Faster, faster

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Jun/Jul 2012

British Transport Police’s Chief Inspector Christopher Horton and London Underground’s Operations Director Nigel Holness speak to RTM about an innovative new scheme to improve emergency response on the Underground.

A collaborative new trial has cut emergency response times by more than half, and is now set to be rolled out to other London sites. Coordinating staff, vehicles and expertise, the TfL and British Transport Police (BTP) partnership could prove a model for improved safety and performance throughout the rail network.

RTM spoke to BTP Chief Inspector Christopher Horton and LU’s Operations Director Nigel Holness to find out more.

Although London Underground (LU) and Tube Lines have had an Emergency Response Unit (ERU) in place for many years, it has historically been difficult for TfL to respond quickly to incidents due to legal limitations and criteria for using the emergency blue light.

Holness explained: “One of the perennial problems it’s faced is getting to incidents quickly. Because they’re quite large, heavy vehicles and carry lots of equipment that helps us deal with incidents, the difficulty has always been getting to site.”

The impetus for the new scheme was the criticism of response times on the part of TfL, particularly after the 7/7 London bombings, as legal issues limited the use of a blue light response. A lack of critical understanding and equipment from the BTP meant that the speed and resources to provide an efficient response were divided.

“All of this came about after 7/7 and us thinking about how we can respond to incidents faster, and recover the service more quickly,” Holness said.

Horton added: “We were looking to improve the work that we do in response to serious, critical incidents with the industry – looking at key managers, how we get them to site quickly and manage incidents more effectively.

“One of the key frustrations is that quite often we would turn up on the site as emergency services for things like a person under the train, but the critical equipment needed would be a non-emergency response with railway engineers, which wasn’t good for us responding to the incident but also there’s issue of services being disrupted, restoring services as soon as possible, getting the railway back to normality.

“We thought ‘actually, maybe we need to look a bit closer at what joint response we can provide to these serious railway incidents’ – especially where it was likely that it would be lifethreatening and involve serious disruption.”

Joint response

LU and BTP thus developed a partnership that incorporated a BTP officer working with a team of maintenance engineers from the rail industry in a Tube Lines ERU. This was officially designated as a police vehicle and could operate using its blue light under certain criteria – when there is a threat to life or customer safety.

As both parties were previously sending responses to a single incident, Horton said: “There’s no sense for us to send off to an incident and so do Tube Lines and ERU, why don’t we combine the response? It makes it a lot slicker.”

He cited the whole aim of the initiative – “getting the right people with the right equipment to the right place, quickly and efficiently”.

The faster response means specialist knowledge and kit can be in place in less time, helping police, service recovery and passengers.

“We’re there on site with the right kit and the right people,” Holness agreed.

From February 2012, the ERUs in the trial became a joint function, managed by a partnership approach. The trial, currently operating out of Camden for 12 months, sees seven BTP officers and 35 Tube Lines engineers in five teams, working 24 hours a day to respond quickly to emergencies and incidents on the Underground and DLR (Docklands Light Railway).

Tube Lines provides the ERU service from four sites in total: Acton Town, Battersea, Stratford and Camden. The partnership decided to run a trial from one site to begin with; Camden was converted for use in February and is already demonstrating the potential value of the scheme.

Horton said: “In the first few months it became really apparent the difference it was making, in terms of response, certainly for BTP and the industry. We more than halved the response time, which was phenomenal. We are saving the industry a substantial amount of money per month because it gets the system up and running quicker.”

Shared objectives

As well as the obvious benefit of faster response times, the partners soon discovered the initiative was developing an entirely new approach to incidents and emergencies.

Horton explained: “A benefit we didn’t really anticipate was the cross-pollination of working practice. We developed quite a good understanding, which is driving through some different thinking between us and the industry: some organisational learning on both sides, which has further improved our response.”

TfL has always had a “very collaborative” relationship with the BTP, Holness said, and he added that the new initiative was an example of “thinking more creatively about how we can meet joint objectives by working together more effectively”.

This sharing of knowledge is extremely useful to both partners, he explained, as certain priorities actually overlap.

“They have policing objectives and we’ve got transport objectives and the two needn’t be in opposition. You can achieve both objectives by working together. It’s important to understand each others’ objectives, a lot of them are complementary, and it’s just the approach you take to dealing with the problem that we’ve been able to modify.”

One BTP officer per team is funded by Tube Lines, which also provides the majority of the staff and maintains ownership of the vehicles, which are operated as if they are part of BTP’s fleet.

“The police element is that critical link between us and them,” Horton noted.

This method of working also adds benefit at incidents where both parties need each others’ knowledge and expertise. In the case of police response to cable theft for example, BTP cannot act without the specific rail knowledge concerning the type of cable that was taken and the impact it will have on the rest of the railway infrastructure.

Horton said: “It’s actually really frustrating – and this is where we’ve seen it [the initiative] really come into its own. We didn’t realise how much more effective it would make our response. The team can turn up, secure the site, and identify whether specialist support is required.”

In terms of incidents, the frustration for the rail industry was that “they don’t get the benefit of the same exemptions that BTP gets when we respond”.

