John "Jack" Axon GC (4 December 1900 – 9 February 1957)[1] was an English train driver from Stockport (Edgeley Depot) who died while trying to stop a runaway freight train on a 1 in 58 gradient at Chapel-en-le-Frith in Derbyshire after a brake failure. The train consisted of an ex-LMS Stanier Class 8F 2-8-0 No. 48188 hauling 33 wagons and a brake van.


On the outward trip from Stockport to Buxton that day, Driver Axon had noticed a leak from the supply to the locomotive steam brake and had requested and received fitter's attention at the Buxton depot. On the return trip from Buxton to Stockport, the repair did not hold and the supply pipe broke away from the steam brake disabling the locomotive steam brake and whistle. This filled the locomotive cab with scalding steam and prevented Driver John Axon and Fireman Ron Scanlon from reaching the controls.

Before radios, engines used whistles to communicate with each other which was obviously not possible if the cab was filled with scalding steam and, even more to the point, if the steam whistle is not functional. Thus the crew of the banking engine at the rear of Driver Axon's train remained unaware of the problems at the front and unfortunately kept pushing Driver Axon's train towards Dove Holes summit.

Driver Axon told his Fireman Scanlon to jump off and attempt to apply wagon brakes but, due to the speed the train was travelling, he only managed to apply a few before the train reached the summit and began accelerating down the 1 in 58 gradient towards Chapel-en-le-Frith. As the crew of the banking engine reached the summit to let the train continue under its own power, they were alarmed to see Axon's train accelerating away from them, and the guard frantically applying the brakes to his van.

At the time of the locomotive failure, Driver Axon could have jumped clear of the then slow-moving train. However, aware of the danger that his train posed to life further down the line, he stayed with his accelerating train despite the scalding steam on the footplate, trying to close the regulator in the hope that this would mitigate the effects of a collision. In the end, he only managed to partly close it, and screw down the engine's tender brakes, but sadly this had negligible effect.

Warned by the Dove Holes signalman, the staff at Chapel-en-le-Frith were able to evacuate a two-car DMU, but had no time to warn the crew of a Rowsley-to-Stockport freight. The runaway smashed into the rear of it killing both the train's guard and Axon.


Axon was posthumously awarded the George Cross on 7 May 1957.[2][3] His George Cross was donated to the National Railway Museum in 1978.[4]

He was the subject of a famous 1957 radio ballad (The Ballad of John Axon), the first of the series, written by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger and produced by Charles Parker. A CD released in June 2008, 'Primary Transmission' by the artist Broadcaster on Red Grape Records, included the song 'Johnny' which is based on samples from the Ballad of John Axon and set to new music.[5]

On 19 February 1981, a British Rail Class 86 electric locomotive number 86261 was named Driver John Axon, GC at a ceremony at Euston Station, London.

In February 2007, a DMU Class 150 train (150273) was named 'Driver John Axon, GC' at Buxton. This name has now passed onto a Class 156 DMU, 156460. A plaque commemorating the events was unveiled, to be mounted at Chapel-en-le Frith station. The plaque is now mounted on the station buildings at Chapel-en-le-Frith facing onto the southbound platform.


His grandson, also named John Axon, was a television actor best known for his role as Nigel Harper in The Royal; he also played roles in other series such as Life on Mars, City Central and Peak Practice. The Manchester Evening News reported on 25 October 2008 that he collapsed and died of a suspected heart attack, aged 48.[3]

See also


  1. ^ Michael Ashcroft, George Cross Heroes, 2010
  2. ^ "No. 41062". The London Gazette (Supplement). 3 May 1957. p. 2723. 
  3. ^ a b Wylie, Ian (25 October 2008). "Royal star John Axon dies". Manchester Evening News. Retrieved 21 November 2008. 
  4. ^ Carter, Phillip. "Axon, John (1900–1957), railwayman". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 23 June 2011. 
  5. ^ "BBC - Radio 2 - BBC Radio Ballads - The Ballad of John Axon". www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2017-11-26. 

External links