3 Things The Theme Park Industry Needs To Notice About Alton Towers Smiler Incident

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. 

Walt Disney World Monorail

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.

The Smiler Alton Towers

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. 

The Smiler Alton Towers

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. 

The Smiler Alton Towers

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 Smiler Alton Towers

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. 

The Smiler Alton Towers

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

Alton Towers

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”

The Smiler Crash

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

The Smiler Alton Towers

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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Images Copyright: Mousesteps, Martin Smith, The Daily Mail, Sky News

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  1. grumpyfan
    Posted September 1, 2015 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Sad tragedy this was, I agree with you that the Themed Entertainment industry needs to watch and learn from this. It did seem excessive them closing the entire park for 5 days, but given the seriousness of the accident, I think it was the right move. And, bravo to them for taking full responsibility and admitting the error. Sadly, I don’t think there are many other theme park chains who do the same, especially not those that are publicly traded, just too much business risk (greed).

    I think many of us (fans and industry) knew pretty quickly what the likely cause was. I have to think it’s just been a stroke of luck that it hasn’t happened already somewhere else. Any time a ride is put in to manual mode, putting the operator in complete control, the danger has always been there, and I’m sure the ride manufacturers have stressed this a lot when turning over rides after construction.

    So, the question then has to be asked, what else can be done to prevent an operator from making such a mistake again? More block controls, more sensors, etc? Sure, where possible, add more computer automation and control. But, on top of that, I think one of the first things that has to be done, and hopefully Merlin has implemented this, is that any time a ride malfunctions or is automatically stopped by the ride control system, it should be evacuated of all guests, and then re-started as if it were the beginning of the day. I know this is a drastic measure and will be unpopular with both guests and park owners as it makes for long lines and unhappy occupants, but IF safety really is a priority, then I think this HAS TO BE A HARD RULE that everyone in the industry adopts.

    • mark_h
      Posted September 3, 2015 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

      Evacuating a ride any time it e-stops would not be a good idea as it would be more dangerous than restarting the ride (in a controlled manner, following a strict safety protocol).

      There is a substantial risk of injury to riders as they climb onto the high level escape walkways and go down the tight staircases. In a lot of cases the riders would be stuck on the ride for longer waiting for the staff to get to them, if there are multiple trains on the ride each of them would need to be evacuated independently with staff assisting customers to the exit.

      • Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        Having been evacuated from attractions that were e-stopped, I thought about the safety aspect of it as well, and it’s a valid point. All attractions are built to allow for emergency evac, but the means to access them and the routes aren’t exactly the safest or easiest to maneuver. It’s almost as if the evacuation process is the last thing to be considered in the design of most attractions. I understand why, but I’m not sure after this if that’s an acceptable practice.

        I guess it comes down to a question of which is more dangerous, running in a strictly controlled maintenance mode or evacuating guests? I think each ride will probably have its own criteria for this answer. It may also be necessary on large attractions like Smiler or other large coasters where all the track cannot be seen from the control station, to not completely disable all sensors when in maintenance mode, so the operator would be informed if the ride control system detected a potential collision.

  2. Brad Bishop
    Posted September 2, 2015 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    The problem is: Operator Error.

    For whatever reason the maintenance guy didn’t check the track. He just sent another one through. At some point you have to have a manual override so that you can avoid a dead-lock situation where the software has shut everything down but someone else says, “Yeah, that’s not a problem.”

    Still, you could make an argument that the software could be improved to say, “I know where 4 of the 5 trains are. I think that the 5th is somewhere on this block. You go out to that block and push a button to acknowledge that you have looked at this block and it is clear.”

    Millenium Force at Cedar Park (Ohio) has something like this, but not for this exact situation. It has a series of buttons that the maintenance guys have to press along the lift hill (300ft up) to acknowledge that, “Yes, they were definitely there and checked what needed to be checked.” So it eliminates cheating. If they don’t go push that last button then the ride doesn’t operate.

    None of that stops the guy who just pushes the button (“Everything’s fine.. It always is..”), though, acknowledging things are OK when they aren’t.

    • Posted September 2, 2015 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Brad, I get what you’re saying. Essentially, they would function like “circuit breakers”, and they would only be able to be reset in the area of the track where the issue occurred, not from the main console. I like this idea!

