The Health and Safety Executive said inspectors would force companies to tackle the problem if there was no improvement. Bob Smallwood, deputy chief inspector of railways at the executive, said there were "significant weaknesses" in the way rail firms dealt with the problem. A report from the executive urges the industry to do more to reduce the risk of trains passing danger signals, and says senior management needs to "give greater effort, attention and commitment" to the incidents.
Union leaders said drivers were under increasing pressure from the privatised companies to drive "to the limit", but train companies rejected the suggestion that they encouraged unsafe practices.
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, a Transport minister, said the report "reveals weaknesses in rail industry management systems that give rise to real concerns. We expect the industry to put these right as quickly as possible."
The report shows that the number of signals passed at danger (SPADs) rose by 8 per cent last year, from 593 to 643, after declining since the beginning of the decade.
Dr Smallwood also called for more effective ways of reducing the number of signals throughout the network, 46, that had passed at red more than once. It was revealed that Central Trains services had wrongly passed one signal between Birmingham and Kidderminster three times at the beginning of the year.
Dr Smallwood pointed out that SPADs were probably the greatest risk any train company had to deal with. They could lead to "disastrous consequences", such as the accident at Southall in 1997 in which seven passengers were killed.
Publication of the audit follows an announcement by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, that by 2004 trains will have to be fitted with a train protection warning system, which would apply the brakes automatically if a train passed through a red signal. Terry Worrall, safety spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies, said it was difficult to say why a driver might pass a signal. It might be a question of fatigue, lifestyle or shift patterns. Other industry officials said it could also be due to where signals are sited.
Mr Worrall said the train companies were determined to respect the report's recommendations, but added: "Whenever you conduct an audit, you will always find something wrong somewhere. Generally the safety profile of the industry has been positive."
A Railtrack spokesman said the company was taking the audit very seriously, but added that the long-term trend was positive. The "slight increase" in SPADs last year should be set against an 8 per cent rise in trains on the network, he said.
Apart from the Southall disaster in 1997, drivers were said to have passed through red signals in other accidents. In 1996 at Watford a passenger train collided with an empty service at a junction killing one passenger.
Two years earlier at Cowden, Kent, two passengers and three rail employees were killed in a head-on collision on a section of single line track. In 1991 another head-on collision, this time at Newton in Scotland, led to the deaths of two passengers and two drivers.Reuse content