Crash driver admits he passed warning signals

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THE DRIVER of the express involved in the 1997 Southall rail disaster, in which seven people died and 150 were injured, accepted some responsibility for the accident yesterday but said his employers should also bear part of the blame.

While initially refusing to accept any responsibility, under questioning from John Hendy QC, for the victims' families, the driver conceded that he was partly to blame.

Larry Harrison accepted that he had "made a mistake" by passing two warning signs. Showing signs of distress, he told the public inquiry: "I'm under a lot of strain here. I must bear some of the blame, but I'm not totally to blame. We are all human."

Mr Harrison, 52, said that Great Western Trains was partly at fault for allowing his train to run without an operational Advanced Warning System, which alerts drivers to danger signals. The express Mr Harrison was driving smashed into a freight train in west London.

Anthony Scrivener QC, for the train drivers' union Aslef, referred Professor John Uff, chairman of the inquiry, to a psychiatric report on Mr Harrison, which showed that he had been in denial since the disaster.

A harrowing tape recording of the driver sobbing uncontrollably down a phone line as he reported the accident at the side of the track was played as part of the evidence. On the tape, Mr Harrison described how he had just finished packing a hold-all with rail documents when he looked up to see his train "whizzing" towards a red danger signal with a freight locomotive crossing his path.

The driver repeatedly told the inquiry that he could not explain why he did not notice the warning signals. However, the hearing was told that as Mr Harrison neared the danger signals he placed three documents in his bag. That took a matter of about five seconds, he said. But experts' submissions point out that Mr Harrison's attention could have been distracted for up to 25 seconds.

The driver denied suggestions by some passengers that he had been seen earlier in the journey adopting a casual manner, with both his feet up on the dashboard.

He explained that he might have had one foot up on a ledge, but that was a practice adopted by most drivers to stretch their legs and avoid cramp. Mr Harrison said that it was not possible to drive the train with both feet up because one had to be placed on a pedal that operated as the "dead man's handle".

Mr Harrison, who was severely reprimanded earlier in his career for passing a signal at red, indicated that there was no question of him dozing while he was driving. "I love driving trains. I've found it thrilling," he told the inquiry, although he added that he could never bring himself to go back to the job.

The inquiry heard how he ran from the cab back into the engine just before the impact. After the crash he left the train and, from the trackside phone, told the signaller what had happened. The AWS safety system had been switched off after it developed a fault. A more fool-proof mechanism, Automatic Train Protection, had also been switched off.

Mr Harrison said that he was not trained for driving without the AWS and had not realised how dangerous it was.

He apologised to the families of the victims: "I wish to express my deepest sympathy to the bereaved families and those passengers who were injured. I want to say I am very, very sorry for what happened on that day." The inquiry continues.