Kings Cross fire 30th anniversary: The legacy of a watershed tragedy on the London Underground

Avatar photo


Author Bio ▼

Adam Bannister is a contributor to IFSEC Global, having been in the role of Editor from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam also had stints as a journalist at cybersecurity publication, The Daily Swig, and as Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
November 16, 2017

Sign up to free email newsletters


The Video Surveillance Report 2022

(Photo: Christopher Newberry under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Warnings from the fire sector about myriad fire safety failings are only now being heeded following the loss of 71 lives in the Grenfell blaze in June.

It was ever thus. Great leaps forward in fire safety only ever seem to happen following mass-casualty events, as the 30th anniversary of the Kings Cross fire reminds us.

On 18 November 1987, shortly after rush hour at around 7.15pm, a fire broke out in Kings Cross St Pancras station, one of London’s busiest interchanges.

It had happened countless times before in Underground stations but this time was different: a flashover sent the flames up the escalator and down a tunnel into the booking hall. Thirty one people died and 100 were injured.

That the fire broke out at all and the appalling immediate response were damning indictments not just of London Underground management but the government’s approach to public safety.

Chaired by Desmond Fennell QC the subsequent inquiry into the disaster sifted through 80,000 documents, 100 other reports and 15 videos across 91 days.

Fennell, who condemned the Underground management team as “blinkered and dangerously self-sufficient”, made 157 recommendations.

Only a quarter were implemented – some many years later – but they did bring about meaningful improvements to passenger safety. No one has died in a fire on the Underground since.

Many of the changes were mandated two years later in the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989.


Banning smoking cost almost nothing, could be implemented almost immediately and addressed the cause of the Kings Cross fire – it was the most obvious first step to take. Just five days after the blaze, smoking was banned on all London Underground stations, including on the escalators.

A ban had been introduced three years earlier when fire broke out in Oxford Circus station, but it was poorly enforced and only applied to train carriages and platforms.

The fire in Kings Cross was caused when a lit match was dropped through the slats of an ascending wooden escalator. Below the escalator a four-decade build-up of grease nourished the flames, just as a mountain of rubbish below Bradford City FC’s stand had done two years earlier.

Wooden escalators

It was clear that wooden escalators had to go. That said, wooden escalators were still operational at Wanstead station until 2003, Marylebone until 2004 and Greenford until 2014.

Notifying emergency services

Staff saw their overriding priority as keeping the station running and maintaining an orderly flow of passengers. So when a guard was alerted to a bright glow beneath the Piccadilly Line’s up escalator at precisely 7.30pm, he didn’t report the fire immediately.

After all, why alarm commuters when there had been 400 ‘smoulderings’ – as such fires were complacently dubbed – without fatalities since 1956.

But the past is not always the best guide to the future and the first few minutes after a fire begins are crucial.

Section 5 – ‘Means for fighting fire’ – of the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989 sought to banish this wait-and-see approach:

“When any member of staff reasonably suspects that there is an outbreak of fire in the premises, immediate steps must be taken to activate the warning system referred to in regulation 6(3) and call for the assistance of the fire and rescue authority.”

Public address system and evacuation

Fire appliances were finally summoned on 18 November 1987 once the Piccadilly escalator caught fire.

However, the prospect of an orderly evacuation was undermined by the fact that the public address system wasn’t working. Without official direction, alarmed passengers were still using the Victoria up-bound escalator just a few feet away from the fire.

In Section 6 of the 1989 regulations – ‘Means for detecting fire and giving warning in case of fire’ – a clause stipulated:

“The station premises must be provided with a public address system for use by or on behalf of the occupier of the premises to give warning of fire to members of the public in the premises and advise them of the action to be taken in case of fire.”

Sprinklers and heat detectors

Kings Cross was equipped with sprinklers. Only one problem: on-duty staff hadn’t been trained to use them. It was the responsibility of another department, which reflected the silo-based structure that characterised transport authorities at the time.

The opportunity to suppress or extinguish the fire was missed and a flashover sent fire side to side up the escalator, then rapidly down a tunnel and into the main booking hall at an estimated speed of 40 feet a second and temperature of 600C.

Sprinklers and heat detectors were subsequently fitted underneath escalators and training in how to use them extended to relevant staff.

Staff training and evacuation

There were no emergency procedures, no practice evacuations were conducted and fire safety training was almost non-existent in Kings Cross before the fire.

Section 9 of the new regulations therefore stipulated that:

“Every member of staff must be given basic instruction as soon as reasonably practicable after beginning work in station premises […] A fire drill must be held for members of staff not less than once in every period of six months for the purpose of providing them with training in the action to be taken in case of fire in the premises. […] Each fire drill in station premises must be held at a time when members of the public have access to the premises.”

Emergency services radio communication

Fennell noted the absence of landline phones on the Underground and expressed concern that police walkie-talkies did not work effectively in its subterranean stations.

The emergency services were under fire for the very same deficiency following the 7/7 bombings, so little had been achieved on that score 20 years later.

Passenger flow

Rail stations pose unique safety challenges because of both the sheer volume of passengers and the need to accommodate a brisk flow of people in and out of the station.

Up to a quarter of a million visitors or commuters passed through King’s Cross daily in 1987. It’s easy to imagine how fire safety took a back seat given the pressure to keep passengers moving and services running, especially when fire safety was someone else’s concern for everyone apart from one individual.

The lessons of King Cross, as well as of Hillsborough, have helped shape the science of crowd management and optimising architecture for the safe flow of large numbers of people.

The Fennell Report urged The London Underground  to investigate “passenger flow and congestion in stations and take remedial action”.

Parliamentary bills were subsequently passed to permit London Underground to improve and expand the busiest and most congested stations, such as London Bridge, Tottenham Court Road, Holborn and King’s Cross St Pancras.

2023 Fire Safety eBook – Grab your free copy!

Download the Fire Safety in 2023 eBook, keeping you up to date with the biggest news and prosecution stories from around the industry. Chapters include important updates such as the Fire Safety (England) Regulations 2022 and an overview of the new British Standard for the digital management of fire safety information.

Plus, we explore the growing risks of lithium-ion battery fires and hear from experts in disability evacuation and social housing.


Related Topics

Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

[…] is, of course, referring to the dreadful fire that broke out at London’s King’s Cross underground station in 1987, which resulted in 31 deaths and 157 recommendations following a public inquiry by Sir […]