Disaster Narrowly Averted

Yokohama station, photographed in 1872.

Windows into Japan 5. In an earlier article in this series we looked at how the arrival of Commodore Perry and his fleet of ships in 1853 brought an enforced end to Japanese isolationism.  From that point onwards, modernisation was inevitable, and by 1872 a railway line between Tokyo and Yokohama had been constructed, the first in the country.  Of course, railways always came with inherent dangers, particularly during the early days of rail transport.  A narrowly averted disaster was described by Edmund Gregory Holtham in his book Eight Years in Japan, 1873-1881, published in 1883:

Just as here in England we hear from time to time of small boys who aver that they put a piece of wood or iron in the way of a train, that they might “see the engine jump,” so in Japan with children of a larger growth it is much the same story. Indeed, so far as my own experience and observation go, there seems great reason to believe that many obstructions are created by persons employed as watchmen or gate-keepers, for the mere pleasure of seeing the obstruction smashed into fragments by the charge of the powerful machine at the head of its train.

There is happily no instance of actual wrecking of a train by reason of such obstructions; but they were at one time so frequently met with, as to demoralize the staff, and even one or two of the English drivers were more than suspected of romancing in their reports of obstruction on the road — one of them had what almost amounted to a monomania on the subject.

One case that occurred while I was in charge at Tokiyo, however, will always seem to me to be amongst the most remarkable of thoroughly understood events coming within a hair’s-breadth of disaster. It was when we had a quantity of material for laying down the second line alongside the single line used for traffic; the timber sleepers were approximately in place, and the rails paired, but not fastened in any way. In the dusk of the evening — the time when such things almost invariably occur — some person, or perhaps more than one, lifted one end of a loose rail and carried it round, laying it across the nearer rail of the running line, pointing towards the next approaching train. It was then roughly propped in that position with some stones, to prevent it from slipping down if shaken by vibration from an approaching train; and formed an ingenious preparation for a hideous smash. Yet no smash occurred, though the train ran into the obstruction at thirty miles an hour, the driver only sighting it in the twilight as he came round the curve that terminated a few yards away from the spot.

What actually happened was this, as we traced it out by the marks on the engine. The life-guard on the off-side, the piece of iron specially designed to throw obstructions off the rail in advance of the wheels, caught the loose rail, throwing it round further across the line; owing to the far end of the rail being a little lower than the running line, there was a slight incline of the near end upward, that brought it against the inside framing of the engine, as it slewed round, just below the axle box of the near leading wheel, stripping a nut off a bolt securing the strap below the box. The sudden pinch slightly bowed the rail, and it glanced off, missing the wheel, and riding over the boss, or enlargement at the lower end of the brake-hanger in front of the near driving wheel, supported on which, and pushed sideways by the life-guard that had first come in contact with it, the rail was transferred bodily across the line, between the two wheels mentioned, and by the onward motion of the engine finally delivered clear of everything, on the near side of the road.

Such an occurrence was not calculated to make things pleasant for any one responsible for the safety of the public; and of course the Japanese authorities were just as anxious as I was. There was some very tall talk amongst the staff, and the propriety of converting a field adjoining the spot where the train was not wrecked into an execution ground for the occasion was mooted. However, it seemed that the most reasonable way of treating an outrageous crime was to show, if possible, to all interested, that justice need not deviate one step from her regular path in dealing with it, and that the penalty and its enforcement were commonplace as well as inevitable; and this view found favour with those whose advice was likely to be most respected. Unfortunately we never caught our criminal; but the matter was a good deal discussed, and perhaps it is not strange that it was the last case of wilful obstruction of the railway for a long time; so that though no one was brought to justice, it would seem that the public conscience was stimulated.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, History, Japan, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Disaster Narrowly Averted

  1. Ged Maybury says:

    I read that twice through, and am *still* not certain what exactly happened. I think an intimate knowledge of the front ends of that specific brand of 19th century locomotive would certainly help!
    It also left me pondering the deeper motives of he (or they) who set up the trap in the first place. Derailment, catastrophe and death – certainly. But to what greater end (if any)?


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