London Underground Disasters and Other Unfortunate Events
Created | Updated Jan 3, 2007
Despite having been put together mostly from old tunnels and buildings dating back to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the London Underground has had surprisingly few mishaps in what could be considered to be modern times. Compared to the amount of use the system has had over the years, only a few major incidents have ever occurred, most of which have led to immediate changes to improve the safety of the tube. This Entry looks at the more infamous of the incidents that have taken place on the Underground, along with some other notable occurrences.
Early Bomb Attacks (1883 - 5)
Like many terror attacks since, the early attacks on mainline and Underground railway lines were mostly due to campaigns for home rule in Ireland. Other groups such as the Suffragettes later targeted railways but not the Underground, and the only attacks definitely known not to be due to the internal politics of the UK were those on 7 July, 2005 (see below). The first bomb exploded on the Underground on 30 October, 1883 between Charing Cross1 and Westminster stations, and a second explosion followed at Paddington Praed Street2, injuring over 60 people. Two years later, another bomb exploded at Gower Street3 station on the Metropolitan Railway.
Hendon Air Crash (1937)
In 1937, an RAF plane crashed onto the Northern line near Hendon, with the crash killing the crew and shorting out the power rails. The short caused a power surge, which in turn started a fire at a nearby signalbox.
Charing Cross Collision (1938)
During the morning rush hour on 17 May, 1938, a Circle line train ran into the back of a District line train waiting at a stop signal between Charing Cross4 and Temple. Both trains were made mostly of wood and the damage was considerable, leading to the deaths of six people. The cause of the accident was later discovered to be a wrongly wired signal, which had given the Circle line train a green light and allowed it to proceed.
World War II (1939 - 45)
Although at first the government was unwilling to allow the public to shelter from air raids in the platforms and tunnels of the Underground, the heavy raids of September, 1940 eventually forced them to change their minds. However, the conditions in the tunnels weren't exactly pleasant, and safety was not assured even within the bowels of London. Twenty were killed when a bomb hit Marble Arch station on 17 September, 1940, and seven were killed at Trafalgar Square5 on 12 October when a bomb penetrated the ground and exploded at the top of the escalators, leading to a mudslide which smothered the platforms. The next day, high explosive bombs penetrated Paddington Praed Street, and the day after that a bomb destroyed the road above one of the Northern line platforms at Balham, with the collapsing road and a fractured drain and underground river burying 68 underneath a pile of sludge and rubble. One further incident came on 11 January the following year, when a bomb dropped into the escalator machine room at Bank, leaving a large crater in the junction above and killing 56 people while also damaging trains on the Central line below.
However, the most horrific incident on the tube during World War II took place at Bethnal Green on 3 March, 1943 when a woman with a child tripped at the base of a spiral staircase leading to the Central line platforms there. The air raid warning had just sounded, and in the panic that followed many others fell and were crushed to death by the sheer force of those trying to push their way down the staircase. After much work to clear the mass of people from the staircase, it was found that 173 people had died from suffocation.
Edgware Crash (1946)
On 30 July, 1946, a driver applying the brakes on a train approaching Edgware station on the Northern line suffered from a coronary thrombosis, leading him to release the brakes shortly afterwards under the semi-conscious impression that he had reached the station. However, the train had not stopped, but was instead travelling at at least 12mph, leading it to continue through the sand drag, over the buffers and into a wall at the terminus. The driver died due to his illness while stuck inside the carriage, but nobody else was seriously hurt.
Northwood Crash (1946)
On 31 December, 1946, a Metropolitan line train travelling from Baker Street to Aylesbury in thick fog crashed into the back of the Aldgate to Watford service between Northwood and Northwood Hill stations, having previously passed a red signal while following 'stop and proceed' rules, which allow drivers to continue slowly past a red light after having waited for at least a minute. The collision crushed the rear two carriages of the Watford train together, with the wreckage catching fire due to electrical arcing from the power rails. Three people died of smoke inhalation, but meanwhile around 500 passengers had to be detrained from the two trains involved in the crash and another which had arrived from the other direction, with passengers having to cross live power rails to escape the site of the accident. The current was only switched off thirteen minutes after the fire had started so that firemen could dowse the wreckage with water.
