Taunton Sleeper Fire - 1978

Status
Not open for further replies.

randyrippley

Established Member
Joined
21 Feb 2016
Messages
3,725
Posts #1 - #8 originally in this thread.
The one involved in Taunton was fitted with ETH in 1976, not sure about the ER allocations.
At the time the press was pretty emphatic that the fire was due to bedding piled against a steam heating element, unlikely as that may seem
 
Sponsor Post - registered members do not see these adverts; click here to register, or click here to log in
R

RailUK Forums

Taunton

Established Member
Joined
1 Aug 2013
Messages
6,491
At the time the press was pretty emphatic that the fire was due to bedding piled against a steam heating element, unlikely as that may seem
Press were wrong, it was an electric heater. Train and loco were ETH only. As you may guess, it's a subject I have followed closer than most. Official report opening page:

The fire originated in a number of sacks of soiled and clean bed linen which had been placed against an
electric heater in the vestibule at the leading end of the leading sleeping-car and which had smouldered and
finally ignited.
 

hexagon789

Veteran Member
Joined
2 Sep 2016
Messages
11,779
Location
Glasgow
At the time the press was pretty emphatic that the fire was due to bedding piled against a steam heating element, unlikely as that may seem
I would have thought that would be rather akin to drying clothes on a radiator - even after they are bone dry if you leave them they get quite hot but they don't catch alight.
 

Bevan Price

Established Member
Joined
22 Apr 2010
Messages
5,746
I would have thought that would be rather akin to drying clothes on a radiator - even after they are bone dry if you leave them they get quite hot but they don't catch alight.
Correct. About the only way they could catch fire would be a carelessly discarded match or cigarette.
 

Taunton

Established Member
Joined
1 Aug 2013
Messages
6,491
I don't want to distract the Deltic discussion with the Taunton sleeper fire. However. The used bedding materials had been placed against a 400w electric heater, and in a test conducted afterwards where this was repeated, the bedding reached a temperature such that it was likely to ignite.

The official report seems to have a range of inconsistencies, starting with not asking why the heater was switched on fully on a summer July evening when the (non-AC) compartments had all been set to fresh air only. Why the bedding was in the sleeper vestibule and not in the van, a procedure stopped the previous year when the van was withdrawn. Yet there was a van right there in the formation. And more. I'm distracting us. Back to the ECML.
 

Grumpy Git

Established Member
Joined
13 Oct 2019
Messages
1,459
Location
Earth (for now)
I don't want to distract the Deltic discussion with the Taunton sleeper fire. However. The used bedding materials had been placed against a 400w electric heater, and in a test conducted afterwards where this was repeated, the bedding reached a temperature such that it was likely to ignite.

The official report seems to have a range of inconsistencies, starting with not asking why the heater was switched on fully on a summer July evening when the (non-AC) compartments had all been set to fresh air only. Why the bedding was in the sleeper vestibule and not in the van, a procedure stopped the previous year when the van was withdrawn. Yet there was a van right there in the formation. And more. I'm distracting us. Back to the ECML.
A domestic hot water radiator can only ever get as hot as the water inside it, so less than 100°C (and more likely ~75°C).

An electric heater gets MUCH hotter, hence the fire (and why all electric heating appliances have a warning "do not cover").
 

randyrippley

Established Member
Joined
21 Feb 2016
Messages
3,725
A domestic hot water radiator can only ever get as hot as the water inside it, so less than 100°C (and more likely ~75°C).

An electric heater gets MUCH hotter, hence the fire (and why all electric heating appliances have a warning "do not cover").
Steam radiator - not hot water. So much hotter.
But as Taunton pints out, they were ETH anyway, the press reports were wrong
 

MrEd

Member
Joined
13 Jan 2019
Messages
583
Steam radiator - not hot water. So much hotter.
But as Taunton pints out, they were ETH anyway, the press reports were wrong
The loco at Taunton was 47498 which could only supply ETH. You’re right.

I don't want to distract the Deltic discussion with the Taunton sleeper fire. However. The used bedding materials had been placed against a 400w electric heater, and in a test conducted afterwards where this was repeated, the bedding reached a temperature such that it was likely to ignite.

The official report seems to have a range of inconsistencies, starting with not asking why the heater was switched on fully on a summer July evening when the (non-AC) compartments had all been set to fresh air only. Why the bedding was in the sleeper vestibule and not in the van, a procedure stopped the previous year when the van was withdrawn. Yet there was a van right there in the formation. And more. I'm distracting us. Back to the ECML.
I find this really interesting, having studied this accident a lot myself as a regular sleeper user (although my sleeper trips have always been on the London-Scotland route). The Mods should start a new thread if possible!

