Buried Memories of Austerity Past: The Moorgate Tube Crash and King’s Cross Fire

On a grey Saturday earlier this month I took part in a walking event on the archaeology of austerity entitled Narratives and Counter-Narratives – A Line Through Contemporary London. Organised by James Dixon and my colleague Lorna Richardson, the walk was the final installment of the Public Archaeology 2015 project that aimed to widen public engagement with archaeological themes and practices through monthly events over the course of the year. It also acted as a pre-conference event for Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) Conference that took place shortly afterwards at the University of Bradford. As stated on the project blog the walk’s  main aim was to “put a running section across the middle of London and attempt to take the pulse of London past, London present, and what it means to inhabit this world for archaeologists and archaeo-sympathisers.” Over the course of the day a group of about twenty of us did just that, covering around 11 miles from Canary Warf to Downing Street.

The day started with an obligatory yet somehow fitting interaction with Canary Warf’s private security service (that’s what you get for being in a group of more than three people and wearing hi-vis jackets) before James Dixon and Kate Tiernan kicked off proceedings by getting the group to identify the gap between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ en route to Whitechapel. After that I got the chance to talk about some of the Underground’s buried memories and their relationship to earlier periods of austerity. The baton was then passed to Saini Manninen who presented her work with Marjolijin Kok and soon had us all dusting St Paul’s Cathedral in a symbolic search for the traces of its former Occupy camp. Then Chris Constable walked and talked us through Bankside and Liberty of the Mint before Emma Dwyer and Owen Hatherley led us around the now demolished Heygate Estate and Elephant and Castle. The walk was capped by Oli Mould’s in-situ account of the battle to save the Southbank Skate Park and Lorna Richardson’s reading of the Riot Act on Downing Street. In all it was a great, if a little tiring, experience filled with much interesting discussion beyond the confines of the scheduled presentations and amongst all participants. It success reminded me just how conducive long walks are for sustained reflection and debate – something that I am sure we could all benefit from acknowledging more when preparing academic and public events and teaching plans. All the presentations were filmed and will no doubt appear here and elsewhere online in good time. For now though, besides linking to the event’s storify here, I want to provide a write-up of the talk I gave outside Moorgate Station.

Transport for London currently receives about a quarter (23%) of its £11.5 billion income from government grants including about a tenth of its £6.6 billion operating budget. But the recent Spending Review announced cuts to TfL’s operating budget and the Department of Transport will now phase out its operations grant to TfL by 2018/2019. This means a drop from around £650 million this year (2015/2016) to £450 million in 2016/2017, to £250 million in 2017/2018 and then zero in the following year.

What might these cuts mean for the future of London’s transport network and what dangers are revealed by their historical precedents? One way of approaching this question is to return to two of the most traumatic events in the history of London’s transport network and consider how these events indexed earlier moments of British austerity. The two events in question are the Moorgate Tube crash of 28th February 1975 and the King’s Cross fire of 18th November 1987.

Of these the King’s Cross fire, that is regularly framed as the nadir of the chronic under-investment and economy drives that the London Underground experienced from the mid 1970s onwards, is perhaps better known. But if this is the case, then the Moorgate Tube crash, can be considered as marking the onset of the Underground’s erosion. The high inflation of the second half of the 1970s, exaggerated by the Middle East Oil Crisis, meant rising operation costs, difficult labour relations, deteriorating services, and falling passenger numbers for TfL’s predecessor, London Transport (LT). At the same time the transport authority’s general ineffectiveness discouraged the public subsidy it so desperately needed. The crash, which occurred when a train overran the terminus platform at an accelerated speed, further undermined public confidence in the Underground. 43 people lost their lives. The Coroner’s Inquest into the accident ruled out a mechanical failure and concluded that the crash had been caused by the actions of the driver – the final victim to be recovered from the wreckage. Still, the evidence could not explain why the driver failed to stop the train and so a verdict of ‘accidental death’ was returned releasing LT from compensation claims.

The official inquiry into the King’s Cross fire, which occurred when a discarded cigarette ignited detritus beneath a wooden escalator leading to a flashover that claimed 31 lives, had a very different verdict. It reported numerous shortcomings in LT’s safety regulations and while the transport authority never formally accepted responsibility for the fire by 1996, it had settled 84 compensation claims at a cost of over £4 million. LT also used memorial strategies to help communicate its regret. For example, two permanent memorial plaques were unveiled in the station’s subsurface ticket hall on the seventh anniversary of the disaster.

