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The phenomena leading to the surface flashover across solid insulators in vacuum and the subsequent spread of the trigger plasma thus formed to bridge the main gap in a triggered vacuum switch are investigated experimentally. The results show that the breakdown proceeds in two stages. In the first stage a plasma is formed by electrons releasing and ionizing absorbed gases. The electrons are field emitted at the insulator-electrode junction and the breakdown delay is primarily affected by the trigger voltage. In the second stage the trigger plasma expands into the main gap with a speed depending on the trigger current and trigger electrode geometry, in accordance with a simple model.