Southall, 1.15pm, Friday 19 September 1997. It's happened again.

Six people died, 13 were seriously injured and a further 150 were described as "walking wounded" yesterday after one of Britain's worst rail crashes. Steve Boggan, Kathy Marks, Randeep Ramesh and Christian Wolmar describe the tragic scene and examine the reasons for the collision

Survivors of the Southall crash described scenes of "carnage" last night as a public inquiry was promised into the cause of an accident that should have been impossible.

Passengers on the 10.32am Great Western Swansea-Paddington service had to dodge live electricity cables and climb over bodies. But Railtrack bosses confirmed that a "fail-safe" system was on trial on that stretch of track. They would not say, however, whether it was switched on.

The accident happened at 1.15pm a quarter of a mile east of Southall station in west London. The passenger train clipped the eighth of the goods train's 20 wagons, derailing at least four packed carriages and crushing many of those inside.

The driver of the passenger train was last night arrested in connection with manslaughter charges, British Transport Police announced. The development came as the last bodies were removed from the mangled wreckage at 9.50pm. Earlier, the driver of the goods train was released after being questioned by detectives.

Trials had been under way of the Automatic Train Protection system, recommended in the official report into the Clapham rail disaster in 1988, in which 35 people died. The system is supposed to make it impossible for a driver to ignore a signal set at danger, prompting speculation that the system was not in operation.

Railtrack's Chief Executive, John Edmonds, maintained: "We are content professionally that we have a proper system of maintenance. But clearly there has been a major fault somewhere. It's conceivable there was a technical failure and it's also conceivable there was a human error." Last night the Health and Safety Executive took the unusual step of announcing a full public inquiry to run parallel with the Railways Inspectorate's own.

Some of those on board were journalists returning from the vote on Welsh devolution. One, Nick Sutton, a BBC researcher, said: "As I walked off the train, I saw a body lying by the side of the tracks. No one was touching it. His shirt was ripped and there was blood all over him ... Everyone was shocked. There was a really strong smell. I don't know if it was the brakes or if it was from hitting a goods train."

Unconfirmed reports said the train braked hard at between 60mph and 90mph after passing through a green light as the goods train was crossing at an acute angle on to another section of track. Both drivers escaped without injury; 16 passengers remained trapped for two hours. Last night 13 people were described as seriously injured but only a few others remained in hospital. Nevertheless, the death-toll made it the worst rail crash since Clapham.

John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, promised a full inquiry. Questions will centre on the most likely causes: driver error, faulty signals or train derailment. Mr Prescott visited the scene. "It's terrible. Horrific," he said. The Health and Safety Executive inquiry was being made public, in line with Labour's policy of more openness.

David Eves, the executive's deputy director-general, said: "Our investigation into this collision began immediately. Railway inspectors are making detailed inquiries into the technical causes of the accident and into the actions of railway staff immediately before the collision."

Andy Hancock, acting director of Railtrack's south-western region, said the goods train was travelling on a relief line towards Southall yard. The collision took place on a set of points, at Southall East Junction, as the goods train crossed the track to enter the yard.

The London Ambulance Service sent 15 ambulances and 15 other transporters to the scene. Injured people were taken to Ealing Hospital, Central Middlesex Hospital, West Middlesex Hospital and Hillingdon Hospital.

One woman suffered spinal injuries and a fractured hip, and a man received arm, leg and spinal injuries. Another man with head and chest injuries was taken by air ambulance to the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel.

Tony Mair, one of the first people to arrive at the scene, said: "We saw sparks and then there was a very loud bang and a ball of smoke. It was like very loud fireworks. I was there in under a minute. The train was lying on its side and people were wandering outside, with blood pouring from their faces.

"Two police officers were trying to warn us about [the possibility of] fallen power lines, but we were just worried about getting to help the people. There was nothing we could do to help people in the second and third carriages. My first impression was there were four bodies on the track."

Scotland Yard issued an emergency number for relatives last night - they should call: 0171-834 7777.

Further reports and pictures, page 3

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Installation Manager

£35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitment Company...

Scrum Master - Southampton, Hampshire - Excellent Package

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited:...

Senior Scrum Master - Hampshire - £47k

£47000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Key skil...

KS1 Teacher

£110 - £120 per annum + TBA: Randstad Education Reading: KS1 Teacher needed fo...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice