Ready for anything: a capital response

The tributes to the public services have been universal and well deserved. Everyone who had anything to do with the terrible carnage that befell London on July 7 has had nothing but praise for the way the authorities acted with speed, efficiency and dedication. From the policeman who commandeered a bus to take the walking wounded from the Tavistock Square bomb, to the lady on a stuck Tube train who shouted out ‘don’t panic, I work for London Underground and they have a system to get us out of here’, the response was one of appropriate action and reaction. And the apparent success in tracking down the identify of the bombers has also been widely commended.

None of this was luck. The lessons of previous incidents and, of course, of 9/11 have been learnt. On the Underground the turning point was the King’s Cross fire of 1987 which killed 31 people. The response to the fire was a catalogue of errors that led to many more deaths than there should have been. The Fennell Report into the disaster, published in the subsequent year, revealed that passengers had been directed down the burning escalator even though there was smoke emerging from below and that only 4 out of the 21 staff on duty at the time had received any training on evacuation and fire drills. It made 157 recommendations and by implementing them London Transport completely changed its procedures and, indeed, its ethos.

The response to the 9/11 stretched far further than transport, although the railway and the Tube were always considered as the most likely sites to be attacked. The government established London Resilience, a committee encompassing a whole swathe of organisations which would become involved in the event of such an emergency. It is ‘an inter-agency team led by a senior civil servant, with experts from the emergency services, transport operators, utilities, NHS and local government [which] was commissioned to review London’s preparedness’.

The assessment in the light of 9/11 was that while the emergency services were reasonably well geared up to tackle events which had happened before such as train crashes or major fires, work was needed to develop better coordination and planning for new threats such as those posed by the new form of terrorism. London Resilience was therefore made a permanent body overseen by a forum, chaired by a government minister (originally Nick Raynsford but since the election Phil Woolas) and with Ken Livingstone, the mayor, as his deputy. It has a permanent team at its disposal, based in the Government Office for London with membership of a core of civil servants supplemented by people from 14 organisations including the obvious ones such as the Metropolitan Police and the London Fire Brigade but also British Telecom and the Salvation Army.

The system that has emerged from the work of London Resilience is now well coordinated and rehearsed. That was apparent from the immediate response. By 9am, less than 10 minutes after the first three bombs went off, the various parties involved were having a conference call. Emergency control centres at Network Rail’s headquarters in Euston, at London Underground’s famous 55 Broadway head office and at the Metropolitan Police’s centre at Hendon were opened up. The latter also includes the Fire Brigade and the Ambulance service, ensuring coordination between all three emergency services. Crucially, liaison officers between these three organisations – codenamed gold, while most other major organisations are silver and local level ones are bronze – were despatched to the other centres in order to improve coordination. As one senior rail manager put it to Public Finance, ‘the days of freelance action by one party are over’.

Suggestions in the press earlier this week that there had been a twenty minute delay before a full emergency was declared were roundly dismissed by Transport for London: ‘The implication that nothing much happened during that period is pure rubbish’, said a spokesman.

The rapid response was helped by good luck too. At the time the bombs went off, a meeting was taking place of paramedics and others involved in emergency plans and they were quickly despatched to the various sites. Speed is crucial in trauma cases, with the treatment in the first 15 minutes often determining life or death. There was also at the time a meeting of senior Network Rail staff in the Russell Hotel, yards from the Tavistock Square and Russell Square tube station, and, donning their emergency jackets, they were quickly able to help out at the two nearby scenes of bombings, King’s Cross and Tavistock Square.

Of course, none of this would be necessary if further attacks could be prevented next time. Managers in the transport industry all stress that the primary must come from the security services. There have been calls for technological fixes – in other words methods to check people entering railway systems. If it can be done at airports, so the argument goes, why can’t it be done on trains.

Well it is – on the Eurostar services crossing the Channel but that is more an airline than a railway system with only 7 million journeys per year. The sheer practicalities of screening the nearly 3 million people who get on a Tube train every day, with flows of tens of thousands an hour at stations like Kings Cross, Victoria and Oxford Circus makes this impossible.

There are some whizzy new technology devices becoming available. For example, there is a CCTV camera that can spot whether people are loitering in a station and sound an alarm. And there are scanners which could determine that there was something weird about a person’s body shape – such as might be explained by a body belt of explosives – and alert staff. These would not require the constant surveillance that makes use of CCTV staff intensive as the systems would automatically be set up to uncover anomalies.

However clever these devices may be, they would still result in countless false positives and would seem unable to cope with the sheer numbers involved. And there are 275 stations on the London Underground, some with pretty small footfall, making the installation of such equipment simply completely uneconomic. On the rail system, there are 2,500 stations which makes any notion of screening simply fanciful.

Installing such technology, therefore, would only be about public reassurance and showing the authorities were being seen to do something in response to this terrible outrage rather than presenting any realistic attempt to stop the terrorists. In reality, the Underground and rail systems are unprotectable and the public may as well realise that. Refreshingly, Tony Blair admitted that in one of his statements in the aftermath of the bombings.

It could have been much worse. The likelihood is that the bombers were targeting tube lines connected with main line stations: Liverpool Street, Paddington, King’s Cross and Euston, rather than Aldgate, Edgware Road, King’s Cross and a 30 bus near Euston, which is where the bombs struck. If that had succeeded, the long term damage to London’s infrastructure, and indeed its economy, would have been far greater. Imagine if several major tube lines had been put out of action for weeks or months, as is likely to happen to the Piccadilly.

The most chastening thought, however, is that July 7 may be repeated at any time and those well-worked emergency plans used again. Interestingly, the response was so comprehensive that one source said that in fact the hospitals could have coped with six times the number of casualties and still not been overburdened. At least the public can be reassured from that terrible day that contrary to much speculation in the press since 9/11, Britain’s emergency and public transport services are ready and able to cope.

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