Mass power failure: the lessons learned

A substantial part of London suffered a major power cut on 28 August 2003 at 6.20pm. The outage was widespread, covering an area from central London to south London. Although power was restored in 30 minutes, the resulting chaos lasted well into the night. Many commuters were stuck as only a reduced rail service was restored and most of the Underground was out of action until morning on the following day.

Although power was restored within an hour, it appears that this was long enough to cause significant disruptions to normal activities. Such unplanned events can have a wide impact on the operation of local services and infrastructure, especially to the transport system as in the case of London.

Just over a week later, the east of Birmingham suffered a similar experience. However, the disruption to infrastructure in Birmingham was less than that experienced in London. Why was this? The London Assembly’s Public Services Committee of February 2004 suggests that poor communication exacerbated the chaos to the capital during the August power cut. Furthermore, it proposes that London Underground and the capital’s electricity providers must improve how they communicate with key public services during a major crisis to prevent a repeat of the disruption seen during the London power outage1.

Such observations can only reduce the public’s already waning confidence in London’s emergency preparedness. The power cut in London lasted for just over 30 minutes, yet the disruption that followed lasted until the next morning. The question is how this could be happening in London after all the measures implemented after 11 September 2001.

The travel routes in and around the city descended into pandemonium. Thousands of people were blocking the streets; some queuing for taxis, others queuing for buses that were overcrowded due to the suspension of both the surface and the underground rail networks. There were no extra police officers on the street to direct pedestrians mingling with cars as they tried to head off in the general direction of home. There were no extra buses supplied and no information was available to tube and rail commuters as to alternative routes home.2

Lack of communication

The lack of communication on the evening of 28 August 2003 was a major contributor to the chaos that ensured for most of the night. It appears that the National Grid and EDF Energy were in contact within minutes of the power cut to arrange the restoration of power supply.3Unfortunately, such efficiency was not practised when communicating with the outside world. The National Grid did not inform Scotland Yard until 30 minutes after the power cut that the loss of power was not due to a terrorist attack. The Mayor and other public service providers were informed between 45 minutes and two hours later.4

Under London Resilience, the UK government’s contingency plans for London, in the event of a major incident the Metropolitan Police and the Mayor are intended to be the first point of contact for the utilities and public service providers. In the post-11 September atmosphere, such delays in communication between major utilities companies and law enforcement agencies are dangerous and detrimental to the UK’s national security.

The lack of information available to both public and staff deepened the anarchy on that August evening. London Underground and railway staff received little information: many believed that the power loss was localised to their station and thus were not aware of the enormity of the problem. London’s radio stations had not been informed of the incident, resulting in tube, rail, and road users being left with little or no information. This resulted in dangerous flows of people moving across London’s main road junctions that were no longer signal-controlled. As the Public Services Committee report rightly states, in a multiple terrorist emergency there would be a high possibility of people unknowingly moving towards danger due to such meagre information flows.5

When the time came eventually to switch the power back on, due to poor communication the telephones became congested as each London Underground line was trying to contact the Network Control Centre at the same time 6. Arguably such a task could be accomplished by one line and then information filtered through the system.

In light of this incident, it is safe to say that London Underground must review how they communicate with each of their lines, how calls are prioritised and how vital information is disseminated.

In future emergencies it is advisable to decide what information about resumption of services is given to the public, quickly give a clear indication of the likely time scale for that resumption and identify who should make the call within their organisation. Surely it is better to tell the public that the system is likely to be down for four hours, only in fact to find in resumes in two, rather than tell the public nothing and have them dangerously wait in the hope of quick power resumption?

In hindsight, one can see the mistakes made on the evening of 28 August 2003. However, one question remains in theory: what should have the communicative aims of the utility companies and the London Underground been in such an emergency? The main communication aim in an emergency situation will almost certainly be to protect the public or at the least help them protect themselves and keep disruption to a minimum.

