Merlin fined £5 million for Alton Towers Smiler accident that resulted in amputations

Posted Tuesday, September 27, 2016 10:08 AM | Contributed by Jeff

Alton Towers operator Merlin has been fined £5m for the crash on the Smiler rollercoaster. Sixteen people were injured in the June 2015 crash, including two teenage girls who needed leg amputations. In April, Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd admitted breaching the Health and Safety Act. The theme park originally said the accident was caused by "human error." But prosecutors argued the fault was with the employer not individuals.

Read more from The BBC.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 11:12 AM
Vater's avatar

The theme park originally said the accident was caused by "human error." But prosecutors argued the fault was with the employer not individuals.

Apparently the employers aren't human...

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 11:18 AM
Jason Hammond's avatar

IMHO, the single biggest error was this one:

"They assumed there was a problem with the computer and over-rode the stop mechanism setting another train in motion and into the empty carriage."

Now, whether that was due to lack of training, ignorance of the system, or some other reason, I do not know. But, I just don't see how you override the computer that is telling you a train is on the course without ensuring said train is, in fact, not on the course.


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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 11:57 AM
Fun's avatar

I am not a lawyer, nor do I understand the nuances of the Health and Safety act. But with that said, I am surprised that this accident is being so heavily blamed on training and management. Wouldn't common sense dictate visually looking for the trains before overriding a safety system designed to keep trains from crashing? Does Merlin need to specifically tell people this?

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 12:05 PM
Jeff's avatar

I was pretty sure that most places have an absolute prohibition on running any ride in manual mode when it's loaded. The only exception that I can think of is being on Holiday World's Thunderbird, when from the launch position they rolled us back into the station. Even then, that could have been automatic for all I know.


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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 12:26 PM

They simply cleared the error in the same way they always cleared it before. Maintenance has probably seen this error five hundred times before, and the problem has always been a control system error.

The owner of the ride has liability in this case because they are responsible for making sure all employees are fully trained, competent, and following Standard Operating Procedures. On a large machine with many moving parts, it is very easy to forget a step, hence why SOP's are very important.

As far as moving a ride in manual mode, this can mean a couple of things. One meaning is pushing a button to tell the ride to do movements that are not a part of the automated sequence. This is very commonly used to move trains into the station for unloading. In this case the computer system still handles blocking without any overrides. (A good example of this is backing up all the trains on Top Thrill Dragster in the case of a fault in the launch system.)

A more common definition of manual mode is a block system override. This is telling the control system that the block ahead of it is clear, even though the sensors told the computer the block is occupied. This is what happened with the Smiler. Although parks generally prohibit overriding of the block control system during normal operation, sometimes it is done with passengers on board so the ride can be unloaded in the station. When doing this, it is critically important to count your trains...

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 12:57 PM
rollergator's avatar

Is anyone else surprised by the seemingly last-minute introduction of wind speeds to the discussion...? I mean, it's understandable how wind can contribute to the valleying of the initial train....but should have nothing to do with releasing a train into an occupied block...


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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 3:46 PM
Pete's avatar

Jscll said:
They simply cleared the error in the same way they always cleared it before. Maintenance has probably seen this error five hundred times before, and the problem has always been a control system error.

We don't know that the control system threw a false error many times before and even if that is true, it is totally reckless and irresponsible to just clear the error and move the trains. As you said, count the trains. And, if the control systems causes many false train detections, fix the control system.


I'd rather be in my boat with a drink on the rocks, than in the drink with a boat on the rocks.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 5:28 PM
Rick_UK's avatar

Jason Hammond said:

Now, whether that was due to lack of training, ignorance of the system, or some other reason, I do not know. But, I just don't see how you override the computer that is telling you a train is on the course without ensuring said train is, in fact, not on the course.

As I predicted at the time, the complication came from the fact that they had added an extra train throughout the process. Also, and this isn't an excuse, but it is a contributory factor - The Smiler's location and set up means that it's harder to track the trains, especially when running five. Since the accident, all Alton rides now prominently display the number of trains on the track, in the station.

Also, I don't think the fifth train returns to the station when it stacks, it remains out on the course somewhere, which again contributed to this (I suspect). That's fairly unusual outside of a Wild Mouse and even then, most of the modern ones have enough blocks for the number of trains in or around the station.