Stratford Collisions (1946, 1953, 1979)
On 5 December, 1947, a signal failure on the Central line near Stratford meant that trains running on that section of line had to follow 'stop and proceed' rules, allowing them to continue very slowly past a red light after having waited for a minute. However, an empty train carrying three signalling staff sent to investigate the cause of the signal failure soon crashed into the back of the empty train in front of it at around 10mph, trapping the driver and the signal staff in the cab, with one of the men dying before they could be rescued. The cause of the accident was simply that the driver had not followed the rules.
On the evening of 8 April, 1953, signal failures led to delays on the Central line once more, with drivers again following 'stop and proceed' rules. However, a train heading eastbound towards Epping ploughed into the back of a stationary train waiting in the tunnel between Stratford and Leyton just before 7pm, leaving twelve passengers dead and many wounded. The driver was hurt but survived and was later charged with having ignored the 'stop and proceed' rules by a Public Inquiry.
A third accident occurred just west of Stratford on 24 January, 1979, just after signal failures prompted an investigation on the open-air section of line west of the station. Following the 'stop and proceed' rules, a train containing passengers headed slowly along the westbound line so that a technician on board could look for faults in the wiring. A second passenger train then ran into the back of the first, injuring a handful of passengers. Once more the cause was a lack of caution when proceeding through a red light, and the driver of the second train was rightly given the full blame for the accident.
Edgware Road Derailment (1950)
On 1 July, 1950, a highly original accident occurred at Edgware Road (Circle line) station, which lies on the Circle, District and Hammersmith & City lines. Among other things, the station inspector working the points had the task of directing the Circle line trains into Platform 1 and the terminating District line trains into Platform 2, with a Circle line train having called at the station a few minutes previously. Though he had allowed a District line to pass through Praed Street Junction a short way to the west of the station and had already set the points to allow it onto Platform 2 after having dealt with the Circle line train, the inspector then forgot about the District line train.
Looking at the timetables he saw that a Circle line train was due into Platform 1 and, assuming that the District line train had already arrived, he switched the points from Platform 2 to Platform 1. Through some amazing bad luck, the District line train had in fact only just reached the signal in front of the points and was travelling at 30mph when he saw the signal flick from a green light for Platform 2 to a red light for Platform 1. The points switched while the first carriage of his train was on top of them, sending the front wheels along one set of tracks while the rear set of wheels headed along the other, with the train hitting the stanchion at the end of the platforms side on and demolishing it. Quite amazingly, nobody was badly hurt.
Bromley-by-Bow Collision (1955)
After having been stranded for 2½ hours at a point uphill from Bromley by Bow due to the electricity being off over much of the east part of the District line, a driver was allowed to run his train into the station under gravity alone. However, the air brakes used on trains at the time required electric motors to maintain the pressure, and so the lack of electric power meant the handbrake had to be used to control the train's speed. Having released the pressure in the airbrakes, the driver found that the train was moving but could not stop it with the handbrake, with the train running down the track and crashing at around 5mph into an empty train at Bromley by Bow station. 44 passengers were hurt, but no one was seriously injured.
Holland Park and Gants Hill Fires (1958, 1960)
On 28 July, 1958, a fire started in the electrical wiring of a Central line train between Shepherd's Bush and Holland Park station in west London, with most of the passengers suffering from smoke inhalation and one person later dying from breathing the fumes. Electrical arcing in power cables at the rear of the first carriage had produced an electrical arc which produced a torch-like flame, which blistered and melted the paint and other materials to produce acrid fumes. The current to the tracks was soon removed, and passengers had to be detrained towards both Shepherd's Bush and Holland Park.
A similar incident occurred two years later on 12 August, 1960 when a fire started in the front carriage of a train between Redbridge and Gants Hill for the same reason. Fortunately no one was killed as the train was only partially full, though a few dozen people were taken to hospital. Precautions recommended after the Holland Park fire meant that the driver's cab had been insulated from the point where the arcing occurred, probably saving the driver's life. Meanwhile, this second accident led to further attempts to improve safety, with most of the 1938 tube stock which had the same type of wiring being altered or decommissioned soon afterwards.