Objectives, therefore, might be to issue warnings and advice and to ensure the public feels confident. Keeping the public safe and well informed should be a priority, as should providing it with information so that individuals can decide for themselves how to deal with situations.

Need for information

Achieving these objectives relies on one factor above all else - a flow of cohesive, authoritative, co-ordinated information and (where necessary) warnings and advice to the relevant audiences. This means ensuring that the public and news media have all the latest information and that this is transmitted by whatever means available at that time. Furthermore, it means ensuring that there is no lack of information at any level, that all government ministers, officials and relevant individuals have full, up-to-date information and advice to ensure the consistency of messages and the avoidance of mixed messages. In such a way confusion could be averted.

It is extremely concerning that at a time of supposed heightened awareness of the terrorist threat, there should be such disorder and lack of information available to officials, workers and the public in a emergency situation. After nearly two hours, limited services were restored to the rail network and some people were able to go home. The bus service also eventually managed to transport many people to their destinations. However, the majority of the tube service remained stagnated for the entire evening. For London, a supposedly world-class city, such disruption and chaos is both shocking and simply unacceptable.

Power failures elsewhere

It is coincidental that London’s power failure happened just a fortnight after the power blackout that affected large swathes of the US and Canada. In the month before (July 2003) power outages hit Denmark, southern Sweden and Italy. Such incidents demonstrate that nothing about critical infrastructure should be taken for granted and further demonstrates the fragility of the power grids in these countries.

These four major blackouts in North America and in Europe showed how unprepared both public services and companies were to deal with power loss, and how business continuity is essential planning for future crises. These cases further illustrate how the utilities industry does not have the necessary communication and command-and-control systems to manage a collaborative network.

In response to the 14 August 2003 power failure, the US Department of Energy has been putting forward a wide-ranging Comprehensive Energy Bill, which will set tougher new reliability standards aimed at preventing a similar power shutdown7.

In the UK, the Civil Contingencies Bill has been promoting improved emergency resilience to such major incidents. The Bill splits organisations into Responder 1 and Responder 2 categories. Responder 1 will have a statutory duty to assess and plan for an emergency, with further details to be laid out in regulation made under the Bill. Organisations in this category are local authorities, emergency services, ambulance trusts, the Environmental Agency and the Secretary of State in relation to maritime and coastal matters8.

Category 2 responders, who include utility companies, railways, airports and include more than 400 private sector organisations, will be required to join with Category 1 Responders to establish arrangements for better communication, co-operation and information sharing in emergency situations9 Even though the Bill is yet to fully illustrate how it envisions such co-operation and communication to take place it can be praised as a positive step forward in light of the chaos created by the power failure in August 2003.

It can be suggested that the 11 September attacks and the recent blackouts throughout North America and Europe are freak events. In reality, they reflect a changing world and, as such, a changing risks profile. The world is very different than it was just five years ago. Threats and vulnerabilities are changing and are arguably much greater. The power outage of August 2003 further portrayed the need for emergency communication development, business continuity plans and protection plans for our national critical infrastructures. Sadly, though, it merely indicated how much further advanced the West’s resilience and emergency measures must be in light of the ever-increasing threats of the 21st century.

Rebecca Cox is the newly appointed co-

ordinator of RUSI’s Homeland Security and Resilience Programme. She has an MA in International Security and Terrorism and a background in public health


1 London Assembly Public Services Committee, The Power Cut in London on 28 August 2003: A report from the London Assembly’s Public Services Committee, February 2004, available online at

2 Ibid, p 12.

3 Ibid, p 9

4 Ibid, p 9

5 Ibid, p 1

6 Ibid, p 10

7 For an overview of the causes of the 14 August 2003 US blackouts, visit the US Department of Energy’s Office of Electric Transmission, available at

8 Joint Committee on the Draft Civil Contingencies Bill, ‘Draft Civil Contingencies Bill’ Session 2002-03. HL Paper 184, HC 1074, p 24

More information on the Civil Contingencies Bill is available online at

9 Ibid, p 24

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