Ben Bingham, Network Incident Response Manager at London Underground, explains the work that the Network Incident Response Team does on the London Underground…

Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, come rain or shine (or global pandemic) there is a team patrolling the streets of London, poised to leap into action at a moment’s notice should anything stop, or threaten to stop, the wheels turning on the London Underground (LU).

The Network Incident Response Team (NIRT), which comprises senior LU operational managers working in partnership with highly-experienced British Transport Police (BTP) medic officers, is a bespoke disruption-busting unit designed to respond rapidly to any situation that affects normal operations on the Underground.

The team was set up in May 2012, in time for the London Olympics, partly in preparation for that unique and challenging event, but also out of a recognition that driving reliability into the future was going to require some original thinking. There is no such thing as a small problem in an operation that has the capability to run trains at less than 90 second intervals, sometimes as far as 25 metres below ground, with upwards of 1,000 customers on board. Something as seemingly trivial as an accidental customer emergency alarm activation, or coat stuck in a door, can lead to trains stalled in tunnels. This could then lead to a customer on one of those stalled trains feeling unwell and another alarm being activated. The issue can grow exponentially within minutes, leading to station crowding challenges and then, very soon after, station closures.

Without good communication, clear understanding and competent on-site leadership we now have the makings of a seriously disruptive incident. So, in order to bring these essential incident management elements to bear, a new grade of manager was created – the Network Incident Response Manager (NIRM), of which there were originally seven (now twelve) offering a pan-London response. The NIRM was teamed-up with a BTP officer in a marked police vehicle and the NIRT was born.

The default area of operation for the NIRT is within zones 1 and 2 on the Underground map. This is chiefly owing to the potential impact of any service-affecting incident in this key area of operations. However, the team can be, and regularly is, deployed to locations anywhere else on the network where an incident, medical or operational, has the capacity to cause significant disruption to train services. In terms of getting to the scene of an incident, the team works to two main targets – within 15 minutes for zone 1 and within 30 minutes for the rest of the network. Because we travel in a marked police vehicle, these targets have proved to be broadly achievable, assuming that the incident we are attending fulfils certain specific criteria which triggers police authority to travel on ‘I-Grade’, which is the police term for sirens and blue flashing lights. Without that authority we are in the lap of the traffic gods like everyone else.

However, that is not to say that we cannot contribute to the management of an incident while en-route. We are equipped with a telephone and iPad containing any maps and diagrams we might need, along with access to the Underground’s incident command and control log which is updated in real-time by the London Underground Control Centre (LUCC). We also have remote access to Trackernet, which shows us the live locations of trains and the disposition of points and signals. In addition to our electronic devices we also carry a wide selection of specialist railway safety and fault diagnosis equipment to assist when we arrive at the scene of an incident. These include thermal imaging cameras, current rail indicator devices and short-circuiting devices. The NIRT vehicles additionally carry a selection of specialist medical diagnostic and treatment equipment. Owing to the unique environmental challenges presented by an Underground train or station, we also carry specialist equipment – not found on ambulances – to ensure we can assist customers as safely and quickly as possible. This equipment has been so successful that ambulance crews have started requesting our services when faced with a particularly problematic incident.

The NIRT is critical in delivering the response and resolution to the Underground’s highest priority incidents and is the driving-force in ensuring that these are brought to a close as quickly and safely as possible. Using operational knowledge, the medical-first-responder training of the BTP officer, leadership and influencing skills we aim to maintain the best service possible for our customers. At incidents, we operate as part of a highly successful and streamlined formal incident management structure which comprises Gold, Silver and Bronze layers of command. This structure was adopted in order to bring the Underground in line with the emergency services’ incident command structure as part of the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP) in which we actively engage with emergency services both in training and in practice.

At incidents we will take the role of Silver and provide on-site tactical leadership. In order to do this we will talk to other Silvers (usually from the attending emergency services) and available experts to formulate a plan. Actions to carry out this plan can then be delegated to Bronze task-orientated responders. At Bronze level we have a multitude of resources to draw on – local operational duty managers, station staff and management, technical staff and the Emergency Response Unit (ERU). The ERU – who also have blue light capability – are an invaluable resource for us as they are able to carry out a multitude of tasks ranging from clearing fallen trees and mending holes in fences, to re-railing trains and carrying out emergency track repairs.

So, what does an incident requiring formal incident management look like? An example of one of the most disruptive and traumatic service-affecting incidents we deal with on a regular basis are fatalities and suicides on the railway – or ‘persons under a train’ (PUT) incidents.

The NIRT will take on overall tactical command-and-control at these incidents, ensuring that saving the life of the casualty, alongside the welfare of any customers on the incident train, is foremost in our efforts. This includes making the track area safe for other emergency responders such as the fire brigade, police, ambulance service or air ambulance and our own ERU. At a PUT incident, our BTP medic colleagues are trained in administering medical aid in confined spaces (including underneath trains), stabilising the casualty and administering life-support while awaiting the arrival of London Ambulance Service paramedics or air ambulance responders. Thereafter if not assisting the paramedics and fire brigade in rescuing the casualty they will become a tactical advisor, working closely with the NIRM in relation to any crime scene, and or other legal requirements, should the incident be deemed suspicious or unexplained.

While this is ongoing we will be assessing the needs of the customers held on the incident train and formulating and executing a plan to assist them off the carriages. This can be as challenging as the initial incident and we have to consider a variety of factors including the potential ​numbers of persons involved, the area of operation – in a tunnel, for example – and the distance to a place of safety such as a platform.​This all takes place in what can be a confined, claustrophobic and hot environment. In tandem with this we need to look further ahead and will put plans in place to facilitate track access for the ERU, who will carry out any necessary actions to ensure the track and station are ready for service resumption. While all this is happening we are in constant communication with the local service control team and the Senior Operating Officer (based in the LUCC) who fulfils the Gold strategic command role. In this way, with up-to-the-minute updates coming from the incident site, impact on the wider network can be proportionately managed and timely, correct and relevant customer communications can be provided. This style of approach to formal incident management has proved extremely successful, not only contributing to the team’s National Rail Award in 2015, but also seeing a reduction from 90 to 66 minutes in the average delay times for these types of incidents.

In the eight years since its creation, the NIRT has steadily evolved to become the essential keystone of LU’s critical incident response alongside being recognised and welcomed by the other London emergency services. As a team we have attended every major incident in London over the last eight years, including both London Bridge attacks, Westminster, Parson’s Green and Grenfell Tower – testament to the fact that very little of significance can occur in London without some measure of impact upon our railway. During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve maintained our 24/7 presence, ensuring that the journeys of our essential workers are not disrupted and providing support for our frontline staff. We were once described on television as the Swiss Army Knife of the Underground and, although this has caused some amusement over the years, it does fit rather well. From major multi-agency critical incidents to catching a bee in a train cab (this happened), London Underground’s Network Incident Response Team can handle it.

Ben Bingham is a Network Incident Response Manager at London Underground