Thursday 10 June 2021 11:32 am

Croydon tram crash: Safety issues highlighted eight years before fatal accident

The former chief engineer of the Croydon tram network highlighted safety issues with the Sandilands tunnel almost a decade before a fatal crash killed seven people, an inquest into the deaths has heard.

Jim Snowdon told the jury that he had written a paper in 2008 warning there was a risk of accident on the corner coming out of the Sandilands tunnel due to a lack of signs.

The paper, which was considered by national body the Light Rail Operator Committee (LROC) in 2010, was inspired by two low-speed derailments at Phipps Bridge, further up the line, in 2006.

He wrote: “In some circumstances, particularly long stretches of segregated track and isolated alignments where there are few visual clues as to location during the hours of darkness, there is potential for the driver to lose awareness of the distance to approaching hazards and it may become appropriate to consider the provision of advanced signage as a reminder”.

“I would cite two [examples] on Tramlink, namely the long section through the Sandilands tunnel which terminates in a 20kph curve and the single track section between Morden Road and Phipps Bridge… both are virtually straight, high speed and in areas away from surrounding lighting so that during darkness there are few visual cues as the location and thus to the distance to go to the restriction.”

The Rail Accident Investigation Board (RAIB) said that driver Alfred Dorris may have slipped into a “microsleep” immediately before the crash in November 2016.

RAIB chief inspector Simon French said that Dorris may have been “disorientated”, with evidence that he may have thought he was travelling in the other direction. 

The tram toppled over when it rounded the curve at nearly four times the speed limit, shortly after 6am on 9 November.

TOL, the First Group subsidiary which ran the trams, said that the paper did not specifically mention the risk of a high-speed derailment at Sandilands.

Snowdon, who left the then Tramtrack Croydon in 2008, also said that his decision to put up emergency signs due to other safety concerns on the network had received a “hostile” response from TOL.

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He said that the company had covered up – or “bagged over” – temporary speed restriction signs at Phipps Bridge that he had put up around March and April that year.

When asked what form the “hostility” took, Snowdon said: “It culminated in the signs that we put up, after considerable argument through panels, meetings, being promptly bagged over without notice to us.”

A spokesperson for TOL said: “Our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives at the tragic incident at Sandilands in 2016. The current inquest is considering all aspects of that terrible event, and we are providing full support to the inquest and will take into account any further learnings that may come from it.

“Jim Snowdon’s paper mentioned at the inquest this week, which went through revisions over a number of years, did not comment on the risk of a tram derailing at high speed.

“TOL have always worked closely together with Tramtrack Croydon and its successor organisation London Trams on all aspects of the service including safety, and the relationship is far from hostile.

“As highlighted at the inquest, there was an ongoing discussion between TOL and TCL concerning signage at Phipps Bridge where there was a disagreement on the appropriate approach to take. TOL covered over the temporary signs because of safety concerns arising from their hurried introduction, and an alternative solution was put in place. These discussions were nothing to do with the signage at Sandilands.”

Despite his paper, Snowdon, who now works for Network Rail, said he had not directly raised safety concerns about overspeeding in the tunnel during his time at the company.

But the revelations raise further concerns about safety issues at TOL, after a number of audits came to light revealing that the firm was aware of fatigue management issues on the network several years before the crash.

As City A.M. has revealed, these audits show that fatigue management had been highlighted as a problem on the network as early as 2014. 

One such probe, which was being carried out at the time the crash occurred but was swiftly abandoned, was not even requested by the investigator during its probe.

A year later, another report was watered down by TfL executives in order to placate First Group, as City A.M. has reported. 

The inquest, which was delayed several times due to the pandemic, is now into its third week. It is expected to run for 13 weeks in total. 

The inquest continues.