that at no point had the doomed train attempted to brake, with some even claiming that it had actually seemed to have accelerated as it passed the platform. It was rather odd, since it would be found that there was nothing technically wrong with the train itself. The train driver was described as not moving or reacting in any way, not doing anything in fact other than staring straight ahead with a blank expression, as if in a zombie-like daze. Even as the train approached its inevitable destruction the man showed no reaction at all, not even bracing for impact. It was soon found that this driver, who had died in the crash, was a man named Leslie Newson, 56, who had been with the London Transport since 1969 and had been driving along the Northern City Line for 3 months, but a look into the man’s life would do little to shed light on what had happened, and would indeed only deepen the mystery.
Newson was found to have been a good employee, described by colleagues as reliable, responsible, and as a careful and conscientious train driver. He was not known to take risks, and was a perfectly law-abiding, well-adjusted individual and family man who loved his job and took it very seriously. According to those who had been working with him that day, Newson had been acting completely normally that morning and had completed several train runs already without incident. It would turn out that he had been carrying money with him for the purpose of buying a second hand car for his daughter after finishing his shift, something he had been looking forward to, and had spoken with colleagues excitedly talking about his plans after work that day. On his person in the train were found a rule book for drivers and two notebooks full of notes on what to do in the event of train failures or problems, both neatly bound in plastic protective covers. None of this seems to paint him as someone who was looking to commit suicide or harm himself, and certainly not taking a bunch of innocent people with him. It also did not point to this being a terrorist act of some kind, and so other options were looked at, but this would do little to provide answers.
An autopsy and analysis of his medical records would show that there was nothing physically wrong with Newson. No sign of a heart attack or stroke. He had absolutely no medical issues, no health problems that could have caused him to do what he did, he was on no medication that could have caused a lapse of judgement or make him lose consciousness, and he was also not a heavy drinker and did not use drugs. Indeed, he was found to be in perfect health. The only oddity found with his autopsy was a small amount of alcohol in his system, but it was debated whether this would have been enough to cause the accident or even whether it had come from simply the natural decomposition process. Family, friends, and colleagues insisted that they had not seen him drinking that morning, and he was not the type of person who would ever do that in the first place on the job. Rather strangely, the injuries sustained to his body and X-rays taken showed that he had at no point made any effort to brace himself or even so much as raise his hands in front of him, as would be the normal human instinct to do. Why should this be? No one knows.
There is the possibility that he had some unknown and undetected medical or mental condition, but if so, what could it be? Theories include that it had been some sort of fugue state, a neurological disorder such as transient global amnesia, which causes a temporary disruption of short term memory that can lead to confusion and loss of concentration, or that he was exhibiting some other disorder that had not been diagnosed, but he had been driving trains for years with nothing like this ever happening before. Stranger ideas include that he had been given some sort of chemical or poison to induce a deep trance-like state, but by who and for what purpose, and why would that not be detected in blood tests? Another is that he had simply been daydreaming, but he was not prone to doing this, and wouldn’t he have been snapped out of it by an impending crash of that magnitude, or at least the difference in noise level and lighting when passing from the tunnel into the station? There has even been the absurd theory that he had been hypnotized. By the end of the investigation, it could not be determined if the crash had been caused by a deliberate act carried out by Newson or some unknown condition, the cause of the catastrophe unclear.
The accident caused the London Underground to rethink its safety procedures, and at the moment it has a system informally known as the “Moorgate Protection,” which causes trains to automatically brake if the driver somehow becomes incapacitated or the train picks up too much speed, and there is an adjusted speed limits for trains. While the tragic incident has caused much change in the way things are done, it still has not been adequately explained. What caused this normal family man to just careen off into death’s jaws and take so many with him? Why didn’t he react or do anything at all? How can we explain any of this? There is absolutely no evidence of any physical or mental problem, no technical failures that have been detected, it is all very bizarre, and we may never know the answers to these questions, leaving it a strange historical oddity.