Alton Towers Resort has been under intense scrutiny over the past few weeks, with a wide range of media outlets reporting on various ‘further incidents’ which have occurred since the events of Tuesday 2nd June. With such a diverse range of coverage it can sometimes be difficult to determine exactly what is fact and what is over-exaggeration. TowersTimes examines recent coverage and looks to dispel some of the myths.
With 8.5 million visitors across Merlin’s UK theme parks in 2014, which equates to thousands of rides on attractions every hour, it comes as no surprise that guest safety is of paramount importance, ensuring that all visitors have a safe and fun day out. Theme parks, and the attractions within them, represent one of the safest leisure activities of all, with all attractions within parks subject to rigorous safety and maintenance checks. With the decision to close other rides at Thorpe Park Resort and Chessington World of Adventures Resort, the media questioned just how safe any ride was at Merlin’s attractions. Throughout the manufacturing and construction process, attractions undergo extensive testing procedures of all hardware and software associated with the ride – typically each train on a rollercoaster will be required to complete a minimum number of hours of testing before being signed off for public operation. Before being allowed to operate for the first time, each attraction has to be inspected and cleared by the Amusement Device Inspection Procedures Scheme (ADIPS), and is also checked periodically throughout their working life to ensure its continued safe operation. Every park also has strict maintenance procedures to follow with trains being serviced in the maintenance area each day and all operational trains will be thoroughly checked and signed off before being allowed to operate on the ride. The maintenance team will check everything from the smallest bolt, to the wheels and main body of the train to ensure there is nothing which would prevent the safe operation of the ride. Once the ride is in operation the majority of the procedures are automatic, with complex systems monitoring every element which are designed to ‘fail safe’ if they detect something is wrong. The rides which were closed at Merlin’s other parks – Dragon’s Fury and Rattlesnake at Chessington World of Adventures Resort due to them being multi train rides, and SAW – The Ride at Thorpe Park Reosrt due to it being the same manufacturer as The Smiler – were done so as a precaution, not because they’re not safe to ride.
Since the theme park re-opened on Monday 8th June, there have been numerous reports of some of the park’s rides being down for short periods of time, including a report of Th13teen being out of operations due to ‘technical difficulties’, Octonauts Rollercoaster Adventure being evacuated due to a young guest being in distress, and Air and the Runaway Mine Train being closed, again for technical reasons. However, if you delve deeper into the reasons behind these ‘closures’, you would find that they are typically for rather innocuous reasons. As most regular visitors to parks know, a ride can be stopped for any one of a number of things. These include: The addition or removal of a train to the circuit based on the required capacity at the time, or a problem being detected with a train; a guest dropping an item of personal property; someone entering the ride area; a guest vomiting resulting in cleaning of the ride being required; poor weather; a guest attempting to use a phone or camera; or, as happened in the case of Octonauts, a guest may become distressed and need to be removed from the ride. In this latter case it would appear that the resort could not have made the right decision either way – leave the guest on and they would be criticised for ignoring someone in distress. Stop the ride and take them off and they are criticised for having to close a ride for a short time to facilitate the evacuation. Regardless of the explanations for these short stoppages of the rides, these shuts downs are usually a good thing as it means that they are not running it in a dangerous condition.
