Rail signal worker could not warn of imminent crash

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The Independent Online

Transport Correspondent

A signal worker knew that the crash between two trains in east London earlier this month was going to happen three minutes before it did, but could not contact the driver.

It was the third crash in six months in which signal workers knew a crash was imminent but were unable to stop it because of the failure of BR to provide reliable communication between trains and signal workers, despite having agreed to do so following the recommendation of the inquiry into the 1988 Clapham disaster. BR was supposed to ensure two-way communication systems were fitted on all trains within five years of the report's publication in February 1990. However, many smaller lines remain without proper two- way communication and all three recent crashes have been on such lines.

The crash on 18 February, at Wanstead Park on the Gospel Oak to Barking line, resulted in 31 people being hurt, four seriously. A westbound train, carrying football supporters, went into the back of a goods train which had been halted by a red light. Although the driver had a telephone, the signal worker did not have the number and had not been trained to communicate with drivers. The phone is fitted for use by drivers to communicate with signal workers but cannot be used for two-way communication.

Andy Burns of the Capital Transport Campaign, which has been collating information on the crash, said: "The signal operator was aware that there would be a crash for up to three minutes before it took place. But he was unable to contact the driver and prevent the crash."

A spokesman for North London Lines said: "The trains have been fitted with ship-to-shore equipment, but the signal workers are unable to contact the trains."

Last October, five people were killed at Cowden on the Kent-East Sussex border when a train went through a red light and smashed head-on into another. The signalman told the subsequent inquiry that he knew for several minutes that a crash was inevitable but had no way of contacting the trains. And last month, a conductor on the Settle to Carlisle line was killed when a train collided into another which had been derailed. For 10 minutes signal staff tried to contact the second train to alert the driver about the derailment.

Mr Burns said that the Gospel Oak to Barking line had a pattern of years of neglect. "It needs £25m spending on it to electrify it and make it reliable. The trains are 35 years old and in a terrible state. At the moment there are so many cancellations that people are no longer using it."

Earlier this winter, Steven Norris, the Minister for Transport, visited the line and had to wait 40 minutes as his train was cancelled. Mr Burns said that the performance on the line was the worst in the South-east and that on average trains arrived 22 minutes late in the rush hour.