Major accidents, whether we like it or not, cause us to make changes in how we operate as a society. Thanks to the Titanic, every seaworthy vessel now must carry lifeboats with the exact number of seats the ship can carry.
In the theme park world, Walt Disney World is reportedly testing an automation system for their monorail system. While not official, this is most likely a response to the incident where two trains crashed on July 5, 2009. This is not to say that they weren’t considering the automation prior to or after the incident, but no doubt this precaution acts as a safeguard from future incidents occurring.
An incident happened at Alton Towers in England that the industry needs to be following closely. A coaster known as The Smiler had an empty train collide with a loaded one while the attraction was in operation on June 2, 2015. At the time of the ride’s opening in 2013, it was recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records for having 14 inversions, the most of any roller coaster in the world.
What happened was essentially two incidents in one. The first train valleyed out between loops in the middle of the ride. Valleying is a term used to describe a coaster train that doesn’t have enough momentum to go between two sections of track. Instead of climbing another hill or loop via gravity, the train doesn’t quite make it and sits in the “valley” between two hills or loops until riders can be rescued from the train and/or it can be manually wenched to the next section of track with either a lift or breaks.
While proper coaster design should prevent a train from valleying at all, the end result is riders usually have to be evacuated via the fire department through a series of temporary lifts and ladders that were never designed into the coaster. Normally, all emergency exits are placed near lift hills and breaks. The train in those areas, when the ride is powered down, keeps the train in a locked position to safely evacuate if necessary. Not ideal, but not exactly dangerous either.
The reason being is that coasters are designed to recognize when a train goes from zone to zone via a “block system” along the track. It guesstimates within the matter of a second (or less) when a train should be leaving zone A and recognize when it arrives in zone B. If that does not happen, the system automatically emergency stops. This is what happened with The Smiler train valleyed.
When you add human error to the mix, things get dicey. Even though The Smiler locked up all other trains and froze them in their locations like it should have, an operations and a maintenance employee decided to put the ride into maintenance mode and override the safety checks already put into place. They dispatched a train which was then sent flying into the valleyed train on the track causing serious injury to everyone on board and two people had to have their legs amputated.
Alton Towers, in a recent statement, admitted that the accident was in fact operator error (as described above) and not a fault of the ride malfunctioning. This leads us to some interesting steps Alton Towers has made regarding The Smiler incident. Let’s outline them below.
1. The Entire Alton Towers Theme Park Was Closed For Five Days
Even though only one ride had a major issue, Merlin Entertainment, who owns Alton Towers, closed the entire park for five days while investigations were being done on The Smiler. In the theme park world, this is unheard of. Roller coaster accidents at other major theme parks have occurred, some ending in death, and that park didn’t even reduce their operating schedule.
There’s no question that greed was the motivating factor and, in reality, you don’t have to close the entire park. All ride systems were not at risk here, just one. You isolate the one ride and all employees involved and it’s very logical to assume that Alton Towers very well could have stayed open for business. However, Merlin Entertainment wanted to send a clear message that they were taking the incident seriously, and thus the park remained closed for days.
2. Merlin Entertainment Claimed “Full Responsibility”
Now this might seem like a no brainer. Of course, an act of nature didn’t cause this incident. Alton Towers bought the coaster from a manufacturer and hired their employees and naturally they are fully responsible, right? Sure, but this hardly ever happens. Take a few moments if you will, and search for statements other parks have made on incidents where riders were injured where they used the phrase “full responsibility,” it pretty much never happens. Why? That phrase means that in court, there is no wiggle room in paying the full amount due for someone’s injuries, pain and suffering. It’s a bold move and the right thing to do.
3. Alton Towers Admitted Operator Error
Immediately after this incident, accusations began to fly on if the safety systems on The Smiler had failed. Gerstlauer, the ride’s manufacturer, was put under intense scrutiny with some saying that the ride had problems prior to opening causing delays and this could have been prevented. Again, Alton Towers stepped up and admitted publicly that the manufacturer was not to blame here. Bravo.
Now we are left with what’s next. Alton Towers has announced the ride will not open again during the 2015 season and perhaps never again at all. Currently, ride operators are only given a certain access to operate the attractions in normal conditions and anything beyond that goes to ride technicians who get paid more to evaluate the situation. Could we now be looking at a situation where the industry develops software that stops even technicians from making decisions that could endanger riders? Could they have to go through monthly evaluations to make sure they understand the possible repercussions of their actions? Time will tell. Your thoughts?
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