Learning from the past: in the latest of a series of articles looking back at the events that shaped Fire and Rescue Service response, Tony Prosser looks at the impact of train-related incidents.(Operational Assurance)

MARCH 1989 WAS A BAD MONTH for the railway network: major crashes at Purley, South London and at Bellgrove, a suburb of Glasgow, only served to underline the systemic failures that infected British Rail failures that were only too visible following the Clapham crash three months earlier.

Unfortunately for fire and rescue services, despite all the improvements made in network safety since the late 1980s, a railway accident is still the most common event that can be expected to (almost) routinely test the major incident response to disaster. The series of train crashes in the 1980s had a profound effect on the way integrated emergency management developed, and the responses to more recent incidents have benefited from the lessons from the railway crashes from nearly 30 years ago.

A railway crash has a number of unique features that have the ability to tax the Service response. The huge amount of kinetic energy stored in a three hundred tonne train travelling at 100 plus miles per hour has the potential to alter structural members of the train into complex deformed positions that make heavy cutting and lifting gear an essential item of equipment for rescuers. Unlike aircraft crashes, the materials in trains are heavy gauge and only rarely disintegrate on impact. Like aircraft crashes, however, they can happen in almost any terrain and location--remote locations, away from any metalled road, in tunnels and on bridges--all of which have been features of recent crashes.


Safety Improvements

Since the first public railway service began, rail travel has not been risk-free. Within moments of the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway line on September 15 1830, George Stephenson's Rocket had killed Liverpool MP William Huskisson. Like other transport industries, the rail industry has constantly improved the way it manages itself and rail travel is among the safest modes of transport available. Nevertheless, and despite safety improvements that have spanned the centuries (and particularly the last two decades), there remains the slight chance that accidents will occur--usually as the result of systematic failures of management rather than deliberate or accidental acts by others. …

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