Recollections of World-Changing Events

In this guest post, National Railway Museum volunteer Philip James looks back at some big events in the recent past. He gives a personal perspective on these acts, most of which have a significant transport connection. Coming after last week’s post, which looked at how railway staff in Ireland were caught up on political violence around the time of partition, we can see how transport & mobility has been a mode for and a site of violence.

As always, our thanks to Philip for putting this together. You can read Philip’s other posts here.

 

July 2021 marks 16 years since the terror events affecting transport and the London Underground in particular. It has prompted me to put together my recollections of this and other events from a personal perspective and one in which railways feature significantly. I drafted it in November 2019 but in light of Covid-19, it seemed appropriate to revisit and update it.

The Day Kennedy Died

They say everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated. The terrorism events quickly branded 9/11 and 7/7 are similarly memorable and this is my perspective on them. For the record on Friday 22 November 1963 I was at home with my mother when the news of the Kennedy assassination was announced on the radio. Being of pre-school age, it had less impact on me at the time than it probably had on those old enough to take in the consequences. I suspect for many it also amounted to the assassination of their aspirations for a better world as well as the tragic death of one man.

9/11

Moving forward to Tuesday 11 September 2001, I am now an Information Technology specialist and have been a Civil Servant with the Ministry of Defence for almost twenty years. My usual place of work is a London office but today I am travelling to Swindon to chair a meeting in the morning and will spend the afternoon there working and seeing colleagues. My journey from the east of London to Paddington and hence to Swindon is uneventful. It is a journey I have taken many times and the only dark recollections are passing Ladbroke Grove and Southall where fatal accidents on 5 October 1999 and 19 September 1997 respectively are still fairly recent, although I was not involved in either.

I recall that three of the coaches involved in the Southall accident were also in the Inter City train at Ladbroke Grove. They survived both accidents with no significant damage but were later separated. I also recall that two work colleagues were involved in the Ladbroke Grove accident but survived without a scratch. Another travelling from Cheltenham was diverted via Birmingham and arrived late. He was no longer travelling by car following an accident. Locomotive 4472 (or 60103) Flying Scotsman was also in a shed near Southall but was not affected by the accident.

The meeting at Swindon is in a building to the west of the town and a short taxi ride from the station. I have been there several times before and the meeting goes to plan. In the best Civil Service tradition, I have written the minutes before the meeting – well, a perspective rather than actual minutes and it enables me to keep everyone focused on issues and required actions while not stifling necessary debate. They have all seen the perspective before the meeting in any case. The meeting finishes and I go upstairs to have some lunch and continue the day’s activities.

While I am at my desk, a colleague is going around the open plan floor area telling everyone that there has been an incident in New York, an aircraft has crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. At that stage it sounds like a terrible accident. Later the same colleague passes on news of a second aircraft hitting the South Tower. I am not sure where he is getting the news from. Our computer system does not allow Internet access and there are no TV displays or the like. Perhaps he knows somebody with a radio or is getting the news by phone.

Later we are told that first the South Tower and then the North Tower have collapsed and a third aircraft has hit the Pentagon in Washington. A fourth aircraft has also been hijacked and its whereabouts are unknown. We discover later that it crashed in Philadelphia possibly due to the actions of passengers with mobile phones who had discovered what was going on. I phone my parents and tell them to put the television on; world changing events are taking place. Like most people, I realise that the events taking place are going to change our lives for the foreseeable future.

My journey back to London is less hurried so I walk from the office to Swindon Station, a pleasant walk through Churchward Park, once part of the Great Western Railway Swindon Works and now home to the Steam Museum, other relics of Swindon Works and a new housing estate. I recall that in his retirement, George Jackson Churchward, a former Chief Mechanical Engineer of the GWR, was run over and killed crossing the line nearby.

The walk takes 35 minutes and my journey back to Paddington is uneventful. Paddington seems to be quieter than usual and there is a sort of tension in the atmosphere. I pick up a newspaper and see the news of the developing incident. Later at home, I see the TV news. It is hard to avoid. Every channel is providing round the clock news coverage of the events in America and it dominates the news for days to come. It is eventually concluded that almost 3,000 innocent people died in the attacks along with 19 hijackers. More people have died subsequently from medical conditions caused by the attack and, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq with their heavy loss of life may be attributed to 9/11.

