Journalism lecturer Andrew Noakes found himself at the centre of a news story when the train he was travelling on caught fire. Here’s his account.
“OK, who pressed the button?” For passengers crammed onto the 8.09am Arriva Wales Trains service from Wolverhampton to Birmingham International this morning the ring of an alarm bell was just another annoyance to add to the morning’s drizzle and the late running of their train.
But it was about to become more than just an irritation.
Passengers from the front half of the four-carriage train began streaming down the gangway into the rear of the train where I was, saying they had been told to move because the train was on fire.
As the bell continued to sound the train braked to a stop, unexpectedly, at Smethwick Rolfe Street station and the train manager’s voice crackled over the tannoy.
“This is a special announcement,” he said. “Would passengers please leave the train and move to the exit of the station. There is a fire on the train.”
Dutifully we stepped out onto the platform and climbed the narrow staircase to Rolfe Street, which runs above the station on a Victorian brick bridge. Near the top I was met by one of the station staff clambering down – carrying two fire extinguishers.
Arriva Trains Wales has the oldest rolling stock in Britain. In September, policy director Roger Cobbe told the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee that ATW's trains were on average over 25 years old. "Some of our trains have done 4.5 million miles and are 30 years old," he told MPs. "There has been a colossal rise in the number of people using trains. Yet we haven't been able to order any new rolling stock because there is no spare capacity across the whole of Britain."
The ageing trains provide a maintenance headache for ATW. "The trains have to work very hard and our engineers have to work very hard to keep them going. Occasionally there are problems," Cobbe told the committee.
While we don't yet know what caused the fire on this train, its age could well have been a factor.
As passengers trooped off the train there was no panic, no pushing – just an orderly procession of 500 or so people towards the exit, some of them glancing over their shoulders at the ominous black column of smoke rising from the second carriage.
Most had reached the road by the time the first fire engine arrived from Smethwick at 8.36am, closely followed by a police car. A second fire engine arrived at the scene at 8.38am, and the emergency services began to close Rolfe Street to traffic while they made the train safe.
“It was under the carriage we were in,” one train passenger told me. Another summed up the general mood: “Typical,” he said. “The train I decide to get on bursts into flames.”