I’m an ex Alton Towers Resort / Merlin Entertainments employee, not to jump on the bandwagon, who's worked on The Smiler since pretty much day one. With that I’ve experienced my fair share with that ride and I want to lay out my opinion of what happened on Tuesday June 2nd;
Firstly, the trains hold no brakes, all braking is done on the track as it is with every modern rollercoaster, this prevents them from “being stuck upside down” as many a guest would ask on a regular bases. The trains hold a few force registering sensors that talk to the rides computer when it comes back into the station. The only real contact the computer has with the trains is in the station where harnesses are locked and checked however throughout the track there are proximity sensors that communicate with the rides computer, these sensors are dotted around the ride and and give the Operator a rough position of where each train is. (As far as I'm aware, there are no proximity sensors on the Batwing part of the ride however don't quote me on that).
Secondly, a block section is a section of track where a train should be able to successfully start and successfully stop, failing this the rides computer, with data from the proximity sensors, should flag up an error on the Operators panel. This error should, under no circumstances be able to be overridden.
Thirdly, when ANY ride at Alton Towers Resort brakes down or suffers from technical difficulties a member of the technical services team will be present alongside the Operator because the Operators aren't taught how fix these massive machines. Whether its just turn a key and press reset a member of the Technical Services team will be there, and depending how big the fault a member of the Park Operations management team as well. That’s usually why it takes so long during technical hiccups.
Going off assumption, and I stress that massively, the position of the trains before the incident may have been as follows;
-Train 1 stalled in the batwing section of the ride
-Train 2 held at the top of Lift 1 because the computer has realised Train 1 has stalled and called an E-Stop on the ride
-Train 3 would have guests on it in the station
-Train 4 would have been postponed just behind Train 3, in waiting position 2
-Train 5 would have been behind Train 4 on the transfer track.
In the Operators cabin there are two massive 37” TV screens holding around 12 cameras each, including parts of the rides building like baggage but also certain sections of the ride itself, for example Lift 1 has two cameras pointing at it and there are also cameras pointing at other key braking sections. However the Batwing loop doesn't have its own independent camera, but you can see it out of the corner of a few other cameras on the screens.
So down to what might have actually happened; The Smiler goes down with a technical difficulty with Train 1, Tech Services are called to the ride, register and clear the fault on the panel and tell the Operator to send Train 1 empty in “Code Zero”. Code Zero basically means that the Operator has full control over every brake section on the ride, sometimes the ride requires it to be in Code Zero to send a faulty train from the station or from any brake or Lift section of the ride. The Operator does so under instruction from Tech Services. Now because it was so late in the day Train 1 should have successfully, but slowly made it round the block section between Lift 1 and Brake 3 as the trains wheels would be warm enough and cause less friction than when they're cold.
The only way Train 1 would have stalled where it did is either a gust of wind was blowing and caused to stall, or the ride was Emergency Stopped. When the ride is emergency stopped every brake flies up and stops every train when they reach these brake sections, however The Smiler has two air time hills on it, both occupied by Trim Brakes which control the speed of the trains as they go around each block sections. When an E-Stop is pressed on The Smiler every brake flies up and locks, including these Trim Brakes, if every trim brake flies up then Train 1, whether it was full of guests or not would have stalled in the Batwing section.
Whether it was the wind or a ride fault that caused the trim brakes to react that way the rides computer would have flagged up another error which would have then again be cleared and registered by Tech Services, at this point Management should have been called to the ride to organise an area and ride evacuation. Keep in mind that there are reports that this stalled train stayed halted in that section of track for more than five minuets, a member of staff should have noticed and altered the Operator.
This means that in the Operators cabin there would be at least 2 people, depending if management were called, 3 people. At this point the Operator is doing things that Tech Services and potentially management have approved, because the ride was in Code Zero, it means the computer thinks that someone who knows what they're doing is now operating the ride, which in this case would have been the rides Operator under Tech Services instruction, in this mode all the brake and lift sections can be controlled individually, meaning Lift 1, where Train 2 halted could have and was jogged to clear and in result crashed into Train 1.