The victims of the 9/11 attacks came from many countries. I did not know any of them personally but in later years, I would meet someone who had been in the Pentagon when it was hit. I would also find myself working with a colleague who had been at University with me. He was a year ahead of me and not then known to me by name but I would frequently see him coming out of a building as I was going in. He lost one of his brothers in the North Tower.

Before 9/11, the idea that hijackers would take control of four aircraft with passengers aboard and deliberately crash them into buildings was outrageous. Anyone suggesting that such a plot might come to pass would not be taken seriously. The nearest you would get to such an event was to use a flight simulator program on a personal computer. Buildings were shown in outline form and you had to fly around them but some people would try to fly into them to see what happened. In early flight simulator programs, you could even fly through the buildings. A computer game for the BBC Microcomputer required the player to bomb buildings to create a landing strip for an aircraft before it lost height and crashed into them. 9/11 was the day it ceased to be a game and society had to grow up.

7/7

Moving forward nearly four years, I am still an IT specialist in the Civil Service but in another branch based in Whitehall. A lot has happened in the fortnight leading up to Thursday 7 July 2005. I have spent a week in America attending an engineering conference but am now back in the UK and have managed to avoid any trace of jet lag (I worked to something approximating UK time throughout). On the 6 July London has been awarded the 2012 Olympic Games and the nation is celebrating. The following day I need to travel to a building near Victoria Station for a meeting I have been asked to chair.

My journey from Barking to Fenchurch Street is uneventful and I walk to Tower Hill Station nearby expecting to catch a train to Victoria but Tower Hill is shut and there is insufficient information available to indicate what is wrong. I decide to walk to the next station at Monument and try there. Monument is also shut and there are rumours of a power failure. What do I do now? Assuming the Underground as a whole may be affected, I decide to cross London Bridge and take a train from London Bridge Station to Waterloo East and another from Waterloo to Vauxhall.

Vauxhall Underground Station is shut so I cross Vauxhall Bridge and walk to Victoria arriving later than expected but in time for the meeting. I needn’t have worried about my time keeping as other attendees have had worse delays but all get there eventually and the meeting proceeds as planned. As always, I have a perspective as well as an agenda to guide people through the meeting.

The building was equipped with TV screens and as the day progressed it became apparent that three bombs had exploded on underground trains and another on a bus. Later it is confirmed that the bombs were carried by suicide bombers. The bus bomb was in Tavistock Square and the trains affected were just west of Edgware Road, between Liverpool Street and Aldgate and between King’s Cross and Russell Square, all heading away from King’s Cross. It is assumed that the bus bomb was intended for the Northern Line but an unrelated problem caused services on that line to be suspended and the bomber chose another target.

By mid-afternoon, the meeting has concluded and I thank attendees for remaining focused despite the worrying events taking place and wish them a safe journey home. For my part I return to Whitehall on foot to do some work. Like the surrounding roads, the building is quiet but not empty and people are in a subdued mood. I eventually head for home but with no underground trains running what is my best route?

I decide to cross the Thames near Charing Cross Railway Bridge and walk along the south bank, crossing again at London Bridge to reach Fenchurch Street. Due to the bend in the Thames, crossing to the south bank is a good way of reducing the distance to travel especially if you have to walk. It is also a scenic walk especially in summer. The rest of my journey is uneventful but as with 9/11, the terrorist act dominates TV news. It is eventually confirmed that 52 innocent people and four terrorists have died.

Shutting down the underground was a necessary and largely unavoidable response to the bombings but one consequence was that restarting the service is not so easy and there were stranded trains in some tunnels for a day or so after 7/7. Sometimes these could be seen from lines that were able to resume working. In the days following the explosions, train services resumed, wreckage was cleared away and damaged sections of tunnel repaired prior to full-service restoration.

