Polmont rail accident

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Polmont rail accident
Map of the approximate location of the accident
Approximate location of the Polmont rail accident
Date 30 July 1984
Time 17:55 (BST)
Location west of Polmont
21.5 mi (34.6 km) west-northwest from Edinburgh
Coordinates 55°59′04″N 3°44′42″W / 55.9845°N 3.7450°W / 55.9845; -3.7450Coordinates: 55°59′04″N 3°44′42″W / 55.9845°N 3.7450°W / 55.9845; -3.7450
Country Scotland
Rail line Glasgow to Edinburgh via Falkirk Line
Operator British Railways Scottish Region
Type of incident Derailment
Cause Obstruction on line
Trains 1
Passengers 150+[1]
Deaths 13
Injuries 61 (17 serious)
List of UK rail accidents by year

The Polmont rail accident, also known as the Polmont rail disaster,[2][3] occurred on 30 July 1984 to the west of Polmont, near Falkirk in Scotland, when a westbound push-pull express train travelling from Edinburgh to Glasgow struck a cow which had gained access to the track through a damaged fence from a field near Polmont railway station. The collision caused all six carriages and the locomotive of the train to derail, killing 13 people and injuring 61 others. The accident led to a debate about the safety of push-pull trains on British Rail.


The accident happened on one of the busiest commuter lines in Scotland.[4] At the time of the accident, British Rail passenger trains between Glasgow Queen Street and Edinburgh Waverley were operated by the push-pull technique with a single British Rail Class 47 locomotive located at one end of the train at all times[5][6] (usually the locomotive pulled the carriages from Glasgow to Edinburgh and pushed on the return journey).[7] At the other end of the train was a Driving Brake Standard Open (DBSO). DBSO carriages were introduced on the line in 1980 and consisted of a passenger carriage with a control cab at the front for the driver; a DBSO would be situated at the front of the train allowing the driver to control the locomotive with a set of remote controls from which control signals were sent through the lighting circuits of the train to the locomotive pushing from behind.[7][8] This system meant that the train could continuously run between the two cities without having to allow time to switch the locomotive to the front of the train between departures. However, it left the front of the train vulnerable when being pushed from behind because the front end was lighter than the rear and had the risk of being pushed over an obstruction, leading to derailment.[9]


Stationary train with a yellow front and turquoise livery with a white stripe down its length. Electrified wires are above the train and track.
A DBSO similar to the one involved in the accident. Note the object deflector now fitted to the lower front.

On Monday, 30 July 1984 a westbound express train, the 17:30 service from Edinburgh Waverley to Glasgow Queen Street[10] — consisting of a British Rail Class 47/7 diesel-electric locomotive pushing five Mark 3 coaches, and fronted by a DBSO (no. 9706)[8] — made a scheduled stop at Linlithgow station and accelerated to approximately 85 miles per hour (137 km/h), passing through Polmont station shortly afterwards.

To the west of Polmont the track curved left and passed the junction for Stirling, then curved right with a steady gradient towards Falkirk High station. After passing the junction the train driver, John Tennant, spotted a cow on the line in the cutting on the approach to Falkirk High and made an emergency brake application; he had only between six and twelve seconds to react to the obstruction and apply the emergency brakes because of the curvature of the track. The dynamics of the train, with the locomotive pushing from behind, meant that when the brakes were applied from the DBSO at the front there was a delay in transmission of the signal to the locomotive brakes to prevent a sudden backlash to the carriages in front;[7] this caused the train to decelerate only slightly.[8][10] The train hit the adult Ayrshire cow weighing between 700–1,000 pounds (320–450 kg),[8] at 17:55 (BST).[1]

The impact of the collision destroyed the animal, but a significant part of the carcass, later thought to be a leg bone, became trapped under the leading bogie of the DBSO, lifting it off the track and derailing it. The DBSO ran derailed for approximately 100 yards and then veered to the left, and ran up the edge of the cutting into trees at the top. It then turned on its side as it was pushed round by the force of the train behind. The second vehicle, after climbing over the rear end of the DBSO, somersaulted end over end, eventually hitting the fifth vehicle as it ran past it, and the third vehicle was hit by the DBSO as it fell back down the wall of the cutting after rebounding from the trees. The DBSO and third vehicle were so badly damaged they had to be cut up on site.

Casualties were mainly in the two leading vehicles, and most fatalities were due to passengers being ejected through windows or hit by other passengers or objects as the vehicles were thrown about. The possibility of trains being fitted with seatbelts was raised and rejected, as it was again 20 years later after the derailment at Ufton Nervet in 2004.

The main focus was that the light axle-loading of the DBSO had led to its being more easily derailed than a heavier vehicle would have been, and modifications were put in place to lessen the chances of a recurrence of the derailment. This problem was to be revisited in the Selby accident in 2001, where a leading coach of a train being powered from the rear was again derailed by an object (this time a motor vehicle) on the line.

It was theorized that the use of the locomotive in the rear further added to the severity of the crash, as the locomotive continued to push forward into the train after the derailment took place. This is a common situation found in accidents where push pull consists are used, and would turn up as a factor in future accidents both in the UK and abroad.


A black rectangular plaque with gold writing, mounted on a stone wall
Memorial plaque at Polmont station

The inquiry[8] made recommendations which were followed, the main ones of which were;

  • Object deflectors were to be fitted to the leading vehicles of all trains that had an axle load of less than 16 tonnes.[9][11]
  • Headlights were to be placed on the front of all trains.
  • Improvements to fencing where livestock were adjacent to the railway.


In 2009, on the 25th anniversary of the accident, a memorial plaque was erected and unveiled by Falkirk Council, First ScotRail and the local emergency services at Polmont station to remember those who died and were injured. The memorial also commended the actions of the emergency services, railway workers and others who responded to the incident.[2][3]


  1. ^ a b Polmont rail disaster survivors recall the day their lives changed forever, falkirkherald.co.uk. Falkirk Herald. 6 August 2009. Retrieved 27 April 2013.
  2. ^ a b Plaque unveiled for anniversary of Polmont rail disaster stv.tv. STV. 30 July 2009. Retrieved 4 May 2013.
  3. ^ a b Rail disaster victims remembered news.bbc.co.uk. BBC News. 31 July 2009. Retrieved 4 May 2013.
  4. ^ "13 Dead, 44 Injured After Train Hits Cow". Associated Press, New York City. 31 July 1984.
  5. ^ Simmons, Jack; Biddle, Gordon (editors) 1997. Oxford Companion to British Railway History p 407. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-211697-5
  6. ^ Glover, John (1999). Railway Operations p 58. Ian Allen, Shepperton, England. ISBN 0-7110-2689-0
  7. ^ a b c UK: Selby Disaster 28 February 2001, Push - Pull: the Hidden Dangers danger-ahead.railfan.net. 28 February 2001. Retrieved 27 April 2013.
  8. ^ a b c d e Department of Transport; Major A.G.B. King (1985). Railway Accident: Report on the Derailment that occurred on 30th July 1984 near Polmont in the Scottish Region, British Railways. HMSO. ISBN 0-11-550685-3. 
  9. ^ a b Stead, Jean. "'Push pull' trains to be altered after death crash inquiry / Call for safer trains after derailment in Scotland". The Guardian, London. 22 February 1985.
  10. ^ a b Polmont rail disaster remembered 25 years on, falkirkherald.co.uk. Falkirk Herald. 30 July 2009. Retrieved 27 April 2013.
  11. ^ Report on improvements in the safety of passengers and staff involved in train accidents (PDF), RSSB. October 2009. Retrieved 4 May 2013.

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