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Near disaster on the London Underground
Andrew Hosken
An internal investigation by the Tube’s own investigators reveals how incompetence by London Underground staff almost led to tragedy

Monday 2 July 2001 was an extremely hot day. Rush hour commuters on the Victoria Line were not looking forward to their journey into work. Jason Groves was on his way from his home in Walthamstow to his job as a Lobby journalist at Westminster.

He told the programme: “It was a hot, hot day. Even walking to the tube station you worked up a good sweat and you knew it was going to be a stinking journey."

But it was going to get even hotter. One train stalled after a problem developed with an outside door cock. Within minutes three overcrowded tube trains were stuck in a tunnel just outside Highbury and Islington station. They carried a total of 4,000 passengers. And there they stayed for between an hour-and-a-quarter and an hour-and-a-half.

The conditions started as extremely uncomfortable and became potentially dangerous. Not only was it hot, there was very little air. And even that was fast running out. London's tube trains create their own air when they move forward. When they stop moving, they stop providing ventilation to their passengers.

Mr Groves described the rapidly-worsening conditions on his train. "People were starting to rip the advertising boards off above the seats and trying to use them as fans. But when you're packed so tight, you can't really do that.

"A pregnant woman collapsed. I don't think anyone had really seen her before. Everyone was crying out for water. But you don't take much water in with you when you're going to work."

Eventually Jason Groves and his fellow passengers were taken off the train at Highbury and Islington station. Some 600 passengers were treated for the effects of heat exhaustion. Eighteen people, including one of the drivers, were taken to hospital. Some went in for asthma, others for the effects of heat and dehydration.

The Internal Inquiry: London Underground to Blame?

An internal inquiry was held. The inquiry report marked "private and confidential" has been obtained by the programme. It concludes:

"This incident, though distressing for the passengers and crews concerned, is an example of the near-miss principle. There were a number of times when, had conditions been very slightly different, the consequences could have been disastrous."

London Underground was to blame for the near-tragedy. The report says:

"There was a very slow realisation especially on the part of the control room to accept the seriousness of the situation on the ground."

Safety standards are policed by Her Majesty's Railways Inspectorate (HMRI), which is part of the Health and Safety Executive. Caroline Wake, a principal inspector with the HMRI said:

"It was a very serious incident. The people stuck in those trains were very badly affected by that experience and it did have the potential for worse consequences because of the confusion between members of staff who were trying to resolve it."

The report itself admits:

"It is highly doubtful that the planning and prioritisation of action took into account the relative discomfort felt by people in areas worst affected by heat."

Even the evacuation of the trains was badly handled, according to the report. It says:

"The evacuation appears to have started [from trains T202 AND T2301] without the knowledge of the train operator. According to statements, the decision to detrain was made but no effective protection was offered."

"Trains 230 and 202 were not coupled during the detrainment and it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the operator of T202 may have attempted movement again...a successful movement would have resulted in a fall by passenger or staff onto the live track."

The HMRI says it's satisfied with the level of training provided by London Underground Ltd for supervisors and control room staff.

But Bobby Law, a regional organiser with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, disagrees.

He told ‘Today’: "I have had no reports from my drivers about any stepping up of any training or anything like that with regards as to whether they should detrain or whether they shouldn't. There's still confusion out there."

Aside from laying bare the mistakes made in responding to the incident, the report also pin-points the main technical issue: the lack of air ventilation or air cooling on the trains or in the tunnels.

The report says:

"Previous investigations have highlighted the need to address the ventilation and even cooling in tunnels when trains are not providing the expected forced air ventilation."

But Today has learned that there are no provisions within the Public Private Partnership plans (PPP) dealing with these issues.

John Cartledge, Deputy Director of London Transport Users’ Committee (LTUC) said: "There's no provision in the PPP for enhancements or improvements…that would be an additional item which would be charged either on the fair payer or the tax payer."

In an interview for Today, Mike Strzelecki, Director of Safety for London Underground Ltd, said: "We're working on this with Parsons Brinckerhoff…one of the biggest engineering companies in the world…to try and find technical solutions to the challenge. So far we haven't been able to.

"It's no use specifying in the PPP something that currently is impossible. That is why we’re working to try and find solutions. So far without success."


Internal documents were obtained by the Today Programme.
Listen - A near disaster on the London Underground (23/01/2003)
"It was a hot hot day...you knew it was going to be a stinking journey."
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