For those interested in the trains involved in the bombings, most vehicles were repaired and put back into service and two replacement carriages were built in Hungary to replace vehicles beyond economic repair[1]. The C Stock trains, the type involved in the Edgware Road and Aldgate incidents, have since been phased out and replaced by S Stock. One C Stock vehicle was retained for the London Transport Museum but a decision was made that all ‘controversial’ vehicles would be scrapped. This means that all vehicles involved in the 7/7 bombings, including the Hungarian-built replacements, and those present in an earlier IRA incident at West Ham in 1976 were scrapped. Vehicles of 1969 vintage had contained asbestos when new and despite its removal during refurbishment these were also scrapped. The surviving vehicle is thus a C77 carriage that has never contained asbestos.

On the Piccadilly Line, six vehicles of 1973 tube stock were involved. Three vehicles at the rear of the train had little or no damage and were recovered from the scene. These are in service today as part of another train. The leading vehicle was so badly damaged it was feared it would have to be cut up in situ but was eventually recovered and subjected to forensic examination by explosives experts prior to disposal. The remaining vehicles had less damage and as late as 2017 were known to be in store. They could be used to replace vehicles written off in accidents or for component recovery.

The bomb sites are places I have been to or through before and since, like many other Londoners. They don’t lie on my usual route to and from home and apart from the 7/7 events are unremarkable. For two former work colleagues, one site in particular is of interest as it lay on their usual route to work. These colleagues who at the time (and probably now also) would not have known each other travelled in to King’s Cross and made their way to the Westbound Piccadilly Line platform but not in time to catch a departing train. As they waited for the next train, a blast of air came from the tunnel leading to Russell Square. I expect many people will consider themselves lucky to have missed a train with a bomb on board.

Being a member of the London Underground Railway Society, I have attended many of their monthly meetings and in October 2005 a meeting took place in which the events of 7/7 were covered from the operator’s perspective. Originally scheduled to take place in Toynbee Hall, it clashed with a Diwali festival and our meeting room was double booked. The meeting was moved at short notice to 55 Broadway by presenter Andy Barr who then gave an excellent account of the events of 7/7 and recovery from it as they affected the London Underground. A copy of the equally excellent meeting report is available here.

21/7 and Stockwell

It was feared that a repetition of the 7/7 bombings might be attempted and two weeks later such an attempt was made. Fortunately, the home-made explosive devices failed to operate effectively and a tragedy on 21/7 was avoided. The police hunt turned to the failed bombers and the following day, a suspect was shot and killed on a Northern Line train at Stockwell. Sadly, the police had killed an innocent and unsuspecting Brazilian electrician on his way to work. He didn’t even have an opportunity to surrender to police as he was thought to be a suicide bomber about to detonate a bomb.[2]

We live in a world where criminals and terrorists have access to lethal weapons and are prepared to use them. It is therefore necessary that some police and law enforcement officers protecting the public are armed and prepared to use their weapons. If the police are armed, it is inevitable that mistakes will occasionally be made and innocent people shot or killed.

We are used to death from old age, illness and accidents, such as lightning strikes or trees falling on people. We can also understand if not condone death arising as an unintended consequence of mistakes or incompetence. While we may condemn death resulting from crime or war, we understand that these things happen and we expect due process to deal with them. When death is an intentional and deliberate act due to an error on the part of those employed to protect public safety, it is hard to take and it is easy to feel that somebody somewhere must be punished. It is easy to imagine circumstances where any one of us could suffer a fate like Jean Charles de Menezes (at Stockwell) with all that it could mean for family and friends.

The primary responsibility for the Stockwell shooting and other such incidents lies with criminals and terrorists who use lethal weapons. That said, criminals will do what criminals do and their faults do not excuse the rest of us, including police and law enforcement officers, from the normal requirements for thoroughness and competence when investigating and responding to criminal acts. If anything, it places a heavier responsibility for doing things properly as a failure may mean we are doing the terrorists job for them and adding to the terror.

In the Stockwell case, who would we punish? The officers who fired the fatal shots would say they were acting in defence of themselves and the public based on information received on which they thought they could rely. It might be easy to exact revenge on somebody in a position of leadership who in practise had little direct control over much of what happened immediately prior to the shooting. Unless the policing policy introduced by such a person can be shown to be dangerously flawed, then it is hard to justify a sanction against them.