  3. fan51
    Posted September 2, 2015 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Obviously, more fail safes must be added. Stupid operator incompetence. I always found it ridiculous that an operator can override safety mechanisms without having a system that’s designed to review the incident and put the ride back on track. Therefore, no overrides should be necessary. Only safety procedures are put in place.

    • Posted September 2, 2015 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      I think overrides are a necessity for the maintenance crew to test and reset the ride as needed. However, I think all of the manufacturers would probably warn park operators not to run a ride with guests on it when it’s in “maintenance” mode, as the safety protocols are disabled.

      • fan51
        Posted September 2, 2015 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        This is worse. While in maintenance mode, no one should be on the ride. Once maintenance has signed off on an attraction, it should always be run with all safety mechanisms in place. Your reply is so passive. Certainly, warn them to never do it again.

        • Posted September 2, 2015 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

          You misunderstood me. I completely agree with what you’re saying that no ride should EVER be run in maintenance mode with guests on board. However, much like the manufacturer of your car would warn you not to operate without the safety belt, they have no control or means of enforcing this. A “warning” does nothing to prevent someone from doing it again. State and local agencies might be able to enforce this as a rule, but really this is a standard that the amusement industry needs to adopt.

  4. Brad Bishop
    Posted September 2, 2015 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Something else to consider:

    Unless the maintenance guy in question was exceptionally lazy, it’s probably more fatigue at play.

    If you have a ride that has an odd bad connection or sensor and it keeps tripping and bringing the ride down and, by the time you get there, you can’t find the particular sensor or connection but it seems to be OK then, after enough times with it, you’re likely to put it in maintenance mode, test, and restart just to get by the stupid error/bad sensor/etc.

    That is more than likely what happened unless the maintenance guy was just a dolt. It’s what nearly anyone would do. “Yeah, this trips all the time. The ride is fine…”

    • fan51
      Posted September 2, 2015 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      A bad connection or sensor is a worse reason to override. It will certainly put guests at greater danger. Either fix it or shut it down.

      • Brad Bishop
        Posted September 2, 2015 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        I’m not really arguing against that.

        I’m saying that I’ve seen rides where they just continue shutting themselves down due to an overactive safety system and, with that, you get fatigue.

        A proper system should really stop when there’s a problem and not be so cautious that it makes everything a problem.

        • Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:33 am | Permalink

          Can you really say that these are “overactive safety systems”? I mean, they’re designed to prevent accidents and protect the guests. So, if the ride system is triggering an e-stop, it’s because it detected an unsafe condition or at least an unknown condition. Sure, sometimes on new attractions, these happen a lot, but that’s due to break-in and adjustment of the ride control system. But, once it’s past this phase, it’s usually smooth sailing, and any time an issue occurs, it’s due to a detected fault. Also, most ride control systems are programmed to continue to operate within set tolerance levels, plus some have redundant sensors so they’re monitoring for failure on more than one condition. Again though, if an issue is triggered, it means something is wrong that needs to be looked at. It’s not like your car with the check engine light, where you can continue to run.

          You’re right though, operator fatigue is a real thing, and I suspect it played a part in this accident. It was reported that the ride had a few e-stops that day and had to be re-started. I suspect that the others before were determined to be false or minor issues, and easily cleared, and when the last one occurred, the maintenance crew wrongly assumed it was the same issue, and did a reset without following all of their safety checks. The problem that occurs with these kind of issues though, is management pressures the crew to get it working as quickly as possible so they can avoid angry guests and loss of money. Unfortunately, this can weigh on the maintenance crew to cut corners, find workarounds or operate in a way that circumvents the safety controls until it can be fixed. I’m not saying these guys did that, but I have seen it happen in other industries.

  5. mark_h
    Posted September 3, 2015 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Merlin closed some coasters at their other UK parks after the Smiler incident. The ones they closed were the ones running multiple cars (>2). They reopened after staff retraining with Saw (Thorpe Park), from the same manufacturer, being the last to reopen.


    The claim of full responsibility made things a bit easier for the victims it allowed them to get support more easily and avoided them entering into lengthy legal proceedings (the UK is a lot less sue happy than the US).

  6. Posted November 24, 2015 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Announced today that it WAS entirely Human Error.

    “The investigation concluded that the incident was the result of human error culminating in the manual override of the ride safety control system without the appropriate protocols being followed.
    The investigation also identified areas where protocols and the training of employees should be improved.
    There were found to be no technical or mechanical problems with the ride itself.”


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