Dissected: Panic on the tube at Clapham Common
How a fire alert on the Underground ended in chaos
Morning — a rotten start to last weekend for some Londoners. A false fire alert led to chaos at Clapham Common on Friday, with passengers panicking and smashing their way out of the tube. Witnesses have given their account to the Spy, telling us of their concerns about the response of tube staff — that’s after your Thursday briefing below.
Plus: London’s councils and police are waking up to a few post-Coronation headaches.
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What we’ve spied
🥵 Quite a few London councils find themselves in hot water this week. Some are being scrutinised for how much they spent on the Coronation despite tight public finances — Ealing in particular is taking flack for putting down £180k on “poorly attended” big screen events. Otherwise, Kensington and Chelsea is under the microscope for the amount of taxpayer cash it’s blowing on public art and security patrols in wards where homes go for millions. Meanwhile, Hammersmith and Fulham has been ordered to pay £18,000 to residents over “severe” housing failings, including unfixed mould and leaks.
🏘️ The battle to save one of south London’s biggest housing estates is headed to the High Court. Aylesbury estate in Wandsworth was once the location of more than 2,000 council homes, but it’s now being demolished to make way for private properties. One resident, Aysen Dennis, is now taking the developers and Southwark council to court in a bid to save her two-bedroom council flat, claiming the plans amount to “social cleansing”.
👮 You’ve probably seen that London’s police have come under fire for arresting protesters at the Coronation. At first, the Met stood its ground over detaining members of the anti-monarchy group Republic on Saturday, with even prime minister Rishi Sunak backing the crackdown. But the Met has now expressed “regret” over the arrests after its investigation was unable to prove intent to disrupt the protest, and MPs are considering launching an inquiry. There are a few other notable Met stories this week going under the radar amid the fallout:
City Hall politicians have called for the firing process for Met Police commissioners to become more democratic
Footage has gone viral of Met officers tasering a suspect and shooting two dogs dead
Supporters of drag queens have lodged a formal complaint over the way the Met has been policing anti-drag protests
🚉 Public figures like Stephen Fry and Tracey Emin are calling on the government to block the development of Liverpool Street station. Earlier in the year Network Rail and developer Sellar Property Group revealed plans to build offices, shops and a hotel at the listed terminal. But campaigners say the works will harm the station’s Victorian character.
🌉 Driverless pods and a protected cycle lane should replace cars on Hammersmith bridge when it re-opens, according to an environmental organisation. Charity Possible has created graphics demonstrating its £10m idea for the bridge, which has been shut to motor vehicles for repairs since 2019 after cracks appeared in the pedestals.
🚫 TfL is seeking to ban more climate activists from disrupting and blocking roads in London. Having successfully secured an injunction against Insulate Britain, the capital’s transport authority is now seeking a court order against Just Stop Oil. Climate activists have said they plan to step up action in the capital after their non-disruptive protest in central London last month failed to bring the government to the negotiating table over fossil fuels.
🎹 The Mayfair houses of composer George Frideric Handel and guitarist Jimi Hendrix are re-opening to the public after a £3m refurbishment. Handel lived at 25 Brook Street in the 1700s and then Hendrix lived in the adjoining flat at number 23 in the 1960s. Both homes have been recreated as museums, with doors re-opening on May 18.
🍷 A wine-maker that claims to be London’s only commercial vineyard “since the Middle Ages” is at risk of closure after three years of bad harvest. Forty Hall Community Vineyard in Enfield, north London, said it urgently needed £85,000 by the end of May to protect its vines from disease.
🎮 The Science Museum is making its huge room of 160 vintage gaming consoles and computers a permanent installation. PowerUp spans 50 years of gaming history and opens on July 27.
Why tube passengers panicked at Clapham Common
The footage is grim. People trying to pry open doors, from inside and outside the train. Windows being smashed as a desperate escape route. Cries of “help!” in the background.
There’s been much ogling at the carnage at Clapham Common station last Friday, when a fire alert triggered a panicked attempt to evacuate a tube train. There’s even been mockery on social media, once it turned out it was all a false alarm. British Transport Police have concluded the culprit was “brake dust” thrown up by the train itself, not an actual fire.
But for the passengers that day that have spoken to the Spy, the incident raises serious questions — about emergency protocol on the tube and the response of staff. And there’s a general unease for any Londoner watching the scenes, knowing it could have very easily been them.
