Keeping fire safety on track with Transport for London

12 April 2013

Fire safety standards in the rail sector continue to change in light of technological advances and unprecedented collaboration between train operators during the past decade. Jim Banks talks to Tony Cash, Transport for London’s lead fire engineer, about maintaining customer safety on the cutting edge.

New challenges, new technology, new processes and new lessons learned from past experiences are collectively driving the evolution of safety standards in the rail industry. The ongoing process of modernisation, which encompasses new rolling stock designs and changes to rail networks as new lines are added or existing ones extended, means that ensuring passengers' safety is all about tracking a moving target without letting standards slip for a moment.

The last decade has seen the industry's approach change dramatically, with operators, designers, regulators and government agencies coming together more than ever before to discuss and define safety standards.

"The last ten years has seen the most joined up approach to fire safety ever," says Tony Cash, lead fire engineer at Transport for London (TfL). "The biggest changes came in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the industry consolidated its knowledge of construction materials and greatly improved interoperability between rail networks.

"There are many diverse companies operating rail networks and getting them to agree on harmonised standards is hard. It is only recently that there has been a joined-up approach in Europe. The work that had been done on fire safety for buildings is not necessarily applicable to trains," he adds.

"Progress along the hard road to the right formula has been driven by an understanding that common standards are in everyone's best interests."

TfL, the local government body responsible for most aspects of London's transport system, was created in 2000 and took control of London Underground in 2003. Since then, it has worked hard to improve on the already laudable track record of fire safety on the Tube network.

In his role overseeing fire safety on the London Underground, Cash has closely observed the evolution of fire safety regulation at a national and European level, and sees the progress that has been made as very positive.

At the European level, the introduction last year of the European Fire Safety Standard EN 45545-2 technical standard for interoperability (TSI) is the most significant step forward. Stemming from the concept of free movement of goods and services across the EU, it focuses on interoperability, and the facilitation, improvement and development of international rail transport services within the EU and beyond, as well as the creation of an internal market for equipment and services to support construction, renewal, upgrading and operation of the region's rail system. Technical harmonisation is a key strand in this initiative.

EN 45545 has had various components over the years including TSIs covering safety in railway tunnels (SRT TSI), high-speed rolling stock (HS RS TSI) and conventional rolling stock (CR TSI), all of which are intended to promote the interoperability of rolling stock across the EU. The process has not been without its difficulties, especially as each of the major European states had its own unique testing methods and local specifications, all of which would be superseded by EN 45545.

"The underground rail industry is seen as having almost maniacal control over fire safety. We look at safety as something outside commercial pressures."

Nevertheless, progress along the hard road to the right formula has been driven by an understanding that common standards are in everyone's best interests.

"It is laudable to have the same level of safety across Europe," states Cash. "Passengers travelling on a train that leaves from the north of Norway and travels to southern Spain can have confidence in the level of safety along the entire journey."

The industry has become more willing to unite around issues of safety, and Cash believes that the popularity of the annual Arena conference on fire protection of rolling stock, at which Cash spoke in March, is symptomatic of this new mindset.

"The conference is in everyone's diary," he confirms. "It shows the importance of getting people together from across the industry to look at safety issues. The bridges have been built over the last ten years and the cementing of relationships between interested parties has been especially important. There has also been great investment in new trains and refurbishment of old rolling stock."

Learning lessons

Fire safety in the underground rail network centres on the three simple risk components: fuel, a source of ignition and the nature of the surrounding atmosphere. By focusing on these core elements the industry has developed high standards and an admirable safety record. Last year, for instance, London Underground moved 1.1 billion customers, more than the UK's main line rail networks combined, and the number of fires has yet again decreased year on year.

This progress is partly due to the internal efforts of TfL and partly to the many industry bodies that have evolved to examine safety in general, and fire safety in particular, in an objective manner.

"Our record is something we can be proud of," says Cash. "The underground rail industry is seen as having almost maniacal control over fire safety; we limit flammability, smoke and toxicity in ways that won't be found anywhere in mainland UK buildings - the only other places you will find these types of controls are on ships and aircraft. We have chosen materials very carefully and, most important of all, we neither over-emphasise nor neglect the cost of compliance. We look at safety as something outside commercial pressures.

"Our challenge is to cope with 21st-century passenger expectations using 19th-century infrastructure"

"We always have a focus on prevention. If a train in a tunnel had a significant fire, which is very unlikely, the consequences could be enormous. We spend a lot of time looking at different scenarios such as a fire on a train, in a station or on the surface. We look carefully at how passengers can be safely evacuated. We have assuaged all the concerns of the industry regulator and the fire authorities in this regard," he adds.

Constant research and testing is vital to maintaining a good track record. TfL has, for example, staged full-scale evacuations at Heathrow Terminal 5, which included extensive smoke tests to prove that safety intervention points in tunnels can be kept clear of smoke during evacuation procedures.

"Modelling techniques are very subjective and there is little science behind them, so full-scale exercises like this are very important," believes Cash.

It is equally important to accept the hard truths that emerge from incidents of fire, such as the tragedy at King's Cross Underground Station in 1987.

"If you look back at disasters in other industries you can see the effect they had on the operating companies," Cash says.

"After the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry sank in 1987 the company went out of business. When the British Airtours aircraft caught fire on the runway at Manchester Airport in 1985, the company name was soon changed. We have had disasters like the King's Cross fire of 1987 and the Oxford Circus fire in 1984, but we are still here.

"Our challenge is to cope with 21st-century passenger expectations using 19th-century infrastructure, but with new trains, a lot of work done on signalling and rights of movement, the London Underground and UK rail has a very good record, with few collisions, and one of the best safety records in terms of least collisions followed by fire," he adds.

Broad horizons

There have been multiple changes in station design, fire prevention technology and rolling stock design over the years and Cash believes that the industry is good at coping with such innovations.

"I was in the aviation industry in the late 1990s and I was involved in changes to aircraft cabins," he says. "We have taken a similar approach with trains, which means that we use readily available materials that meet our needs in terms of ambience, comfort and safety. We have a very good relationship with our suppliers, who work very closely with fire scientists. There is a great coming together of minds."

The key is to give equal priority to every aspect of safety, as Cash explains.

"It is important to give equal attention to the construction of trains, the design of stations, the training of staff and the properties of new materials," he says. "Since the King's Cross fire we have installed automatic smoke and heat detectors and automatic sprinklers to stop small, incipient fires from escalating.

"The safety of the public is assured by our staff, so training them to make decisions about when to evacuate and how to keep evacuation routes clear is as important as starting an evacuation promptly."

The introduction of an EU fire safety standard was a significant step
Tony Cash is a senior lead fire engineer at Transport for London

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