Railtrack to be charged over crash

`Negligence' led to trains colliding
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The Independent Online
Railtrack is to be prosecuted for negligence after a train crash last week that was almost a carbon copy of the Clapham rail disaster, heightening fears about safety on the railways in the run-up to privatisation.

The collision, between two trains in East London a week ago, could have resulted in a major disaster but for a driver who managed to slam on the brakes before the inevitable collision.

The proposed prosecution, which could result in a fine as high as the pounds 250,000 imposed following the Clapham disaster, could not come at a worse time for Railtrack, which is being prepared for privatisation next year. It is the latest in a series of safety lapses which could scare off potential investors and reduce the value of the sale, regarded as crucial to pre- election budget plans by the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke.

The circumstances of the crash bear an almost uncanny resemblance to the 1988 Clapham disaster in which 35 people were killed and nearly 500 injured. On September 19, the driver of the 5 20am service, travelling empty from Chingford to Liverpool Street, stopped at a green signal near Wood Street station in Walthamstow because she was concerned that a previous "slave" signal had indicated it should be amber.

While she was trying to contact signals staff, the following train, the 5 22am, which had 19 people aboard, crashed into the back of the first train. By good fortune, the later train had an extra man in the cab, an off-duty driver, who managed to alert the driver to brake. There were no injuries.

In the Clapham disaster, similarly, a train also stopped at a faulty signal and while the driver was trying to speak to signals staff, a following train smashed into the back of it, having been given a green light. The Hidden inquiry into the disaster recommended a series of measures to avoid such signalling mistakes.

An internal inquiry into the Walthamstow incident has revealed that it was caused by the failure of railway staff to ensure that signals were in proper working order after the track had been relaid that night.

Wiring along the track had not been reconnected to ensure the signals functioned properly. The work was carried out by a BR subsidiary, British Rail Infrastructure Services, which is also being prepared for privatisation, but Railtrack ultimately has legal responsibility.

Health and Safety Executive sources say that the inspector appointed to investigate the accident was appalled at the catalogue of negligence and a prosecution is inevitable.

Prosecutions in the railway industry are very rare - a handful a year - because they are only undertaken when there has been "blatant disregard of the law", particularly in cases where there corners have been cut in order to save money, or where there has been a "reckless disregard" of the safety of employees and passengers.

In a statement last night, Railtrack admitted that it had been at fault. It said the internal inquiry found that "certain safety procedures were not followed" and as a result "work was not checked and the track was left in an unsafe condition - the signalling equipment was indicating an unoccupied section of track when there was in fact a train present".

n Rail franchises, page 22