Southern Rail and the psychology of crowd safety

By John Drury.

I was asked today to appear on BBC Radio to comment on a report from the Association of British Commuters which described the recent experiences of passengers on Southern Rail trains and platforms. These testimonies painted a picture of stress, anxiety and fear for many passengers. The passengers’ concerns seemed understandable. People did not feel safe on the trains and platforms.

Based on the research on the psychology of crowd safety, two factors that are important in enhancing or diminishing the sense of safety that people feel in a crowd: density and relationships of trust.

On density, we know that density of five people per square metre (5ppm2) and above is objectively dangerous. Any push in a crowd of this density can cause a shock wave and a fatal crush. And dense crowds have very poor front-to-back communication, meaning that those at the back of a crowd have no idea how dense and dangerous it is at the front. So those at the back of a densely-packed platform could accidentally push those at the front onto the rail without realising.

Yet our research has shown that, in many crowds of far greater density than 5ppm2, people report feeling safe. This is what we found in our study of pilgrims’ experiences in the Grand Mosque, Mecca, during Hajj. So what is the other factor that matters, that might be responsible for the feelings of anxiety and fear among Southern Rail passengers?

The other factor is a relationship of trust – specifically between the crowd and those managing the crowd, as our research on other kinds of stressful crowd events has shown. Commuters on trains rely on the company managing the trains and the stations. They rely on them:

  • To manage the numbers. When this isn’t done it undermines trust and confidence.
  • To have sufficient personnel available. This is one of the problems highlighted by the Association of British Commuters (ABC) report.
  • To ensure the personnel are sufficiently trained. One passenger comment in the ABC report is this: ‘on strike days, … more concern for me is that there never seem to be any safety-qualified staff either on the stations or on the trains’
  • To communicate reliably and regularly

If the company cannot be relied upon to do these things, the result is quite understandable passenger fear and anxiety.

Finally, the BBC asked me about the dangerous behaviour by some passengers. Crowds of people made ‘mad dashes’ across platforms to get to trains, sometimes risking their own and others’ safety. And there were repeated reports of fighting.

Anxiety and fear alone cannot account for these responses. When we looked at the behavioural responses of those commuters caught up in the London bombings of July 7th 2005, we found fear but we found almost none of these ‘antisocial’ responses. In both cases (bombing and Southern Rail today) there was ‘scarcity’ – either of safe passage or of trains running. But only in the case of Southern Rail today are these passengers put in the position of being individuals competing against other individuals. With a scarcity of trains, people defined as ‘customers’ compete, like people fighting over bargains in a sale. And with no reliable information from the companies, it is not surprising that people treat the next train as perhaps their last chance of getting home. Based on what we know about how common fate changes the boundaries of concern for people faced with disaster, perhaps the solution is collective identity and action as passengers (not ‘customers’) to change the current situation for the common good.

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