Out of the Balcombe Tunnel they hurtled and started another descent, speeding on until they crossed the thirty-seven arches of the Ouse Viaduct, one of the engineering marvels of the day. Pike was enjoying his initial run on the Brighton Express so much that he released one of his rare smiles. The thunder of the train and the fierce rush of wind precluded any conversation at normal volume. When his sharp eyes spotted something ahead of them, therefore, Pike had to shout to make himself heard. There was a note of panic in his voice.

‘Can you see that, John?’ he yelled, shutting off the steam and applying the brakes. ‘Can you see that?’

‘What?’ asked Heddle, peering hard through the swirling smoke. ‘All I can see is a clear line. Is there a problem?’

What the fireman could not see, he soon felt. Within a hundred yards, the wheels of the locomotive left the rails with an awesome thud and pulled the string of carriages behind it. Heddle and Pike were thrown sideways and had to hold on to the tender to steady themselves. Surging on and quite unable to check its momentum, the train miraculously stayed fairly upright as it ploughed a deep furrow in the ground and ripped up the track behind it with ridiculous ease. They had completely lost control. At that speed and on that gradient, it would take them the best part of a mile to stop. All they could do was to hang on tight.

Gibbering with fear, Heddle pointed ahead. A ballast train was puffing towards them on the adjacent line. They could both see the continuous firework display under its wheels as the brakes fought in vain to slow it down. A collision was inevitable. There was no escape. Pike’s immediate thought was for the safety of his young fireman. Turning to Heddle, he grabbed him by the shoulder.

‘Jump!’ he bellowed. ‘Jump while you can, John!’

‘This bloody train was supposed to be blessed!’ cried Heddle.

‘Jump off!’

Taking his advice, the fireman hurled himself from the footplate and rolled over and over in the grass before hitting his head on a small boulder and being knocked unconscious. Pike stayed where he was, like the captain of a doomed ship remaining on the bridge. As the two trains converged in a shower of sparks, he braced himself for the unavoidable crash. He was writhing with guilt, convinced that the accident was somehow his fault and that he had let his passengers down. Fearing that there would be many deaths and serious injuries, he was overwhelmed by remorse. A sense of helplessness intensified his anguish.

When the engines finally met, there was a deafening clash and the Brighton Express twisted and buckled, tipping its carriages on to the other line and producing a cacophony of screams, howls of pain and groans from the passengers. Both locomotives were toppled by the sheer force of the impact. The long procession of wagons behind the other engine leapt madly off the rails and broke up like matchwood, scattering their ballast far and wide in a vicious hailstorm of stone. It was a scene of utter devastation.

Somewhere beneath the engine he had driven with such pride and pleasure was Frank Pike, crushed to a pulp and wholly unaware of the catastrophe left behind him. His first ever run on the Brighton Express had also been his last.


Alerted by telegraph, Detective Inspector Robert Colbeck left his office in Scotland Yard at once and caught the first available train on the Brighton line. His companion, Detective Sergeant Victor Leeming, was not at all sure that they would be needed at the site of the accident.

‘We’ll only be in the way, Inspector,’ he said.

‘Not at all, Victor,’ argued Colbeck. ‘It’s important for us to see the full extent of the damage and to glean some idea of what might have caused the crash.’

‘That’s a job for the Railway Inspectorate. They’re trained in that sort of work. All that we’re trained to do is to catch criminals.’

‘Did it never occur to you that this accident may be a crime?’

‘There’s no proof of that, Inspector.’

‘And no evidence to the contrary, Victor. That’s why we must keep an open mind. Unfortunately, the telegraph gave us only the barest details but it was sent by the LB&SCR and made a specific request for our help.’

Your help,’ said Leeming with a sigh of resignation. ‘I’m not the Railway Detective. I hate trains. I distrust them and, from what we’ve heard about this latest disaster, I’ve every reason to do so.’

Leeming was a reluctant passenger, glancing nervously through the window as the train clattered into Reigate station and shuddered to a halt. Colbeck, on the other hand, had a deep affection for the railway system matched by a wide knowledge of its operation. As a result of his success in solving a daring train robbery and a series of related crimes, newspapers had christened him the Railway Detective and subsequent triumphs had reinforced his right to the nickname. Whenever there was a crisis on the line, the first person to whom railway companies turned was Robert Colbeck.

He knew why Leeming was so disaffected that evening. The sergeant was a married man with a wife he adored and two small children on whom he doted. Being parted from them for a night was always a trial to him and he sensed that that was about to happen. A train crash on the scale described would need careful investigation and it could not be completed in the failing light. He and Colbeck might well have to spend the night near the scene before continuing their enquiries on the following day.

After stopping at Horley station, the train set off again and soon entered the county of Sussex. More passengers alighted at Three Bridges station then they chugged on for over four miles until they reached Balcombe. Amid a hiss of steam, they came to a halt.

‘Out we get, Victor,’ said Colbeck, rising to his feet and reaching for his bag. ‘This is the end of the line.’

‘Thank heavens for that, sir!’

‘No down trains can go beyond this point. No up trains from Brighton can get beyond Hayward’s Heath. The timetable has been thrown into complete disarray by the accident.’

‘How do we get to the scene?’

‘We take a cab.’

‘I like the sound of that,’ said Leeming, brightening at once.

Colbeck opened the carriage door. ‘I thought you might.’

‘You know where you are with horses. They’re sensible animals. They don’t run into each other.’

‘Neither do trains, for the most part.’

They stepped on to the platform and made their way towards a waiting line of cabs. Mindful of the great disruption caused by the accident, the railway company had tried to lessen its impact by arranging for a fleet of hansom cabs to be hastened to Balcombe station. Passengers destined for Burgess Hill, Hassocks Gate or Brighton itself would be driven to Hayward’s Heath where a train awaited them. The detectives were going on a shorter journey.

‘That’s better,’ said Leeming, settling gratefully into the back of a cab as it moved away. ‘I feel safe now.’

‘My only concern is for the safety of the passengers on the Brighton Express,’ said Colbeck, worriedly. ‘The train was almost full. According to the telegraph, there have been some fatalities. The chances are that others may die of their injuries in due course.’

‘You know my opinion, Inspector. Railways are dangerous.’

‘That’s not borne out by the statistics, Victor. Millions of passengers travel by rail each year in complete safety. Of the accidents reported, the majority are relatively minor and involve no loss of life.’

‘What about the engine that exploded last year, Inspector?’

‘It was a regrettable but highly unusual incident.’

‘The driver and his fireman were blown to pieces.’

‘Yes, Victor,’ admitted Colbeck. ‘And so was an engine fitter.’

He remembered the tragedy only too well. A locomotive due to take an early train to Littlehampton had exploded inside the engine shed at Brighton. The building had been wrecked, paving stones had been uprooted and one wall of an adjacent omnibus station had been shaken to its foundations. The three men beside the locomotive had been blown apart. The head of the engine fitter had been discovered in the road outside and one of the driver’s legs was hurled two hundred yards before smashing through a window and ending up on the breakfast table of a

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