I too have always been baffled by that remark in the report that there was nowhere else to put the linen despite there being several brake coaches in the Penzance portion and a BG right next to the sleeper that caught fire in the Plymouth section. Why on earth was it not put in there? Again, in the era before air-conditioned stock, why was ETH needed in July (unless it was a colder night than we think?). Then there’s the bizarre story of the irregularly locked doors and the vanishing attendant who couldn’t give a coherent account of his movements after the train left Exeter, not to mention the random man who handed keys to the fire chief. There’s a lot about that fire and the response to it that doesn’t stack up.

Although it’s quite a gruesome story, it would make an interesting docudrama/documentary.
 
Last edited:

47271

Established Member
Joined
28 Apr 2015
Messages
2,967
I agree that when you read the official report the circumstances of the Taunton fire are murky, but then so many things were murky on the railway in that era. At the risk of going even further off topic, I read the report on the Seer Green fatal crash of December 1981 (one Marylebone line dmu piled into the back of another after heavy snow) the other day and some of the haphazard behaviour in there is quite amazing to the modern eye.

Back to Taunton, if there was a clear positive conclusion from the fire then it was that it played a significant part in making the mk3 sleeper the superb piece of engineering and passenger safety that it is.
 

Cheshire Scot

Member
Joined
24 Jul 2020
Messages
404
Location
North East Cheshire
Sleeping car linen was often in sacks of a nylon type material, perhaps more flammable than the bedding (cotton?) which would then catch once the fire was established?

Happy to be shot down as I am no scientist.
 

MrEd

Member
Joined
13 Jan 2019
Messages
583
Sleeping car linen was often in sacks of a nylon type material, perhaps more flammable than the bedding (cotton?) which would then catch once the fire was established?

Happy to be shot down as I am no scientist.
I’m no chemist either but that seems highly plausible. The problem is that being a polymer, the nylon of the bags would melt first rather than burning which would produce horrendous smoke and fumes, which would probably contain cyanides. These were then sucked into the pressure ventilation system of the sleeping car. The coroner was certain that most of the passengers in coach B had been asphyxiated before the linen even burst into flames. This stacks up with the fact that the guard could smell something foul even as the train was passing through Whiteball Tunnel; the smell was much stronger than the normal tunnel smell. Perhaps by this point fumes were being sucked back along the train after escaping through open windows.

What’s amazing is how no-one else noticed this, given that it is a very unpleasant and overpowering smell.

Had this been in a Mk3 sleeper in which smoke detectors were fitted most if not all lives would have been saved, even if the bags began to smoulder. As has been remarked, the fire offered important lessons in sleeping car safety which were taken up with the Mk3 (and later Mk5) designs. A sleeping car without smoke detectors is unthinkable now.

I think the fire also showed that more rigorous training of sleeper crews was needed, as there was perhaps a lax culture among them (the remarks about their lack of supervision and lack of fire training are very concerning but no doubt a product of their time- things were so much more laid back in the 1970s). Thankfully we have in the main very professional and well-trained staff on our remaining sleeper routes today.
 
Last edited:

Cheshire Scot

Member
Joined
24 Jul 2020
Messages
404
Location
North East Cheshire
I think the fire also showed that more rigorous training of sleeper crews was needed, as there was perhaps a lax culture among them (the remarks about their lack of supervision and lack of fire training are very concerning but no doubt a product of their time- things were so much more laid back in the 1970s). Thankfully we have in the main very professional and well-trained staff on our remaining sleeper routes today.
I recall the Euston Sleeping Car Attendants who worked into Fort William talking about their Sleeping Car Inspectors who would join the train unannounced in the middle of the night at Carlisle or Preston to carry out checks. Perhaps the Western Region didn't have Sleeping Car Inspectors.

Certainly at that time even with my limited knowledge of sleeper operations the first two things which jumped out of the report were the linen not stored in the van and the locked doors.
 

edwin_m

Veteran Member
Joined
21 Apr 2013
Messages
21,489
Location
Nottingham
Without going back and checking, I think the report mentioned that the "training" for attendants consisted of having them shadow someone in the role for a period, so they learned existing practice whether good or otherwise.
 

Highlandspring

Established Member
Joined
14 Oct 2017
Messages
2,779
One interesting bit of Taunton trivia is that the second sleeping car of the Plymouth portion W2423 (lettered as coach C, the third vehicle behind the loco and coupled to coach B W2437 which was the seat of the fire) went on to be the last Mk1 sleeper withdrawn from revenue service in 1984.
 