Nothing to see here. Move along.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 6:43 PM

Pete, ask me to show you a ride which has a control system that never errors out, and I will show you a carousel.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 9:19 PM
August Mueller's avatar

Disappointed by the negligence of the ride operator, but commend the park on their actions after the incident. The care of the injured guests was their number one priority, and they were honest from the beginning claiming fault.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 10:29 PM

August, I completely agree. From the beginning, it was looking like it WAS their fault, and to deny it would have been ridiculous and probably just insulting to the victims. It seemed to me they took the high road on the whole thing and did what was right.

I'm kind of surprised that they didn't have multiple cameras in place to visually check where all the trains were. If the whole coaster is not visible from the station, and it runs multiple vehicles with multiple blocks, it makes sense to have some sort of eyes on this system. Doesn't seem not only all like a training issue, but also a safety issue in regards to visual scanning.


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Wednesday, September 28, 2016 12:48 PM
Pete's avatar

Jscll said:
Pete, ask me to show you a ride which has a control system that never errors out, and I will show you a carousel.

That, of course, is true. But, you said "maintenance has seen this error 500 times", which seems way excessive. I think if a control system shuts down on a regular basis because of ghost trains then the control system is faulty. I'm sure it happens on occasion, but it shouldn't be a routine event.


I'd rather be in my boat with a drink on the rocks, than in the drink with a boat on the rocks.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016 2:59 PM
Tekwardo's avatar

hy·per·bo·le
hīˈpərbəlē/
noun
exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.


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Wednesday, September 28, 2016 3:32 PM

Fun said:

I am not a lawyer, nor do I understand the nuances of the Health and Safety act. But with that said, I am surprised that this accident is being so heavily blamed on training and management. Wouldn't common sense dictate visually looking for the trains before overriding a safety system designed to keep trains from crashing? Does Merlin need to specifically tell people this?

Legally, yes, they absolutely should tell the employees. (I'm also not a lawyer, but I have had to dive into Health and Safety requirements in the past)

In general, laws like that are in place to protect employees from larger issues within a company. Common sense isn't really a defendable reason, you need proof and a paper trail. Should everyone wear steel toed boots on a construction site? If you stop to think about it, of course they should! But to a lot of people it's just a job, and they don't really take the time to understand all the ins and outs of how a project is run (extreme example, but the logic still applies). Training can help employees identify the risk(s) associated to actions.

Common sense, or in this case problem solving/risk assessment, can be developed through training and experience. It's reasonable to say that a better trained, more experienced employee may not have made the same mistake, so the blame is on the employer for allowing that situation to happen. At the end of the day, Merlin put the decision in the wrong hands

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Thursday, September 29, 2016 11:19 PM
Pete's avatar

Tekwardo said:

hy·per·bo·le
hīˈpərbəlē/
noun
exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.

Yeah, no kidding. The quote was meant to be hyperbole also. Let me rephrase. If a control system errors with ghost trains enough times to use hyperbole to describe it, the control system should be fixed.


I'd rather be in my boat with a drink on the rocks, than in the drink with a boat on the rocks.

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Friday, September 30, 2016 2:27 PM

I should have been more clear, I was using the hyperbole to describe automated control systems in general, not just the Smiler's. Ask a maintenance technician if they ever saw a ride during normal operations that had a blocking violation during normal operations. (That is, a E-stop condition occurring due to a train stopping where is should not have. Morning tests and Wild Mouse backups do not count.) Chances are, you will have to work hard to find one. It is just the nature of fail safe control systems.

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Friday, September 30, 2016 7:29 PM

bunky666 said:
I'm kind of surprised that they didn't have multiple cameras in place to visually check where all the trains were. If the whole coaster is not visible from the station, and it runs multiple vehicles with multiple blocks, it makes sense to have some sort of eyes on this system. Doesn't seem not only all like a training issue, but also a safety issue in regards to visual scanning.

There are cameras watching the ride circuit, as proven by this CCTV footage of the accident. I would think the live footage would be viewable to the ride operators via monitors in the station.

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Friday, September 30, 2016 11:10 PM
kpjb's avatar

Wow.


Hi

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Saturday, October 1, 2016 10:59 AM

kpjb said:
Wow.

What he said...

I guess there's no question the operating system was overridden here. The system did what it was supposed to do in the case of a valley; it stopped the next train from proceeding.

Here's a question... What happens to that £5M fine? Does the government keep it? Does it go to the injured? I was under the impression that Merlin had really stepped up and was taking care of the victims (I didn't really think that term fit until now).


But then again, what do I know?

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