He added: “So it makes sense to say, ‘We’re responding anyway, we’re working closely with you when we get there: it’s madness to not have you as part of our response. We’re going anyway.”

When is an incident an emergency?

The management of response and deployment of the ERUs is through the BTP control room, to ensure incidents meet national criteria for an emergency before a vehicle is deployed.

Horton explained: “It gets referred by the relevant control room to ours, we grade the response as we do any other police emergency and if it is viewed as such and suitable for the ERU to go, it’s deployed as any other police vehicle. It’s quite a good process in terms of control and accountability – to make sure it’s genuine emergencies.”

Even if the incident does not fit national criteria for an emergency, the ERU is dispatched immediately without a blue light and sirens.

“We always send them straight away, because they can always turn the blue light on when they’re down the road if necessary. It’s absolutely critical that we get there as quickly as possible,” Holness added.

Before the partnership, there were certain incidents that would be classed as emergencies for LU, but not for the BTP. Due to the trial and cross-pollination of railway understanding, the way response is managed has been reconsidered.

Horton gave the example of tunnel fires: “A fire in the tunnel before, BTP would have just noted for information. The Underground have a number of issues with fire, we would get told for information but then we resolve trains stopped [or] service suspension.”

Previously the BTP would only have been called in around 40 minutes after the initial incident, when it became evident that passengers were affected. But the type of incident and its consequences are well understood, meaning that now BTP can respond immediately when such information is reported.

He explained: “We look at incidents in a different light. We know that if there’s an issue with a fire in a tunnel that actually we’re going to have trains stalled in the tunnel, we would normally be responding to that. It’s about sharpening our tools: why respond to it 40 minutes after we know there’s an issue? Why not do the initial response? It’s a different way of thinking for BTP.”

Stalled trains have often been the biggest challenge to fast BTP response times, he said, as they would only normally be informed of such an incident after 20-30 minutes, when it became apparent that LU could not resolve the issue quickly enough, rather than immediately.

The BTP work to manage passengers, escort them out of the train if necessary and deal with public disorder issues and frustration, which can be exacerbated by a long wait in a hot Underground train.

Now the process has been streamlined through an initial incident assessment that asks the question: “Does LU know what the problem is and can we resolve it?”

If the answer is no, then BTP is alerted by default, which means their response time can be shortened to ten minutes.

Horton said: “It’s that passenger focus in terms of what’s the right thing to do.”

An agreement to extend the trial has been confirmed, with Stratford identified as the next site to benefit from the model. Due to its location near the Olympic Games site, the scheme is due for implementation just ahead of the opening ceremony on July 17.

Wider benefits

Aside from revolutionising incident response on the Underground, this initiative could have significant potential for use elsewhere on the network, Horton suggested.

On longer and sometimes remote lines, a single response could boost effectiveness. The BTP generally arrive first on the scene, but remain unable to act without information concerning the infrastructure affected and being able to control access to the railway.

This is especially true for an incident such as cable theft, Horton added, which requires a presence from both the industry and the police.

“Certainly for national rail operators, it would be even more of a benefit due to some of the distances their staff have to travel to emergencies.”

Discussions with the industry are now ongoing to showcase what the trial can achieve, and this has been met with interest, Horton said.

In terms of rolling the scheme out to other parts of the national rail network, Holness welcomed the idea.

“Anything that can assist in improving the performance of the railway and at the same time improve safety has got to be a positive thing.

“Clearly the BTP have a primary role and we need to be careful that we don’t dilute their role at all, but I think it would be a positive thing for the rail industry to continue the approach.”

Other ideas which have come out of the work include incorporating a joint response to fatalities, with a senior crime officer on board to speed up long suspensions and delays to rail services, and this is now being explored by the BTP.

Certain BTP officers working on the Underground have also received extra medical training and a joint training facility has been built for Underground and BTP staff to undergo joint scenario training.

“It’s all about building collaboration, building the teamwork,” Holness said. “BTP understand the Underground’s business and the [safety] pressures that we’re under,” he added. “If you have a problem on the Underground you end up with trains stuck in tunnels. The importance of responding very quickly is absolutely critical.”


Developing the right deployment through the BTP control room was initially challenging, Horton admitted, as the aim was to remove any delays in the process to make it “as streamlined as possible”.

As it was a new trial, things had to be worked through properly and thought through carefully, especially concerning ownership and supply of the vehicles to be designated as part of the police fleet. However, the model has been “very successful”, he said, with response on both parts “much more effective and quicker”.

Holness praised the common objective of a swifter response as the ‘glue’ that has helped the initiative become such a success.

“It’s gone remarkably smoothly to be honest: it’s been very well supported, it’s innovative, it’s different and it’s gone extremely well.”

Since the trial began, the average response to emergencies has been cut from 6.5 minutes per mile to 3 minutes per mile and the response to fatalities on the Underground has seen the average time for a fatality fall from 82 minutes to 65 minutes – “which for LU is massive,” Horton said. “Almost 20 minutes, for a station in central London is a massive, massive cost, and the value to lost customer hours is huge!

“This is certainly a model that BTP would consider exploring with Network Rail and other train operating companies in the future,” he concluded.

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