Five died 'because trains had no radios': Signalman knew collision was imminent but could do nothing

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SIGNALMAN responsible for the section of track in Kent where two trains crashed head-on, killing five people, knew for several minutes the trains would collide. He could do nothing to stop the collision because BR had failed to instal radios in the trains' cabs.

The installation of two-way radios was a key recommendation of the inquiry into the Clapham train disaster. As well as the five dead, 11 people were hurt in Saturday's crash on a single-track section of railway near Cowden on the Kent-Sussex border.

The Hidden report on the 1988 Clapham rail disaster recommended that all British Rail trains should be fitted with radios allowing two-way communication between signal boxes and drivers 'as a priority'.

BR accepted the recommendation and in a report in February 1990 to the Transport Secretary, Cecil Parkinson, the late Sir Bob Reid, chairman of BR, committed it to implementing the recommendation within five years.

But yesterday, a spokesman for Network South Central, which operates the Oxted to Uckfield branch line, said that there had been no plans to install radios in the cabs of the trains involved in the crash.

The signalman at Oxted, nine miles away from the crash, would have seen that the trains, indicated by lights on his control panel, were heading for each other. Although the trains were fitted with portable telephones, they could only be used to make outgoing calls.

A spokesman for Railtrack South said last night:'All the signs are that the signalman became aware from his signalling panel indicators that something was amiss. However, he was not in a position to communicate with the train crew to either train.'

The signalling was only five years old. The signalman would have pulled a switch and cleared the track all the way through to Ashurst for the southbound train. The crash occurred about half-way along the 26-mile branch line from Oxted to Uckfield and involved the 8am train northbound train from Uckfield and the 8.04 from Oxted.

Both were running late in thick fog. The northbound train passed a red signal to join a four-mile section of single track just north of Ashurst station. It should have waited for the southbound train in the section of double track at Ashurst. As both trains were travelling at about 30mph, it would have taken the northbound train at least three minutes to reach the point of impact, and the signalman might well have had time to warn the crews if the trains had been fitted with a radio.

A regular commuter said that many of the drivers no longer even carried out-going telephones. Mike Skinner, a county councillor for Uckfield, said: 'Late last month I was on a train which got stopped for a long time at a red signal and the driver said that he had no way of communicating with the signal box to find out why it was red.'

Yesterday, accident investigators were still at the site as the the body of one of the drivers, David Rees, 49, was finally removed. The other driver and the guard in the northbound train also died in the crash.

BR refused to speculate on whether the guard who died was in the driver's cab or in the guard's compartment just behind it, at the time of the crash.

The train was fitted with an automatic warning system that sounds a horn when a train goes through a red light and activates the brakes unless the driver overrides it. However, there have been suggestions that this is sometimes turned off by drivers because they get irritated by false alarms on single sections of track as the warning is triggered by red lights intended for trains coming from the other direction.

Brian Mawhinney, the Transport Secretary, yesterday confirmed there would be an inquiry led by a railway inspector who will hear evidence in public and publish a report. Dr Mawhinney said British Rail and Railtrack accepted responsibility for the crash and compensation payments would follow.

(Map omitted)