The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) 1910-1940 – major accidents/incidents

Tymon Mellor: This article has been extracted from The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) Part 4 – The Early Years (1910 to 1940).

Major Railway Incidents

Each year there were a number of incidents on the railway. Typically there would be a few derailments resulting in some damage, but no major injuries. There were also regular fatalities, normally three or four a year; usually trespassers being hit by trains or people falling from moving trains.

Although infrequent, there were a number of major incidents and these are described below.

Derailment on 14th June, 1923

On the 14th June 1923, following exceptionally heavy rain, a landslide occurred at Mile 10½ (Ma Liu Shui) resulting in hundreds of tonnes of earth slipping from a side cutting. The collapse, at 11:00am, occurred just as a train was passing and resulted in the derailing the train with the locomotive and front coach rolling down the embankment. Fortunately no one was injured.

Rail traffic resumed within 24 hours and the locomotive was recovered, repaired and re-entered service; although in 1931, this same locomotive was involved in a second incident.

1923 Derailment1921 Derailment1923 Derailment

Derailment on 14th June, 1923

Derailment on 20th April, 1931

In the afternoon of the 20th April, 1931 a cloud burst caused huge volumes of water to fill the mountain streams. At bridge number 22, south of University Station the water scoured out 36m of the railway embankment leading to the bridge. As the Kowloon bound train approached at about 5:10pm the damaged embankment collapsed, leading to the locomotive and the first four passenger carriages derailing and falling 6m down the embankment; carriages three and four telescoping into each other.

Until this incident, the railway had carried 24 million passengers without serious injury or loss of life; however, the 1931 derailment resulted in 12 deaths and eight serious injuries.
The incident was compounded by damage to telephone lines making initial communications impossible and the same cloud burst resulted in other washouts preventing a relief train reaching the disaster. Road access was hampered by the collapse of a road bridge to the south and to the north the road was obstructed by flood debris. As a consequence, it would be two hours before help would arrive, the injured being rescued by local residents and other passengers.

Following repairs to the embankment and track, the line resumed operation on the 3rd May 1931. The locomotive, the same one as in the 1923 derailment, was stripped down; the frame straightened as far as possible and the engine re-built. The locomotive was removed from passenger services and allocated to freight and ballast maintenance.

1931 Derailment1931 Derailment1931 20150818_4b8db16689cd00cad050c0fEwbEBhpvL1931Derailment

Derailment on 20th April, 1931

Train Fire 16th January, 1937

On the 16th January, 1937 a fire occurred on an express passenger train heading towards Canton. The fire originated when the train was 36 miles to the south of Canton and just south of Shek Lik Kou Halt. Following the report of the fire the train was brought to a stop within 5/8th of mile; however, this prompt action was insufficient to prevent a serious incident. The fire, within the three third class passenger car resulted in 84 deaths,30 serious injuries and destruction of the carriages.

The most striking feature of the fire was the speed in which it spread. The outbreak occurred in the third coach from the engine where practically all the casualties were found. A survivor described, sheets of flame shooting across the carriage from door to door. A later enquiry concluded that two baskets containing 320 dozen celluloid bangles were loaded on the train at Shum Chun and these highly inflammable articles were the cause of the fire. As there was no goods invoice for the bangles it was not clear how they got on the train and arson was strongly suspected.

An image of the bodies being returning to Hong Kong can be seen at

Following the fire a number of safety measures were implemented including installation of fire extinguishers, the fitting of clerestory windows and changing sliding doors to swing doors in the third class cars.

Storm Damage 2nd September, 1937

Every year the railway was exposed to storm damage resulting in landslides or washing away of the embankments. One of the most notable occurred in the early hours of 2nd September, 1937 when the Great Hong Kong Typhoon, the worst in the recorded history of the Colony with wind speeds of up to 167 miles per hour (269km/hr) struck.

The typhoon caused the deaths of 11,000 people. Many of these occurred when a 9.1m tidal wave that swept through the Tolo Harbour swamped the villages of Taipo and Shatin. The villages suffered massive damage and many fatalities. The wave also washed away 1,800m of embankment between Shatin and Taipo Market leaving the rail tracks hanging in mid-air. It was described as “The worst cataclysm which has ever befallen the railway”.

1937 Great_Hong_Kong_Typhoon_of_1937

Damage from Typhoon 2nd September, 1937

The train service was suspended until the 13th September 1937 when normal passenger service resumed. Between the 2nd and 10th September an average of 2,000 coolies, working day and night, were employed to repair the damage. A ballast train was able to pass through on the 10th September to reset the track and limited passenger trains commenced the next day. The imposed speed restriction over the new works remained in place until 8th November 1937 and all remedial works had been completed by the 24th November 1937.

This article was first posted on 23rd March 2016.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) Part 1 – The Beginning, Three Possible Routes…
  2. The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) Part 2 – Construction
  3. The Kowloon-Canton Railway (British Section) Part 3 – the construction of Kowloon Station
  4. The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) Part 4 – The Early Years (1910 to 1940)
  5. The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) Part 5 – The Post War Years (1945 to 1978)
  6. Kowloon – Canton Railway (British Section) Part 6 – Modernisation
  7. Kowloon – Canton Railway (British Section) – Kowloon Station Relocation

One comment

  • My son, Matthew, and I just read this article together. We loved the detailed historical information, and learned a lot about how much the world has changed. The pictures and some key words (like “coolie” and “clerestory” helped us learn more by asking questions and searching the Internet. Thanks so much for your lovely work in recording some of our shared past. Matthew & Ross.

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