Published 07th March 2013
August 13th 2010 was close to being a very unlucky day for hundreds of tube passengers as a heavy underground track maintenance vehicle, a rail grinder, broke loose and ran away from its train in the London Underground Northern Line tube tunnel.
The Office of the Rail Regulator (ORR) brought a prosecution after the incident and at The Old Bailey, the three companies involved were fined a collective £300,000.
The rail grinder, weighing just under 40 tons, ran for four miles reaching speeds of 30 mph and but for quick and excellent work by operations staff in the control room, could have collided with a crowded tube train. Because of their swift action such as changing points at Camden Town and Mornington Crescent to slow the runaway grinder and to divert it away from passenger trains.
Eventually after about 16 minutes of freewheeling, the runaway grinder came to a stand 600 metres from the nearest passenger train. It had passed through platforms with waiting passengers on them at seven stations on its freewheeling journey from about 640am the fateful day.
The Old Bailey Court Hearing was told that these passengers were exposed to a substantial risk and that two maintenance workers had jumped off the runaway wagon at Highgate station. The resulting chaos brought serious disruption to Northern Line services.
The danger was so great that passengers in the tube train immediately in front of the speeding wagon were told to make their way towards the front of the train. This was in case there was a collision as the wagon was gaining on the tube train at this time. The driver was also instructed not to stop at any stations and to keep going as fast as was safe to minimise the risk of a collision.
Northern Line passenger services were diverted away from the Charing Cross branch and onto the City branch via Bank while the closest train to the runaway rail grinder ran non-stop to Moorgate to keep ahead of it. The line’s services were suspended between Finchley Central and Archway and between Camden Town and Kennington via Charing Cross, leading to widespread disruption.
Prosecuting on behalf of ORR, Jonathan Ashley-Norman, said there could have been a "terrible tragedy" had it not been for the "prompt and skilful actions" of London Underground control room staff. They managed to bring the runaway grinder-wagon under control by changing points to divert it and to slow it down finally stopping it near Warren Street station.
The cause of the incident was a broken coupling between the track maintenance train and rail grinder-wagon after which, the wagon rolled downhill towards central London. The three companies involved, London Underground, Tube Lines Ltd and Schweerbau GMBH all pleaded guilty to endangering passengers and staff and were each fined £100,000.
Subsequently, The Old Bailey was told that the three companies had made major improvements in the shape of tighter approvals in engineering and controls for its engineering trains.
The three companies’ QC, Keith Morton, said: "London Underground is one of the safest railways in the world - if not the safest. LU staff's swift actions meant that this incident was drawn to a safe conclusion,"
The ORR’s safety director, Ian Prosser, said that in this case, the train companies through "inadequate management and planning" had failed to ensure the safe recovery of an engineering train. "This is clearly unacceptable, and led to a potentially catastrophic incident on the Northern Line where the train careered out of control for over four miles. "It was only the professionalism of control room staff taking decisive action which prevented a collision between trains, and averted a much more serious outcome."
Judge Richard Hone said: "There was the potential of terrible tragedy. To those involved it must have seemed an extremely frightening eternity."
Ian Prosser, ORR added:
"LU is one of the safest railways in the world and normally has a very good safety record. The companies responsible for running and maintaining services have an important duty to ensure that their workers and members of the public are not exposed to unnecessary safety risks.
"However, in this case, LU, Tube Lines and Schweerbau, through inadequate management and planning, failed to ensure the safe recovery of an engineering train. This is clearly unacceptable, and led to a potentially catastrophic incident on the Northern Line where the train careered out of control for over four miles.
"It was only the professionalism of control room staff taking decisive action which prevented a collision between trains, and averted a much more serious outcome. "We welcome the steps taken by the companies to improve safety management on London Underground since this incident. The regulator will continue to closely monitor the actions of all parties involved, and will not hesitate to step in should further safety failings be found."
Rail.co.uk asked the Transport for London’s Head of News in their Communications section for a comment but none was received. Their Press Office was also asked for a comment but again, none was forthcoming.
Written by Phil Marsh