SHORTLY after midday on January 26, 1921, a rail disaster in Abermule would claim the lives of 17 people.

The disaster remains the worst single track accident in British railway history and would hasten the demise of the Cambrian Railway which was absorbed into the Great Western Railway a year later.

Among the victims was Lord Herbert Vane-Tempest, a director of the Cambrian Railway, who had boarded the train in Machynlleth that morning though tragically died when two trains met in a head on collision near Abermule.

News of the disaster spread around the world and Abermule would become synonymous with the rail disaster which had been caused by human error and breaches of company rules.

The Cambrian Railway was formed inn 1864 with lines between Whitchurch and Cardigan Bay and through mid Wales as far as Brecon.

The railway had operated a system whereby drivers attained a tablet before proceeding through each section of the line, pressing a button on the device to alert the operator at the other end of the section of its approach.

However Abermule Station kept electric tablet machines and the other block telegraph instruments in the main station buildings while the signals were worked from a separate signal box at the east end of the station and some of the points from a ground frame at the other end of the station.

Other poor practise had also played their part in the disaster.

The station had been managed by relief station master Frank Lewis, signalman Bill Jones, booking clerk Francis Thompson and porter Ernie Jones - the latter pair just teenagers.

The staff at Montgomery station requested clearance for the stopping train to run to Abermule and Jones pressed the release on the tablet instrument for the Montgomery-Abermule section, allowing the train to proceed.

He then checked that the express was running to time, and was informed that it had just passed Moat Lane Junction on the far side of Newtown, as scheduled.

Jones went to the signal box to open the level crossing gates and clear the signals for the stopping train.

Newtown station then requested permission for the express to proceed to Abermule.

Porter Rogers pressed the release on the tablet machine for the Newtown-Abermule section which allowed it to do so before venturing to set the points for the express only to find the frame locked against him because Jones had already 'set the road' for the stopping train to arrive from Montgomery.

At the same time Newtown signalled that the express was entering the Newtown-Abermule section but there was no-one in the Abermule station buildings to note the signal.

As relief stationmaster Lewis returned from his lunch a visiting sub-inspector attracted his attention with an urgent enquiry, and the stationmaster immediately went with the sub-inspector to the goods yard, without entering the instrument room or inquiring as to the position of any trains approaching Abermule.

Before Porter Rogers could call to Signalman Jones to release the ground frame lock, the stopping train arrived.

Thompson, collected the tablet for the Montgomery-Abermule section from the driver of the stopping train, and was heading back to the station buildings to put it in the tablet instrument when he met Lewis returning from the goods yard.

He gave the tablet to Lewis, saying that he had to go and collect the tickets and failed to mention that he had yet to exchange the tablet for one for the Abermule-Newtown section while also telling Lewis that the express was still "about Moat Lane"

Lewis assumed that because the express had apparently not reached Newtown, the two trains would cross at Newtown rather than Abermule, and he did not look at the tablet closely enough to see that it was the one for the Montgomery-Abermule section that had just been handed over by the driver of the stopping train.

He crossed back to the down platform and, because the driver was oiling around the engine, handed the tablet back to the stopping train's fireman, who did not notice the error either, and told he had the right of way to proceed toward Newtown.

Both trains were now set on a collision course which would claim the lives of 17 people when they met head on a mile outside Abermule at Red House Crossing.

The colossal bang as the engines met at a combined speed of 60mph was heard for miles around the Severn Valley and soon the community realised it had played stage to a rail disaster of previously unheard death and devastation.

Local children were sent to father blankets for the injured and sheets for the dead while authorities arrived to survey the wreckage.

The surviving crew of Newtown train had been badly injured jumping from the engine seconds before impact and had rummaged through the wreckage in the aftermath to find both tablets which allowed a train to be despatched from Oswestry to help - while also proving their innocence in the disaster.

With 17 people dead and many more injured, the stunned public had demanded answers.

In the inquiry Lewis acknowledged full responsibility for his failure to examine the tablet while also agreeing that he had made no alteration in the station's working practices when he took over although he could see that they did not conform to company practice.

Jones appeared to consider himself entirely free from blame in the event despite knowing well enough the Newtown train had passed Moat Junction on time.

However it would also emerge station master Lewis had returned late from dinner and had been distracted by the visit of a visiting company official in the hour before the disaster.

All four station staff, along with the driver and fireman of the Whitchurch train who had both died in the disaster, were apportioned blame for the disaster in the inquiry.

The 17 dead were named: Lord Herbert Vane-Tempest, aged 58, of Machynlleth; Miss Scott Owen, aged 31, of Newtown; Nurse Gethin Owen, aged 26, of Llandinam; Mr. G.L. Slade, aged 43, of Manchester; Captain Harold O. Owen, of Machynlleth, aged 24; Ralph Onlow, aged 17, and Dennis Onslow, aged 16 of Llanidloes; Victor L. Harper, aged 19, of Newtown; James Henderson of Machynlleth; Miss Nesta Pryce-Rice, aged 24, of Llandovery; Mr John Jones, aged 61, of Aberystwyth; Mrs Ethel Harper, aged 35, of Birmingham; Mr A. Trethaway, of London; Mr Lewis Brookes, aged 21, of Llanidloes; Driver George Jones, aged 61, of Llanidloes; Guard Edward Shone, aged 69, of Aberystwyth; Fireman Bert Evans, aged 25, of Llanidloes.

As a result of the Abermule disaster, changes were made locally so that the instrument machines were moved to the signal box, and nationally so that starting signals could not be pulled until the relevant instrument had been cleared.

However it was the beginning of the end of the Cambrian Railways which was absorbed by Great Western Railways the following year while Abermule Station was closed in 1965 as part of the Beeching cuts.

The death of the railway's director, Lord Herbert Vane-Tempest, had significant consequences for his second cousin, Winston Churchill, who inherited a share of Antrim Estate and allowed him to purchase Chartwell and pursue his political ambitions which culminated in him leading the country as Prime Minister during World War Two.