Polmont rail disaster remembered 25 years on

WHITE sheets covered the 13 bodies lying under the trees, the tragic victims of the district's most horrific accident in living memory.

The youngest victim of the terrible events of July 30, 1984, when a rush-hour train left the rails on the busy Edinburgh to Glasgow line, was just nine years old, the eldest 64.

A further 44 people were injured, six seriously, in the Polmont rail disaster and the remainder of the 150-plus passengers on the train were badly shaken, many receiving cuts and bruises.

Today (Thursday), 25 years on, those who lost loved ones, survivors and representatives from the emergency services who battled to free those trapped in the mangled wreckage and treat their injuries, will join members of Falkirk Council and First ScotRail at a memorial service.

A commemorative plaque will be unveiled at Polmont Station where, just moments before the terrible events of that fateful Monday evening in 1984, the high-speed train had hurtled past.

Performing the unveiling will be council leader Linda Gow who said: "This was the worst rail accident in living memory in our area and the anniversary will bring back many memories for the families of the victims and those who were injured, as well as for the railway and emergency services workers who dealt with the shocking aftermath."

Falkirk rail passengers cheated death and only a handful were injured, none seriously, thanks to a strange quirk of fate.

These commuters tradition-ally chose to sit in the rear coaches of the express train – the ones which stopped closest to the exit at Falkirk

High Station. These coaches escaped the full impact of the terrifying crash, effectively saving those dozens of locals on board preparing to alight from the train at their home station.

Most of the dead and injured were in the front two coaches of the 5.30 p.m. 'push-pull' train which had its Class 47/7 diesel-electric locomotive at the rear. Questions were to be later asked if this policy had contributed to the number of dead and injured.

Many of the fatalities and serious injuries occurred after the victims were thrown through the windows of the derailed coaches.

However, the death toll could have been higher if an inter-city express from Glasgow had not been running one minute late. The driver spotted the accident and was able to stop in time.

What had started out as just another commuter journey when the train pulled out of Waverley station was to end in what at the time was Britain's worst rail disaster for 17 years.

After Haymarket and Linlithgow the next scheduled stop was Falkirk High. Once through Polmont and the signal box on the down line, driver John Tennant (46) started to apply the brakes and, with his six-coach train travelling at around 85 mph, came round a gentle corner to discover a stray cow on the track.

He received serious head injuries in the crash and later was to have no recollection of the terrible accident, but investigators believe he had no more than six seconds warning to put on the emergency brakes before the collision.

At 5.55 p.m. the front coach struck the beast, dragging part of its carcass underneath, which is believed to have caused it to leave the tracks. The leading coach ended on its side on an embankment, while the second coach broke loose and demolished more than 100ft of stone wall at the top of the banking before embedding itself in the second-last coach.

Passenger Ramsay Shields (24) from East Kilbride had been asleep when the accident occurred but, scrambling from the wreckage, he ran over half a mile to get help.

Meanwhile, signal box worker Leslie Martin received a telephone message at 6.02 pm. to say there had been a derailment with possible fatalities and raised the alarm.

Eight minutes later another call confirmed there were deaths and he called for a full turnout of emergency services and buses to ferry the less seriously injured.

The first of the rescuers were one the scene within 12 minutes of the crash. People living nearby, alerted by the sirens from the seven fire appliances and eight ambulances sent to the scene, raced to see what had happened.

The sight that met them was one they could never have comprehended or would ever forget.

One of the first on the scene was Franz Grimley, then 36, of nearby Hallglen. He later said: "People were standing around looking puzzled and there were bodies lying on the edge of the embankment."

Another eyewitness described it as "a scene of carnage".

While many helped the walking wounded, others were ghoulish spectators and police were deployed to keep them away and allow the desperate rescue battle to continue.

A team of doctors and nurses from Falkirk Royal Infirmary raced to the scene to help tend the injured, who were then taken to the hospital for further treatment. There, the physiotherapy department was turned into a makeshift mortuary to receive the bodies when they were eventually removed from the scene.

Meanwhile, the hospital switchboard was inundated with phone calls from local people offering to give donations of blood.

NHS official Brian Baillie described the scene in Falkirk Royal as "organised chaos" and he praised staff, many who were off-duty and turned out after hearing of the crash, for their efforts.

Tributes were paid to all the emergency staff for their hard work. Then chief constable Ian Oliver said: "I was very impressed with the way all the services worked together. There was excellent co-ordination and co-operation from everyone."

Firemaster Ian Adam said his men did an "exceptionally good job in a very awkward situation". He added: "All the training the lads have had comes to the fore in these tragic circumstances."

The last of the emergency workers left the scene after three harrowing hours.

Behind they left railway workers who toiled through the night to repair the track so giant cranes could be moved in to clear the wreckage.

The line re-opened just two days later and services were quickly back to normal ... but for those who were involved, nothing would ever be the same again.