King’s Cross 30 years on

17 November 2017

By Ian Prosser, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Railways.

Ian Prosser, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Railways18th November 2017 marks the 30th anniversary of the King’s Cross fire, which tragically took the lives of 31 people and injured 100 more.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Lord Fennell was tasked with holding a public enquiry. He found that the blaze started when a lit match was dropped on to an escalator and a series of unusual circumstances caused the fire to suddenly increase in intensity. He concluded by making over 150 recommendations intended to ensure that nothing similar could ever happen again.

So, 30 years on from that terrible night, have Lord Fennell’s recommendations made a difference?  In my view, it is quite clear that they have.

In 1984/85 smoking was banned on the underground but laxly policed. Following the fire London Underground acted immediately to enforce the ban; and in due course, also began stripping out all of the wooden escalators, which had proved so flammable, and replacing them with fire-resistant metal ones.

Next  came a rigorous regime of checking escalator machine rooms daily – which is still carried out - and  most importantly the company fundamentally reviewed its whole approach to ensuring the health and safety of its passengers and workforce and developed a comprehensive Safety Management System based approach which is still followed today, albeit much modified and updated.

Indeed the Safety Management System approach, has become the basis of not only railway safety in Great Britain, where it has led to fundamental, life-saving improvements, but also throughout Europe.

London Fire Brigade, and fire and rescue authorities more widely, also acted on Lord Fennell’s recommendations and today they oversee a variety of regulations which mandate that ‘sub-surface’ railway stations must be of fire resisting construction, have plenty of exits, be appropriately staffed when operating, have fire detection and warning at all times and have emergency plans that are practiced.

And what of Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate? Lord Fennell did not shirk from commenting that less than one Inspector’s worth of resource per year to oversee London Underground was simply not enough, and to note  that the relationship between the Inspector and London Underground was  ‘too-cosy’ with insufficient challenge directed towards London Underground on safety matters.

Today I have one Principal Inspector and seven Inspectors and Inspector Assistants committed solely to oversight of Transport for London rail activities (LU, DLR , LO London Tram and Crossrail) with three devoted exclusively to London Underground. They work to a 5-year plan based on the organisation’s risks, which systematically examines London Underground’s Safety Management System. The working relationship between my Inspectors and London Underground is pragmatic and business-like but they can and do enforce the law when necessary - two prosecutions and seven enforcement notices served in the past seven years is testament to that.

Such enforcement is thankfully rare, enforcement after all holds an organisation to account when things have failed. The work my Inspectors do to ensure London Underground maintains and implements its Safety Management System effectively is key in trying to prevent events such as King’s Cross occurring in the first place.

As we remember those who tragically lost their lives or were injured at King’s Cross, it is worth reflecting that they were not lost in vain. Lord Fennell’s report brought about fundamental and lasting change.

In 1987, there were approximately 700 million passenger journeys on London Underground, today that has doubled to 1.4 billion. We can never be complacent about safety on railways and we must be ever vigilant but I believe the lives lost on that terrible November night and the Fennell report that followed mean that today the travelling public is at significantly less risk of such an event occurring again.