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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Tragedies waiting to happen

Shocking firsthand accounts (and evidence) of failures in ensuring the safe operation of trams on the Croydon system continue to come to light after seven people lost their lives due to a tram being driven far in excess of the required speed limit into a junction.

Passenger statements on apparently similar excessive speeds, by good luck without derailment have now been added to by video images of a driver asleep at the controls in his cab - taken by an understandably concerned passenger. These have to be more than a wakeup call for the Operator of the Croydon network; as well as the regulatory and safety agencies supposedly responsible for monitoring correct procedures on UK rail and tramway systems.

A book published some years ago on tramway crashes and tragedies has accounts of fatal accidents and incidents covering a diversity of systems both large and small. Blackpool is not included in the coverage. However my book on the 1940s 'Blackpool's Transport in War and Austerity 1940 - 1949' does contain a sobering list of fatalities involving both trams and buses run by Blackpool Corporation. Quite understandably in the war years blackout conditions made it extremely hard for both pedestrians, other road users and the drivers of trams and buses. However none of the fatalities was attributed to excess speed; nor thankfully a driver succumbing to a stroke or drowsiness when operating a vehicle.

Many years back an even more terrible tragedy with enormous loss of life on London Underground resulted from the driver of a tube train at a busy time, simply running his train as fast as possible into a tunnel deadend. The crushing of leading coaches required extensive work in recovering the remains of a large number of passengers unfortunate enough to be in the first two or three coaches in the confined space of a tunnel. This terrible event is not unique to those at the controls of trains. The more recent crash of a plane into a mountainside by a Lufthansa pilot subsequently found to have significant mental issues, and the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines passenger jet into the sea (and yet to be located) without warning signals or distress calls from the cockpit - combine to put a red light on training, competence and frequent checks on those in whom we place our trust in travelling from A to B - whatever the mode or distance.

It is quite incredible that evidence of excessive tram speed on the Croydon system has to emerge through the accounts of passengers, and ultimately as a result of the deaths of seven (and substantial injuries to many others) in an overturned tram. One might imagine such an incident occurring elsewhere in a less regulated country - but to read the accounts now appearing online and in the national media of the state of the only tram operation in the capital - is truly shocking. Perversely the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) has an unblemished history over a much larger network carrying far more passengers than the Croydon system - and with totally driverless trains. Croydon's tram operation; the only such service in the capital - now regrettably casts a pall over the image of the tram in urban Britain and certainly places in doubt the likelihood of further new lines being encouraged, at least in London.

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