Selby rail crash 20 years on - fiancée of train driver John Weddle pays first public tributes

Joanne Weddle-Wheatley was meant to marry a man with a “beautiful smile and amazing laugh” 20 years ago this year.

Joanne Weddle-Wheatley and John Weddle, the passenger train driver who died in the Selby rail disaster in 2001, with their dog Josh.

But she is now speaking publicly for the first time about the day her fiancé, train driver John Weddle, became one of the 10 people who died in the Great Heck rail disaster, near Selby, which happened 20 years ago tomorrow.

“John was my future back then, but sadly it was all taken away and the what ‘could have beens’ will always remain a mystery,” she said.

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Joanne, from Lanchester in County Durham, worked alongside her partner at Great North Eastern Railway, as part of the on-board catering crew.

The scene at after the train crash at Great Heck near Selby, North Yorkshire, in February 2001.

She too was scheduled on the service that crashed, but said that due to a railway medical being cancelled, she could not return to work at the start of that week.

Joanne said: “I remember receiving a phone call from a work colleague just before 7am that morning, checking on my whereabouts as she was on the train behind.

“I remember from that point onwards the day seemed to unfold in slow motion.

“Initially, I didn’t think John was involved at all, as he wasn’t scheduled to work that train on that particular morning, which was a sad fact, but as the day progressed I knew he had been involved without having any official confirmation.

“I knew John would have been the first one to contact me to double check that I wasn’t working and when the call didn’t come the realisation of him being involved all became apparent.

“Shockingly, for me, it wasn’t until the next day, on the six o’clock news that the confirmation came and the disbelief that no one, especially those that knew at that point, prepared me for the devastating news which absolutely traumatised me.”

She added: “It’s been so hard over the years coping with all the emotional elements of not just losing someone, but not being there with John on that fateful morning and also the crew members which I worked with at that time as well. Initially, when the crash first happened I couldn’t grieve at all, I was numb.

“At times, the grief combined with the guilt has just consumed me, eaten away at me piece by piece, but through a lot of support from my own family, close friends and long term partner, Mic, I have managed to overcome some tough hurdles.”

Joanne and John Weddle met in the 1990s when she worked for National Rail Enquiries, then based in Newcastle. They had got engaged in 2000 and planned to get married in 2001.

Years later, Joanne discovered that one of the last things her fiancé did was pick a wedding ring in Newcastle – but she did not get to see it.

“Knowing that he did that, the day before he died was a huge sentiment and such a precious memory to hold onto and for me, it was just a shame he never got to see me wear it, in life and in spirit!”

She added: “What I loved about John was that he had a genuine ability to connect with people without judging them and that he was always true to himself and others.”

Joanne returned to work in 2002 and legally took his surname as her own, but left the railways in 2009.

“I knew that every train that I worked, John would have driven at some point in his career, which made me feel close to him.”

She can recall the last shift she worked with her fiancé, when one of the train windows was covered in condensation.

“I remember sketching a huge love heart and wrote ‘JW 4 JW’ as the train was leaving Newcastle and John was standing on the platform smiling.”

Floral tributes at the crash site and at the Newcastle Central Station plaque from families and colleagues have given her comfort.

She said: “I lost the most important person in my life and I also lost the person that I once was. That immense sadness has always been there in one way or another and that sense of loss and separation has never gone away.

“John was my future back then, but sadly it was all taken away and the what ‘could have beens’ will always remain a mystery, but the time I had with John was really special.”

She spoke of his “beautiful smile and that amazing laugh,” adding: “I know that I was really lucky to have had him in my life and the love that we had for one another will always live on.”

Years of service

John Weddle spent more than 25 years in the rail service with an “amazing work ethic”.

He started his career in 1975 as a traction trainee at Gateshead, Joanne said, initially driving coastal routes via Whitley Bay.

He then went onto the main line and drove on to Derby and Edinburgh, finally going on to the main lines at South Link.

Before he died, he was due to go on the North Link on the East Coast main line and he also applied to be a technical driver in 2000.

“He had an amazing work ethic and fought hard for what he believed was right and dedicated over 25 years of railway service,” said Joanne

“When I eventually returned back to work in 2002 after much struggle, I decided to keep working onboard trains, as I wouldn’t be defeated.

"I knew that every train that I worked, John would have driven at some point in his career, which made me feel close to him.”

Commemorations

Memorial services to mark the 20th anniversary of the Selby rail crash will be held online due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The LNER train operator will host a virtual memorial from Great Heck, in North Yorkshire, at 10am tomorrow on the anniversary of the crash in which 10 men died and 82 people were seriously injured.

Those attending will lay wreaths, give readings and pause as a train passes the site and sounds its horn in memory of those who died in the crash.

It happened after a London-bound Great North Eastern Railway train struck a Land Rover that had careered off the M62 and crashed on to the East Coast main line. The derailed passenger train was then hit by a Freightliner coal train, with catastrophic results.

The Land Rover’s driver, Gary Hart, of Strubby, Lincolnshire, was found guilty in December 2001 of 10 counts of causing death by dangerous driving and sentenced to five years in prison.

It remains the worst rail disaster of the 21st century in the United Kingdom.

Another online memorial service will be live-streamed from Selby Abbey at 2pm tomorrow, led by Canon John Weetman, the vicar of Selby Abbey, and the Reverend Peter Hibbs. A commemorative candle will be lit for each of those who lost their lives.

A spokesman for LNER said: “While we must hold this event differently to how we would have liked, we are pleased that in these difficult times we’re able to safely join together to recognise this important anniversary.”

People have been able to contribute messages of condolences, which will appear on the LNER website in the coming days.