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Tube staff praised after Northern Line chaos saw passengers smash windows to escape suspected fire

Tube station staff have been praised for their quick actions after passengers began smashing windows on a packed Northern line train to escape a suspected fire during the King’s Coronation bank holiday weekend.

Between 500 and 600 people began to self-evacuate from the northbound train, which stopped with two of its six carriages inside a tunnel at Clapham Common station, after a passenger alarm was activated, at 5.42pm on Friday May 5.

A detailed report into the incident published Monday by Transport for London said there was no fire but the smoke and smell of fire probably came from debris that had gathered on one of the braking units.

Passengers on the platform, including those who had arrived on a southbound train, seeing the distress of those on board, pressed alarms and began smashing the windows of the last two carriages.

This led to an “uncontrolled evacuation” of passengers through the windows and doors that were forced open.

The station went into “evacuation mode” within 45 seconds of the passenger alarm being triggered, when the three staff – a manager with an assistant at the ticket barrier and another on the platform - rapidly realised there was the need to get all passengers out of the station and prevent new ones from entering.

Passengers forced doors open to escape what they feared was a fire (@jakesharp0108)
Passengers forced doors open to escape what they feared was a fire (@jakesharp0108)

Four minutes after the first alarm, the female platform worker was given permission to manually open the train doors, allowing the remaining passengers to get off.

The report said “all detraining was smooth – passengers weren’t rushing”. Many filmed the evacuation on their phones and quickly shared the images on social media.

All passengers had been evacuated from the train within 11 minutes of the onboard alarm being pressed, and five minutes before firefighters arrived on scene.

The partly-redacted report said: “After reviewing all the evidence, the panel would like to positively recognise the actions of the customer service manager and two customer service assistants at Clapham Common who had to deal with a difficult incident with a fast-changing risk potential.”

It said that while the staffing numbers met the minimum required to be on duty, the “customer service assistant on the platform on their own had a huge volume of customers requiring attention during the incident”.

Because the front of the train had stopped in the tunnel, the station staff had “no direct way” of communicating with the train driver. However the driver was able to communicate with the Northern line signaller.

Reports from passengers at the time complained of a lack of information from the Tube driver and the absence of station staff. One said there was “hysteria” as passengers began pulling each other out of carriages.

At the time, the train had been held at Tooting Bec for 10 minutes because of a trackside fire further south of the line at Morden. This meant the train became increasingly packed.

The Northern Line train after the emergency evacuation (TfL)
The Northern Line train after the emergency evacuation (TfL)

Another train with 600 passengers on board was stopped outside Clapham Common station “for quite some time” while the incident was being dealt with.

The report said: “The probable cause of the smoke and the burning smell is some debris found on or near the brake resistor grid on car four heating up and giving off the smoke/smell.

“The London Fire Brigade attended the incident and found no evidence of hot spots and confirmed that there had been no fire.”

The report revealed there had been 40 incidents in the past three years when smoke or dust had been reported on Northern line trains, though none developed into such serious incidents.

The report recommended that more regular maintenance checks should be considered.

Nick Dent, director of customer operations at London Underground, said: “We are confident that station staff and the train driver responded appropriately to the incident and that the station was safely and properly staffed.

“The London Fire Brigade also confirmed that there was no fire on the train. However, we will continue to review the information to determine any changes or improvements that can be applied in the future.

“We apologise for the distress this incident caused to customers at Clapham Common and will continue to do all we can to ensure the safety of all passengers.”