The King’s Cross Fire

The idea of the London Underground was first proposed in the 1830s. The first line, between Paddington and Farringdon, opened in January 1863 – a remarkable achievement for the time, being the world’s first underground railway. The wooden carriages were lit by gas and hauled by steam locomotives.  All in all, then, a firetrap waiting to happen.

Over the years the line was electrified, while further dangers were introduced by digging ever deeper tunnels and stations, reached by wooden staircases and escalators. Given the potential for fire and the likely difficulty of any potential evacuation, you’d think it would have taken a brave soul to venture down.

So it is amazing that until 1987, there hadn’t been a single fire-related fatality on London’s Underground system. That all changed on the evening of 18 November 1987 at King’s Cross St Pancras station.


As mentioned, many of the escalators that got people in and out of the Underground system were made of wood, and this was still the case in the 1980s. There had been a serious fire at Finsbury Park in 1976, as a result of which some staff fire safety training had been introduced. However, there seems to have been little training either in identifying fire risk or evacuation. Staff were expected to call the fire brigade only if a fire was deemed out of control.

Meanwhile, smoking was banned on Underground trains in July 1984, a ban that was extended to all stations a few months later following a fire at Oxford Circus. However, the ban was not wholly observed and not effectively policed; impatient smokers got into the habit of lighting up as they rode the escalators on their way out of the network.

How it started, how it spread and the consequences

It is believed that the fire started when someone on the Piccadilly Line’s wooden escalator dropped a lit match that fell down the side, igniting grease and litter on the escalator’s running track. The Piccadilly Line is one of the deeper lines going through King’s Cross St Pancras station.

Passengers first noticed flames at about 7.30pm. Staff and police investigated and someone was dispatched to the surface to call the fire brigade. A decision to evacuate was taken at 7.39pm and by about 7.42pm, the entire escalator was alight. 

At 7.45pm, an accumulation of heat in the underground network overheated a ceiling covered in multiple layers of old paint, leading to a flashover (when almost every flammable object in an enclosed area simultaneously ignites) and a jet of flame that shot up the elevator shaft and into the ticket hall. Most of the people there were killed or injured, while hundreds more were trapped underground, eventually escaping via trains on the Victoria Line.

As a result of the fire, 31 people died and another 100 were injured. If the fire had happened earlier in the day, many more people would have been in the ticket hall and the casualty figures would undoubtedly have been much higher.

The aftermath

The subsequent inquiry was particularly scathing about the complacency that meant little planning had been made regarding dealing with fires on the Underground system. Clearly, it seems obvious now that the combination of long wooden escalators and an ineffective smoking ban was disastrous. The wooden escalators were replaced with metal ones, but it took time – Marylebone’s last one was replaced in 2004, while the last one on the network, at Greenford, wasn’t updated until 2014.

Among the other recommendations were the installation of fire alarms, sensors and sprinklers – basic fire safety precautions that would be insisted upon from the outset if a modern fire risk assessment had been carried out. Staff were issued with personal radios, CCTV was installed and training was provided for staff in emergency situations.

The new measures were covered in the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989, which has been updated a few times since, most recently in 2009.

Today, all business premises are required by law to carry out regular fire risk assessments designed to identify, among other things, fire hazards and people at risk in the event of a fire, while also considering emergency routes and exits, fire detection and warning systems and fire fighting equipment.

The Underground system in the early 1980s, if subjected to such an assessment, would have thrown up so many issues that it would possibly have been shut down until some of the most serious failings had been corrected. As so often in the history of fire safety, it took a disaster to focus minds on creating safer environments for both staff and users.

Here at London Scutum, we carry out expert and professional fire risk assessments across London and the Home Counties that will ensure every aspect of your business’ fire safety is closely examined to make it as effective as possible. 

Contact us now for more information or to book a fire risk assessment for your business.

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