Helping 2.5 Million A Day Travel Safely:
London Underground 5-Pronged Emergency Plan
By Joseph Scanlon
The London Underground is well into its second century and has faced emergencies throughout its existence but only in the last decade has it developed a comprehensive emergency response plan. It is now a leader in the management of risk — and communication to its staff and to the public.
Underground’s first emergency came while it was still under construction. In June, 1862, the Fleet River broke though a restraining dyke and left three meters of water in the excavation. It encountered terrorism long before the IRA was formed: on October 30, 1881, anarchists set off a bomb that killed 62 persons.
Over the years, there were scores of other incidents. There have been four more major floods, hundreds of accidents and more terrorism, as well as crowd problems, severe weather, even enemy attacks. Most were minor and came and went without upsetting Underground’s complacency. But after November 18, 1987, when the King’s Cross fire took 31 lives, Underground was severely criticized for a lack of planning. An inquiry said:
We could find no comprehensive emergency arrangement
anywhere on the underground... neither central coordination
nor local initiative was in evidence.... We could find no evidence
that management had formally considered any major hazards
other than fire.
After more than a century of getting by, the time had come to act. Underground produced a five-pronged strategy: a new internal structure to deal with emergencies; staff training; better record keeping; improved public information; and liaison with other agencies.
Reasons for Inaction
Why did it take so long? There appear to be three reasons. First, over the years, most Underground incidents did not involve loss of life. Second, as time passed, the system became so old and overcrowded, some incidents seemed inevitable. Third, responsibility for the three most serious incidents – in terms of lives lost – could be evaded; so the Underground did so.
Though there were major floods in 1930, 1975, 1986 and 1987, none involved loss of life. It was the same with fires. One created so much smoke that a staff member couldn’t call the fire department because he was unable to see a phone. Yet no one was injured. There were also no injuries in October, 1987, when signal cables were cut and open sections of track blocked by more than 600 trees after a ferocious wind storm. Even soccer violence on the Underground led to only one fatality and 10 injuries.
Underground accidents – there are minor ones every few days – usually involved no injuries or so few injuries they could be ignored. Only two involved more than one death – and they were 25 years apart. One was on May 17, 1978 when six persons were killed, 40 seriously hurt after two Circle Line trains collided, the other on April 8, 1953, when a collision killed 12 and injured 46.
As for the three most serious incidents in Underground’s history they could be written off as acts of war or unpredictable human error. Sixty persons died at Balham in 1940 from flooding caused by a German bomb. Underground could hardly control enemy action. One hundred and seventy-three were killed at Bethnal Green in 1943 trying to push their way into a station. The station was being used as a shelter but the line itself was not open at the time. Finally, 43 died at Moorgate in 1975 when a train ran off the end of the platform. That was blamed on driver suicide.
The King’s Cross fire was different. Underground staff ignored the warning signs that a very serious fire had started, kept trains running, even sent passengers up the escalator into the smoke-filled entrance hall. One employer tried to put out the flames by hitting them with a magazine. No one immediately called the fire department. When the station became an inferno, 31 died.
Emergency Response Unit
Once the Underground decided to act, its first step was the creation of an Emergency Response Unit (ERU). The new ERU took over all aspects of emergency planning and emergency response, identifying that, for the first time, as an important and separate management function. One of the ERU’s first actions was to unify Underground’s approach to incidents. Before the King’s Cross fire, track and road bed incidents were handled by one crew, equipment failures by another. The ERU united the two units. To reduce possible friction, it sent members of the new combined unit for survival training. Each group spent a week tackling increasingly serious problems, until a final raft trip, when they depended on each other.
Now the ERU can fix a brake seizure or put a train back on the tracks. It can clean up after an accident. It can deal with flooding. Its four teams – on 24-hour standby – can move in quickly and clean up difficult situations: once it cleared up a derailment without disrupting service on the main line to Heathrow airport — and finished ahead of time. Performances like these have won the ERU acceptance from staff and senior management. ERU’s director is one of three officials authorized to talk to the media. It helps that the ERU’s two managers have both risen through the ranks.
