The runaway tram crash which shocked Leeds

Older readers may remember a shocking event that shook Leeds in the 1950s - the day of the runaway tram.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 27th June 2017, 5:50 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th July 2017, 8:38 am

Leeds's tram network carried scores of visitors from the city centre to Roundhay Park, and there was a dedicated terminus for the vehicles next to Canal Gardens.

In 1952, a series of errors led to a horrifying incident which could easily have ended in tragedy.

On a September evening, a tram registered as number 507 arrived at the park gates, where its passengers disembarked. Its 36-year-old driver, Basil Norris, decided to use the toilet before the return journey to the city, and left the tram, leaving conductor Percy Cunningham aboard.

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Norris applied the air brake and removed the handle, but did not engage the handbrake. When he returned from the public conveniences, he saw that his vehicle was moving, and initially thought Cunningham was reversing it to another stopping place - before it overshot it and he realised it was out of control. Norris attempted to chase after the runaway tram, but it was travelling too quickly, and eventually a passing motorist allowed him into his car to follow it.

Cunningham had tried to apply the air brake at the top end of the tram, but this was not possible, so he had to run down the vehicle, but then discovered the brake handle missing - it was with Norris. He tried the handbrake, but did not apply the ratchet with his foot, so was unable to stop the motion. Fearing the tram would overturn when it came to Princes Avenue, Cunningham leaped from the vehicle just past Lidgett Park Road.

The tram actually slowed down and nearly stopped on the level section of track at Princes Avenue, but then began to pick up speed as it headed into Oakwood. Another tram, number 52, was leaving the reserved section of track at Oakwood and was about to join Roundhay Road when it collided with the runaway tram. 507 crashed into the rear of 52 and left the tracks at Gledhow Lane, causing a huge cloud of smoke and knocking the 52 driver unconscious.

Number 52 now became the runaway - especially as Norris had now caught up with his vehicle and applied its brakes. The damaged tram began to travel down towards Harehills, picking up speed, with several injured passengers aboard. Its conductor was thrown clear in the crash and the driver was still unconscious at the wheel.

As the tram travelled past Gipton Wood, uninjured passengers realised that if it were to emerge at speed from the Clock Cinema junction into Harehills during rush hour, it could lead to disaster.

A 37-year-old sales manager called James Penwarden, who was aboard with his wife and four-year-old son, leaped into action. He stepped over the driver's body to apply the handbrake, slowing the vehicle down, and switched the control lever to what he believed to be the 'off' position. After going to check on his family, it began to move again, so he returned to the cab and realised he needed to apply the ratchet with his foot to finally halt the tram. It came to a stop just beyond the Gipton Hotel, now The Roundhay pub. Fifteen injured passengers were taken to hospital, including the steward of Leeds Golf Club.

Both Norris and Cunningham were blamed for the accident in an official report, and Cunningham claimed not to know about the existence of the emergency brake. They were sacked. James Penwarden was awarded a British Empire Medal for his heroic actions. His son, who later moved to Cornwall, inherited the medal.