John Webb

Established Member
Joined
5 Jun 2010
Messages
2,218
Location
St Albans
I’m no chemist either but that seems highly plausible. The problem is that being a polymer, the nylon of the bags would melt first rather than burning which would produce horrendous smoke and fumes, which would probably contain cyanides. These were then sucked into the pressure ventilation system of the sleeping car. The coroner was certain that most of the passengers in coach B had been asphyxiated before the linen even burst into flames. This stacks up with the fact that the guard could smell something foul even as the train was passing through Whiteball Tunnel; the smell was much stronger than the normal tunnel smell. Perhaps by this point fumes were being sucked back along the train after escaping through open windows.

What’s amazing is how no-one else noticed this, given that it is a very unpleasant and overpowering smell.

Had this been in a Mk3 sleeper in which smoke detectors were fitted most if not all lives would have been saved, even if the bags began to smoulder. As has been remarked, the fire offered important lessons in sleeping car safety which were taken up with the Mk3 (and later Mk5) designs. A sleeping car without smoke detectors is unthinkable now.
I was on the scientific staff of the Government's Fire Research Station at the time of the Taunton sleeper fire. Much to my chagrin I was not involved in the tests carried out as that involved mainly our materials people. But I understand the high levels of cyanide detected in the bodies of those who unfortunately died was caused by the various plastic surfaces with which the coach interior was constructed, and not by the combustion of the bedding material or the bags it was in.
And it was my seniors in the Detection Section who gave advice on fitting detectors to the newer stock.
 

MrEd

Member
Joined
13 Jan 2019
Messages
583
I recall the Euston Sleeping Car Attendants who worked into Fort William talking about their Sleeping Car Inspectors who would join the train unannounced in the middle of the night at Carlisle or Preston to carry out checks. Perhaps the Western Region didn't have Sleeping Car Inspectors.

Certainly at that time even with my limited knowledge of sleeper operations the first two things which jumped out of the report were the linen not stored in the van and the locked doors.
This is going off topic again, for which I apologise, but did Euston-based sleeper hosts (attendants as they were probably called then) go all the way into Fort William? If so, how did they manage to get enough sleep before having to get up to work the 18.20 sleeper back to London (in some years it was earlier?). Or did they lay over so that they work the sleeper back the next day?

Presumably there were Fort William-based hosts back then, as there are today, and I suppose when it was their turn they would simply not be diagrammed for consecutive night shifts? Did they go as far as Euston back then? I never used the sleeper in BR days so have no knowledge of how it was staffed.

With the current Serco arrangements (well, those that existed in the three/four years or so before the pandemic hit), I think the Fort William sleeper hosts simply work between Fort William and Edinburgh where the lounge car and seated coach detaches. The through sleeping cars are then worked by a London crew/Aberdeen crew between Edinburgh and Euston, depending on which night of the week it is. I seem to remember that in Scotrail days, Fort William hosts did go through to Euston, and Euston ones all the way to Fort William, but it made for a *very* long shift and also caused difficulties because sleeper hosts have to have a minimum of nine hours rest before being allowed to book on again (this can only just be achieved with the sleeper arriving on time at 09:55 and departing at 19:50 as it currently does)- if the inbound sleeper was late into Fort William, then this would invariably make the outbound one depart late that evening. Of course, these regulations were probably nowhere near as strict in BR days.

The Plymouth and Penzance sleepers have always had a relatively short journey time, so I don’t suppose there is any question of the crews on that (even in BR days) not getting at least nine hours‘ break between turns. In fact the man who worked the Plymouth portion probably got around 14 hours if everything was running on time.
 

Cheshire Scot

Member
Joined
24 Jul 2020
Messages
404
Location
North East Cheshire
This is going off topic again, for which I apologise, but did Euston-based sleeper hosts (attendants as they were probably called then) go all the way into Fort William? If so, how did they manage to get enough sleep before having to get up to work the 18.20 sleeper back to London (in some years it was earlier?). Or did they lay over so that they work the sleeper back the next day?

Presumably there were Fort William-based hosts back then, as there are today, and I suppose when it was their turn they would simply not be diagrammed for consecutive night shifts? Did they go as far as Euston back then? I never used the sleeper in BR days so have no knowledge of how it was staffed.
In the late seventies and early eighties it was all Euston attendants (SCAs)s and they 'lodged' in a Fort William hotel (The Alexandra, almost across the road from the station) for around 31 hours before booking on circa 17.00 to work the 18.20 the next night, i.e. arrive Monday morning go back Tuesday evening as had been the case previously from Kings Cross. At some point somebody did the arithmetic and realised Fort William based SCAs could go out one night and back the next with daytime rest time in a London hotel. I can't recall if it want fully to FW based staff or if it became mixed between the two depots but I had previously worked with one of the FW staff who got one of the jobs.

