Let’s Talk: Roller Coaster Incidents

This might seem like an odd thing for me to talk about today, seeing as I’ll be spending the next 3 days at theme parks; you could be forgiven for thinking that the last thing I’d want to write about is things that could potentially go wrong with rides. I thought it was appropriate to talk about this today, though, as the latest episode in the saga of what has become one of Britain’s worst and most talked-about roller coaster accidents of all time is occurring right now as I type this.

So in case you have no access to any kind of media at all, last year there was a horrific accident involving The Smiler at Alton Towers, in which a full train of passengers collided with an empty train. All 16 passengers were seriously injured, and two of the front row riders had to have their legs partially amputated as a result. The ride was closed for pretty much all of last year while investigations were carried out, and the incident received huge media coverage, with many in debate about whether the ride (which cost Alton Towers around £18 million and only opened in 2013) should ever reopen at all. Today, Merlin Entertainments, the owners of Alton Towers, are in court to receive a large fine over health and safety breaches that led to the accident, which hopefully will be the last we hear of this for a while.

What amazes me the most about this whole situation is that, despite the mass media coverage and the negative publicity and everything else, no one actually died. There have been a couple of other theme park incidents over the last couple of years that have led to deaths (Space Invader at Blackpool and Hydro at Oakwood are the ones that spring to mind), and yet these didn’t receive nearly as much media coverage as this one. Why is that?

I suppose the main reason is the status that Alton Towers has among the theme park industry. If you say ‘British theme park’ to someone, chances are they’ll think of Alton Towers – it’s our most visited and most well-known. The fact that the ride is new and experienced technical problems in the first few months after opening (not uncommon at all with a new ride) probably didn’t help either. But alongside that, the whole circumstances of the accident were pretty horrible; one of the girls who suffered the worst injuries had a promising dancing career ahead of her, and the fact that the incident itself has largely been put down to human error is probably the worst single factor in my opinion. Just to think that someone somewhere actually pressed a button and made this happen is pretty scary in my book…

But the whole point of this article is that, no matter how scary this is, the primary reason we hear so much about this incident and the associated fallout is because it really doesn’t happen very often. Theme park rides are designed to be double, triple, even quadruple safe, and therefore an accident is something shocking because under normal circumstances it really shouldn’t happen. Roller coasters, contrary to the belief of some, are not medieval torture devices – in fact according to one survey I once read you’re a million times more likely to die travelling TO a theme park than on any of the rides. Accidents like these shouldn’t happen, so naturally it’s worrying when they do, but what it does is motivates the entire industry to be ever more stringent with its safety procedures to eliminate the possibility of it happening again. I know Merlin and Alton Towers, as well as the industry as a whole, will have learned from this, and I think the chances of it ever happening again are virtually nonexistent from that standpoint.

As to the issue of rides’ removal, I believe I kind of explained my views on this in the previous paragraph. Let’s say I’d been involved in a roller coaster crash and was laying in hospital and someone said to me “What can we do for you to make this better?” My response would be “Fix the ride and put me back on it so I can do it properly this time.” As long as lessons are learned and the appropriate changes are made, the ride when it reopens will be even safer than it was before. I know for a fact the staff at Alton Towers all had extra training after this incident, while the Oakwood incident resulted in the trains on that ride receiving all-new restraints, despite the initial ones being perfectly adequate if employed properly (which in that instance they weren’t). Theme parks provide so much enjoyment for people, not to mention revenue and tourism for the local area, and their rides are too big of an investment to simply tear them down in my opinion. I’m glad that The Smiler lives on because it’s a really great ride. And I’m happy to say that I’ve ridden it twice this year and remained completely safe and unharmed both times. Which shouldn’t be any surprise to anyone.

Whatever the outcome of this court hearing today, the most important thing should be that Merlin have taken responsibility for what happened, implemented changes and will accept the fine they are given as punishment. And let’s all hope that it’s a long, long time before anything of this magnitude ever crosses the airwaves again.

See you around =] x x

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