The ERU also cut red tape and the approach to recovery. Underground used to have one form for a fire, another for a suicide, others for a signal failure or suspect package. Now there is one standard form — the INF or Incident Notification Form. It’s for any disruption of at least two minutes. More important, the goal is not to collect information but fix problems. An INF must state not just what happened but its cause and what could be done to prevent repetition.
At ERU-run training sessions, staff are taught to use this form and are introduced to bronze, silver and gold command. Bronze is someone in charge of one aspect of response — the person putting a train back on the rails, the person supervising re-direction of passengers. Silver is the next step up, the person in charge of an incident. Gold is senior management — the person with an overview. British emergency agencies use the bronze-silver-gold so Underground does too. That makes it easy for emergency agencies to spot and identify Underground managers at the same level.
Underground has also humanized its handling of tragedies. When a train hits someone – all Underground systems attract suicides — the driver is immediately consoled, sent home by taxi and his family notified. He is provided counselling and his absence from work understood. He is also told it wasn’t his fault.
Unlike driving a car or bus, there is nothing you can do other than apply the emergency brake. You can not swerve to avoid the incident,.it may be helpful to try looking away before the immediate moment of impact, try to remain calm and remember that the casualty has made you a victim, and that it is not your fault.
For years, the Underground has worked hard to made its direction notices and signs clear. Signs on platforms tell what trains are coming — and when. Underground’s award-winning map — though it distorts reality — is famous for the way it shows how stations are interconnected. Now, to help its passengers understand what is happening during emergencies, Underground has a message service run by the Network Control Centre. Despite its title, the centre does not control Underground but acts as a communications link.
Information flows up from trains and stations to controllers of the various lines – the Underground consists of 14 separate lines— to the centre and from it to senior management and outside agencies. It also flows down from the centre to lines, stations, trains and the public. At each station, one staff member is responsible for making sure that information reaches the public and that advice about alternatives is given when travel is disrupted. (In central London, stations are close together so alternatives are usually available.) Messages are added to screens which show the location of all trains; and they are passed to drivers for use over public address systems on their trains. The control centre is also the link between the Underground and outside agencies. Over all, Underground deals with eight police forces, seven fire brigades, six ambulance services, and 200 local authorities, as well as Heathrow airport and central government. To make certain this system works, Underground does regular surveys of passenger opinion.
Underground’s growing expertise has led to invitations to the ERU’s top two officials to do regular presentations at the British Emergency Planning College in Yorkshire. One has started teaching in the Master’s program in emergency management at University of Hertfordshire. More important, ERU staff help inform emergency services about Underground’s problems and its resources. They give hands-on training to firefighters, teaching them how to jack up a train when someone is under it. They have created an exercise for Hendon, the Metropolitan Police (New Scotland Yard) training centre. The incident, run on a large scale model, is a mock train wreck.
Growing awareness by other agencies that Underground crews have equipment and know-how means Underground resources are sought by others. The ERU did heavy rescue at British Rail crashes at Clapham Junction and Purley. They were on hand with lighting after a boat called Marchioness sank in the Thames. For that incident, Underground turned its stations into service centres— as a morgue, a supply centre and a gathering place for relatives, reminiscent of its wartime role as a shelter and, in some areas, a defence plant. During riots, Underground closes stations in troubled areas and uses its trains to carry police reinforcements to incidents, and injured persons away from them. Police acceptance of the ERU is seen by the fact the unit’s managers get high-speed police transport during major incidents.
Fifteen years ago, London Underground handled 1.4 million passengers a day. Now it’s 2.5 million. The passenger load has risen 30 million a year for more than a decade. Its stations are complex. Oxford Circus has 25 stairways, 14 escalators and nine kilometers of walkways and platforms. It takes six hours to give a new staff member a full tour. The busiest stations are Victoria, King’s Cross, Oxford Circus, Liverpool Street, Waterloo and Piccadilly Circus — each of which sees 50 million passengers a year, more than Heathrow airport.
Running this system efficiently requires split-second precision. If a train leaves a station late, there will be a few more passengers when it reaches the next platform. It will take slightly longer to unload and load. Before long, the train will be late at a switch point, forcing signalmen to delay other trains. Then those, too, will run behind.
