The Independent has discovered that in a series of incidents, which included two crashes, several trains passed signals at red or went through level crossings, leading to BR commissioning an urgent study into the problem.
The worst accident was in November when a train crashed into the buffers at Slough station. Most of the problems have been with the 80-strong fleet of Turbo trains that operate on the Chiltern and Thames line but they are of a very similar design to the electric-powered Networker trains that are widely used.
The problem is particularly acute in what BR describes as the "leaf fall season". A letter from John Ellis, Railtrack's director of production, sent on 10 November to his 10 zonal directors and obtained by the Independent says: "I am sure you do not need reminding that we have had a disastrous leaf fall season in terms of safety (Slough, Holytown, Bramley, Salisbury and a number of others)."
Cuts in spending may be putting passengers' lives at risk as Mr Ellis warns: "I am aware of at least one zone that curtailed its tree felling to meet its budget targets." He urges his zonal directors to reverse that policy.
The incidents occur on less well used regional and rural routes where short modern trains are used rather than on InterCity services where trains are both longer and heavier.
The Slough incident, on 2 November led to a train skidding for 1,200 yards, during which time it only slowed from 56mph to 30mph because the rails were slippery as a result of leaves and a light shower. Two people, including the driver who has been absolved of all blame by the Railtrack inquiry into the incident, were slightly hurt and the inquiry found that had the train not hit the buffers, it would have continued for another 910 yards - a total of a mile and a quarter - before stopping.
A senior driver on the Thames line said: "If someone had been killed at Slough the trains would have been suspended. They are just waiting for someone to be killed and the drivers are worried about who is going to be involved in an incident next time."
The incident at Holytown, near Glasgow, involved a train sliding into another but preliminary investigations suggest that driver error may have contributed to the collision.
At Bramley, between Reading and Basingstoke, a train slid through a level crossing which still had its gates up and at Salisbury the train slid through a red light.
The Independent has obtained lists of incidents compiled by both drivers and Railtrack, but both are incomplete. The list compiled by drivers on Thames trains shows 14 slips, all but one involving Turbo trains, between 21 October and 7 November, including three where trains were out of control for at least half a mile. There were two incidents at Goring and Streatley, three at Reading West and one at Slough where, four days before the accident, a Paddinqton to Bedwyn train slid for 800 yards.
A senior driver said that following the Slough incident, Thames Trains came "within an inch" of withdrawing all Turbos after the crash. Instead, an emergency meeting decided to increase the length of trains and to reduce speeds.
In response to the problems BR has stepped up driver training, organised two "adhesion conferences" seeking information from drivers and is considering modifying Turbo trains after drivers expressed "extreme concern" about a series of "lengthy over-runs".
The increase in slides will have repercussions for rail privatisation because of higher insurance costs. Already one train manager, Roger McDonald of Thames Trains, has refused to reveal details of the number of incidents because the information was "commercially confidential and may be prone to misinterpretation".
However, Mr McDonald admitted he had considered withdrawing all the trains but said: "We did a risk assessment and we felt we could continue to operate the trains safely."
British Rail's director of safety, Terry Worrall, denied there was a particular problem with Turbo trains and said: "We are aware of the problem of low rail adhesion. We have issued new instructions to drivers and have prepared a manual to help training with the new brake systems. We are doing everything to improve safety on the railway.
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