Some Thoughts on the Media and The Smiler

This post has been updated since the original posting due to the ruling in the Smiler case. I have changed the comments that it was "human error" and replaced it with the ruling that it was the park's owners, Merlin, who were at fault. 

Last summer the thing that keeps theme park owners awake at night happened at Alton Towers – a crash between two trains on your flagship rollercoaster. It was the worst incident to happen at a UK Theme Park in living memory. It was the talk of the rollercoaster community for months and months, and was rightly in the media a lot. The people who were affected were promptly dealt with by Alton Towers and have since been compensated, with the courts ruling that Merlin, the Alton Towers parent company, were at fault.  

For those of us who are "experienced" in rollercoaster design (in as much as I have read engineering documentation about safe operations in the past during one of my most detailed and thorough obsessions) it was obvious that one of two things had caused the incident on the Smiler – operator errors, caused by poor management of the operation of the ride by the owners,  or a serious operational malfunction with the control systems on the ride. Anyone who has played RollerCoaster Tycoon could have figured that out from the facts made available at the time and from reading several forums, many filled with posters far more experienced in the operation of the Smiler than I am, it is clear that something awful occurred that could have been avoided, and Alton Towers have taken full responsibility for the event.

The story should have ended after the results of the report and the ruling were made public. However, Alton Towers re-opened the Smiler this spring and continue to operate the other rides at their park.

Since the ride’s incident, a spotlight has been shone on the park and its operations, with the media enjoying the new-found bogey-man. The inherent risk seemingly involved in riding a rollercoaster plays into the fears of the public, and that fear is something theme parks court openly – consider the fact that Alton Towers played up their ride Th13teen with contracts saying you will not sue them for being scared on the ride, and this year’s Derren Brown’s Ghost Train is supposedly an experience like no other, built by a master of manipulation of the mind. It loves fear.

It can court these because people are scared of these rides, and they do bring out the adrenaline in us, and they are typically far safer than even the trains and cars we use to get to these theme parks, so when something comes up that actually suggests that they aren’t safe at all – it’s a perfect story for the media.

This annoys me a bit when things are printed and posted that are just blatant nonsense. I am in no way suggesting that those who were hurt from the Smiler accident don’t deserve to be compensated and empathised with, but what does confuse me is the reporting of stuff that is totally routine.

The reason the Smiler incident was so catastrophic was the over-ride on the safety systems deliberately put into place to protect the riders. The override, undertaken by the operators and allows d by the complacent safety culture, caused the accident. The systems to prevent that accident are fully comprehensive and cause what is known as “outages” on rides all the time. Rides will default to a safe state, and the safest place for a rider and the ride is on the lift hill or launch section.

In May of this year, Galatica (nee Air) had an outage during heavy rain. The ride stopped the train on the lift hill presumably due to a trip of the safety features of the ride. This was reported widely as “passengers were stuck in the air for thirty minutes” by the media, and I’m sure you’d panic if you were stuck on anything for thirty minutes. I struggle in traffic for thirty minutes! But the thing is there is a disingenuous thread running through the whole piece which implies folk on the ride were in danger. They weren’t at all.

One line is a blatant lie – “One eyewitness said that because of the design of the ride there was no platform underneath for passengers to exit onto”. This is not true. As it is a suspended rollercoaster, it doesn’t have the same railings at other rides do, but there is a platform for recovery of passengers from this position – in photos you can see the rails for this platform which can be used to evacuate riders from the ride.

This past week The Smiler was closed after people reported something fall from the ride. From reading forum posts, it appears it was a rubber running ring on the upstop wheels on the ride. The train was stopped, passengers evacuated, and the train removed from service. No one was hurt. The reporting was obviously quite outlandish and sensationalised because of what actually happened on the ride before, but the reality is that it was safe and fine and everyone was safe. 

The strangest thing about this past week is that whilst you can understand the media reporting that because it is news, seeing the BBC actually go and find a non-story is wildly disappointing. One of the victims of the smiler’s incident last year this week called for the ride to be closed indefinitely. It is her right to want this, and I’m sure many people who were affected by the ride in that way would also want the ride to be closed, but it is odd to have her say that it should be closed until it is sorted out – the HSE and Alton Towers wouldn’t reopen the ride if it wasn’t sorted out.

In the end, it is just the usual from the media – that stories shouldn’t get in the way of the truth (or the implied truth) that things are dangerous. It is a blow to critical thinking to see people read this and agree without stopping to think about the way in which things are reported and the reasons things are written a certain way.

And for full disclosure, I love rollercoasters, but I’ve not been on the Smiler. I have, however, been on two rollercoasters who have been stopped whilst an emergency stop has been pulled, and whilst they were unnerving, it reminded me of the way things are tested and engineered to be safe. That’s my mentality.