That leaves the people in the middle who are collecting, analysing and passing on information with recommendations of varying strength for action. It might be possible to identify a few individuals who have failed in a significant way or greatly exaggerated the significance of some aspect of the information available to them but in practise we might conclude that all involved have reached defensible if false conclusions based on information received, errors that many or most of us might have made in the same circumstances.

This leaves nobody being punished and no justice for the deceased. This is a far from satisfactory position as it potentially creates a ‘them and us’ atmosphere where police may be wrongly perceived as not accountable for their actions and in the Jean Charles de Menezes case there was even pressure in Brazil for revenge to be taken against British tourists potentially compounding the tragedy. Fortunately, no such revenge attacks took place but it is easy to imagine an innocent person being the victim of such a revenge attack or international relations being damaged leading to sanctions or conflict of some sort. The question is who to punish and how?

The Stockwell shooting was thoroughly investigated and the eventual outcome was a fine of £175,000 for the police for breaking health and safety laws. Unless we conclude that killing an innocent person is a de-facto breach of the law (and perhaps it should be), it has not been made clear exactly what laws were broken and how. At 2005 prices £175,000 is roughly the cost of putting four police officers on the beat for a year[3] so arguably punishing the police for their failure impedes their ability to protect public safety. That said, doing nothing may send a message that they can put public safety at greater risk in future. That will also have a cost although one harder to quantify.

Society has not yet found a satisfactory answer to the question of how to punish a statutory organisation for failures that cannot be attributed to an identifiable individual or a small group of individuals. Fining a statutory organisation will prevent it doing its job. The result could be additional state funding to pay the fine creating a money-go-round. Imposing constraints on its role will also prevent it doing its job so perhaps another less suitable organisation will have to take on the role.

Perhaps something akin to a ‘special measures’ regime that might be adopted for a failing school or hospital is needed. This is potentially bureaucratic, but bureaucracy is not always a bad thing and it would be a clear message that killing innocent people by mistake is not acceptable.

In general, the police do a good and competent job protecting public safety and often put themselves in harm’s way to do so. Some have paid a high price or even the ultimate price for doing their job. The events of 7/7 and 21/7 must have put them under massive pressure to prevent further terrorist outrages while dealing with a lethal adversary who does not fear death.[4]

Reflection

Reflecting on the events of 7/7 and 9/11, serious as they were, it is possible to conceive of actions by the terrorists that might have made them even worse. I know a little of one study that identified potential vulnerabilities. Naturally I would not wish to expand on this in a public forum and am grateful that casualties were not worse than they were. Hopefully, administrators and planners are thinking from the terrorists’ point of view so they can put in place obstacles to future attacks which sadly will happen from time to time.

On this account I am moderately optimistic as I have seen the barriers and defences being installed near Government buildings since soon after 9/11. Many appear ornamental but there is much reinforcement within the concrete and stone and clearly attacks are anticipated. Sadly, recent attacks on people crossing bridges show that more precautions are needed.

If only people could find more peaceful and tolerant ways to settle their differences.

Covid-19

My November draft ended here but since then, we have had the coronavirus to contend with. More akin to a process than an event but still something that will haunt our memories. Apart from the tragic deaths, many in care homes, we will recall its impact on transport and particularly the railways.

If we consider the so-called Spanish Flu[5] as the last incidence of a pandemic to reach these shores then it might be a once in hundred years event. In practise, the availability and use of transport, particularly aviation, allows people and infections to travel from one side of the planet to another inside a day so the next such plague may be much less than a century away.

It will be interesting to see how lessons learned are incorporated into the design and operation of travel infrastructure. I am thinking in particular of social distancing and the two-metre rule, not necessarily as permanent features but as measures that may be needed from time to time.

 

Philip James

[1] Some vehicles were renumbered to complicate the process of tracing those involved in the incidents.

[2] By chance, a relative of mine was on the train when the shooting happened, possibly in the carriage itself. I am not aware that she saw anything significant and have not discussed it with her.

[3] Based on information given to me while working for the Police in 2010.

[4] For the record, I am the nephew of a police officer and for part of my career, a civilian employee of a police organisation.

[5] Originating in America, it might be more accurately called the American Flu.

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