So here’s what we’ve managed to establish so far from that day, having spoken to multiple witnesses, TfL and the fire brigade.
In the late afternoon on Friday, May 5, a tube train carrying roughly 500 people departed from Clapham Common station. It didn’t make it very far — the train abruptly stopped as it began to enter the tunnel.
Nigel Ingofink was at the front, in one of the carriages which now found itself stuck in the tunnel. He told the Spy: “The train stopped suddenly with half the carriages in the station. There was no movement or announcements for several minutes. Then the lights went out and we could hear screaming towards the rear.
“Finally the driver told us to walk to the rear of the train and we exited a set of open doors to witness the scene of broken windows on the platform where other passengers had obviously panicked. There was a strong smell of burning around the carriages with the broken windows.”
Jake Sharp was among those in the panic at the back of the train, in a carriage still next to the platform when it stopped. He told the Spy that as he stood waiting, he could smell smoke, and yet heard nothing from the driver. Then, as another train pulled into the opposite side of the platform, he could see the people getting off and running.
“The whole time the the carriages were filling with smoke and the doors did not or would not open,” he said. “When we tried to open them, they only opened maybe 10cm.”
It was at this point Jake says a workman on the platform on their way home came to the rescue. “They had hammers and other tools to smash all the windows for everyone to get out.”
These are the scenes that blew up on social media. One clip, filmed from the platform, shows a man hitting a window with an object on the outside, while passengers inside the train kick it through. Another, filmed inside, shows people jostling each other out of the way in the scramble.
But by the time firefighters arrived at around 6pm, having been called six minutes prior, all passengers had managed to leave the train.
“Crews attended but following investigation, found no sign or evidence of a fire,” London Fire Brigade said in a statement. “Investigations are ongoing but the report of smoke is believed to have been caused by the train’s brakes … The Brigade has not received any reports of injuries.”
What did staff do?
The biggest uncertainty in the account so far is what station staff did, and why passengers felt the need to take matters into their own hands. One of the most viral videos of the incident, with 2.2m views on TikTok, shows a man recording the battered tube carriage after the crowd had left the station. “When you choose not to have enough staff, look at that,” he says, as he points the camera towards the smashed-out windows and doors.
The witnesses the Spy spoke to say they saw no staff come down to the platform during the whole affair. Jake said: “No staff came down to the platform, they just let the hysteria happen. Thank God the workman was there to let us out, as there was no communication at all.”
“We heard nothing from the driver whilst we were stood in the train, although people were screaming and passengers on the other train were getting off running. So station staff and the driver could obviously see on CCTV that there was something bad going on, but did nothing.”
However, in a statement, TfL insists its staff came to help promptly and followed all procedures. “Safety is our number one priority and we would never operate an unsafe railway,” a TfL spokesperson told the Spy.
“Our station staff were on the platform within 90 seconds and immediately began the process of releasing the doors. Customers from both trains in the platforms and the rest of the station were then evacuated by the station team very quickly in line with our safety procedures.”
When shown the TfL statement, Nigel said: “I didn’t see any staff on the platform and there are certainly none in my video.”
He added, “It also took several minutes for any announcement to be made in the train.”
What even is ‘brake dust’?
The other weird bit to the story is how the false alert even happened. There’s actually more cases than you might expect of random smoke and dust leading to station evacuations on the Underground. Both Manor House and Oval stations were evacuated after smoke and dust filled the platform in 2014, but, as with last week, no fire was found.
As mentioned, the working theory about Friday’s smoke is that it was caused by train brakes. TfL is now investigating, but the incident comes amid a wider reckoning with the particles tube trains are spewing out. Basically, when a tube train hits the brakes, the train’s wheels grind against the tracks. Even when that doesn’t create lots of smoke like at Clapham Common, this still throws up tiny specks of metal and other particles into the air in the tube network.
There’s now growing concern about the danger that could pose to health. An investigation in 2019 concluded there was still not enough evidence to say whether tube dust was harmful, and called for further research.
Some progress was made in December last year, when researchers at the University of Cambridge published a study that found the tube’s air is polluted with metallic particles small enough to enter the human bloodstream. They did not measure the direct health impacts though, and that kind of research is still in the pipeline. Until then, the scenes at Clapham Common are perhaps reason enough to start cleaning up the tube’s brakes.
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