Tooting Broadway Crash (1971)
On 14 May, 1971, a driver taking an empty train into the reversing siding at Tooting Broadway accelerated through the sand drag and into the buffers at speed without braking until the last second. The crash trapped him in his cab for several hours, and he later died before reaching hospital. No failing on the part of the train or the driver's health could explain the accident, with the most likely cause being that he had become disorientated and thought he was entering the siding at Kennington, where the siding is twice the length and is uphill from the platforms. The investigation recommended that a timing circuit be used to halt trains approaching the end of the blind tunnel too fast, as it was deemed too expensive to lengthen the siding to make it safer.
Edgware Road Collision (1972)
On 26 January, 1972, a Bakerloo line train was held up at Edgware Road (Bakerloo line) station due to a faulty door mechanism which had earlier caused it to depart late from Elephant & Castle at the start of its run. The train behind it was therefore held at a red light just outside Edgware Road, and the driver of the second train then applied the 'stop and proceed' rules but failed to drive slowly enough to avoid colliding with the train in front when it came into view. No one was hurt, but the crash caused extensive damage to the points of impact on both trains.
Moorgate Crash (1975)
Unlike previous accidents, the cause of the Moorgate crash remains a mystery to this day. Around 8.40pm on 28 February, 1975, a Northern City Line train heading into Moorgate from Old Street failed to stop at the terminus, continuing on through the station and into the blind-ended tunnel south of the platforms. After having ploughed through the sand drag, it hit the end of the tunnel at 30mph, crushing the first three coaches into a space that would normally fit just one. The driver and over 40 passengers were killed, but investigations found nothing wrong with the signalling, the tracks or the train. No proof was found of any illness of the driver, and so the accident immediately led to many restrictions still in place today. Signalling systems were changed to ensure all trains stopped or slowed down in plenty of time, and a 10mph speed limit was added on the approaches to termini. The Northern City Line was transferred to British Rail in October that year, not because of the accident but so that the line could be joined to the mainline network at Finsbury Park.
IRA Bombings (1973-76)
During the IRA bombing campaign of the 1970s, there were two major explosions on the Underground, both of which took place in 1976. Two bombs had earlier been planted at Baker Street tube in August 1973 but had both been found and defused, while another was planted at Sloane Square on Boxing Day that year and did nothing except destroy a telephone kiosk. Also, a bomb was found in a case at Oxford Circus in February 1976 and was defused, while another exploded on an empty train outside Cannon Street, injuring a handful of passengers on an adjacent train.
The first major explosion occurred on 15 March, 1976 on a Hammersmith & City line train just west of West Ham when a bomber realised his package was about to explode and hurled it along the carriage, escaping through the driver's cab. Many were killed including the driver, who bravely pursued the terrorist but was shot dead for his trouble. The bomber was eventually cornered by the police and shot himself. The following day, another bomb exploded on a train reversing into the siding at Wood Green. No one was badly hurt, but had the bomb gone off ten minutes later it would have caught a train-full of supporters heading home from Arsenal station. To help prevent any further attacks, the litter bins were removed from all Underground stations and have never returned since.
Holborn Crash (1980)
On 9 July 1980, a train sitting at the westbound Central line platform was hit by the train behind it, which had triggered the emergency system but had not stopped in time. The driver of the train that had become out of control was badly injured, but no one else was hurt. It was later found that it had been a lack of control on the part of that driver that had caused the accident.
Oxford Circus Fire (1984)
During improvement work on the Bakerloo line platforms at Oxford Circus, the building materials used were kept in a closed-off passageway between the northbound Bakerloo and Victoria line platforms. During the evening of 23 November, 1984, a fire started in the passageway swept through the northbound Victoria line platform and the passageways next to it, leading to many passengers being hospitalised with smoke inhalation. Much damage was caused, and the Victoria line had to be closed between Warren Street and Victoria for nearly a month. Though there had already been several Underground fires, including one at Finsbury Park due to an electrical fault, suspicions that the Oxford Circus fire had been caused by a cigarette end led to a smoking ban in all platforms, subways and ticket halls of stations which lay beneath the ground.
