The Old Street Tunnel Incident

This just beggars belief. A property developer was completely unaware there was a working railway tunnel running directly beneath their construction site, and drilled right through the tunnel roof as part of the preliminary piling work. It was only a quick-thinking train driver that averted what could have been a very serious accident.

During the morning of 8 March 2013, a train driver reported that flood water was flowing from the roof of a railway tunnel north of Old Street station near central London. The driver of an out-of-service passenger train was asked to examine the tunnel at low speed and check for damage. The driver stopped short of the water flow and reported that two large drills (augers) had come through the tunnel wall and were fouling the line ahead of his train.

The augers were being used for boring piles from a construction site about 13 metres above the top of the tunnel. The operators of the piling rig involved were unaware that they were working above an operational railway tunnel. Its position was not shown on the site plan, or on any map available to either the developer or the local planning authority. As a consequence, Network Rail was not consulted during the planning application stage and was unaware of the construction activity.

There is a maze of tunnels under London; not just the tube network, but a whole host of utilities, communications, and wartime and cold war bunkers. That there is no one map showing them all is problem, given the amount of construction work going on in central London.

And it shows why documentation matters.

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3 Responses to The Old Street Tunnel Incident

  1. John P. says:

    It appears from the report that the documentation (or at least some of it) was there. The Land Registry had a note about the subsoil belonging to a rail company but it is a bit cryptic and the company no longer existed, so no-one realised what it meant. There was an agreement with the local authority meant to protect the tunnels but it has disappeared from the records somewhere along the line. The tunnel used to be part of London Underground before it was transferred to Network Rail ownership and Ordnance Survey don’t show underground rail networks. Network Rail had a record of the tunnel, but because it wasn’t on any other maps, no-one knew that there was any reason to ask them. And finally, the surveyor who did the test boreholes reported finding some sort of manmade structure and said it should be investigated. But because nothing appeared on the maps, they thought it might have been sewers.

    So documentation is all very well but the key is you’ve got to know it exists in order for it to be any use.

    As an aside, it annoys me that a lot of companies/organisations these days just put stuff on a website and then sit back and assume that they’ve done enough. There just isn’t enough time in life to keep checking all these websites on the off chance that there might be something you need to know. For example, are you really going to keep tabs on the manufacturer of everything you buy just in case they have a product recall one day? Life is too short for that. But then of course, they can’t be proactive and contact anyone because nobody admits to buying their stuff, because they’ll get spammed by marketing information.

    Yeah, I know, I’m a grumpy old ***.

  2. ard sloc says:

    Very well-spotted and discussed Tim and John P. Was this another example of reckless property expansion downwards?

  3. John P. says:

    Well, they were building a block of flats so it was property expansion upwards rather than downwards. They were just trying to make something solid enough to stand it on – which is understandable. We do need housing and someone’s got to build it somewhere.

    It seems that everyone at least made an effort to follow the correct procedures, but not all the dots got joined up because those involved didn’t know or understand that some of those dots existed. The RAIB sent advice notices to solicitors and others telling them about this case so hopefully the word has got around and people are better informed next time. The report doesn’t call anyone negligent as far as I recall, so I don’t think we are in a position to call anyone reckless.