Signalman powerless to prevent crash

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The Independent Online
A signalman told yesterday of the moment when he realised two trains were on course for a head-on collision he was powerless to prevent.

At an inquest into the deaths of five people in last October's crash near Cowden, Kent, Steven Webb told how warning alarms sounded in his junction box at Oxted after the up train went through a red light. But as there was no radio or telephone contact possible with the two train drivers he knew were on the same piece of track, all the signalman could do was telephone British Rail bosses to alert them to the anticipated disaster.

"When I realised they were heading on a collision course, I telephoned Railtrack control at Croydon and asked them to get emergency services out, because I believed there was going to be a collision," Mr Webb told the coroner's court hearing in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. "I had no means of contacting the trains."

Ten months after the crash, Cab Secure Radio, the two-way communication system inspectors recommended for trains after the 1988 Clapham rail crash in London, is yet to be installed on trains serving the Uckfield to Oxted line, the inquest was told.

Two passengers, Raymond Pointer, 61, and his wife, Moira, 56, of Crowborough, East Sussex, were killed in the Cowden collision along with both train drivers and a guard.

The trains were on the same single track after Brian Barton, 31, driver of the 8am service from Uckfield to Oxted went through a red light instead of waiting for the late-running 8.04 train from Oxted to Uckfield.

The other driver was David Rees, 49, who had worked for BR since leaving school, and the guard was Jonathan Brett-Andrews, 36, whose ambition to be a train driver was identified as contributing to the accident by the official report published two months ago.

An inquiry by Major Kit Holden found evidence that Mr Brett-Andrews was in the driver's cab at the time of the crash against BR rules, leading to speculation that he may even have taken the controls.

"The presence of the guard in the cab of the driver's train on the up- line seemed to be the only explanation for why the driver Barton had ignored the danger signal," the 50-page report concluded.

There is also "some doubt" as to who was actually at the controls of the up-train. The report said the issue would be addressed in a second report to be written after forensic science evidence was given at the inquest. But the vital question seemed unresolved yesterday.

Dr Peter Jerreat, a consultant forensic pathologist, told the coroner, Frank Warriner, that from the injuries the two men sustained, it was impossible to tell who had been in the driving seat. "There was nothing specific to tell me that either one of them was sitting down or standing up," Dr Jerreat said.

A passenger, Dr Barbara Lawton, and a railwayman, Wayne Burton, both said they had seen Mr Brett-Andrews in the cab of the train. Mr Burton said: "He was in the cab when the train left East Croydon ... the guard got out of the cab door at Edenbridge to look along the train and see if anyone was getting on."

Graham Eccles, managing director for Network SouthCentral, said BR was working on a five-year plan to install cab radios.

Mr Brett-Andrews came from Caterham, Surrey, and both the drivers lived in Croydon.

The inquest continues.