Trapped passengers smashed Tube windows to escape as staff failed to respond to fire alert, report finds

Staff failing to respond to reports of a fire on a London Underground train led to passengers smashing windows to escape carriages, a report into the incident has found.

On 5 May 2023, the emergency alarm was activated just before 6pm after smoke and the smell of burning was discovered. At this point, the Northern line train had pulled out Clapham Common station, but came to a stop.

This then led to an “uncontrolled evacuation”, when 100 of the estimated 500 passengers “self-evacuated”, at first using the doors between cars but also breaking windows to exit. At the time, two carriages were inside the tunnel and four cars adjacent to the platform.

A number of passengers were left with minor injuries, but the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), which compiled the report, warned that the incident “had the potential to have more serious consequences”, especially as Clapham Common Tube station “has a narrow island platform which increases the risk of passengers falling onto the track”, which could see travellers “being exposed to conductor rails and trains approaching on the adjacent southbound line”.

The RAIB found that “passengers perceived a significant risk from fire” before becoming “increasingly alarmed” when the doors did not open.

The train was just leaving Clapham Common station when the alarm was pulled (nigelingofink/X)
The train was just leaving Clapham Common station when the alarm was pulled (nigelingofink/X)

Those caught in the incident failed to “receive suitable information or see any effective action from London Underground staff”, with the report stating that staff present were “not provided with the procedures or training needed to effectively identify and manage incidents where passenger behaviour can rapidly escalate”.

It added that learnings from a similar incident at Holland Park station in 2013, when passengers panicked and escaped a locked Central line train during the Notting Hill carnival after the emergency alarm was pulled, were not applied by Transport for London.

Staff did not “fully appreciate the emerging safety risk when passengers’ behaviour began to escalate as they became increasingly anxious”, said Andrew Hall, chief inspector of rail accidents.

“When passengers did not receive suitable information about the nature of the incident and the actions they should take, nor see action they would have expected to be taken, they turned to desperate measures.”

He added: “This incident again demonstrates that learning from past operational incidents needs to be retained by organisations.”

Nick Dent, London Underground’s director of customer operations, apologised for the “distress” caused to those at Clapham Common, stressing that the operator is “continuing to do all we can to ensure the safety of everyone on the Tube”.

He added: “Our commitment to safety is at the heart of everything we do, and our staff work hard to keep our customers safe in sometimes challenging circumstances. We welcome any opportunities to learn lessons from incidents on our network and, following our own investigation last year, we are already making good progress on the recommendations from the RAIB. This includes changes to our training, which will be in place in the coming weeks.”