Failing that, because every brake and lift section of the ride can be controlled individually this may also mean that the Operator or Tech Services selected the wrong area to clear. The Operator has realised Train 1 has stalled and called for an evacuation, hence why Train 2 was at the top of Lift 1 for 5-10 mins. The Operator has been told to evacuate the area by management and has been told to get the 4 other trains as close to the station as possible, this means Lift 1 should have had its reverse mode initiated and instead of going forwards, rolled backwards (which it can do) to the bottom of the lift hill where an easy evacuation could have taken place instead of on the precipice of the lift hill.
From all that I’ve discussed in this, you can draw two conclusions with two faults;
-Human Error: The Operator was told to send Train 2 over Lift 1
-Ride Error: The computer should have stepped in, even in Code Zero and alerted the Operator and Tech Services about Train 1
-Human Error: The Operator has intended to reverse Train 2 down Lift 1 and made a mistake in that process
-Ride Error: The computer should have stepped in and refused the request to send Train 2 forwards.
In summary, if we had to point blame, I’d blame the rides manufacture, Gerstlauer, for implementing a manual mode (Code Zero) system that can seemingly bypass the safety system, it may just be a bug in the code but its something that should've been prevented and the ride should've stopped it from happening. It was probably a simple mistake, like the direction go Lift 1, its just a shame the ride didn't step in and stop it.
Either way we wont know what really happened until the investigation is complete, and even then we won’t know the real deal, the only people who will know what happened that way will be the Operator and whoever else was in that cabin with them.
Just one more thing to add, Alton Towers Resort and Merlin Entertainments do some of the best ride training in the industry, we know every procedure off by hand, the rides team would have done all they could to initiate and evacuation and alert Park Control of the incident but when you've only got a minimum of 13 staff and probably nearing 3,000 guests in that area it can be a challenge and I'm sure the team did well.
Sorry for such a long post by the way, however I hope its shed some light onto what could've happened. Also this will be the only post I complete on this forum because of my relationship with Alton Towers Resort.
Very informative post... Thanks
Pretty much as we all thought then... This "Code Zero" mode is basically the "maintenance mode" we've been talking about, that allows the ops /techs to override the safety systems and control the ride manually.
The picture posted earlier also shows all of the elements you listed, and their positions, including the blocks, and the trim brakes before the batwing and cobra.
My early thoughts regarding the initial stall were the wind and weather conditions. But I'm now wondering, after your post, if it's more likely the trim brakes were applied at the same time as the full train 2 was stopped at the top of the hill... this would essentially mean that the train on the hill actually stopped a few seconds before the stalled train 1, and would at least explain why the focus was mainly on the full train.
Also, can you answer me this? If the trim brakes were applied at the same time as the train stopped on the hill, due to a problem detected, would the system not assume that the stalled train had stopped at the trim brakes? Because you've already said there are no sensors in the batwing to tell the op it had continued over that element. Would it still show a warning on that particular train if the system had assumed it had stopped at the trim brakes??? I would hope so, as that section would still be classed as occupied, right?
Can trim brakes even apply enough pressure to stop a train? If not, what is the sense in them kicking in on an e-brake? Would it not be safer to let the train continue to the next block brake?
Is it possible that with the above theory / questions, plus your astonishing information that there are no cameras that give a direct view of the batwing, and the full train stopping at the top of the hill first, the op was focused on the train on the hill only, and had very little warning as to this error in judgement?
So many questions that simply will not be answered until the report comes out. However, I don't think it is wrong to theorise, as long as everyone understands that they are just that, theories.
Regarding the member of public trying to warn the staff, reading the article it seems like it wasn't even a member of the actual ride staff they informed. So I highly doubt it's true in the first place. I forgot to mention in my initial posts that, like many of you, I also used to work at the park, hence my interest in this. We all know their attitude towards guest services and customer experience is (or at least was) fantastic, and it's impossible to imagine a member of staff talking to a guest like this. And even if it is true, I don't think that they informed anyone who could of done anything in time.