London's Clapham Common underground station

UK safety watchdog unimpressed by London Underground “fire” evacuation

London's Clapham Common underground station MattBuck / WikiMedia

The Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), the statutory safety body in the UK, is investigating the uncontrolled evacuation of a train at Clapham Common Underground station in early May. At this preliminary stage, the RAIB has confirmed that it is conducting an investigation into the 5 May incident at Clapham Common station on the London Underground Northern Line.

Passengers were recorded on social media feeds, breaking windows and scrambling out of a train, they believed to be on fire. A carriage on the train is seen to be filled with smoke. RAIB is now working to clarify the circumstances that led to the near calamity on the narrow island platform. The Northern Line, one of London’s oldest underground railways, only recently celebrated the opening of a short branch to serve the redeveloped Battersea Power Station shopping and residential complex.

Stopped partially inside tunnel

In the usual precise tones of the RAIB, the safety watchdog says that at around 17:43hrs on Friday 5 May 2023, a northbound Northern Line train departing from Clapham Common station was halted by the operation of a passenger emergency alarm. This alarm was operated after passengers within the train became aware of a burning smell. The train came to a stand with one car fully and another car partially inside the tunnel. The remaining four cars forming the train remained fully in the platform.

Passengers on the platform attempting to force open the doors of an underground train to help passengers on board escape a possible fire
Members of the public helped to free stranded passengers. Reports of some people reaching for their phones instead of helping appear to be misunderstood, since a number of people were filmed dealing the emergency number.

RAIB have confirmed that the doors of the train remained closed after it came to a halt. What followed, according to the RAIB interim report, was an uncontrolled evacuation of passengers from the train and onto the platform. “Passengers exited the train via windows which had been broken open and the interconnecting doors between cars on the train”, says their official statement. “Other passengers subsequently exited the train after station staff opened the train’s bodyside doors. No serious injuries resulted from the evacuation but at least one passenger reported cutting their hands when exiting the train.

Smoke and burning

Despite the near-miraculous avoidance of serious injury, social media posts from passengers on the single island platform fo the nineteenth-century station, the authorities are concerned that luck played a part avoiding a tragedy. Despite the smoke and alarm, the London Fire Brigade, who attended the station as an emergency call, found no evidence that there had been a blaze. London Underground maintenance staff later determined that the probable cause of the burning smell related to the train’s braking system. However, no determination has yet been made on the smoke in the most seriously affected car.

Image looking down the platform of trains stopped on the platform at Clapham Common station showing broken windows in the aftermath of the "unplanned evacuation"
CCTV captured this image of image of trains stopped on the platform at Clapham Common station showing broken windows in the aftermath of the “unplanned evacuation”

The RAIB is following up several lines of enquiry, including the actions of those involved and anything which may have influenced them. “[We will review] London Underground’s procedures for incident response and management of out-of-course events [and] the arrangements in place to manage and control the risks of a suspected fire on a London Underground train”, they said. The RAIB again stressed that its investigation is independent of any investigation by the railway industry or by the industry’s regulator, the Office of Rail and Road.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for and

1 comment op “UK safety watchdog unimpressed by London Underground “fire” evacuation”

Jon Reed|31.05.23|16:10

This is a badly worded article.
The RIAB is neither a Watchdog nor the statutory safety body in the UK. It is the UK National Investigation Body for rail. Nor has it stated that it is “unimpressed”. It is the RAIB’s standard response to detail what it will look into, but this does not mean that the Branch has stated any opinion on the incident. One of the main points of the RAIB is that it does not give generic opinions, rather it seeks the truth in order to ensure learning from the accidents.

Add your comment

characters remaining.

Log in through one of the following social media partners to comment.