The Moorgate Tube Crash was only memorialised in 2013 after the relatives of its victims started to connect with one another using a Facebook group created in 2010 and formed a more consolidated memorial campaign group. However, their early attempts to have a plaque installed on the platform at Moorgate Station were resisted by TfL who claimed that memorialisation in the network was only permitted in exceptional circumstances. A revealing, albeit crude, comparison here suggest that TfL saw the loss of 43 lives in 1975 as somehow less exceptional than the loss of 31 lives in 1987. Given these hurdles the group instead unveiled a memorial in the nearby Finsbury Square in July 2013. A week later TfL revised its decision and announced that it would also memorialise the crash. While there were internal reasons for this about-turn it seems at lest partly to have been a reaction to the successful memorialisation of the crash elsewhere. The response of the victims’ relatives were mixed. At best they saw the unveiling of a second memorial on the 39th anniversary of the crash as a necessary, albeit token, gesture that, regardless of circumstances, demonstrated official acknowledgment of the crash. At worst they saw TfL as having been shamed into action, called for the memorial’s boycott, questioned its understated location and maintained that they would remember their relatives at the older memorial, their memorial. TfL’s deferral of the crash’s memorialisation was probably partly caused by the fact that in the 1970s public memorialisation was less commonplace. But it is also clear that the ambiguity surrounding the crash’s causes and the transport authority’s accountability also played a role in delaying the Moorgate Tube crash’s official memorialisation.

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The TfL Memorial to the Moorgate Crash. Photo by Sam Merrill

Given all the unknowns and controversies surrounding the crash it is difficult to attribute it directly to the financial strain that LT was under at the time. However, had LT been in better financial health its introduction of automatic speed controls may have been more rapid. At the time of the accident these had been installed in 12 of 19 identified locations following the death of a driver in 1971 excluding Moorgate. Had they been installed in Moorgate more quickly they may have prevented the loss of 43 lives. In the crash’s aftermath these controls were quickly installed and a new automatic braking system known as the Moorgate Control was also introduced. However, these safety improvements paled in comparison to those that followed the King’s Cross fire. The fire’s inquiry made 157 separate recommendations that addressed safety procedures and policy, amongst other factors, and also suggested physical changes to the station environment. These included the banning of smoking and the removal of wooden escalators. The fire as such was a watershed moment in the Underground’s management It also provided a new origin myth – the flames from which the phoenix of the Underground, with its new organisational structure and concern for public safety, emerged. In other words LT used the memory of the King’s Cross fire, to legitimize its adoption of a business-led culture and wholesale changes to its management personnel.

Just two years before the fire LT’s directors were making exaggerated yet confident pledges to cut operating, engineering and maintenance costs while simultaneously reducing staff, soon after the fire the government accepted that the Underground’s underfunding was untenable and that only investment coupled with management changes would make it safer, more efficient and cost effective. The legacy of this shift actually means that TfL is today probably better equipped to handle cuts to its annual budget than ever before. There are, of course, real fears that the cuts will lead to fare increases, however politically unpalatable they might be. In fact, however, TfL looks set to make up its operations shortfall, not from fare increases or even the cost-reduction exercises that it turned to in the past, but instead by increasing its efforts to secure new income streams through innovative commercial activities.

TfL’s new moneymaking strategies already include leasing closed ticket offices to retail interests and its intent to unlock the financial value of its architectural assets and land. In this way it is slowly transforming itself into a commercial real estate company and property developer. In February it began collecting re-use projects for 10 million square feet of land including many so-called ‘ghost stations’. Meanwhile it plans to build 10,000 homes on 5,700 acres of its land and sell its Grade-I listed headquarters to allow its conversion into luxury flats.

In short, while disasters and the loss of human lives associated with earlier periods of austerity, led LT to adopt more business orientated principles, the most recent chapter in Britain’s austerity politics, are likely to accentuate these principles and push TfL further down the government’s roll-back neoliberal pathway. Transport in the city will, out of necessity, more and more resemble a profit making enterprise than a social amenity and public service. This might not place Londoner’s lives at direct risk, as was previously the case. But, the confidence that TfL’s current directors have in their ability to make their transport network the only major example in Europe to cover its own running costs is reminiscent of the disastrous levels of confidence in the build-up to the King’s Cross Fire. In fact TfL almost welcomed the cuts to their operation subsidies in part because government investment in ongoing infrastructural projects (CrossRail and the Northern Line extension) was left untouched.

TfL’s over-stated confidence also ignores Union claims that a risk to human life is still present thanks to potentially lethal levels of overcrowding (which takes us back to the aforementioned expansion of the network). But regardless of the physical safety risks these cuts are likely to have implications for people’s jobs and livelihoods and repercussions for the social inequalities that are already dangerously accentuated. Some journalists, for example, have noted how the cuts are likely to hit bus services the hardest – the very services that London’s poorest demographics rely on most to get around the city. Meanwhile a recent report has highlighted how low waged workers, already priced out of living in central London, are disproportionally affected by high travel costs.

This is why the memory of the Moorgate crash and the King’s Cross fire is important in times of austerity. Both events stand as reminders of the possible dangers of making cuts too deeply. Others have, of course, acknowledged this and in 2012 the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the Southern and Eastern Trade Union Congress and the Fire Brigades Union organised a protest to coincide with the King’s Cross fire’s 25th anniversary, during which they demanded the rejection of proposed staffing cuts because of their potential impact on passenger safety.

Such uses of the past potentially intrude upon the private acts of remembrance of those directly affected and indeed the protesters had to dodge claims that they had politicized the remembrance of the fire’s victims. However, their speeches, which condemned the proposed cuts because they would make a repeat of the fire more likely, hinted towards the fact that the underground deaths of November 1987, and February 1975 for that matter, have always been political.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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