Rail 651: The runaway train that caused no stir

I am often rung up by a radio or TV station and asked to comment on some local incident where, according to the reporter, ‘passengers lives have been put at risk’ or there was a ‘shocking incident’. Nearly always these stories are overblown by editors desperate to find something to cover a slow news day and I make my excuses, declining to appear on the programme and hoping that the item will be dropped.

 I had very much the opposite feeling when a press release from Transport for London about the runaway train on the Northern Line dropped into my inbox and the calls, with a couple of exceptions, did not come. Just reading the press release made my jaw drop. Here was a driverless train thundering out of control through platforms at around 35 mph – my guesstimate but probably pretty accurate as the average speed was half that – through north London while the service was running. The rail grinding train which for some reason had not been properly coupled to an empty passenger train sent to rescue it, hurtled down the southbound track following – perhaps as near as 500 yards away according to TfL– a service train that then had to continue without stopping through several stations to avoid being hit from behind with the driver imploring passengers to head for the front of the train which suggests there was a real risk of collision.

 Transport for London understandably tried to play down the risk but this was by any measure an extremely serious incident and coverage was confined to local TV stories and short items on the inside pages of the nationals.. Sure, there was no crash and no one was hurt, but the notion of a runaway train in the Tube system is a terrifying one, and there is no doubt that it been caused by a major and basic safety lapse.

 There were, too, lots of questions. Why had the tripcock system which prevents trains going through red lights on the Tube not worked? Presumably, as a respondent to my blog suggested, because it had been disconnects as otherwise the rail grinder which was initially travelling wrong side would have set off every tripcock it passed. Intriguingly, what did LU mean when it said that the train was allowed to continue – does that  mean it could have been derailed by points but that would have caused major damage but the controllers decided it was safer to allow the runaway train to continue?

 There is a question, too, about whether the machine was fitted with brakes that should have failed safe. Again, was something disconnected? And why was no one on the rail grinder which was being towed? The Rail Accident Investigation Branch report will make fascinating reading and undoubtedly expose a series of safety lapses

 Indeed, the whole story is a remarkable and compelling tale. Just imagine – in your nightmares – the train full of passengers thundering non-stop through several stations with the runaway getting ever close behind. In the event, it was probably more Ealing Studios than Hollywood, but it certainly does not lack for drama.

 One reason for the paucity of coverage, I suspect, is that there were no pictures or film to illustrate the story but it also reflects the failure of imagination in the media these days and the lack of specialist reporters to push their stories to newsdesks. There, was, too no information about the hero of this episode, the line controller who so quickly assessed the situation and ensured that the train in front was sent non-stop down the line, and that the runaway was routed onto the Charing Cross branch where the incline ensured it came to a halt. Indeed, a whole series of LU staff in the control room and on the rails deserve praise for avoiding what could have been a disaster on the scale of the previous two major accidents on the Tube,  Moorgate and King’s Cross.

 To its credit, the RMT union tried its best to generate coverage, rightly highlighting in a press release that this was ‘a safety failure of the highest order’. But the RMT’s views may not have attracted the attention they deserved because too often the union cries ‘wolf’.

 Indeed, on the very day of the incident – ironically Friday 13th August which proved lucky rather than unlucky for both TfL and Tube passengers – the RMT had issued a press release warning that tests to see whether Deutsche Bahn ICE trains could use the Channel Tunnel could ‘bring in a major dilution of safety standards’. The RMT focussed on the fact that trains currently have to be 375 metres long – so that wherever they come to a halt they are opposite a door to the middle emergency tunnel whereas ICE trains are barely half that.

 This is the wrong issue to fight on. Undoubtedly, there are safety risks in the tunnel where there have been three major fires in the 16 years since it opened, but actually the rule that trains have to be that long is a nonsense and is set to be changed anyway. This is based on the theoretical procedure that passengers in the 18 car long Eurostar trains would all go into one half of the train which would then be split and be driven away to safety. But as the fires and last year’s multiple breakdowns showed, this is not the procedure that would be used in an emergency and the rules need to be modernised. The original plan about moving people along the train would put more people at risk when exiting to the third tunnel is by far the safest option.

 By criticising any changes in the rules as ‘watering down standards’ the RMT is indulging in scaremongering. Modern trade unionism should be about negotiation and discussion, rather than shouting from the rooftops, which should be a last, rather than a first, resort. It is so frustrating that the union, which could have a major part to play in the formulation of rail policy refuses to engage in constructive dialogue but, instead, is content to criticise any proposals to improve the industry by suggesting there are safety risks.

 Allowing more trains through the tunnel would attract more passengers onto the railways and ultimately create more jobs for RMT members and yet all we get is more warnings about safety risks. The Tube incident shows there is a real role for an articulate trade union ready to highlight important issues, but so often the RMT ruins its own case by exaggeration and only examining issues in the most narrow way.

The future holds nothing but mystery

The Planning Ahead document produced by Network Rail, in conjunction with both freight and passenger operators, is a welcome effort at trying to predict future trends but its publication was marred by a misleading press release headline which read ‘twice as many passengers and freight to use the railway by 2035’  Not surprisingly that attracted the attention of journalists covering the story, several of whom idly repeated the statement in their intros despite the fact that it is not borne out by the analysis in the report. Indeed, predicted growth for freight is close to 100 per cent, but passenger rail mileage – the figure used in the report, and not passenger numbers as mentioned in the press release – will only rise by around 50 per cent in that period according to the report (that is an approximation based on a diagram in the report, as the precise figure is not given).

 Moreover, the way at which these figures are arrived at is unclear. It is hard enough predicting what is going to happen next year, let alone in 25 years time. The demand for rail is dependent on a myriad of factors: the relative price of rail and other modes, the growth of the economy, the price of oil and electricity, the development of technology that reduces the need to travel, road congestion and the construction of new roads, just to name a few. The figures used are based on those in rail utilisation studies, but in some cases these are five or six years old,  and overall no explanation is given as to how these numbers have been arrived at.

 The report appears to be a joint rail industry attempt to influence the McNulty review of the industry’s finances, but to do so it needs to be coherent and based on more solid foundations.

There may well be a massive increase in the demand for rail services over the next quarter of a century, but it will need a much more detailed presentation to convince the doubters.

 Oh, and did the authors choose to call the document Planning Ahead, because they wanted to show that the age of tautology is still with us? After all, planning behind is less informative and generally known as the benefit of hindsight

  • Alan

    Hmmmm. Is there a set procedure in place for dealing with a broken down rail grinder which, presumably, will not couple up ‘nicely’ with a 95 stock? If so, why did it go wrong?

    If there isn’t a procedure, then someone in the Control Room would have had to make the choice between pulling or propelling the dud out. The pulling option would have resolved the incident much quicker than the propelling but, with the benefit of the 20/20 hindsight goggles on, was clearly the incorrect choice. My point is: if this choice was made, did the manager making it consider all the pros and cons, or did they simply opt for the ‘quickest time to fix’?

    Lastly, given yesterday’s very unsafe sounding signal failure at Plaistow (shades of Clapham Junction 1988 perhaps?) is the Underground as safe as it is made out to be? Who can tell us this? Not the managers, who will shortly have to revert to the pre PPP asset sweating mentality when the October cuts are announced. The Unions certainly will, but as Christian has previously noted, no one will listen on the assumption they are crying wolf. Not the RAIB – their job is to fasten stable doors after the horse has bolted. So who?