Escaping railway stations

This post comes from having too much time on my hands at railway stations over the last year. And from my regular travelling companion, who isn’t a prepper, suggesting that when we meet up at a London railway terminus, we should do it outside the main station, to avoid bomb blast and falling glass. That didn’t come from me, this time: safety from terrorism in particular is definitely becoming more mainstream.

A regional station

Last summer, for instance, I was changing trains at a station named Three Bridges, which I pass through every month or so. That day, my train was cancelled so I had an unplanned half hour to spend there. I didn’t feel like settling down with my book, and instead I had a walk round, thinking about preparedness. I use this station regularly, to visit a local shopping centre, I have friends and relatives who live nearby, and I pass through it other times too, including going to and from London, so it was actually a good use of the time.

What really got me thinking was, what if I was trapped on the station platforms by a big accident or a terrorist incident of some sort, maybe in the forecourt? Trains would be stopped in such a situation, I think, because the rail line runs right by the forecourt. The forecourt is busy in itself, an ‘A’ road runs right past, there are industrial areas nearby, and the rail line itself is very, very active, one of the busiest in the country. So, as I had a whole half hour to spend, I walked up and down the platforms at the edges of the site, and had a look how I’d get out.

Any kind of expedient exit from the platforms themselves would have to be on the opposite side of the station from the forecourt, i.e. to the east, as the deadly-in-this-scenario forecourt is on the western side of the rails – and there at least two chances of escape to the east.

At one place, there’s a gap underneath the platform, and if the trains were stopped you could quickly scramble through and get out to a small road. And they surely would be stopped if, say, there was a fire on the forecourt right next to the bridge carrying the railway lines. The wriggle gap is only two or three feet high, but it’s enough. I went to the next platform over so I could take a photo of the gap (I was really into the exercise by this time!).

The gap underneath the eastern platform at Three Bridges Railway Station

Further down the platform, even further away from that dangerous forecourt of my scenario, there’s a long metal fence thats maybe six feet high. But right by it are a series of seats, and poles supporting railway signage. Some of them even have a handy roof on the other side of the fence as a nice little handhold. Once over the fence, you’d be in a local car park, about thirty feet from a secondary main road, and since you’re far away from the business end of the station, you have successfully removed yourself from the most dangerous part of the event.

Platform furniture as an escape route

You’d be on foot, then, of course, but at least you have options again.

On the western side of the station, it’s much more difficult to investigate, which is paradoxical because that’s the site of the much bigger public car park; but possibly because of that, and because of building works, there are serious amounts of fencing and locked gates blocking the way. I didn’t have time to investigate from the westernmost platform either. That’s a job for another time.

St Pancras International

I used St Pancras very recently when going to see the Harry Potter exhibition at the British Museum. Preparedness is not my whole life, I’m happy to say. But the wait for the train was almost as long as it had been at Three Bridges last summer, so I did the same sort of thing. Where would I go, in a terrorist attack, or a fire?

You could hide behind one of those big pillars, and hope that terrorists wouldn’t come further down the platform (unlikely).

A railway platform at St Pancras International, with doors and potential hiding places

You could run down the tracks (you’re very visible, and there’d probably still be trains running at that stage of the emergency).  But maybe better to do that than get shot, or suffer smoke inhalation.

Or you could run through the emergency exit door. I was pretty circumspect about taking this photo, I didn’t want to start off an alarm myself, but it’s clear that there’s a way out in an emergency, as long as it’s not blocked or something. Another exit sign is just visible through the glass of the door, but I can’t tell anything else about it.

Emergency exit doors at St Pancras platform

This sort of exercise should hopefully be carried out in relation to any place you pass through or travel to, especially if you travel there regularly. Although of course it can be argued it’s all the more important to do this when you’re not familiar with the place, and you haven’t been there before. Remember this: things happen when you least expect them, in places which you thought would probably be fairly safe and predictable. Using a spare half hour for a thought experiment in preparedness is a useful thing to do, in itself, and because it keeps you alert to your opportunities. And they’re not just your opportunities either. In a real life emergency, maybe your demonstration of a way out from the blocked platforms could have defused tension, given anxious people something to do, or even saved lives – you can’t really know, but it’s a real possibility. When you prep in this way, you benefit yourself and other people too.

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