But what of the coverage of The Smiler itself? One of the key elements that has been mis-represented within the media coverage of the incident is exactly where the train carrying the 16 guests stopped prior to the collision with the empty train. Many reports state that the train was stopped at the top of an inversion before being released into the batwing element of the ride. BBC News even created an animation which suggested that the wheels of the train had brakes which held the train on the inversion. Quite simply it is almost impossible for a train to stop at the height of an inversion due to how the ride is designed. All rollercoasters utilise gravity to help them build the momentum required to complete their circuit, once a train has left the lift hill there is no way to stop it until it reaches the block brakes located either at the end of a section (in the case of The Smiler this would be prior to the vertical lift hill), or the end of the ride. There are no brakes on the train itself meaning all braking is down via the systems installed on the dedicated braking areas on the track. The location the train carrying the 16 guests would have been stopped at the top of the first lift hill, with some people suggesting it was held there for up to 10 minutes. Recently one of the guests who was on the front row of the crashed train spoke out saying that when they were boarding the train they were asked to disembark twice due to ‘technical difficulties’ and to allow test trains to be sent. This is something that is not unusual on a ride – the system will have detected an error that would have required the ride operator to complete test runs with unmanned cars, once those cars have completed the circuit normal operations would have recommenced. Clearly in this instance something went wrong resulting in the dreadful events that occurred, however, until the HSE investigation is complete it is impossible to say exactly what this was.
Much has also been made of The Smiler’s history, with several places highlighting some of the previous difficulties the ride has experienced since opening in 2013. One of the first difficulties the ride experienced was on its media launch where a train full of guests was stopped on the first lift hill and had to be evacuated from the ride. Whilst this was of course unfortunate, it was actually a sign that the ride systems were working as they should – they had detected something wasn’t quite right and therefore stopped the ride preventing anything from happening. The attraction has suffered a number of periods of downtime and errors, causing frustration for many guests who visited when the ride was experiencing issues. However, with The Smiler utilising new technology it is not uncommon for this technology to experience teething issues – indeed, Air when it opened in 2002 suffered numerous periods of downtime, simply because the technology was new and there were teething issues which required resolving. Perhaps two of the most serious incidents the ride has experienced occurred in its first season with a bolt falling from a section of track between the first inverted loop and first dive loop in July 2013, and in October of 2013 a number of lift hill chain guide wheels came away from the vertical lift hill falling on guests ascending the hill in a train at the time. Both incidents led to the ride being closed for a number of days with the ride only being allowed to re-open after stringent safety checks had been carried out and it was signed off as safe to operate. There has also been the questioning of previous stalls the ride has experienced. There have been three known stalls on the ride – on each occasion the stall was caused by a combination of factors including the wheel assemblies being over-tight causing increased friction therefore reducing the speed of the train, and empty trains being sent before the wheel compounds have been properly warmed up meaning the train was unable to gather enough momentum to complete the inversion. As a result of these previous stalls, trains which haven’t been warmed up are sent around the circuit with water dummies to ensure they are heavy enough to gather enough momentum. It is unclear exactly what caused the empty train to stall on 2nd June.
The way Alton Towers Resort and Merlin Entertainments have handled the inevitable influx of media and customer questions relating to the incident has to be praised. Merlin Entertainments immediately accepted full responsibility for what happened with Merlin Entertainments CEO, Nick Varney, saying the victims “will want for nothing” and this certainly seems to have been followed through with interim payments already being made to those involved. Credit has to be given to Nick Varney for his very personal approach to the handling of the situation, throughout he has been prepared to stand in front of the news cameras and answer any questions thrown at him. It would seem that this approach has won him the support of the public with over 50, 000 people signing a petition for the sacking of Kay Burley after what was perceived as an extremely aggressive interview in the days following the incident. Throughout the park closure, Alton Towers Resort staff and social media offered excellent service offering those with pre-booked tickets refunds of re-validation for another day, or being allowed to use them at one of Merlin Entertainments’ other theme parks. Those who had hotel stays booked were allowed to either re-book them, or receive a refund and those who decided to continue with their stay were given complimentary access to the Resort’s secondary attractions – the Resort simply went above and beyond to make sure all customers were happy regardless of what they decided to do. Even once the theme park re-opened the Resort continued to offer more than they had to – with the X-Sector initially being closed due to the ongoing HSE investigation, Alton Towers handed out free return tickets until the area re-opened the following Monday.
TowersTimes would like to wish those affected by the incident all the best with their ongoing recovery. We’ll continue to bring you all the latest developments surrounding this and other news across the Resort.
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