Getting strapped into a rollercoaster is much the same as getting into an aeroplane. Both are statistically far safer than their more prosaic alternatives like cars or climbing frames, but both also involve surrendering control – or the illusion of control - of your safety. As a result, when something goes wrong, there’s a disproportionate level of outrage and fear.
On Tuesday, two carriages on The Smiler rollercoaster in the ghost-themed Alton Towers collided at speed. Four people suffered injuries, some apparently ‘life-changing’, and then had to endure a four hour rescue, suspended 25 feet in the air.
The Staffordshire park, which is owned by FTSE 100 firm Merlin Entertainments, remains closed as it investigates what went wrong. ‘The safety of our visitors is our primary concern,’ said Merlin boss Nick Varney.
Saying that’s all very well and good, but the problem a theme park owner has is that the only real way to reassure visitors that its rollercoasters are safe (which they essentially are) is to wait. A crash like this essentially resets the ‘x days since our last accident’ counter to zero.
With the core summer season approaching, it couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Shares in Merlin fell 3.5% last night, but recovered 1.2% this morning to 449.5p. This shouldn’t be too surprising – the firm owns over 100 other attractions, including Madame Tussauds, Chessington World of Adventures, Thorpe Park, Legoland and the London Eye.
Keeping the park shut shows a mature attitude towards disaster management. One only needs to look at the fiasco of Thomas Cook’s ‘apology’ over the deaths of two children in one of its partner hotels eight years ago to see how not to handle bad publicity. If Merlin does all it can to help the victims and make sure the cause of the accident is understood and corrected, it should be able to avoid the same fate.