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What's wrong with our b***** trains today?      

Aasta, Norway; Paddington, England; Silver Spring, USA; Quintinshill, Scotland - fire brought tragedy when disaster struck

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What’s Wrong With Our B******* Trains Today?
by Ray State


FIRE! Head-on collision at Aasta station, near Elverum, Norway

The accidents in Norway on 4 January, 2000 and at Paddington on 5 October have produced a new fear, especially to accident watchers in Britain and on the Continent, which is the emergence of FIRE.

In the 19th century the use of oil lamps in passenger trains which could spill in the event of an accident presented an all too present risk of fires starting in collision damaged or overturned coaches. Later oil gave way to gas and this proved even more lethal with a gas-fed fire causing the highest death toll in the history of accident on Britain’s railways. This was at Quintinshill, near Gretna Green in 1915 when 225 were killed at.

This terrible accident spurred the introduction of electric lighting and serious fires were drastically reduced. A spate of spark and cigarette related fires after the second world war at Beattock (1950) and at Huntingdon (1951) indicated that care still had been taken over fire-proofing interior materials and this was again emphasised in the sleeper train fire at Taunton in 1978.

Despite the latter incidents, fires following accidents on passenger trains since the global introduction of electric lighting have been comparatively rare. So what has happened to change this?

While attention to interiors has meant the use of fire-proof paints, upholstery and finishes, the drive for economies has meant that, trains have to remain longer in service between maintenance or servicing visits. This means that, for diesel powered trains, the fuel carried has to be drastically increased.

During the modernisation of British Railways in the early 1960’s the design of diesel equipment and the retention of features such as steam heating meant that there was little spare space and fuel tanks were small. In addition, tanks were tucked up high under the body or even inside the locomotive body itself. Thus in the event of collision or derailment the chance of spillage was greatly reduced. Nevertheless, the propensity for diesel oil to burst into flame on collision was demonstrated in 1984 during the staged collision between a class 46 locomotive and a nuclear flask on the Old Dalby test track. Despite having in-board tanks and the fuel kept at only a few gallons the locomotive erupted in a sheet of flame at the point of collision.

After the activity of modernisation, new diesel orders stagnated until the onset of the 1980’s when the High Speed Trains (HST) were built. The advent of electric heating meant the size of the fuel tanks could be increased giving increased range between fuelling. Largely, these trains have operated without problem but the shape of things to come was evident in the incident at Maidenhead on the 8th September 1995. Here, a evening rush-hour train leaving London lost a fuel tank when the mounting bolts failed. The fuel immediately ignited but because the train was travelling fast it was thinly distributed along the train and on the track. Although it looked fierce there was no penetration of fire into the passenger compartment (although there was plenty of smoke). Nevertheless, the smoke caused an evacuation of the train in which one person was unfortunately killed by a passing train.

Following the HST’s, the next big order was for replacement of the ageing first-generation Diesel Multiple Units. The class 150 were introduced from 1984 and with the smaller but powerful Cummins engine, air brakes and longer bodies there was space for a larger fuel tank. The amount of fuel carried now almost doubled and even worse, tanks now extended to the limit of the loading gauge. This not only meant that there was more fuel to spill but the tanks were more vulnerable to puncture.

FIRE! Ladbroke Grove, Paddington
This practice was carried through on all subsequent builds including the Turbostar class 165 and 166 now with Perkins engines. It was one of the latter which was involved in the Ladbroke Grove accident.

In the US fuel carried by the larger locomotives is nearly double that of European locomotives. The effect of this is apparent in the disproportionate number of fires which accompany a collision. The Federal Rail Authority (FRA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have been seriously concerned by this development and solutions are being sought. To date no lasting answers have been found.

Like Beattie’s battlecruisers of the first World War, "armour" has been sacrificed on Europe’s trains for range and maintenance economy. It may take another Hood before the problem is solved.

During the Battle of Jutland the British battlecruisers being heavily armed but lightly armoured were found to be vulnerable to a plunging shot from the enemy and two were sunk leading Admiral Beattie to cry in despair "What’s wrong with our B***** ships today". In reality the decision to sacrifice armour to obtain speed left the battlecruiser with little protection over the magazine behind B turret. Nor was the lesson completely learnt as the Hood was later built to the same design and suffered an identical end at the hands of the Bismarck in 1940.


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This file last updated: Saturday, 22-Jan-2000 18:51:16 EST
Copyright © David Fry 1999