On this day in history : 6th July 1978 – A fire breaks out on the Penzance to Paddington sleeper train…. Twelve people are killed and a further fifteen are injured….

The train had left Penzance at 9.30pm and had arrived at Plymouth at 11.50pm, where it was coupled-up to two sleeper cars…. Around 12.15am the electric train’s heating system was turned on and the journey resumed at 12.30am, making stops at Newton Abbot and Exeter….

Train carriage similar to the one involved in the Taunton sleeper train disaster – Photo credit : Dave Coxon, English Wikipedia – Public domain

On older trains used bed linen would have been transported in the guard’s compartment – but on these newer trains it was carried in plastic bags and placed in the vestibule (the enclosed chamber at the end between two carriages)…. On the Penzance to Paddington train these bags had been stacked against the heater…. The bags began to heat up and as they started to smoulder toxic gases, including carbon monoxide were given off…. As the ventilation system drew its fresh air from the vestibule the now poisonous air was pumped into the sleeping booths….

Before long a major fire had broken out…. The train stopped at Silk Mill signal box, about a mile from Taunton, at 2.41am – after the communications cord had been pulled…. Some passengers were already dead from carbon monoxide poisoning – others awoke and although hampered by smoke and heat managed to escape….

Fire fighters arrived within four minutes and local residents living nearby rushed to help…. Rescuers were hindered further as doors had been locked…. Many passengers chose to lock their doors whilst sleeping – and although against the rules carriage doors were locked as guards wanted to keep intruders out of the carriages…. This certainly made the rescue operation difficult but was not cited as the main cause of death…. Eleven people were killed immediately, through poisoning and smoke inhalation – the victims and injured were taken to nearby Musgrove Park Hospital…. A twelfth, Belgian passenger died in hospital the following month having never regained consciousness….

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