Official rail safety expert 'backed wrong system'

A HIGH-PROFILE rail expert appointed by John Prescott is expected to face bitter criticism for backing a cheap safety system that would have failed to avert a series of disasters.

In a report to be delivered to the Deputy Prime Minister in the new year, Sir David Davies will endorse the train protection warning system (TPWS) as a short-term measure to enhance safety. That contradicts the recommendations of a series of in-depth reports into fatal crashes which calls for the introduction of the fail-safe automatic train protection (ATP) system as soon as possible.

However Sir David, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, will predict that the industry will be forced in the longer term to introduce the most sophisticated form of ATP, which would almost eliminate the need for a driver. Nevertheless it was difficult to predict when, he said. Sir David, who was appointed to examine train safety after the Paddington disaster, is still considering whether in the medium term the network should move to upgrade TPWS, introduce a basic ATP device or wait until the more advanced systems are available.

The arguments were rehearsed in a private session of last week's rail summit. Vernon Hince of the RMT rail union warned Sir David that TPWS would leave 70 per cent of trains without proper protection because it was not effectiveabove 70mph. It would have prevented the Paddington crash, in which 31 people were killed, but not the Southall, Watford or Cannon Street crashes, all of which involved fatalities.

Sir David told The Independent yesterday that he was convinced that TPWS was the immediate solution. "Nothing could be fitted faster," he said. Under plans agreed last week Mr Prescott, who is Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, hopes to introduce TPWS quicker than planned so that a third of trains are protected by 2001, three-quarters by 2002 and all trains by 2003.

Mick Rix, the general secretary of the train drivers' union Aslef, registered his opposition to Sir David's proposals. "I am convinced that ATP should be introduced across the network as quickly as possible, instead of this half-way house," he said. Mr Rix said that an impressive German ATP system, which can be "bolted on" to 20-year-old trains, could be fitted across the British network in five years. "The Germans think we are living in a bloody museum," he said.

Peter Rayner, a rail consultant and former British Rail operations manager, said Sir David's endorsement of TPWS would enable Mr Prescott to "save face", but might prove a diversion from the real solution. "We must not let them sell us an inferior system," he said.

Professor John Uff, who presided over the inquiry into the Southall crash in 1997, and Lord Cullen, who will chair the Paddington hearing, will also produce joint recommendations in the new year on competing safety systems.