Salisbury Rail Crash

Some describe it as the Salisbury Rail Crash, some as the Salisbury Derailment and some as the Salisbury Train Crash. Whatever label one puts on it, officially it was Operation Zambezi. It was certainly a major incident that was a challenge for all local responders over several days that resulted in injury, trauma, disruption, press interest and, from a Local Resilience Forum (LRF) perspective, a coordinated multi-agency response. When such events occur, agencies come together and work well through partnership and collaboration.

Sunday 31st October 2021 was Halloween Night with local emergency services responding to calls that inevitably fall out of this event. Around 19.00 hours, there was speculation on social media of a train crash in the Salisbury area. Some reports suggested this had occurred in Hampshire, and whilst not wishing to burden a neighbouring area, there is perhaps always an inner sigh of relief that an incident has happened elsewhere and not on our patch!

However, it soon became apparent that it had happened in Wiltshire at Salisbury. Police, Fire and Ambulance were all in attendance, with Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service taking primacy for the rescue operation, South Western Ambulance Service dealing with casualties and Wiltshire Police supporting by putting on cordons to enable their Fire and Ambulance colleagues to do their jobs. This was a serious incident, and initial focus was on the scene to ensure the preservation of life, which is always, and without question, the number one priority. 

There was plenty of media speculation and pressure from well-intentioned Government officials seeking updates. These external pressures must be managed but cannot to be allowed to distract from the rescue operation taking place. The emergency services bring professionalism and expertise and need to be given the time and space to get on with their work uninterrupted. 

A local church was requisitioned as a centre to receive the walking wounded and other passengers. Fortunately, most casualties received minor injuries but one of the train drivers suffered serious injuries, and our thoughts and prayers went out to him and his family.

Very quickly the LRF activated its multi-agency command, control and coordination structures know as C3 arrangements. The emergency services were joined at the scene by colleagues from British Transport Police (BTP) and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB). The wider health service stood-up its procedures for potentially receiving many casualties (fortunately these were stood-down relatively quickly) and Wiltshire Council was mobilised to deal with wider consequence management issues such as road closures and supporting the local community. They were supported by Salisbury City Council. LRF response plans had been tested, were well-rehearsed and ready to go. Refining them and ensuring they are fit for purpose is part of daily business for the LRF.

It was very quickly agreed that the multi-agency response would be led by BTP who have responsibility for policing the railway. They have experience of dealing with such incidents, know how to investigate them and how to return the rail network back to normal operations. In turn, they received assistance in this task from Network Rail and the train operating companies. 

Once the rescue operation was complete, attention turned to the investigation and determining what had caused the derailment, and to how to recover the stranded trains. The scene had to be sterile to enable the investigation to proceed. What was clear is that the railway line itself would be closed for some days causing disruption to the rail network and commuters. 

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It was important for the investigation at the scene to run its course so that all evidence could be recovered. Once this phase was complete, the task of recovering the trains became the next priority.

Specialist lifting equipment was required to recover the trains and a temporary road was constructed on non-rail land so that it could access the scene and lift the carriages. This was brought to the scene by four artic lorries that were located on the bridge of the A30 London Road causing significant disruption to local vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Special attention had to be paid to ensure the bridge’s weight limit was not exceeded. All these assets took several days to arrive and set-up ready to undertake their task. 

Throughout this time, communicating with residents and the wider community was essential. A multi-agency communications cell (MACC) was set-up, led by BTP, to ensure consistent messaging. This was done in various ways with all agencies playing their part; personal interaction, leaflet drops and a Zoom meeting were some of the methods used to help keep the public informed. To get the job done, recovery would be a 24/7 operation over several days. This activity was streamed live on social media to provide reassurance that work was ongoing and continuing apace.

Eight days after the incident, the trains were finally recovered from the scene and taken away by road for further inspection by the investigation team. At this point Wiltshire Council was able to lift the road closures put in place. 

Engagement continued with residents although the long-term impact was thought to be low, and could be managed locally by Wiltshire Council, Salisbury City Council and Wiltshire Police. Network Rail worked hard over the subsequent days to repair the track and associated infrastructure to be able to bring the network back into service. 

Multi-agency operations were stood down on Tuesday 9th November. However, Wiltshire and Swindon LRF has a culture of learning and continuous improvement. In December, partners again came round the table as part of an independently facilitated multi-agency debrief, to reflect on the incident and to identify what went well and not so well, and what changes need to be made to existing plans and processes to increase their effectiveness next time. A Debrief Report has been published and partner agencies are currently working through its recommendations. 

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