Rail crash driver 'went through a red light'

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CHRISTIAN WOLMAR

Transport Correspondent

The driver of one of the trains involved in last October's Cowden crash was to blame for the accident in which five people died because he went through a red light, according to the preliminary inquiry report into the accident.

However, safety failings by BR and its successor, Railtrack, contributed to the accident. The report, by Major Kit Holden, assistant chief inspecting officer of the railways, says if the trains been fitted with two-way radios to allow communication with signal staff, the accident would not have happened.

After the inquiry into the 1988 Clapham rail disaster, BR committed itself to installing a radio system throughout the network. Major Holden said that a "funding hiatus" had led BR to break the pledge. BR is criticised for extending the life of old rolling stock beyond the time limit given by the Clapham enquiry "without safety enhancements".

The accident, on the foggy morning of 15 October last year, involved a head-on collision between two diesel trains on a little-used branch line at Cowden between Oxted in Surrey and Uckfield, East Sussex.

The driver of the northbound train, Brian Barton, ignored a red light and a horn warning, which Major Holden said was probably working, and entered a single-line section of the track.

Both drivers, the guard of the north-bound train who was in the cab alongside Mr Barton and may have been illegally driving the train, and two passengers, were killed. Thirteen people received slight injuries.

Whether the guard, Jonathan Brett-Andrews - who had already been warned by BR about being in the cab, which is against safety rules - was driving or not, Major Holden said he was "an unnecessary distraction".

He may have contributed to Barton's failure to stop at the red light.

Although visibility was bad and the signal was dirty, it should have been visible from between "20 metres and 50 metres away".

Major Holden urged further fittings of Automatic Train Protection (ATP) in-cab computer systems, which prevent drivers going through "stop" signals. In the absence of a complete replacement of rolling stock, there should be research into improving the "crash-worthiness" of older designs.

The branch line had been "singled" as a result of a resignalling project in 1990 to save money, but no assessment of the added risks of single lines had been made at the time.

Major Holden called on Railtrack to produce a timed and costed plan for the completion of the radio network and to assess which signalling schemes should be accompanied by the introduction of ATP.

BR said it accepted the report. It said: "Controls on the access to driving cabs have been tightened up and BR's train-operating units in the South-east have specified to Railtrack their requirements for completing the installation of the Cab-Secure Radio System."

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