I had read FW hosts now just work to Edinburgh although I am not sure how recent that is as the last time I used the Caley Sleeper probably about ten years ago the FW staff were still working throughout.

An interesting one was the internal Scottish sleepers to inverness which was one sleeping car each from Glasgow and Edinburgh. The southbound train left Inverness with the normal staffing of one SCA for two cars, the northbound ones set out with one attendant from each origin. At Blair Atholl where the trains met, not only did the traincrew changeover but so did the SCAs meaning there was no lodging required and it all fitted in in shifts of probably around ten hours.
 

MrEd

Member
Joined
13 Jan 2019
Messages
583
In the late seventies and early eighties it was all Euston attendants (SCAs)s and they 'lodged' in a Fort William hotel (The Alexandra, almost across the road from the station) for around 31 hours before booking on circa 17.00 to work the 18.20 the next night, i.e. arrive Monday morning go back Tuesday evening as had been the case previously from Kings Cross. At some point somebody did the arithmetic and realised Fort William based SCAs could go out one night and back the next with daytime rest time in a London hotel. I can't recall if it want fully to FW based staff or if it became mixed between the two depots but I had previously worked with one of the FW staff who got one of the jobs.

I had read FW hosts now just work to Edinburgh although I am not sure how recent that is as the last time I used the Caley Sleeper probably about ten years ago the FW staff were still working throughout.

An interesting one was the internal Scottish sleepers to inverness which was one sleeping car each from Glasgow and Edinburgh. The southbound train left Inverness with the normal staffing of one SCA for two cars, the northbound ones set out with one attendant from each origin. At Blair Atholl where the trains met, not only did the traincrew changeover but so did the SCAs meaning there was no lodging required and it all fitted in in shifts of probably around ten hours.
That’s really interesting. One of the current Fort William sleeper crew (a lovely gentleman) has been a sleeper attendant since the mid-80s so has probably been doing the job ever since Fort William crews started working on the sleeper cars. They’re such a lovely bunch the Fort William crew. I think that it was under Serco that the roster changed so that they only worked to Edinburgh and back- the rationale being that the lounge car is detached there so they might as well stay with it. This also means that they don’t have to arrange lodging turns for them (and that the Euston based hosts coming north can lodge with their train manager in Edinburgh which is a much less arduous shift for them). It also means all the passengers are guaranteed a fantastic Highland welcome in the morning.

I don’t know if it was like this in BR days, but the hospitality from some of the Euston-based sleeper hosts today leaves a lot to be desired (to the extent that a number of regular travellers on the Inverness route, where they work the whole journey, plan their trips to avoid them). Some are perfectly good at what they do but having personally been barked at by a few of them (whose manner is slightly passive-aggressive) I agree it can be very hit-and-miss. The Fort William crews today, like the Inverness ones, are all fantastic- very warm, friendly and hard-working people (like all railway staff in the Highlands I’ve ever come across; that’s true of the Highlands generally in my experience). I’m sure that was the same in the 80s.

During the coronavirus pandemic crew swaps on the sleeper have become a thing again- 1S25 (down Highlander) and 1M16 (up Highlander) stop at Lockerbie at 2.45am each night specifically for this purpose (and have done since March 2020), so that Euston hosts can swap with their Scottish equivalents. When the Lowlander was reinstated last summer I believe the Euston and Scottish crews swapped at Preston. This is to try to make the operation as Covid-secure as possible, with staff only needing to travel as far as is necessary and getting back home every morning, and also so that the sleeper can continue to operate even when hotels at both ends of the route are closed. I wonder if this will become the default for the Scottish sleepers even when lockdowns are a thing of the past, as it will save CS no end of money in hotel bills.
 

Tom Quinne

On Moderation
Joined
8 Jul 2017
Messages
2,225
Might the pillows of been that nasty that plastic ones with cloth covers, the actually pillow would certainly reach a temputure high enough to melt and catch fire.
 

Cheshire Scot

Member
Joined
24 Jul 2020
Messages
404
Location
North East Cheshire
Might the pillows of been that nasty that plastic ones with cloth covers, the actually pillow would certainly reach a temputure high enough to melt and catch fire.
The linen bag would have contained sheets, pillowcases and towels but not the actual pillows which were not changed between trips.

Once the fire reached the sleeping compartments then the pillows would have been one of the many materials to catch fire.
 
Status
Not open for further replies.

Top