5pm UPDATE: It was just after 11am today that a spokesman for the British Transport Police announced that there had been “some loss of life” in the tram derailment which had seen two carriages come off the rails on a bend in the track by a tunnel near Sandilands in Addiscombe.
Within three hours, the emergency services confirmed that five people had died and more than 50 people had been injured in the crash and had required hospital treatment. Later in the afternoon, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan indicated that the death toll may yet rise.
A rail engineering expert, familiar with Croydon’s tram network, described the stretch of track, from the tram stop downhill towards a sharp bend into the tunnel on the route towards Lloyd Park and New Addington, where the derailment occurred, as “just about the worst location on the system for an incident”.
It was chillingly notable during the media announcement from Assistant Chief Constable Robin Smith that the emergency services were speaking in the plural about the death of passengers. Even one death would make the Sandilands tragedy the worst on trams or light railways in this country in 70 years.
Certainly, these would be the first fatalities from a crash of this kind in the 16 years since the Croydon tram network opened.
By 1pm, the BBC was reporting that the tram driver had been arrested.
This afternoon, Mayor Khan, together with the constituency MP, Gavin Barwell, were visiting the site of the accident where, according to Barwell, they would be “discussing with Transport for London officials the process for investigating the cause of this accident and the timetable for reopening this vital service on which so many of my constituents depend”.
During the visit, transport investigators indicated that the tram may was travelling faster than the 12mph speed limit on this stretch of the track.
In the brief media update provided by the police, ambulance and fire brigade this morning, it was confirmed that five people had also been trapped on the tram, and while three had been recovered, the emergency services were still working hours later to extract the others, while around 50 people – mainly “walking wounded” – had been taken to nearby hospitals, mostly to Mayday, but some going to St George’s, Tooting and King’s College at Denmark Hill.
The crash had happened just after 6am, and the roads around Addiscombe Road were soon lit up, not with the first light of day but with the bright blue of flashing police and ambulance lights.
Some tram services, between Wimbledon and Reeves Corner, continued during the morning rush hour, but much of the network was soon shut down and the electric power turned off, while there were widespread road closures and, with buses already on diversion while East Croydon bus station is re-built, the area was soon clogged with traffic.
Some video of another tram, stationary near Sandilands tram stop, and taken around one hour after the crash, appeared to show emergency workers removing what is possibly a body from the tracks. It is not known at this stage whether this is directly connected with the disaster.
Passengers report that the already busy network has been particularly crowded in the last 10 days or so, with the trams taking on more passengers in the area because of the disruption to local bus services during building work at the East Croydon public transport hub.
The derailment was initially reported as having occurred in the tunnel between Sandilands and Lloyd Park.
Images which emerged during the morning show the tram on its side close to a sharp bend in the tracks and near a set of points at which other services head off towards Elmers End and Beckenham Junction.
The bend in the track, a downhill section of track, the points and the speed at which trams operate through the tunneled section, plus the morning’s wet conditions, may all have contributed to the disaster. It is also suggested that this is a section of the network where track replacement work was carried out recently.
One senior engineer, a former council employee who worked on the tram network’s development, told Inside Croydon: “Point problems are often the cause of derailments, and this may have been made worse by the relatively tight bend at this location.
“I know that there have been practice enactments of similar incidents in the tunnels as this is just about the worst location on the system for an incident,” they said.
“The trams do travel quite quickly through the tunnels as they are off-road and thus highway speed limits and line of sight don’t apply. Derailments are rare, as tracks are checked frequently. I do wonder if there has been some third-party involvement.
“Too early to suggest vandalism but I would not be surprised if this were the case. On other parts of the system a fault could be seen by the driver and brakes applied as they drive on line of sight, that is within stopping distance. In the tunnels, faults would be harder to see.”
This section of track, and possibly the whole tram network, could face an indefinite period of closure while Department of Transport inspectors investigate the cause of the derailment. As one of the first services of the day along the stretch of track, it is possible that some damage to the track overnight may have caused the tragedy, on a transport network which had previously been noted for its safety.
In a statement released just after 1.30pm, the British Transport Police said: “We continue to work alongside our partners at the scene of a major incident in Croydon.
“We were called at 06.13 after a tram derailed near Sandilands tram stop.
“At present, we can confirm five people have sadly died following this incident.
“More than 50 others have been taken to hospital with injuries. Officers are continuing to work at the scene and Rail Accident Investigation Bureau are investigating the cause of the derailment. One person has been arrested in connection with the incident and is currently in police custody.
Mike Brown, London’s Commissioner for Transport, sent an email to officials at lunchtime which stated, “We are working closely with FirstGroup, who operate the trams, and the emergency services. An investigation is now underway and more information will be shared with you as soon as possible.”
In a statement issued to the media, Brown said, “”All of our thoughts are with those who sadly lost their lives in this incident, those who were injured and the families of those affected. We are working closely with the emergency services on site and will continue to work with them during the investigation into what happened.”
Some political figures issued statements of support and sympathy for the victims of the crash.
“Our thoughts are with the victims and the loved ones of those affected by the tram derailment in Croydon this morning,” was tweeted by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader.
Barwell, the Conservative MP for Croydon Central, said, “First and foremost, my thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims of this morning’s accident. I want to thank our emergency services for the speed of their response and the staff at our local hospitals who are treating the victims.”
The police have asked that anyone worried about loved ones who may have been involved in the accident should go to the council offices, Bernard Weatherill House, on Fell Road, or they can call the casualty bureau on 0800 0560154.
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