Because delays can eventually bog down the whole system, drivers are pressured to keep moving. Above all, they must avoid stopping in a tunnel. If a passenger pushes an alarm, the driver should not stop until part of his train is in a station. (Exclamation marks on tunnel walls tell whether to stop because the back of the train is still at the platform or whether to go on to the next station.) If power goes off while a train is on a green light, its driver must try to coast to the next station. The reason for this policy is the so-called “piston effect” — the fact that trains push the air ahead of them and pull it behind them as they pass through a tunnel – and that is the only source of tunnel ventilation. There are no fans. If a train stops in a tunnel, in 20 minutes the temperature may be 30 degrees Celsius. Conditions will become unbearable, forcing passengers to evacuate. Since the only way out is along the tracks power must be cut off, the system forced to a halt.
Although trains run on green, yellow and red lights, these lights are triggered by the movement of trains and can malfunction. To prevent unnecessary delays, drivers are required to proceed, though carefully, once they have stopped for two minutes on an automatic red light. An inquiry said this was essential if the system was to work:
...long-standing rules allow drivers...to go carefully through an automatic red signal after they have been waiting for over two minutes. They are necessary because of the age and therefore unreliability of signaling equipment. Without them the service would grind to a halt.
However, it leads to problems. One driver went though a red signal because the green one he saw in the fog was for British Rail. An accident followed.
With so many travelling, inevitably some suffer health problems and others have accidents. Most accidents involve falls on stairs and escalators and aren’t serious. There are a few bruises, some ripped clothing and that’s it. Underground’s first concern is that fall was not caused by faulty equipment. If faulty equipment is involved, it acts quickly to avoid further accidents and lawsuits.
While small accidents are a daily occurrence, fatal ones occur about five or six times a year. One person was killed when he dropped his glasses onto the tracks and jumped down to get them. Two died after a man climbed down after dropping his cigarettes and a friend tried to pull him up: both were hit by a train. A youngster died when he slipped and fell while painting graffiti on a bridge. However, three drunks lived because a driver braked when he saw them running across the tracks; and a woman received only minor injuries when she ran along the platform hanging on to a handbag caught in a train door.
There is also the ever-present danger that a station will become overcrowded. To prevent this, staff in each station’s control room or “bull pen” watch what’s happening. If traffic builds too quickly, they close one or more turnstiles (this slows the flow) or shut down an escalator (passengers don’t like walking downstairs). They put staff on a platform to get persons to spread out, even change the walkways passengers take when changing lines (meaning it takes longer to walk to another platform). If things become very crowded, they stop a train at a previous station, announce it’s going out of service then use it to clear the overcrowded platform.
Occasionally, there are special precautions. At Knightsbridge, the main station for Harrod’s department store, staff control the Christmas rush by making one stairway exit only. Shoppers leaving Harrod’s must walk an extra block to enter the station. When a football match is scheduled, staff park empty trains on sidings near the grounds and start them moving just before the final whistle. They squeeze as many as possible onto the platform, put 1,500 in trains which usually carry 1,000. (They once got caught when a last minute goal led to a tie and the match went into extra time – the specials were already on the move.)
If a train stops for any reason it forces all other trains on that line to stop as well. Thus if a passenger collapses on a train that may be enough to tie up the system. The ERU has explained that to London Ambulance and worked out an agreement.
Both London Underground and London Ambulance agree that patient care is paramount and that nothing should be done to detract from this objective. However, unnecessary delay in the removal of patients from trains can result in severe problems for other people.... So, if the condition of the individual patient allows, he/she should be removed from the train at the earliest opportunity. (London Ambulance Service/ London Underground)
While crowds are a continual problem, crime is not. The most serious problem is pickpocketing. On a shopping night, teams of “dips” prowl Underground looking for someone carrying parcels, especially a person who has had a few drinks. One will slide up, reach into a handbag and try to grab a wallet. He or she will then hand it to an accomplice. It’s difficult to spot such activity on crowded platforms. If staff are able to spot pickpockets, they monitor them on closed-circuit cameras and punch the picture through to British Transport Police. The taped evidence is good for a confession.
