Memory Lane: My great escape from train robbers

Peter Davies
Peter Davies
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THE Great Train Robbers struck 48 years ago this week, the biggest ever raid on a British train, with banks estimating they lost £2.3m in used, untraceable banknotes.

Retired rail guard Peter Davies remains convinced he had a lucky escape exactly a week earlier in 1963 – and that, if his claims had been taken seriously, then the audacious robbery could have been thwarted.

Peter, of Saville Road, South Shore, says: “Let’s start the story at Bletchley, where there were two trains both going to Euston at the same time. One was the postal train, the other the Kendal Parcels. Both trains were express trains in that the first to get ready to leave left first. That early Thursday morning on August 8, it was the postal train that left first.

“Exactly one week before, to the minute practically, back at Bletchley, I was the guard of the Kendal Parcel train. My train was ready first, so we left Bletchley first.

“It was a strong misty morning, we passed Leighton number one signal box and the next stop was Euston.

“I had a good position in my brake van to see the signals ahead. We were doing 70mph plus and I thought all was well. We would arrive at Euston on time, but visibility was poor.”

Peter recalls: “As I was checking my reports, the locomotive suddenly braked hard. I looked at the signal at Sears Crossing and it was red. As the locomotive passed under the gantry the signal turned green without the four aspect light going through its sequence. The driver had passed the red signal and I only saw it go green. The train stopped and the foreman came running back to report the signal was red – a serious affair.

“I explained to him that it went green just as we got near it. We had no communication with either signal box, so what should we do?

“Using Rule 55, I told the foreman to tell the driver to proceed slowly to the next signal as there may be another train in the section so be prepared to stop. If clear and the next signal was green then we could carry on.

“I reported a signal failure at Cheddington signal box, which had responsibility for the signals at Sears Crossing. We arrived at our destination late, delaying the postal train behind us.

“When I returned to Preston I found a message for me stating my report was incorrect as there was no fault at Sears Crossing. I decided to insist that my report was the true report.”

In layman’s terms, Peter felt that something had been held in front of the green light to show red without tampering with the electrics of the other lamps.

“No train can stop at Sears Crossing without the distant signal being on yellow so it appears the robbers overlooked the distant signal with my train, but got it right with the postal train the following week.

“I was informed that, by not telling the truth, I could be sacked, but I stuck to my report.” Peter says: “The following week I was working a train to Barrow which carried the newspapers to all stops. As we slowed to a halt at Carnforth, the staff ran to tell me that the postal train had been robbed at Sears Crossing.

“As they knew of my charge of false reports they were only too pleased to inform me I was right all the time.”

Peter claims: “Needless to say when I got back to Preston I was told to forget it. There were no apologies at all – it was all covered up.”

He insists: “My story is true – they just did not believe me and took no action to warn others about it. People were hurt by the robbers, who nearly gave themselves away. Even if it was the postal train that night, it could not have stopped at Sears Crossing.”

North West Labour MP Dan Jones, who represented Burnley, had proposed a bill to improve security on mail trains two years earlier and in the House of Commons expressed outrage that the matter had still not been addressed.

After a massive police operation, the gang’s abandoned hideout was found at Leatherslade Farm in Bedfordshire. A little more than six months later, 12 of the 15 strong gang of thieves were sentenced to jail terms totalling more than 300 years.

Most notorious of the gang is Ronnie Biggs – 82, sharing his birthday with the date of his crime – who lived as a fugitive in Australia and Brazil.

He avoided repeated attempts to bring him home, having escaped from Wandsworth Prison after just 15 months inside. In 2001, after falling ill, he returned to the UK voluntarily and was sent back to prison, moved from there to a nursing home on compassionate grounds two years ago this month.