An express train derailed at 95mph and plunged down an embankment on the West Coast mainline last night, leaving scores of passengers trapped in overturned carriages and four critically injured, who are at hospital in Preston. The Royal Lancaster Hospital confirmed last night that one injured passenger had died.
Four carriages left the track and slid 40ft down a steep embankment into a field after the London Euston to Glasgow Central Virgin Pendolino tilting train left the track in remote countryside at Greyrigg, north of Kendal in Cumbria.
The driver and up to eight of the train's 180 passengers were trapped in carriages and there were 100 injuries, including 40 walking wounded. The crash occurred as the train, the 5.15pm service from Euston, left a twisty section of track north of Kendal at 8.16am and entered the drop into the Tebay gorge.
Power lines which run above the track were brought crashing down amid the carriages when the half-full train derailed and delays in isolating the power to them hampered efforts to remove the injured. After three hours, only one carriage had been tackled by ambulance crews trying to free the trapped passengers. They tackled the driver's cab first and then worked their way through the carriages, three of which reportedly overturned.
Difficult working conditions also hampered the rescue effort, which took place in driving rain and the pitch dark on one of the line's most inaccessible areas. Ambulances were stuck in mud in the field and could not reach the scene, so some of trapped had to be stretchered from the field.
Local farmers attempted to haul ambulances from the mud with tractors. Four Sea King helicopters removed the injured to hospitals and also helped floodlight the rescue effort.
The cause of the crash, which occurred in windy conditions on the highest point of British rail network south of the border, is unclear. But investigations will centre on the speed of the train, the possibility of an obstruction on the track or a broken rail. A nearby farmhouse provided shelter for many injured.
Ruth Colton was one of several passengers who had to climb out of the top of their carriage. She felt the journey become bumpy, "as if we were on a plane", before derailing. She said the train, which appeared to be travelling at a normal speed, flipped over and items such as bottles and bags were "flying everywhere". She said: "Pretty much all the carriages were off the track."
The Italian-built Pendolino, Britain's first tilting train, has been introduced by Virgin over the past three years, has a top speed of 125mph and is designed for the West Coast main line's twisting track. Last night's derailment was the first serious incident involving one and the fact that no one was killed suggests that the train's safety systems - including crumple-proof zones at the front, safety exits and ladders - have worked. The train derailed near the spot where four people were killed by a runaway wagon on the West Coast main line at Tebay in February 2004. The victims were all railway workers hit by a trolley which came loose at a yard several miles away and ran away down a hill.
Joy Knowles, 43, who farms at Docker, a hamlet close to the crash scene said: "I think the train possibly hit a sheep. They do stray. With the best will in the world the farmers can't keep the odd one from getting out. One of the biggest problems facing the emergency services is getting vehicles to where they are needed. Sat nav is not effective out here in such a remote area. Already tonight my children have been outside redirecting fire engines and ambulances."
With the nearest hospital at Carlisle an hour and 20 minutes away by road, helicopters were needed remove the injured both there and to another in Preston.
All Virgin services between Preston and Carlisle were suspended until further notice last night and passengers heading north on the line today are being advised to ring National Rail Enquiries.
Caroline Thomson, BBC executive: 'There are carriages up in the air'
Caroline Thomson, a BBC executive, said her carriage "lurched very, very badly from side to side" before turning over.
"The swaying became very dramatic," she said. "And there was a moment where it turned on its side when you thought - you know - am I going to be very seriously hurt here?"
Ruth Colton, a passenger, said: "It started to get really bumpy like we were being battered by heavy winds ... and then suddenly the carriage flipped over. Bottles and bags were flying everywhere. Pretty much all of the carriages are off the track.
"The train seems to have fallen down an embankment and rolled. There's some carriages stuck up in the air and some are just lying on their sides."