Photo from the Official UK Report on the Virgin Train Derailment, February 2007

Make Train Safety A Prerequisite

One evening in February, 2007, a train with 105 passengers traveling from London to Glasgow derailed. The train, owned and operated by Sir Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Trains, was traveling at the authorized speed of 95 MPH when a faulty track switch caused it to jackknife and careen into a ditch. While many fatalities were expected, only one person died, an elderly woman who’d passed away from heart failure hours later in the hospital. Twenty-eight passengers and two (of the four) crew members were seriously injured. When Richard Branson arrived at the crash, only 11 remained in the hospital, none of whom had life-threatening injuries. The most seriously injured person was the train’s driver, who had a broken neck. A doctor who evaluated him said he would recover.

Some called the crash a ‘miracle’ because so few people died or were seriously injured. Yet it was no miracle. When Virgin Trains was first conceived, Branson and his team insisted on investing in every possible safety innovation. They wanted all passengers on a Virgin train to be able to walk away from a crash — even if the train was traveling at full speed. As a result, Virgin Trains were designed with numerous safety innovations. Unusually strong one-piece aluminum structures were used for each carriage to prevent loss of survival space in the event of a crash. Interior lighting was made to stay on after an accident by using designated batteries, so people inside would be able to see after a crash. Couplers (linkages between carriages) were designed so that carriages would not ride up on top of each other, thereby hurting or killing passengers under them. Laminated carriage windows were created to prevent flying shards of glass from killing or injuring people. Branson said “The train is built like a tank. They perform beautifully and it has a system where we can check every part of it by computer.”

From studying train accidents, Branson and Virgin Trains knew that clear, coherent communication from train officials to the families and friends of passengers was often lacking after an accident. Branson and his team wanted to have an open, quick and honest communication style in the event of an accident. So when Branson heard about the accident, he immediately traveled from Switzerland to the crash site in England. Once there, he was able to meet with passengers, survey the damage and make a responsible, sensitive statement. He also met with the family of the woman who had died in the hospital.

A UK Rail Accident Investigation Board report on the accident identified twenty-nine safety recommendations, almost all of which were directed at the company that maintained the train tracks. Referring to the Virgin train, the report said, “While objective comparisons cannot be made because of the different trains, speeds and forces involved, overall, the crashworthiness performance of the [Virgin Train] avoided, almost completely, a number of hazards. These include multiple ejections through windows, loss of survival space and penetration of the passenger compartment by external structures, all of which have been known to cause fatal and serious injuries in the recent past.” In fact, no windows were broken and the carriages did not crumple as a result of the impact. Branson said, “I think if it had been any other type of train the injuries and mortalities would have been horrendous.”

If you want the trust of your customers and a long-lived brand, Make Safety A Prerequisite in the design of your products and services.