Sunday afternoon saw an Elizabeth line train break down outside Custom House station, and 340 passengers evacuated along the railway tracks, and it was all on purpose. This was part of the Trial Operations, the penultimate stage before the Elizabeth line can open to paying passengers.

The mass evacuation tests that are being carried out before Crossrail can transform into the Elizabeth line, will range in scale from a few hundred people to a couple of thousand and can be anything from dealing with a delayed train to a full-scale emergency with the fire and ambulance services.

So, in the morning, around 340 railway staff who gave up their day off to help out / have fun (delete as appropriate) headed to Woolwich to get a sneak preview inside the new station before getting on board the doomed train.

Sunday’s plan was to test how people react when a train stops for some reason a couple of hundred yards outside a station and the passengers need to be walked along the railway. In fact, of all the tests performed, a train getting stuck and refusing to move is one of the more unlikely of scenarios. Modern trains are designed that even in the case of serious failures, they should at the very least be able to limp home, but TfL still needs to test what would happen if the exceptionally unlikely were to happen.

So, just after midday, an Elizabeth line train dutifully “broke down” near Custom House station, and triggered the full response of how to deal with the situation.

The driver tried to get the train restarted again while the station tannoy apologised for delays on the line, until eventually it was accepted that this train isn’t going anywhere. The local incident response manager is summoned and liaises with the signal control office in Romford to isolate the track. No need to wait for physical barriers and detonators to be installed, as this is a digital railway and can isolate sections of track remotely aided by a handheld computer at the site.

After checking if anyone on board the train needs additional assistance such as wheelchairs, a team grabbing a supply of bottled water for any passengers who need it head down to the stricken train to liaise with the driver and arrange to walk the passengers to the nearest station.

If you’ve ever complained about a gap between a train and a platform, think what happens when there isn’t any platform whatsoever. Steps on the train are used to help people get down to the track level, and then in small groups, guided along the side of the railway to the station, and to freedom.

The tannoy at the station gave instructions and offers of water or foil blankets (it was very cold), but on this day at least there was no need for these extras. Over the next few days, reports will be written and procedures tweaked based on learnings found during the test.

It’s a curious event, on the one hand, it’s a very serious regulatory procedure to check safety systems work, and for all involved, a form of training for the unexpected. And yet for the participants, it’s an oddly exciting thing to do, which is why on a very cold Sunday morning 340 volunteers from TfL, the DfT, associated organisations, and a blogger, gave up their day of rest to sit in a train for a couple of hours.

There are some more tests to carry out, then once the line is certified to open, it’ll “shadow run” for a couple of weeks, finally opening to the public with a burst of purple across London.

The stuck train, can be seen just in front of the bus

The Incident Response Manager preparing to isolate the railway

Heading off to the train

Passengers evacuating down the escape stairs

Passengers evacuate down the escape stairs with staff to help where needed – such as with prams or mobility needs.

Walking along the side of the tracks

Note the display sign.

Passengers escorted along the platforms to the exit.

Evac drill took place at Custom House

A thank you to the people who helped

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7 comments
  1. Melvyn says:

    In this type of incident the new trains into Moorgate on the Great Northern line come into their own with their inbuilt stairs at the front of the train !

    The article says no need for detonators etc as the railway is digital so what happens if the digital stops working!

  2. Andrew says:

    You lucky Devil Ian, I have written to Crossrail twice asking to take part in the tests
    but was turned down sadly.
    I wouldn’t mind but I live about 1 miles or less away from the Custom House DRL Station
    So it would have been perfect for me.
    Counting down the days until we can ride this line line now. 😋

  3. Mike R says:

    Has anyone else noticed that the official journey planner with journey times has been recently removed from the cross rail website? Just wondering if we will get faster or slower trains than planned?

  4. Martyn Smith says:

    Do the volunteers know in advance the train is going to “brake down” or does it come as a surprise, meaning the exercise is more realistic.

    • ChrisC says:

      They know they are taking part in some sort of exercise.

      In later exercises there will be people ‘appointed’ to do particular things or act in a certain way such as have an injury or refuse to evacuate etc

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