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March 1, 2013

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Fines total £300,000 for London Underground runaway-train incident

London Underground and two other companies have been fined a total of £300,000 for health and safety breaches, which led to an engineering train running out of control for more than four miles on the Northern Line in August 2010.

London Underground Limited (LUL), its associated maintenance company Tube Lines Limited, and Schweerbau Gmbh all pleaded guilty to charges under section 3(1) of the HSWA 1974. Schweerbau, which owns and operates engineering trains, including the one involved in the incident, also pleaded guilty to a charge under s2(1) of the 1974 Act. Sentenced at the Old Bailey yesterday (28 February), the companies were fined £100,000 each and ordered to pay an equal share of the £44,074 costs.

The charges resulted from the companies’ failure to effectively coordinate, plan and work together in transporting the damaged train, as procedures were not followed. Significantly, lessons had not been learned from previous failings evident during the rescue of the same train less than on month earlier, on 17 July 2010.

The court heard that grinding operations were being carried out on the night of 12/13 August. Having brought these works to a conclusion, the crew of the grinding unit found that they were unable to restart its engine to move away from the site, so an assisting train was sent to recover the unit. The assisting train was coupled to the grinding unit by means of an emergency coupling device, and the braking system of the unit was de-activated to allow it to be towed.

After passing through Highgate station, the coupling device fractured and the grinding unit began to run back down the gradient towards central London. The crew of the unit, who had no means of re-applying the brake, jumped off as it passed through Highgate station. The vehicle eventually came to rest near Warren Street station, by which time it had run unattended for about four miles, passing through a further six stations and reaching speeds of 30mph.

No one was hurt during the incident, as LUL control-room staff took prompt and effective action to clear passenger trains away from the path of the runaway unit. Track at Mornington Crescent station was damaged when the unit ran through points, which had been changed in an unsuccessful attempt to derail it.

An investigation by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch found that:

  • the immediate cause of the incident was the absence of operational brakes on the unit, which became detached when the emergency coupler broke; and
  • the emergency coupling had been inadequately designed.

The investigation report also identified a number of other causal, contributory and underlying factors. As well as issues with the braking system and emergency coupler, the design and documentation for the recovery procedure were inadequate and identified as a causal factor.

A contributory factor was an inadequate investigation into a similar incident in July 2010, which did not detect the unacceptable behaviour of the emergency coupler. There was also an absence of any training, or practising of the emergency recovery procedure.

Underlying factors included inadequate specification of technical requirements; inadequate input from mechanical engineers and other appropriately skilled staff; and unclear responsibility for planning and implementation of emergency recovery procedures.

Since the incident, LUL and Tube Lines have introduced new rules relating to the movement of unbraked vehicles. They have also revised the operating arrangements for the grinding unit, including provision of a redesigned emergency coupling.

Ian Prosser, director of safety at the Office of Rail Regulation, which undertook the prosecution, said all three companies failed to ensure the safe recovery of the engineering train through inadequate management and planning.

He added: “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 that prevented a collision between trains, and averted a much more serious outcome.”

Commenting after the sentence hearing, RMT general secretary Bob Crow said the reports of what happened on that day “will still send a shiver down the spine of Tube users”.

He continued: “This near-miss, where tragedy was only avoided by a few hundred metres, underlines the importance of maintaining the highest possible safety standards on the Tube, where no one is put under any pressure to cut corners – and, yet, that is exactly the pressure our members are under right now, with maintenance and staffing cuts still on the agenda.”

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10 years ago

We had a driverless train pass through East Didsbury Stn – 26/8/06 at 02.00 , it then re-appeared about 45mins later in the oposite direction, as the Stn is in a dip.

Had the PeeWay Eng`s turned up we would have been working on the running line, digging for cable ducts under the track.

Fortunately for us, the PC forgot to book them, so we were unable to work on the track. Otherwise multiple fatalities were possible.

Don`t recall any Safety Alert or Prosecution for that though???