How tragedy has strengthened Britain’s rail industry

Practically every kind of emergency has been thrown at Britain’s railways during the last 30 years, many inflicted upon the network by others, some caused by internal issues, and all have been a tough way to learn lessons.

In a year when London has hosted the Diamond Jubilee, as well as both Olympic and Paralympic Games, Willie Baker, an ex-British Transport Police (BTP) Superintendent, looks at how disaster has strengthened passenger rail travel in the UK.

The preparations for London 2012 have been enormous. The Olympics is the biggest sporting event to ever take place in the UK, equivalent to 26 World Championships all taking place at the same time, followed by another 20 for the Paralympics. It affects every police force in the UK and has warranted the deployment of a greater number of British military personnel than are currently deployed in Afghanistan.

It is a sad reality that the history of emergency incidents affecting passenger railways in the UK actually adds considerable value to the work of all those charged with emergency resilience responsibilities, but with tougher budget restrictions, franchise renewals and other pressures will the vital disciplines of joint training between the rail industry and the police carry on after the Games?

During the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the provisional IRA regularly targeted Britain’s railways.

In 1973, more than 20 people were injured by bombs at London’s King’s Cross Station and Euston Station and 17 years later, a soldier was killed in a shooting at Lichfield station. The police and security services amassed a high level of skill and competence during these years, and wider improvements included encouraging staff and customers to be extra vigilant. The relationship between BTP and the industry also grew as each better appreciated the complexities of the other, and found ways to improve their operating partnerships.

It is vital that de-brief sessions following London 2012 recognise the tough learning from the past as well as all the hard work that has gone into ensuring a safe and successful ‘public transport’ Games.

Amid this destructive and disruptive period, on the December 12, 1988 three trains collided near Clapham, killing 35 people. The enquiry by Sir Anthony Hidden QC made recommendations that changed the way the railways in Britain were run – calling in particular for better emergency incident training. Emergency preparations and training were further tested at Southall (1997), Ladbroke Grove (1999), Hatfield (2000), Great Heck (2001), Potters Bar (2002), Ufton Nervet (2004) and Greyrigg (2007).

As well as the painful tragedy that has accompanied these events a colossal amount of learning has taken place.

It is one thing to learn lessons but it is another to harness the learning and keep it alive within the culture of the organisation. Following the bombing of London’s public transport network in 2005, H.M. Coroner Lady Justice Hallett highlighted how difficult the jobs are of police officers, firefighters and London Underground staff. The inquest heard how what may seem, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been a logical decision was at the time anything but.

The inquest made numerous references to the inquiry led by Desmond Fennel QC into the Kings Cross fire (1988), and identified lessons learnt and recommendations that have never been implemented. Learning and getting stronger from emergency incidents is crucial yet so often overlooked. The Royal United Services Institute recently conducted research into UK civil emergencies over that past 10 years and one senior member of the emergency services commented that he could write the review of the next major incident tomorrow – all he would have to do is get the previous one and change the date, location and cause.

Such an inconsistent approach to learning lessons the hard way was not the case in Washington DC in 2009, when nine people lost their lives and many more were injured when one train ran into the rear of a second, stationary train. The response of all agencies involved was tremendous. Everyone from the most junior member of rail staff to the commander of the ‘blue-light’ services did exactly what they were expected to do.

NTSB photo of Washington metro train collision which killed nine people.

What makes this incident so remarkable is that there had not been anything comparable in Washington since 1982, some 27 years earlier. Later reviews identified that this was primarily due to the fact that a robust mechanism of joint training and preparedness had been maintained year after year.

Today in Britain estimates suggest that around 70 per cent of people working on the railway have less than 15 years service, therefore much of the experience amassed over the past three decades has gone. However, as the events in Washington DC prove, the benefits of regular training is the best way to secure the successful response to an emergency incident, as well as restore business operations.

The Cabinet Office Emergency Planning College has recently conducted the first in a series of short, intensive courses on the management of passenger transport emergency incidents. Delegates included representatives from Network Rail, TOCs, local authorities and others in the transport sector and students have praised the courses. It further endorsed the need for such training and aligns with recommendation 6.2 of Sir Anthony Hidden who said in 1989 that the industry and the emergency services should train regularly, and more recently those of the National Audit Office (2008) encouraging the rail industry to regularly train alongside the BTP and the Highways Agency.

It is vital that de-brief sessions following London 2012 recognise the tough learning from the past as well as all the hard work that has gone into ensuring a safe and successful ‘public transport’ Games and that every agency records an action: Continue Regular Emergency Resilience Training.


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