17th March 1979

Penmanshiel rail tunnel collapses

Penmanshiel Tunnel was once part of the East Coast Main Line, between Dunbar and Berwick-upon-Tweed. The 244m tunnel, which accommodated two tracks, was built between 1845 and 1846, and was closed after a rockslide on 17 February 1979 killed two workers and injured several others.

The workers who were caught in the collapse had been removing ballast so the track bed could be lowered, effectively increasing the headroom so that it could accommodate international freight containers, which are 8ft 6in tall. The project had already been half completed, with work on one of the two tracks finished, and already underway on the second.

Rock bursting off the wall

The official report from the Department of Transport described what happened. After shining his torch on one of the tunnel walls, a contractor on the project “saw small pieces of rock apparently bursting off the vertical face about 200m below the springing level of the brickwork. He decided that it would be advisable to shore up the wall as a precaution and started to walk southwards out of the tunnel on his way to the site office to make the necessary arrangements. He had walked only some 20m when he heard a loud noise and turned round to see that the tunnel behind him had collapsed and filled with rock.”

The report couldn’t say for sure why the collapse had occurred, but it seemed likely that rock had been falling from the roof of the tunnel onto the brick arch with which it had been lined. There was a significant void above the brickwork, extending to 9ft in some parts of the tunnel. Thus, the inspector concluded that “I am satisfied that there are no grounds on which any individual can be held in any way responsible for the collapse”.

The Railways Board pleaded guilty to charges of having failed to ensure the safety of the workers in the tunnel, and was fined £10,000.



Other events that occured in March

FREE Scotland history newsletter

Don't miss our weekly update on Scotland's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want.