On August 9th 2019, the United Kingdom was badly affected by what has been claimed to be an unprecedented power failure. Many cities were left without electricity, causing major service disruption to hospitals, airports, rail services, road networks and at least 1 million domestic consumers. Power was lost shortly before 5pm at the peak of the rush hour and commuters began their journeys home. It took just over 2 hours before National Grid (the UK electricity network operator) announced it had been resolved.
The media reported that it was “unexpected and unusual” and everyone including National Grid claimed it was “outside of our control”. Initially it was known that two major power stations had gone off-line to the grid at almost the same time. The power stations were wide distances apart, one being a conventional gas fired station in the centre of the country and other an offshore wind farm. The gas fired plant had gone down temporarily as a routine response to a technical issue, and the wind farm operator said “automatic systems had significantly reduced power around the same time”. It was not clear if the two were connected but the combined loss of supply to the grid, triggered an automatic response across the network to close certain areas to balance demand and keep the system operating safely.
Some of the immediate impacts included:
- Rail commuters experienced disruption and delays, with many trains cancelled and electric trains stopped in mid journey causing passengers to be stranded for several hours
- Power was lost to all signalling systems over a wide area of the southern part of the country.
- Many traffic lights were out of action, with drivers second guessing one another on major junctions. Police had to intervene to try and reduce the chaos at very busy junctions
- Mobile phones and internet reception went dead as communications masts apparently lost power.
- Security alarms blared out at homes and businesses because the loss of power was thought to signal a break-in.
- Some provincial airports and hospitals lost power for a period as their emergency generation capacity was slow to activate or in some cases failed entirely.
- There was chaos and panic on the London Underground (one of the largest public transport systems in the world)
- British Transport Police officers were sent to mainline stations to help ease the chaos among swelling crowds of commuters in and around busy stations as angry commuters threatened to become violent.
One commuter described the situation as “reminiscent of an apocalyptic Hollywood movie”. To add to the sense of unreality, for many the blackout coincided with torrential downpours and storms.
It soon became apparent that although restoring the power within 2 hours came as a great relief to business and domestic power users, it was not enough to solve the problems for the travelling public. For thousands of passengers left stranded when their electric powered trains suddenly ground to a halt, simply restoring power did not get them moving again. Because of the train design, many drivers couldn’t get them started again and had to wait for technicians to come out. They found that in many cases the on-board computers had shut systems down more fully than expected and needed a full system reboot. With many trains affected and limited technicians available, some delays lasted hours. National Rail, train operators and the train manufacturers are all coming under scrutiny as to why this happened. One commuter spend 13 hours on a train and commented to the BBC “By hour seven things were starting to get pretty tense. People were threatening to self-evacuate off the train. Food and drinks ran out after about five hours”
An obvious solution appeared to be a back-up diesel generator on-board, but the train companies claim that this is not possible because the trains spend too long in tunnels. As older trains run on diesel, this does not appear an obvious objection to a lay person like me. However, why cannot a battery backup be incorporated? Even if it cannot hold sufficient capacity to complete a long journey, maybe it could at least get passengers to the nearest station. Many questions need to be answered by the train companies and manufacturers – but they seem to mainly blame it on National Grid, who blame it on the electrical generation companies, who blame it on unpredictable and rare circumstances.
Clearly, an immediate thought was could a cyber attack be involved but this has been definitely ruled out. Whatever happened was as a consequence of a freak set of circumstances, a system operating properly to protect itself but with little concern for the negative consequence on its users, clearly some lack of planning, some lack of resiliency and some questionable design features at least in the case of the train companies. As always the government and regulators get involved after the event, demanding reports and opening investigations which make recommendations that are often never implemented.
This whole incident, of course, demonstrates the fragility of critical national infrastructure to unexpected events. To be fair, it is unlikely that the UK is any worse protected than any other advanced country or state. It does, however, pose difficult questions about what would have happened if a successful cyber attack had caused total power outage for a much longer time-frame. This outage of 2 hours and affecting only about 1.5% of the UK’s population caused chaos and some panic; two days and 100% of the population would be an entirely different ball game.Recommended1 recommendationPublished in