They are the International Rescue of the Underground network. From derailed trains to cats running wild, TfL's Emergency Response Unit (ERU) are on the scene to put things right. They get trains up and running again, reunite owners with wayward pets and save lives.
"We cover the whole of London Underground, Docklands Light Railway, Croydon trams, Rail for London, London in the east, the East London line," ERU duty manager, Gary Burnham tells me, as we tour the ERU depot in Acton. Here, disused District line trains are derailed over and over, as his team practises getting them back on the rails swiftly and safely, using jacks or airbags.
How often does a tube train derail?
The ERU consist of 120 operation staff strategically placed in Acton, Stratford, Camden and Battersea. Two fire engine-like vehicles in each location are loaded with jacks, stretchers, chain saws, disc saws, torches, airbags and every other conceivable thing you might need out in the field. Packing — irregularly-shaped pieces of hardwood — are one of the most important pieces of equipment. Without them, it'd be near-impossible to re-rail a train. There's £2k worth of it in each truck.
You might wonder how often a tube train actually derails. More commonly than you might think, although the majority of incidents at low speeds, usually at depots, where lots of track switching is involved. That said, in early 2020, an Overground train derailed between Gospel Oak to Barking, chewing up 4km of track.
Stalled trains are more common. "It is a regular thing and it could be for lots of different reasons," says Burnham, "A train can be 'gapped' — they sometimes need to coast from one current to the next. If it's not going to the right speed, it doesn't get there." In this scenario, the ERU essentially use a set of oversized jump leads to get the train moving again. They can do it in as little as 25 minutes.
"We rescued a cat the other day... it must have had about 100 trains go over it"
The trucks wait in the depot, primed to roll out at any time of the day or night. One has blue light capability — implemented for fires on the track, people under trains (PUTs) and major incidents like 7/7, which the ERU attended. "Before 7/7 happened, nobody really knew we existed," says Burnham.
What's the most common cause of call-out then? "We do a lot of fence repairs to be fair," says Burnham, "We get the little Herberts who cut fences to get in to spray trains up.
"Christmas is always a favourite. They think no one will be about."
Animals might also the reason that your train is delayed or cancelled. "We get quite a lot of dead animals," says Burnham, "It's predominantly foxes or dogs, but out Amersham way you might get a few other things like deers. And you get that out on the east end of the Central line.
"A couple of times we've rescued badgers, and they've gone and been treated and survived. We've done the same with dogs. We rescued a cat the other day that had run down the tunnel. It was scared witless, must have had about 100 trains go over it.
"People love a good luck story involving an animal."
"The person might look like somebody you know"
We have a go at crawling under a tube train, and can still feel the bruises on our stomach days later, as we write this. These are old District line stock too, which have more manoeuvring room than, say, the newer S-Stock. In a real-life scenario you could also be in the confines of a tight tunnel — it makes you claustrophobic just thinking about it. Ironically, Burnham says he prefers working under the 1973 Piccadilly line stock, due to be phased out soon.
All this makes you think again about whining over a suspended train. What does Burnham say to commuters tutting on the platform? "What people don't always understand is that there is a team there busting a gut trying to get this sorted."
The ERU carry out exercises beneath trains, not just for stalling and derailments, but also person under a train (PUT) incidents. Team members crawl under a former Victoria line train, in an exercise where they load a weighted mannequin onto a stretcher, and slide it out from under the carriage.
Often they are the first people on scene, and as well as attending to casualties, they give support to drivers who've just witnessed a casualty on the tracks.
The ERU team attended 2016's Croydon tram incident, in which seven people died and 62 were injured, getting trapped casualties out, and removing bodies, before righting the tram. The ERU work hand in hand with Air Ambulance, London Fire Brigade and HART — the Hazardous Area Response Team, paramedics trained to work in particularly difficult situations.
"Something will stick in your mind because of what you were doing, where it was... the person might look like somebody you know," says Burnham, "Or you might get to know the story behind it. Because you do find out. Sometimes you don't probably want to, but sometimes it just happens because there might be family or whatever in attendance when you get there."
The team always has a debrief after a call-out, "But in them sort of instances," says Burnham, "they're more poignant. I will chat to the guys after a PUT to make sure everybody's feeling OK, and then I'll go and get them a few cans of pop from the shop or something."
The sense of camaraderie here is overwhelming; despite having a job that's tough physically and emotionally, everyone at the ERU is exceptionally jovial and open. "I've gone on holiday with guys from my shift, weddings, that kind of thing," says Burnham, "We're a close-knit bunch.
"We say we're not going to talk about work. But you always do, don't you. But it's a good way of getting it out, you know."