Safety of London subway questioned in wake of fire

The most serious fire in the 124-year history of the London Underground has brought a public inquiry into the safety of Britain's most heavily used transportation system. The secretary of state for transport, Paul Channon, told Parliament yesterday he had ordered a formal investigation into the disaster which claimed the lives of at least 30 people and seriously injured 20 others.

The fire has shocked the public, and service on three of the city's main subway lines remained disrupted Thursday. The subway system carries more than three million passengers daily and on a per-capita basis is more heavily used than subway systems in the United States.

The tragedy occurred Wednesday night at central London's King's Cross station, the busiest stop on the London subway system (known as the ``tube''). The fire began in the crowded station in the early evening, just after peak rush hour.

The cause is not yet known, but officials at the scene said it could be traced to a machinery room beneath a bank of wooden elevators used to carry passengers from train platforms to an upper-level ticket hall.

In parliamentary discussion yesterday, Mr. Channon refused to speculate on the cause of the fire. He said the subway system overall had had ``an extremely good safety record'' and commended the police and firemen for their rescue effort. One fireman was killed. Channon said a full public investigation would be conducted, and that the results would be published.

Minor fires from various causes occur in the tube every year. Two years ago there was a fire involving wooden escalators, first installed in 1906, which brought warnings about their potential hazard.

Some observers say cuts in operating budgets have forced reductions in staff which, combined with an inadequate training program, have undermined subway safety. Train crashes have been relatively rare, and the last serious accident was in 1975.

Smoking on London subways was prohibited in 1985, though the ban is often violated. Channon said the King's Cross station had passed its annual safety inspection in April.

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