MEMORIES - TAUNTON SLEEPER FIRE


THE TAUNTON SLEEPER FIRE

 

The Taunton Sleeper Fire happened on the 6th July 1978 when Sleeping carriages on the 'up' overnight sleeper from Penzance caught fire. The train stopped by Fairwater Close which at least did enable the fire service and other emergency services to access the line relatively easily.  It could have been much worse if the train had stopped well out in the sticks where access would have be very difficult indeed.  The coaches were at some stage dumped in the bay platform on the Railway Street side of the Station as I recall seeing there about 8.30am that morning on my diverted way to work.  All train services had been suspended and although Staplegrove Road was buzzing with activity when the train stopped and the air was filled with acrid smoke. Cause of the fire was a pile of bed-linen which had been placed on a heater in the end vestibule (which had inadequate guards). When the heater came on after the train was connected up to the locomotive's power supply, the linen caught fire although clearly the loco had been on the train from Penzance.  I guess maybe the linen was moved en route or some other fault developed with the heater - eg linen prevented adequate ventilation and heat built-up etc. It was the smoke from this, in a confined space, that caused the carbon monoxide that killed ten passengers.  The Fire Brigade did complain about locked doors hindering access to fight the fire. That was a separate issue to do with saving property rather than life and following the fire Somerset's Chief Fire Officer (Nigel Musselwhite) made a series of recommendations to radically improve the design and fire safety of sleeping carriages which were incorporated into a new design and build. Sadly, Nigel died a few years ago. According to the Official Report the train came to a stand adjacent to Fairwater Close at about 02.41.  The first Police vehicle arrived at 02.52: the first Ambulance at 02.54 and the first Fire Brigade appliance at 02.55 (Information: Jeff Treece)

Photo: Brian Aston

Photo: Brian Aston

 Judging by the number of people inspecting the carriage, lack of weeds in the yard & headcode spots on the 47, I think the photo is of the horrendous sleeper fire on a Paddington bound train around 1977 / 78. At the time I was only 6 or 7! I think the fire was started by a cigarette; the train was well on fire by time it passed through Wellington (I believe the Wellington signalman reported it on to Taunton, so I was told a few years later when we became friendly with the Wellington signalmen). I can vaguely remember it being on the news; the firemen tackled the blaze by the iron bridge in Taunton, I think in old sidings between the main line & freight lines. Approx 4-5 people died, I have a feeling that smoking was banned from sleepers after this ? As I say this is all pretty vague memories, I'm sure an older person could shed some more light on it (Information: Andy Smith)


According to the book Railway Disasters by Stanley Hall the coach number was W2437 built 1960. It was on the 21:30 Penzance to Paddington having been added at Plymouth. (Andy Hunt)

Further to Andy's comment above, coach W2437 can be seen above stored behind Taunton Station next to the old Taunton Shed. (Photo: Lester Solway)

Another view of the stored coaches (possibly ready for onward movement with the attached barrier van on the rear) are seen parked on Taunton Shed with a Class 47 on the front end (Photo: Lester Solway)


My grandmother witnessed the Taunton sleeper train fire. Many people were rescued by local residents because they were able to break down the wire fencing at the end of Fairwater Close. This would no longer be possible due to the new anti-vandal spear fencing. Perhaps Network Rail should think again because in this instance, the ability of people to gain access to the railway saved lives.  (Geoff Endacott)


I was on duty in the Depot & Telegraph Office the morning after the Sleeper Fire. As I arrived at 07.00 I was stunned to see the sleepers in the Downside platform, presumably having shunted there for removal of the bodies. It was chaos, with brass hats popping out of the woodwork all over the place, they chose our office as we had 3 phone lines plus the switchboard. We made endless cups of tea and had to abandon all our normal work - I was supposed to check the Paybill entries before sending them off to the DIC in Reading - hope nobody got underpaid that day. (Pip Davey)


PLEASE ALSO SEE THE FOLLOWING LINKS:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/july/6/newsid_2495000/2495703.stm

http://www.railwaysarchive.co.uk/docSummary.php?docID=396


The three coaches, BG and 2 x SLC are E80832 BG, W2437 SLC & W2423 SLC - these formed the Plymouth portion
which was obviously added at Plymouth to the other 12 coaches. The driver braked on approach to Taunton but when he applied power again, he found he could not release the brakes - this was due to the communication cord being pulled at the same time! As a result, the train came to a halt unable to reach the station. Neither could they uncouple the leading three coaches due to being unable to release the brakes. This could only have been done with the help of another loco on the other end. 11 persons died in the fire mainly from carbon dioxide poisoning (some had high levels of cyanide in their blood) and a 12th person died of pneumonia shortly afterwards. (Nigel Curtis)