Underground conflagration before the overground coronation
Could London have suffered a disaster less than a day before the greatest ceremonial event of the century? That’s the question investigators will need to answer after an incident on Friday brought back memories of an earlier disaster that claimed more than thirty lives. A panicked evacuation of an Underground train at a cramped and busy south London station threatened to spill over into an calamity the likes of which would surely have overwhelmed emergency services and jeopardised the carefully laid plans for the coronation of King Charles.
There was panic in the narrow confines of Clapham Common station on the London Underground on Friday evening. A northbound train entered into small island platform station with smoke issuing from the train and beginning to fill the carriages. Passengers broke windows and forced open doors to escape the train, fearing a fire was spreading. The narrow island platform was filled with waiting commuters and there was real fear of a major incident. Remarkably no injuries were reported, despite images circulating on social media of the chaotic scenes.
Memories of King’s Cross 1987
With London’s public services concentrated on the coronation, due the following morning, there is a real since of relief that disaster was avoided. Although early reports claim that there was no fire, the incident brought back memories of the devastating King’s Cross fire disaster in 1987, which resulted in the deaths of 31 people. Even through social media videos clearly show passengers climbing and falling through the broken windows of the train, no injuries were reported in Friday’s Clapham Common incident.
London Fire Brigade has confirmed that there was no fire in the Friday incident. According to British Transport Police, the constabulary responsible for public order on the entire British Rail network, the issue was likely caused by brake dust. They say this can often be mistaken for smoke or fire. However, most rail users will be familiar with the occasional acrid smell of hot brakes, but less so with the significant clouds of smoke observed at Clapham. In that light, Transport for London (TfL) has launched an immediate investigation into the incident and apologised for the distress caused.
Passengers smashing windows and doors
Despite the lack of injuries or serious damage, the incident has raised concerns about safety on the London Underground, particularly at stations with narrow platforms like Clapham Common and Clapham North. As Twitter user Tom Brown pointed out, these two stations are the only remaining deep tube stations with narrow platforms, and both are prone to overcrowding. Brown argued that they are long overdue for a rebuild, like those at Angel or Bank. Eyewitness accounts of the incident describe scenes of chaos and fear, as passengers tried desperately to escape the smoke-filled train.
The accounts of several passengers and witnesses were reported in most national media outlets. Jamie McConkey, who was on the station platform at the time, said that there was a strong smell of smoke inside the station and people were screaming to get out of the train. He described passengers smashing windows (designed to be broken for emergency exit) and banging the train doors. Several customers on the platform can be seen attempting to force open the doors to help passengers on board the train. Witnesses on board said that they had no idea what was happening and could hear people on the platform and in the train screaming for them to get out.
Not the only station with a squeeze
James Barton, writing on the Haringey Crime Watch Facebook group, said this should horrify anyone who uses the London Underground. “[On Friday] at Clapham Common passengers were trapped in the carriages as they filled with smoke”, he said. “Luckily a tradesmen broke the windows so people could escape.”
The incident caused severe delays on the Northern Line of the London Underground. Although the circumstances were significantly different, questions have already been asked if any of the safety measures put in places after the King’s Cross fire would have alleviated the situation on Friday evening. TfL staff have been criticised for being absent from the single island platform. However, given the restricted size of the station, it is normal for the platform to be monitored remotely, and Clapham Common is far from the only narrow island platform in Britain – just ask any user of Manchester Piccadilly’s notoriously overcrowded through platform.