`Driver error' caused train crash on high-speed track

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AN ERROR by the driver of an empty train caused it to collide with a London-to-Glasgow express, injuring 24 passengers, an official investigation concluded yesterday.

The driver of the local diesel train passed a red signal, taking his locomotive into the path of the Virgin express on the "fast" line of the West Coast main line in Winsford, Cheshire, the Health and Safety Executive said. But there was insufficient evidence to prosecute either the driver, who had a previously unblemished safety record, or his train company, First North Western.

The incident happened 300 yards south of Winsford South Junction at about 8.50am on 23 June. The Pacer diesel train was approaching a junction with the West Coast line when the driver failed to react to a red signal and took his train on to the main line, causing the signals for the track to turn red.

He realised his error and took the correct action by stopping his train and alerting the control room of the rail infrastructure company, Railtrack. But before the control room could alert any trains, the London-Glasgow Virgin train approached the junction at 110mph. Seeing the Pacer train blocking the line the driver, Roy Eccles, braked but still collided with it. After the incident, Mr Eccles was credited with averting certain catastrophe by releasing on to the track sand normally used to provide extra grip in icy conditions.

Both Railtrack and train companies are producing action plans for managing the risk of passing signals. A protection system, which applies trains' brakes if certain red signals are passed, will be introduced network- wide by January 2004.

t A "perform or else" message has been sent to train companies by rail regulator Sir Alastair Morton. He invited operators to bid for longer franchises but warned they would only be successful if they committed to high levels of investment and service.