While routine crime is not a problem, there is the continual threat of terrorism, a threat that forces every unattended package to be treated as suspect as a possible IED, Improvised Explosive Device. When an unattended package is found, a supervisor decides if it is suspect. If so, British Transport Police are notified. If the package is on a train, the train and the station are evacuated. If it’s on a platform, the station is evacuated and no trains are allowed through. If the package is well away from a platform, trains can run through that station without stopping. Evacuations are now routine. One week, there were 24, including Charing Cross, Embankment, Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus. Twice, everyone was back in seven minutes:
If you say, “Please evacuate”, most people leave. For regular travellers it happens all the time. They are conditioned to it.
The evacuation includes passengers, staff, even tenants: All shopkeepers must be trained every six months and must follow guidelines. The speed of such evacuations — major stations clear out 3,000 to 4,000 persons in three to four minutes — has made Underground staff confident about their ability to handle crowds. In 1991, they evacuated 60,000 persons from the entire Underground in 10 minutes. Incendiary devices had been found under seats in a Jubilee Line train in a depot, and on the Metropolitan line. An inquiry said evacuations could cause chaos.
In the vast majority of cases, the evacuation proceeds smoothly and no-one is hurt. However the potential for injuries exists. There could be panic. There could be crushing, particularly at rush hours. Small children and the disabled are vulnerable. People could fall and injure themselves.
Underground staff discount this. They agree with scholars who say panic is rare. However they don’t use “bomb” in their announcements: surveys suggest the passengers know precisely what is meant by “suspect package”.
Suspect packages are visible threats. Telephoned threats have to be evaluated differently. IRA calls include a code; but someone must decide if a threat is credible. In England, that someone is the police. If they decide a threat is not credible, they label it Category 2. If they decide it is credible, it’s Category 1. The category depends on whether a caller used a code and other data. If, for example, a patrol has just checked a location, a call saying a bomb is there is not credible.
While the police decide a category, they only recommend what to do. If it’s a “2” they recommend a search. If it’s a “1”, they suggest an evacuation. But the decision rests with Underground.
That decision is one of the most difficult in risk management. A decision the police are wrong is fine if the police are wrong. It can cost lives if police are right. A decision police are right is less risky, but it disrupts the economic life of London.
It is clearly a management decision, and a very onerous and difficult one at that such decisions are vested in a small core of very senior managers. The decisions have to be made quickly, under the inevitable tension of a terrorist threat. This is a thankless task with the perils of taking a wrong decision plain to see.
One coded call said devices had been placed in the tunnels of the Central and Northern lines to go off at 9 a.m. The call was from the IRA.
Some Underground managers said the threat was not credible. Staff had checked the tunnels during the night and trains had been traveling in those tunnels since the lines opened at 4.30 a.m. Police disagreed: they said the threat was credible.
Unwilling to take the risk, Underground evacuated Central and Northern Lines and all connecting stations at 8.58 a.m. Service was out for more than an hour. When a search was made, no bomb was found
Underground’s new system of emergency management means that its approach to risk is understood by its staff, its passengers and by emergency agencies.
However, no system, no matter how efficient can stop all incidents or stop what the Underground calls the, “knock-on effect”.
One incident started with a suspect luggage on the platform at Bond Street. Then a second suspect package was spotted at Liverpool Street. Both stations had to be closed. Since both are on the Central line some trains were caught in the tunnel between the two.
Line Control decided to move two trains together; so passengers could walk from one to another and out to a station. Unfortunately, a driver, on his second day on the job, moved too close.
His train’s heaters activated the motors on the train in front. It began to emit smoke. The Fire Brigade was notified. Power was cut to allow firefighters access to the tunnel. Then, tunnel lighting failed.
Before the incident ended, Underground evacuated 6,722 persons from four stopped trains: 72 had to be carried or assisted in some way.
Many passengers couldn’t wait: a car on one train was used as a toilet. Even when passengers were out, the Fire Brigade insisted on walking the tunnels to check everything.
Central Line was down for six hours. The two suspect packages were harmless lost luggage.
Joseph Scanlon is Director of the Emergency Communications Research Unit at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and President, Scanlon Associates Inc. Since 1970, he has attended scores of emergency incidents mainly in Canada but also in England, France, the United States and Australia.
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