Saturday, 27 December 2014

Overcrowding at Finsbury Park railway station

The Christmas holidays are a time when many people travel to visit relatives, and so travel hubs can expect to be busy. I was one of those attempting to traverse the country today and became caught up in the overcrowding at Finsbury Park station, London.
Engineering works that had been due to finish on Friday 26th (Boxing Day) overran, leading to the decision taken late yesterday to close King’s Cross station for the whole of 27th December. While Network Rail and others advised travellers to delay their journeys till Sunday or Monday, the other advice was that people travelling into or out of London could use Finsbury Park station instead to catch or leave their East Coast trains to/from the North.
The tube journey to that north London station wasn’t busy. But on arriving at Finsbury Park the crowd was so large that people simply could not get in or out. Hundreds more were queuing outside.
Picture courtesy @samhansford
Inside, hundreds more were stuck between the tube line and the platforms, in an underground tunnel, unable to get onto the platforms which were already full. This large crowd remained in this position, toe-to-toe and shoulder-to-shoulder, quite literally, for about an hour when I was there (around 11am) and maybe some time before that too.
Picture courtesy ‪@jimewing
People alighting from trains coming from the North into Finsbury Park had to struggle through the same tunnel through an extremely dense crowd of people with suitcases, rucksacks and crying babies, including some travellers who we felt particularly sorry for, who had only just arrived in the country.
Eventually, the station was closed so that no more people could enter the crowd, room was made on the platform, and we shuffled forward onto the platform to await a train.
The overcrowding was described as ‘dangerous’, and indeed it was widely stated before the event and in one of the Tannoy announcements that a small station like Finsbury Park simply didn't have anywhere near the capacity to cope with the large number of people who would normally use King’s Cross, one of the largest and busiest stations in the country. It was also fortunate that Arsenal were not playing at home today!
With colleagues, I have looked at the behaviour and experiences of people at a number of large and crowded events. These include Hani Alnabulsi’s work on the 2012 Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where densities averaged 5 people per square metre and at times went as high as 8 people per square metre.
There was also our ESRC-funded study of survivors’ accounts at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster where over 90 people were killed in a crowd crush, and our Leverhulme-funded project on experiences at the Fatboy Slim Beach party in 2002where 250,000 people crowded onto Brighton beach. The beach was 50,605 m2 in size, giving only 0.2 m2 of space per person in this crowd.
In each of these events, the experience of extreme density ranged from annoying, stressful and difficult to frightening and extremely dangerous. Another common feature is that there is often spontaneous self-organization amongst strangers in the crowd. At Hillsborough, people cooperated to pull others from the most dense areas of the crowd. At the Brighton beach party, people made small circles round women so they could have privacy to urinate (since public toilets were massively overwhelmed).
One of the obvious differences between the crowd at an event such as the  Hajj from that at Hillsborough or the Brighton beach party is that whereas the former is planned, expected and routinized, the latter are unexpected and unplanned. This has consequences for how those involved in these events feel about those they think are responsible for managing the event (for example in the Hajj crowd, even as levels of density increased, there was no falling off in levels of satisfaction with the competence of management).
All of these features and others were evident at Finsbury Park today.
First, while many of us expected it to be busy, we were not prepared for such levels of density. It was uncomfortable, annoying, stressful and could have been quite scary for those who are claustrophobic. It was certainly alarming. Anyone could see that it was dangerous, as the crowd was so packed that any movement was very difficult. Any sudden push could have caused some people to be squashed against a wall. As Sartre put it in another context, other people were hell.
Second, despite the irritation and some inconsiderate pushing, people were largely polite and patient. When people tried to get through, they asked others to excuse them and they tried to be careful. Space was made for those exiting and for a mother with a pushchair. People gave each other directions. When someone, just arriving, tried to use the exit route to apparently push in front of this giant crowd-queue, he was rebuked and then  quietly accepted his place at the back. And people talked to the strangers around them, oscillating between being atomized individuals in a physical crowd to social individuals sharing a common experience. They cheered when there was announcement that we would be moving soon. There was a kind of order.
Third, there were complaints about the lack of official organisation and the failure to communicate (What was happening on the platform? Was there a train due in soon?). The role of those with an overview of the event was all the more crucial given the inherently poor back-to-front communication there was in this and all crowds. Part of the danger of crushing was a function of the fact that those coming into the crowd could not see the front and had no idea how dense it was and whether or not other people could move. This is how crowd tragedies occur. Eventually at Finsbury Park, a system was implemented whereby those coming off the trains were allowed to move off the platform and through a narrow channel in the tunnel before those waiting in the tunnel were allowed to move forward onto the platform. The station was then closed, since it was well over capacity (was anyone actually counting?) And eventually the fact of this system was communicated to the waiting crowd.
Communication in a potentially dangerous overcrowded situation is important for at least two reasons, then. First, to be told how long the queuing is expected to last, the reason for the wait and so on reduces some of the stress, anxiety and annoyance that accompanies such experiences. Second, it gives people the information they need to make decisions about moving forward, staying still or trying to leave. If people knew how many others were in front of them, how much space there was on the platform, how long they would be waiting – information which only those managing the station could know – this can facilitate the tendencies to self-organization and order described above.

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