King's Cross Fire (1987)
However, this move wasn't quite enough. On the evening of 18 November, 1987, a small fire due to a dropped cigarette end began on the escalator leading up from the Northern and Piccadilly lines at King's Cross station, and although a passenger reported the fire, the unusual nature of an escalator fire meant that few steps were taken apart from the calling of four pumps from the local fire brigades. However, the ticket hall into which the escalators from both the Victoria and the Northern and Piccadilly lines feed was starting to fill with smoke, and for the first fourteen minutes after the fire had started passengers were still being dropped off at the platforms below, with their exit route from the escalators being blocked by a ticket hall that was soon most definitely on fire. Passengers were still being escorted through the thick smoke when a fireball6 tore up the Northern and Piccadilly line escalator and into the ticket hall, killing 31 people. The issue at the Public Inquiry which followed was not the banning of smoking materials but the removal of anything that could burn to produce fumes or act as fuel in the event of a fire, along with the installation of sensitive fire detection systems. The destruction and loss of life caused by the King's Cross fire led to many changes over the next couple of years, making the Underground as safe as humanly possible from 1990 onwards.
IRA Bombings (1991 - 93)
Another wave of IRA bombs appeared in the early 1990s, starting with a litter bin bomb outside Victoria station. The bomb killed one man and injured many others, as the warning given by the IRA had not left enough time for evacuation of the station. In August the same year, three incendiary devices were discovered on the undercarriage of a train at Hammersmith, and in December bombs exploded on trains at Harrow-on-the-Hill station and Neasden depot, though no one was hurt in either case. The following year the IRA placed devices on several trains, though most were found and defused, with one device exploding at Barking. The only major attack came on 24 April, 1993 when a fertiliser bomb weighing around a ton was detonated in Bishopsgate, destroying the Underground station and wrecking surrounding buildings.
Derailments (2003 - 04)
On 25 January, 2003, a Central line train derailed just outside Chancery Lane station, injuring 30 passengers and causing hysteria on board after the carriages bounced between the tracks and the tunnel walls and ceiling. The cause of the accident was later found to be a traction motor that had fallen out onto the tracks, but both the Central line and the Waterloo & City line, which uses the same 1992 stock trains, were closed while moderations and safety checks were performed. Another Central line derailment occurred at White City in May, 2004, but nobody was hurt.
On 17 October the same year, an eastbound Piccadilly line train derailed just after calling at Hammersmith station when a broken section of track caused the rear carriage to jump off the rails. No one was injured, but another incident followed just two days later at Camden Town when a northbound train heading into the station suffered from a problem involving the points just south of the platforms, causing the rear carriage to hit the tunnel wall, injuring seven passengers. For the next six months trains were only allowed to travel through the Camden junction from the Edgware branch onto the Bank branch and from the High Barnet branch onto the Charing Cross branch, but the trouble with the junction was eventually solved and normal service was resumed in March 2004.
7 July Bombings (2005)
At 8.50am on 7 July, 2005, three bombs exploded almost simultaneously on the Underground, with a fourth following on a bus by Tavistock Square an hour later. Two of the tube bombs were on the Circle line near Edgware Road and Aldgate respectively, while the other was just south of King's Cross on the Piccadilly line. The cause of the incidents was at first thought to be a power surge, but later it became clear that terrorist suicide bombers were responsible. Many passengers were killed or wounded, with the Piccadilly line bomb being the most serious due to the confined nature of the tube tunnel in which the train was sat - 26 plus the bomber were killed near King's Cross, as opposed to around a dozen on each of the other. Damage was also done to the separating wall between tracks at Edgware Road, and all the sections of line involved in the bombings were shut to allow repairs and investigations to take place. Unlike past incidents, the bombings led to much initial nervousness about returning to the tube, with most trains being almost completely deserted on the day after the explosions. A copycat attack followed two weeks later, but the second round of bombs failed to detonate properly, leading to one person being taken ill due to aggravation of their asthma. The 21 July suspects were all later caught by the police, although the bombings also led to an incident where the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes was shot on a train after being wrongly identified as a terror suspect.
Though the Underground is safer than mainline railways due to the Automatic Train Protection systems designed to halt overrunning trains, safety on the tube is not completely assured. In 2005, Northern Line drivers went on strike on several days over the failure of emergency brakes on board trains, and the number of SPADs7 now stands at nearly 1,000 per year.