| The Big Ben shines during the blackout in London. (AFP)
London, Aug. 29: When it comes to power cuts, Calcutta has nothing on London which suffered the mother of blackouts last night.
Many people feared the capital had been hit by a terrorist attack after a sudden power failure at 6.26 pm plunged much of the city into darkness, trapping 500,000 commuters on underground and overground trains, hundreds inside lifts and knocking out 270 sets of traffic lights and causing gridlock on the roads. “Pujar jam” in Calcutta is child’s play, compared with the load shedding in the empire’s first city at the height of the evening rush hour.
Millions of homes were without power, with areas in south London, notably Battersea, Wandsworth and Clapham, the worst affected. Patients in hospitals did not suffer, however, as emergency generators automatically switched on at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals.
To make matters worse, the hot, dry spell was broken by heavy rain, worsening the nightmarish conditions for office workers who walked from one locked station to the next and queued for hours for packed buses and much-in-demand taxis.
Everywhere the story was the same: Victoria: closed. Charing Cross: closed. Waterloo: closed. Canon Street: closed. King’s Cross: closed. London Bridge: closed. Commuters congregated in the pouring rain, unsure what to do (though the more enterprising made a night of it in pubs and restaurants).
What caused the problem appears to have been two minor circuit faults in south London but the cascade effect, much as in New York on August 14, revealed how quickly the sophisticated, industrialised West can be reduced to worse than Third World conditions.
Commuters experienced a nameless dread when they were evacuated from underground trains which had stopped between stations and were walked with the help of battery lamps along the track to safety. The London Fire Brigade had to rescue 400 people, while the ambulance service ferried those who fainted underground in the pitch dark tunnels.
Although power was restored to most parts of the city by 7.20 pm, conditions in London remained chaotic through the night. An Underground spokesman said at the height of the blackout: “Every line has been affected and we have a large number of trains caught between stations”. Above ground, 400 trains came to a halt, leaving another 250,000 people stuck. Rail operators Connex said: “Just one minute without power causes a big knock-on effect.”
The situation, according to Network Rail spokesman Kevin Groves, was “unprecedented”.
“All trains are at a standstill and all signals are at red,” he added. The blackout was not as bad as the one which affected 50 million over a 9,300 square mile area in north America. But London has been shaken by the experience and a Kumbh Mela-type stampede or other tragedies were avoided by the discipline and natural common sense of the British people. This morning in the cold light of day, Ken Livingstone, the angry mayor of London who called the failure by the National Grid an “absolute disgrace”, launched a post mortem into what went wrong. “It is totally unacceptable that this has happened,” he raged. “Thousands have suffered a horrific inconvenience. And hundreds of millions of pounds have been lost to the capital’s businesses.”
He was among those who feared the al Qaida or some such terrorist group had revealed just how vulnerable London was, despite contingency planning for such a strike.
“A massive investigation will follow,” he pledged. “The problem with public services is that we’ve not invested. And we’ve got equipment that belongs in a museum. We’ve got to look at the state of the National Grid.”
Perhaps thinking of France, where an extra 11,000 old people died during the heat wave, Livingstone said the consequences could have been “horrifying” if last night’s faults had occurred earlier this month.
“Under-investment in the National Grid must not be allowed to cause this kind of chaos in a city like London,” said Livingstone. Until a year ago, London Underground had an independent power station at Lots Road in west London. It was switched off and the Tube network linked into the National Grid in a move which Livingstone blamed on cost-cutting. The National Grid denied the problem had been caused by old equipment or under-investment.
Its spokesman, Sean Regan, said: “There was a fault in the 275,000 volt system affecting a ring around London. We had an equipment failure on our system in southeast London and that was followed within seconds by a second fault which caused the power cut. Power to the distribution network was restored at 7 pm.” But by then the damage had been done and the after-effect lingered for hours.
The electricity supplier, EDF Energy, blamed the blackout on the failure of two 75 kilowatt circuits in Wimbledon, which serves south London and Kent. And Transco, which run the National Grid, explained that part of the system automatically shut down after an alarm went off warning of a fault.
Many think the transport system in London is under serious strain. Civil servant Alan Basford, 52, from Meopham, Kent, said: “This disruption seems very similar to what happened in New York, and it’s also a bit strange the two events have happened close together.”
Teacher Valerie Chalancon, 33, from Rochester, Kent, commented: “It’s quite amazing that a big city like London can be brought to a standstill like this. The infrastructure is terrible — it’s really quite worrying. But there always seems to be a problem with the trains. It’s a real struggle to travel sometimes, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the system in the future.”
About the only person who seems to have benefited is Tony Blair. The prime minister’s cross-examination before the Hutton inquiry, where his answers came in for sharp criticism from his many critics, was relegated to second place in the news bulletins.