Inspectors `failing to accept blame' for rail disaster

SENIOR RAIL inspectors will be denounced today for refusing to accept any blame for the 1997 Southall disaster and defending Great Western Trains' "appalling" record on key safety issues.

In a final submission to the inquiry, lawyers for the bereaved also attack Railtrack for "complacency" and a refusal to acknowledge "any significant inadequacy in any respect".

The document, signed by John Hendy QC, says: "It is regrettable that Railtrack has devoted itself to deflecting criticism rather than to making suggestions and recommendations for avoiding accidents."

The thirty-third and last day of the Southall hearing comes on the eve of the official start of the inquiry into the Paddington crash in October. Tomorrow, Lord Cullen will set out his views on procedural issues and adjourn the inquiry into the disaster, in which 31 people lost their lives, to the new year.

The Southall inquiry will hear a scathing attack on the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) railway inspectorate which has so far escaped much of the criticism. Inspectors were "too close to the industry" and failed to challenge Great Western's approach, particularly on training drivers in the use of safety procedures, according to the submission on behalf of relatives.

The company is accused of adopting a "defensive" attitude throughout the hearing and neglecting to take the fail-safe automatic train protection (ATP) safety system "by the scruff of the neck" and make sure it was introduced.

The ATP system would have prevented the Southall accident in which seven people died when a Great Western express on its way to Paddington jumped a red light and smashed into a freight train coming in the opposite direction. It would also have averted the Paddington accident in which a Thames Trains commuter service passed a light at danger and crashed nearly head- on into a Great Western express heading for the west London station.

Great Western's submission to the Southall inquiry that it "could have done more to train and refresh its drivers into the operation of ATP equipment" was "to put it as generously as we can, a considerable under-statement", says Mr Hendy's submission. The document points out that the trade unions and Railtrack agree with the contention of relatives of the victims that there should be an independent organisation for investigating major accidents.

Great Western lacked "contrition" over its failure to ensure there were procedures for withdrawing trains from service when key safety systems were out of operation. Not only was the ATP device not working on the GWT train involved in the crash, but the more basic "automatic warning system" was out of commission.

Summing up, the submission says the "defensive nature" of the evidence from the HSE, Railtrack and Great Western was a great disappointment. "Deflecting criticism and attributing responsibility to others seem to have taken precedence over facing up squarely to failings."

A spokesman for Railtrack said the company's priority was safety and that had been so since it was established. "We have played a full part in the Southall inquiry and we intend to do the same for Paddington. The safety record has got better since privatisation, but we are not complacent."

A spokesman for Great Western Trains yesterday insisted the company had taken its full share of the blame since the Southall inquiry started. He pointed out that it had pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Health and Safety Act and had been fined pounds 1.5m.

The company was trying to address its procedural failings at the time of the disaster, but the spokesman conceded it had not been done quickly enough.

The HSE declined to comment yesterday.