An investigation by the BBC suggests that the driver’s safety control on the south London tram network often fails to operate, providing a possible explanation for last November’s crash at Sandilands in which seven passengers died.
The safety control, which requires a driver to keep pressure on it at all times and which is supposed to bring the tram to a halt is a driver collapses or falls asleep, is commonly known as “the dead man’s handle”. It is a safety feature on all trains and Tubes in Britain.
But there have been recorded tragic failures in the past, most notably at the Moorgate Tube disaster in 1975 when 43 died and 74 people were hospitalised with injuries when their train exceeded the speed limit at the Northern Line station. Unexplained to this day, a malfunction of the dead man’s handle was considered a possible factor in that crash.
An interim report into November’s Croydon crash found that the tram was speeding into a sharp bend before the Sandilands stop and that the driver may have “lost awareness”. The tram was travelling at 46mph in a 12mph zone.
A BBC investigation for the Victoria Derbyshire programme has found that at least three trams have been recorded speeding on that same line since the derailment. And four drivers have admitted falling asleep while operating trams. The drivers say that their “dead man’s handle” failed to activate and stop their trams.
One driver, Konrad Turner, who retired last year after driving trams in Croydon for 16 years, told the BBC that he had fallen asleep, only to wake up 10 metres after passing the busy George Street stop.
“A person was very fortunate that I didn’t run them over,” he said. Turner maintains that his tram’s safety handle failed to operate properly in this instance.
Drivers have to apply pressure on a lever and push it forward for the tram to accelerate. The trams are supposed to be able to move only if that pressure is applied by the driver, something which is supposed to be impossible unless the driver is alert and awake. If pressure is not maintained, a safety device should activate, sounding an alarm and applying the emergency brake. Office guidance states that the handle is designed “so that it cannot be kept in the operating position other than by a vigilant tram driver”.
The BBC has been careful to state that they have no evidence that it was a similar problem with the safety handle in the tram that crashed which caused the tragedy, though clearly it is an area being carefully examined during the on-going inquiry by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch.
But they have spoken to six drivers who say that the device on trams is not “fit for purpose”. And the BBC has uncovered three incidents in the past decade where drivers were incapacitated.
They include a near head-on collision, a collision with buffers, and a driver failing to slow down at the Morden Road stop.
The BBC’s report has prompted one London Assembly Member, Caroline Pidgeon, to question whether the operating company, Tram Operations, is fit to continue.
“These are incredibly serious revelations, especially if any breaches of speeding have occurred since the horrific tram crash last November,” the LibDem AM said today.
“It is now time to consider whether the current company is fit to run this important contract given these serious safety issues.”
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