Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery - and for one Blackpool man the event has particular significance.
To this day former railway worker Peter Davies believes an incident he witnessed the week before the audacious £2.6m robbery held crucial clues which – if acted upon – could have averted the crime by Ronnie Biggs, Buster Edwards and 13 other members of the gang.
Retired passenger guard Peter, 79. of Blackpool, reckons he had a lucky escape from the gang a week ahead of the robbery.
He was the guard on the Kendal parcels train which left Preston a few hours before the West Coast Postal came in from Scotland.
When both trains ran on time the postal would pass while the parcels train was in the siding at Rugby.
The postal’s passing was the signal for Peter’s train to rejoin the main line and head for Bletchley to catch up with the postal in the platforms.
Peter had a good track record for getting his train out ahead of the postal – and once again the parcels train pulled out first to start the leg to London Euston.
It was dark and visibility low but Peter could still see the signals clearly. He also had access to a periscope in the roof of the brakevan.
But at 70mph with all going well the locomotive suddenly braked.
“I looked at the signal at Sears Crossing and it was red.”
It then turned green – but was out of sequence. Signals had four vertical lamps, but red and green were in separate positions.
When the signal turned to green Peter noticed it was in the same position as the red lamp.
He believes something may have been held over the green light to show red - and then removed.
“Only I saw that, the driver had passed the signal.”
The train stopped, the driver visibly upset at having run a red light. Peter assured him the signal had gone to green and told him to proceed slowly to the next signal and be ready to stop as there might be another train on the same track.
The next signal was green and the route was clear so they stopped to report the signal failure at the next manned signal box, Cheddington, responsible for signals at Sears.
Both the parcels and postal trains were delayed by the temporary stoppage that day and Peter believes the Great Train robbers were trying their luck but overlooked one vital thing – that to completely stop a train the preceding distant signal should have been on yellow.
“I think they got it right the next time they tried.”
A week later, at much the same time, the postal train, this time the first to leave Bletchley, went missing.
The parcel train was diverted to search for it.
The postal train was found at Sears Crossing minus its locomotive and leading coach. Both were found down the line, driver Jack Mills coshed and forced into moving the train as the gang’s own driver had no experience of operating the diesel-electric locomotive. The crew was tied up, the money gone. Much of the haul was never recovered. The coach containing the cash was not armoured as, says Peter, the original armoured car had suffered a problem the week before – the same week his train ran into signal sequence problems.
He suspects an inside job to this day. He also says that if his own warning about the light sequence had been taken seriously instead of brushed aside, the heist could have been avoided.
“Instead I was told my report, from Cheddington, was incorrect. There was no fault at Sears. I was warned I could be sacked for not telling the truth. But I had.”
The following week, on the day of the heist, Peter was hailed a hero by other staff for “getting it right.” By then the word was out that the postal train had been robbed. “They knew I’d been right all the time. And if someone had looked into it the week before who knows - the robbery could have been averted. At least the robbers would have known we were on to them even if we didn’t know what was planned.
“Combined with the fault on the armoured coach that same week the issue with the signal was all very fishy. I felt vindicated but no one ever apologised or acted fast enough to help the postal train.”
Within six months 12 of the 15 gang members had been brought to justice. The heist, described as the Crime of the Century, was masterminded by Bruce Reynolds who died in February at 81. His son Nick has just written a book claiming to “put the record right.”
Ronnie Biggs, who is 84 on Thursday, escaped from jail in 1965, and spent 36 years on the run until returning to the UK voluntarily in 2001 to face arrest and jail. He was freed from prison on compassionate grounds in 2009 due to ill health.
He is now cared for in a north London nursing home where - communicating through a spelling board - he has said is proud to have been one of the train robbers and has few regrets, other than for the injured driver who received just £250 compensation and in 1970. Both he and Buster Edwards became household names as a result of their involvement.
Both Biggs and Reynolds contributed to the book published to mark the 50th anniversary, The Great Train Robbery, 1963-2013, written by Reynold’s son Nick with Biggs’ autobiographer Chris Pickard.
Nick, 51, says growing up as the son of the mastermind behind the famous crime has been “a bit of an albatross really.”
A successful musician, Nick’s group Alabama 3 produced The Sopranos theme tune Woke Up This Morning but he admits: “I’ve done many interviews but it was only six months ago when - for the first time - there was no mention of ‘son of’ and I thought, ‘I’m 50 years old and I’m finally a man in my own right.
“I wouldn’t be here now if my dad was alive, this is his job not mine. But I felt it was my duty in a way while the world or England at least was focused on the 50th anniversary, to put the record straight.
“The train robbery has really affected how films have been made, without the Great Train Robbery there would never have been the Italian Job.
“The whole criminal genre you could say from the 60s onwards was influenced and inspired by the train robbery, there’s been countless books written about it. It has become deeply ingrained in the British consciousness really. The train robbers have etched their way into British folklore.
“People have stolen a lot more money but it’s earned its place in history and I think, yeah, in 100 years time, people won’t remember Tony Blair but they’ll remember Ronnie Biggs.”