The accident, which is now the subject of an inquiry by the Railways Inspectorate, is the first fatal train collision since the Newton crash in 1991 in which four people died. That crash also occurred on a single- track line. The Inspectorate criticised British Rail severely for not adequately assessing the risks of such lines.
Yesterday's accident is certain to renew calls made after the 1988 Clapham disaster for Automatic Train Protection to stop trains going through red lights. The inquiry after Clapham said the protection should be fitted to all trains throughout the network by 1996 but British Rail has said it is too expensive.
The dead included the drivers of both diesel trains and three passengers, two men and a woman. None of the 11 injured was seriously hurt. The three remaining passengers on the 35-year-old trains escaped unhurt.
Thecrash, just south of Cowden station on the Oxted- Uckfield line, occurred at around 8.50am yesterday in heavy fog. The 8.04 southbound train from Oxted ploughed into the northbound 8.00 train from Uckfield at roughly the halfway point on the 26-mile branch line.
Both trains were travelling at 30mph. One passenger said: 'We pulled out of Cowden and started to build up speed when the driver suddenly cut the engine and slammed on the emergency brakes.
'There was an almighty bang and we were all thrown to the floor. The front carriage was completely destroyed.' He added that he could hear people screaming.
The trains should have passed on the double section of the line, which is about a mileand a half south of where the accident happened. The southbound train usually has priority. Yesterday, the northbound train went through on to the single track, apparently without being cleared.
Both trains had six cars. When they collided, the Uckfield-bound train was forced up over the top of the other train, shearing off most of the first carriage and leaving only the bogies and the running gear. The wreckage was thrown sideways to hang over the edge of a 30ft embankment.
Local rail-users have complained of the neglect of the line for many years. One regular commuter said he had been held up for an hour recently by the failure of points at the Blackham junction just south of the crash site.
Mike Skinner, a Liberal Democrat county councillor for Uckfield, said: 'In 1980, a report was sent to the British Railways Board saying that the line should only have safety maintenance and that eventually it should be closed. They've been running the line down.'
However, new colour light signalling was fitted in 1990 to replace the old semaphore signals. At the same time, the line was converted to a single track. Between 1989 and 1992 crashes on new single-track lines resulted in six deaths and 103 injuries.
Chris Jago, director of Railtrack South, said yesterday that the second track on the branch was removed because it was in a very poor state. 'The line's survival was at risk. The most important thing for the inquiry is to discover whether the signals were operating properly and also to check the integrity of the single line.'
Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Conservative MP for Wealden, who visited the scene said: 'I expressed concern about the the switch from double to single track but was assured on the safety by British Rail.'
Safety fears, page 2