Last week's tram derailment in South London which killed seven people and injured over 50, was the first fatal accident on a British tram since 1959, when two passengers in Glasgow died after their vehicle was hit by a lorry and caught fire. Trams the world over typically have an excellent safety record, with the few accidents that do occur usually involving road vehicles or pedestrians. For the UK which has among the strongest safety regulations in the industry, this was the worst accident on the tram or rail network since 2004.
What exactly happened on the Croydon tramlink is currently being investigated. But the facts the UK Rail Accident Investigation Board (RAIB) have confirmed are that at around 06:10 hrs on Wednesday 9 November 2016, a tram from the London Tramlink system derailed on the approach to a junction, turned onto its side, falling and landing with the windows facing the ground. Trams on this stretch of the line have to negotiate a sharp, left-hand curve with a speed limit of 20 km/h (12 mph) before reaching the junction. The RAIB statement added that “The derailment occurred on the curve and initial indications suggest that the tram was travelling at a significantly higher speed than is permitted.”
So what do we know so far? And what has been the industry response to this tragic incident?
Prior reports of problems.
In the days following the crash, a number of reports appeared on social media reporting an incident with a tram on the same bend the week before, on 31st October. The Guardian quoted a Facebook from an Andy Nias, of nearby Croydon: “30 of us on the tram this morning and we all thought our time was up ... tram driver took the hard corner to Sandilands at 40mph!! I swear the tram lifted on to one side. Everyone still shaking ... it’s mad.” Nias after the crash posted that he had reported the incident to British Transport Police, who advised him not to speak to journalists.
The BBC has reported that the tram operators Firstgroup had received a complaint from someone else on this tram who stated that: "As the tram went around the bend at the junction between Lloyds Park and Sandilands the driver from my point of view missed the bend or he was going too fast. I thought I was going to die and leave my two-year-old son. I do hope this matter will be looked into because I am left with a fear for travelling in the tram."
On 2nd November, the company replied saying it would "fully investigate" and that it was "sorry to hear of this unfortunate incident" and would check CCTV to find out what happened. Though it is understood that different drivers were involved in both incidents.
The seven who died were all local residents, using the tram to commute to work: Dane Chinnery (19 years old), Philip Seary (57), Mark Smith (35), Dorota Rynkiewicz (35), Donald Collett (62), Philip Logan (52) and Robert Huxley (63). More than 50 people were also injured. There’s more about the victims here.
Calls for automated braking system.
The investigation is currently underway, but the tragedy has led one former Transport for London board member call for an automated braking system to be deployed on the Tramlink. As reported in the Evening Standard, Brian Cooke, who was also a member of TfL’s safety and assurance committee and former chairman of the London Travelwatch watchdog, said a system which would halt a tram automatically if it exceeded the speed limit would be expensive “but worth it.”
Cooke told the newspaper: “An automated braking system, much the same as on the [Docklands Light Railway], must now be looked at. Obviously, you could never had a driverless system but you could control speeds." Before adding: “Track design also has to be seriously looked at. If the system was being built today you would not build such an acute curve as there is at Sandilands.”
The key safety device on-board the tram, a Bombardier CR4000 is the “dead man’s lever” – a vigilance device, which brakes automatically if the driver is incapacitated. It must be pressed every 30 seconds, if not the brakes area applied automatically. Trams do not however have speed limiters or a mechanism to stop them if they run a red light.
Trade association UK Tram issued a statement following the derailment: “The UK Tram and Light Railway industry prides itself as being one of the safest modes of public transport and strives to maintain high standards in safety. The industry safety record speaks for itself and our tramways and light railways operate over 25 million vehicle miles carrying over 300 million passengers each year with very few major incidents.”
FirstGroup, the operator of the Croydon Tramlink, published a statement from Chief Executive Officer Tim O’Toole on the 10th November stating: “At this stage we do not know the details of what caused the incident. It is absolutely essential that we find out exactly what happened yesterday and this could take some time. We are working closely with Transport for London and the accident investigators and will continue to provide every assistance to the ongoing investigation.”
Finn Brennan, of the ASLEF trade union which covers the London Underground, Tubelines and Croydon Tramlink, urged in a Facebook post that “there should be no rush to judgement or to place blame until the facts are known.”
The British Transport Police are running the criminal investigation and has confirmed they are looking at reports the driver blacked out or fell asleep and that the 42-year-old driver was arrested and bailed.
There is also a parallel investigation from the RAIB, focussing on the technical side. With the key question being why the tram was going so fast. SmartRail World will keep you updated on the latest findings of the investigations.
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