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Sutton blast latest in series of UK pavement explosions

01 August 2013

On July 28 in Sutton, SW London, underground cabling caught fire after a sub-pavement explosion causing a  fire that enveloped a car, part of a front garden and cut power for 100 homes.  Similar incidents in April caused three explosions underground near Sutton train station, leading to blackouts in the town centre. 

Faults on UK Power Networks' electrical equipment beneath the ground have been blamed for these incidents.

Figures obtained by the BBC show reported incidents of underground explosions have more than tripled in a few years. In 2010, there were 12 underground explosions reported to the Health & Safety Executive and in 2012 the figure jumped to 29. So far this year, there have been 12 blasts.

UK Power Networks, which distributes electricity in London, says it has increased inspections and is making a significant investment in testing underground equipment.

No-one has died as a result of previous blasts but John Steed, principal specialist electrical inspector at the HSE, warned that a fatality could happen. He told the BBC: "They are not doing enough to ensure that these incidents don't happen anymore. Sooner or later, at the rate these explosions are continuing, someone is going to lose their life."

The blasts can be caused by an electrical fault, often when water has seeped into cables, or by a gas leak which has been ignited by a spark underground, UK Power Networks said.

In May 2012, three women were injured when a cable pit - or manhole cover - blew up in Edgware Road, central London. One woman was badly burned and received what police described as "life-changing injuries".

The following month, a woman received whiplash injuries in St John's Way, north London, when an underground electrical link box exploded, and a man was confined to a wheelchair for three months after an incident in Harrow.

The HSE investigated and subsequently issued an Improvement Notice to UK Power Networks for failing to report a fault it knew about 12 months earlier.

Matt Rudling, director of customer services at UK Power Networks, said there had been very few incidents where the fault had had an impact above the pavement, and they should be placed in context.

"We have about 100,000 boxes in the pavements of London and about 36,000km of underground cable," he said.

"We have relatively few cases when our equipment has faltered. Sometimes that's due to other parties coming into contact with our equipment.

Rudling said the company was investing about £40m over the next eight years to ensure London's electricity supply remained "safe and reliable".

The HSE is still investigating many of the recent explosions, but believes the unusually wet weather in 2012 could be the cause. It has asked UK Power Networks to do further testing on its underground equipment.

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