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I’ve been on holiday recently. I’ve been driving for two days now and both have been somewhat chaotic in one way or another. Signal failures, unexpectedly high passenger numbers, late running, odd instructions, lost trains, trains doing the timetable in reverse and panicky managers who think they might have lost a couple of drivers somewhere have been some highlights. It’s good to be back. 🙂

Less good was an incident last night. I’m not going to say much about it as I’m hopeful that the police will be able to make some headway and this will come to court. But the upshot was a smashed up train and a passenger with head injuries. And a conversation with another passenger about how, when and why to use passenger emergency alarms. As I’ve had this conversation several times over the years I’m going to try to explain how the system works in the hope that word will slowly get around and people can stop worrying.

Worrying, is a big thing with pulling emergency alarms. They are big and red and carry all sorts of ominous warnings about dire consequences if they are misused. Lot’s of people worry that their situation is not serious enough to warrant pulling the alarm. If you are that sort of person then please get on a train and pull an alarm – because you are not the sort of person those warnings are aimed at.

There’s an odd circumstance where the people we want to tell not to pull emergency alarms are the very people who are most likely to pull one. These are the people who get frustrated that their train has run slowly or been delayed and who pull the alarm and run away when they arrive at their station. This doesn’t bother either the driver or London Underground in the slightest as we were all there anyway. What it does is to further delay the other passengers as we reset things and try to find the person having the “emergency”. Conversely, the people we most want to pull the alarm are least likely to do so. On several occasions I’ve noticed people racing up the platform and not attempting to board the train. Given the odd behaviour I’ve waited and when they reach the front they’ll explain that there’s something dreadful going on in my train. After they’ve got their breath back of course. I’ve never been able to fathom why they didn’t just pull the alarm and I have absolutely no idea how to rectify this situation but I’ll give a few examples of when it’s appropriate to pull the alarm. But first, the science bit.

Each handle is linked into a few electrical systems on the train. When pulled this has three main consequences. The first is that the brakes apply. Not an emergency brake but the train will stop. The second is that an alarm sounds in the driver’s cab to tell them why their train has suddenly stopped. Traditionally this alarm is fixed at the typical London Underground setting of ‘OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE’ and you’ll be lucky if the driver doesn’t immediately expire of fright at the sound of it. Fortunately the alarm on my train is more gentle, meaning I can be of some practical help. And the third thing that happens is a light shines on the car in which the alarm was pulled. There’s often a second alarm in the car too though not on all trains. This helps staff locate the area where the alarm was pulled.

So the alarm gets pulled and the train stops. What happens next depends on the circumstances. If any part of the train is in a station it will stop there, the driver will inform the Voices and have station staff sent down to assist and an announcement will be made letting everyone know what’s going on and asking whomever pulled the alarm to make themselves known to staff. That last bit is important – we’re not psychic. And on many trains we have a facility called talkback which means the driver can speak to the person who pulled the alarm and get details of what’s going on.

If the train is not in a station then much of the above takes place but in a different order. The train will brake but the driver is able to override this and keep it moving in order to get to the next station. It is astonishingly rare that we would investigate an incident outside of a station as it is too difficult to get any further assistance down the tunnels to the train. If we need ambulances or the police or to evacuate then that’s all much more easily done from a station.

So when should you pull the alarm? Well ideally, not when you’ve woken up and realised you’ve just missed your stop. And not when you’ve heard the chimes, sprinted to force your way through the closing doors and then realised that you’ve left your mates behind on the platform. Just get off at the next station and wait for them to arrive. Also, not when the train is sitting between stations for a long time and the driver has already told you that there is going to be a lengthy delay. These things are all annoying and frustrating but they are not emergencies; they’re just the minor trials of life.

Left your kid? Pull the alarm? Pile of puke/blood/poo/other on the floor? Pull the alarm. We don’t want biohazards around our passengers. You or another passenger injured or taken seriously unwell? Pull it. Fire, smoke, burning smell – we really like it if you pull the alarm then. Really. Fires of some sort are reasonably common on an electric railway but we really like to stop them before they really start. It is my opinion that London Underground is permanently on fire in some way but that’s no reason to go ignoring it.

What else? Abandoned luggage? Yes, we like to know about that. The vast majority of the time the thing is perfectly safe. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times we’ve had dangerous things left. But please still pull the alarm because whoever lost it would like it back. It’s incredibly easy to leap off your train and forget something. If it’s something smaller like a wallet or shoes or whatever then just let other passengers know you’re going to hand it in and give it to a member of staff. Often we have staff on platforms making announcements so conceivably you can nip out and hand over a wallet and get back on your train without any delay.

Remember what I said about losing your friends? Well that’s not an emergency but if your friends happen to be children or similarly vulnerable people then pull the alarm.

The last reason I can think of is for general disorder on the train. If there’s a fight going on near you or if someone is being threatened. If the train is being vandalised then pull the alarm. If you see something dangerous like an open external door or someone falling from the train (rare, but it happens) then pull the alarm. Essentially if you feel in danger or you perceive that harm may come to another person or the train then please pull the alarm. We won’t be cross.

Two more things: Consider all the reasons I’ve given for which the emergency alarm should be pulled. Many of those are going to be times when the train cannot continue to run with passengers. Either because it is damaged or because there is potential danger in the form of biohazards or fire or similar. So if you hear the driver of your train make an announcement about a passenger alarm then please be aware that you may be asked to leave the train quite soon. And the faster you can do that the sooner the problem train can be removed. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been detraining and someone has asked me when the next train will arrive. Now logically two trains cannot occupy the same space so there is never going to be another train until the first one has moved on. And the second one will be right quick. Because it’s been held at the signal behind while the problem train is sorted out. So be ready to scoot off and let the driver close up quickly and get out of there.

Finally, if you do witness an incident like an assault or vandalism then please provide your details. We absolutely understand that you’re trying to get somewhere and might not have time to wait for the police to arrive but they could still do with hearing your version of events. You could pass your name and mobile number to a member of staff and ask them to give it to the police when they arrive or you could call your local station later and let them know you were a witness. They’ll be able to contact whichever officers are investigating and they’ll call you back to get your statement. Quite often staff are not in the place where something is happening and can’t provide any good witness statements. Last night all I could do was give a time and an approximate location which is not much to go on. And I confess that there was so much going on that I forgot to ask for the details of the passengers who had been witnesses though I hope the station superviser remembered to. The really important people to a police investigation are those in the back who can see what’s going on. So please let either us or the police know who you are so that incidents can be investigated. And don’t be afraid to pull the alarm in an emergency.