With security at unprecedented levels, people movement and security experts Simon Babes and Fathi Tarada review the lessons learned from the February firebomb attack on the Hong Kong MTR.
It is a time of rapid change and massive
opportunity for the UK’s transport industry. Under pressure to increase the
capacity of the capital’s burgeoning transport network, address the salient and
changing terror threat and deliver on looming project deadlines, staying
abreast with advances in fire safety and rail management must remain a
priority. While security breaches are thankfully rare, decision makers must
study these occurrences closely, most recently, February’s firebomb attack on
the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway (MTR), to ensure that their trains, stations
and employees are best equipped to manage these risks.
Why is the MTR incident of note?
The arson attack, which occurred on
February 10th at Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) station, injured
19, leaving three people critically hurt. This was not the first such incident,
with a similar attack occurring on the network in 2004. The UK Government has
currently set the nation’s terror threat level as ‘severe’, meaning that an
attack on the public is “highly likely”. As such, there is a distinct
possibility that an incident of this nature could happen in London.
However, security threats aside, this
incident warrants particular attention due to the high level of similarity between
TST station and the UK’s Crossrail stations, due to open in 2018. The trains
themselves are larger than existing tube stock (roughly double the capacity),
while the platforms are comparably configured with full height platform edge
doors, lengthened and widened island platforms and active tunnel ventilation. Bombardier
is set to supply Crossrail’s rolling stock as part of a £1bn contract with TfL.
Coincidentally, the line itself will be run by the European arm of MTR, the
Hong Kong-based transport operator that runs the Hong Kong MTR.
Areas for improvement
The TST incident highlighted a number of
areas for improvement, in particular the need for better communication between
drivers and the control room to enhance passenger safety. Immediately following
the attack, a non-incident train was stopped on the opposite platform with open
train doors and platform screen doors – this is contrary to good practice and
causes evacuation difficulties, as double the number of passengers are required
to escape from the platform to street. If the fire or explosion had been
widespread, this may have contributed to significant injury, panic, or loss of
While it may have genuinely been too late
for the incident to be reported to control in time, CCTV coverage was not
available on the incident train, which meant that both the driver of the
incident train and central control room, were unaware of the incident, and
unable to stop the other train pulling in to the station. Safety experts must
push for universal CCTV coverage for this communication gap to be filled.
Further to this, it is likely that passenger
injury could have been reduced through the installation of a fire suppression
system, or high pressure water spray, which are not present in MTR trains.
Although retrofitting these devices on existing London Underground trains may
be impossible due to space constraints, there may still be a chance to
introduce them on the Crossrail fleet, although this would have a detrimental
effect on capacity – a decision that Transport for London must take in due
What worked well
Similar to the London Underground, the
interior of MTR carriages are specified to exacting reaction to fire properties
and a low fire load density – with the seats and flooring not supporting
flaming combustion under the flash-over temperature of 600 degrees Celsius. Video
footage from the attack shows that the only items burning in the carriage were
passengers’ belongings and the Molotov Cocktail, not the internal carriage
seats or lining, demonstrating that these fire retardant measures were
The event also provides assurance that the
TST’s station and train configuration performs well in terms of smoke handling
and the inability of the fire to spread and take hold – information that will
be well received by Crossrail bosses.
It is imperative that metro operators,
design engineers and station planners draw parallels from the arson attack on
the Hong Kong MTR, identifying both the successes of in-built safety features
and areas where contingent systems can be improved – in this case communication
between drivers and central command and the potential installation of fire
Each incident highlights new facets of
people movement patterns and passenger behaviour which themselves offer
opportunities for the further evolution and adaptation of evacuation protocol.
For example, this incident drew attention to a new phenomenon; commuters,
seemingly assured of their safety, stood on the platform and took photos and
videos of the fire rather than evacuating – tackling this behaviour will be the
This article was co-authored by Simon
Babes, Managing Director of people movement expert Movement Strategies and
Fathi Tarada, Managing Director of fire safety specialist Mosen.