Detrain or not detrain? That is the question…

Those of you who live in London and the South East likely saw the chaos that was caused by a bungled cable theft to South West Trains commuter services yesterday.

After over three hours stuck going nowhere, and with little or no information about how longer they would be involuntarily detained on the train, a number of passengers on a train within walking distance of a station decided to self evacuate, seeing as the railway appeared, at least from their point of view, to be making no attempt to help them.

Evacuating a train to track level is not a decision which is taken lightly. It’s no easy task, regardless of whether passengers are able to sit at step level and drop down, or come down an evacuation ladder. It’s still a long way down for most folk, a slow process, and once you’re on the floor, there’s lots to trip over and fall on. Oh, and in this case, add in a high voltage electric rail, just to build the excitement.

Like the initial attempted cable robbery, the response from the railway operator seemed to be bungled too. From detaining people for excessively long periods, to the local Plods threatening to arrest and prosecute those who self-evacuated for trespass, adding to their distress, the whole thing seemed to be a mess of confusion and frustration.

(SWT have since decided that although the original cause for the problem was vandalism, they do want to compensate delayed passengers.)

The basic fact is that there doesn’t seem to be a best practice for rail staff which says, “Okay, you’ve been trying for too long, you should give up trying to move this train (or trains), and now make it safe to detrain these people to track level and walk them in.”

Right now, local staff (the driver, the station staff) can’t make that decision, unless it’s more dangerous to be on the train (i.e. it’s well alight). They need the decision to come from on high.

The decision is fractured – between the train operator, Network Rail, and the BTP. In itself it’s a problem, you’ve got to stop all other trains in the area of the train you’re evacuating (though this seemed to have largely been done for them on this occasion!). It’s also a last resort. It’s admitting defeat.

People faced with a failure situation will always want to “try one last thing”, usually several times, before saying “Okay, there’s no more we can do” and stopping. It’s human nature. Who we are and what we do. The best thing to do is give these folk some guidelines, to help them make the decision to throw the towel in, and to show them that it’s not wrong when they finally do.

There needs to be some best practice for dealing with stranded passenger trains. There needs to be some timelimit recommended, which is longer than an hour, and less than three, upon which the white flag is raised and passengers are evacuated.

Then the folk in charge can actually make a decision, with the confidence they aren’t getting fired tomorrow.