It is perhaps ironic and an unhappy coincidence that on the 30 April 2015, the day of the Rail Safety Summit organised by Rail Media, I was caught up in the unfortunate incident at Clapham Junction, where trains became stranded on the up fast line as they were approaching the station.
No one was killed or injured so in that respect the safety of passengers was not at risk. Knowing the admirable measures that have been put in place to prevent accidents from happening by using appropriate risk assessment and associated safety processes, this incident did not enter the frame.
However, as we sat marooned on the train, it crossed my mind as to how much thought is put into efficient recovery procedures following serious rail failures and perhaps safety itself being made worse by over-zealous risk aversion preventing a speedier resolution.
Just before 8am in the heart of the rush hour, a displaced conductor rail caused the preceding train to the one I was on to lose its collector shoes, preventing it picking up power from the third rail. Luckily it had enough momentum to reach the up main platform in Clapham Junction station, where passengers could be de-trained. My train, the 07.02 from East Grinstead to Victoria formed of 12 coaches with standing passengers after leaving East Croydon, also had its shoes knocked off by the conductor rail and stopped at the approach signal to the station, then not able to draw power.
Very quickly, the train crew realised the seriousness of the situation and announced that we had a real problem which was going to take a while to sort out. Following trains suffered the same fate and were also stranded at successive rearward signals. In all, it was reported that around 10 trains were affected. One can only make conjecture as to the number of people involved, but certainly in the thousands.
What to do Next?
At times like this, it can only be surmised as to what went through the minds of the controllers in both Network Rail and the Southern TOC control rooms, but their training would have kicked in as to the options available. A whole series of trains, all without power, is a serious situation. It became clear that the down fast line was also affected so trains approaching Clapham from Victoria would also be stopped. The two slow lines remained in operation but trains were being cautioned through the entire area and the low number passing through indicated that diversions or terminations short of the Victoria destination were happening.
In the meantime, it was obvious to our driver that to keep lights and air conditioning working would quickly drain the batteries, so we were informed that these would have to be switched off. Modern trains do not have opening windows but the guard, realising the temperature would soon rise, duly came round to unlock and open the top droplights. That at least allowed some air in.
Periodic announcements when the battery supply was temporarily switched back on told us of the likely recovery measures: maybe a following train could be restored with power and pull us back to either Wandsworth Common or Balham stations; maybe we would have to be taken off the train by a controlled evacuation. Time went by and after nearly three hours, it was announced we would have to be evacuated from the train. The police arrived and went through the coaches asking if everyone was all right; from what I could see it appeared they were.
After initial irritation that this was yet another rail fiasco, the traditional British humour kicked in and people began to swap information as to what to do for the rest of the day. The guy next to me offered his biscuits, gratefully accepted as my stomach was rumbling to the amusement of all. Passengers tuned into social media announced that all trains services from the Victoria Central side had been suspended.
Occasional trains on the adjacent slow lines stopped alongside, mostly empty stock but with some bemused travellers staring at our fate. Eventually at around 11.15 it was announced that the train was to be evacuated but it would take some time since it would be only via one door.
The Evacuation Process
The train crew were right, it did seem to take forever. Noticing the steady stream of walkers on the far side footpath, something was going on but it was not until nearly 12.00 that our turn came to move from the front coach down to number eight. There, we were helped down some short ladders by the fire brigade and escorted along the cess, under a road bridge and up a flight of access steps to the roadway above. It was a relief to be in the fresh air with the first thought being where’s the nearest toilet? The road had been closed so the traffic was horrendous but a 10 minute walk to Clapham Junction enabled a toilet visit and a SWT journey into Waterloo.
I made it to the Safety Summit by 12.30 so missed the morning session. The afternoon speakers proved it had been worth making the effort but getting home in the evening proved quite a challenge. Victoria station remained severely disrupted with Tweets indicating that London Bridge was also having problems in coping with the extra load, so I decided to try Thameslink only having to go northwards to Farringdon to stand a chance of getting on a Brighton bound train. I finally reached home close to 8pm.
Did They Get it Right?
The news media was full of it that evening, generally portraying the incident accurately but making the most of some people’s adverse comments. Having been personally involved, however, and having a lifetime of railway experience to boot, it was inevitable for me to consider, ‘what would I have done?’
Our train crew were superb and did their very best to make conditions as comfortable as possible with accurate and informative announcements from time to time. I can only speculate on the challenge staff on the other trains and at stations had to inform passengers of the serious disruption taking place and the alternative means of getting to intended destinations. But what about the decision making process by management and did they do it quick enough? Options included:
– The chosen solution of evacuating the train but could it have been done in a shorter time and maybe using more doors to get people down into the cess to speed the process?
– To bring up a train on the adjacent down fast line and then using a supervised step across from one train to the other. This assumes the power to the third rail to that track was not linked to the conductor rail of the up fast.
– To stop a train on the down slow line and with all traction power switched off, transfer people down to track level and up into the adjacent train. This would have been a logistical challenge and not easy to achieve.
– Procure some diesel locomotives to progressively move trains to a station platform where passengers could get off. Not easy these days and getting them in position would have been difficult.
Having thought about it, the right decision was made in the local circumstances but it needed to have been put in place much more quickly. The fact that modern trains are very power dependent for basic amenities must mean that decisions need to be made much faster. Toilet considerations are the most critical but if the day had been hot, the temperature would have risen such that coaches would have become furnaces. As it was, the situation was uncomfortable but not unbearable.
It could have been much worse. We all perhaps remember the incidents at Kentish Town and in the Channel Tunnel when passengers had to take matters into their own hands just to ensure survival.
I believe the staff at all levels took the right decisions but were they constrained by safety factors that might have slowed the whole process down? Is enough thought given to the recovery from major incidents? All too often one reads of massive train service disruption for hours on end and the seeming reluctance to take effective action because of safety concerns. There had been one earlier in the week when Waterloo and SWT services were effectively shut down because of a suicide at Surbiton and a failed train in the Clapham stabling sidings. In my view, this whole area needs far greater attention with, perhaps, acceptable risks being taken just to ensure situations do not worsen because of inaction.
Written by Clive Kessell
Clive Kessell writes regularly for the Rail Engineer magazine and is an international speaker on railway signalling. Clive lead the telecommunications engineering department at British Rail. He was the engineering director at British Rail Telecoms. He is a leading member of the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers (IRSE).