Train firm broke rules 63 times

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DAMNING EVIDENCE has emerged that Great Western Trains routinely ignored safety rules, which led to the Southall rail disaster in which seven people were killed and 150 injured.

A police dossier to be submitted to a public inquiry into the crash tomorrow reveals that the company allowed its 125mph trains to run without a critical warning system for drivers on 63 occasions in the eight months before the accident.

That means that two trains a week were operating without the device which alerts drivers if they pass lights at danger.

Great Western, fined a record pounds 1.5m in July over the west London crash, failed to tighten procedures until three weeks after the accident, following a warning letter to the industry from the Chief Inspector of Railways.

Expert evidence will argue that the privatisation process substantially increased the likelihood of the disaster, in which a Swansea to Paddington express ploughed into a slow freight train near Southall station in September 1998.

Before British Rail was sold off, fast services were given priority, but the Rail Regulator insisted that train companies should be given equal access. It is thought that slow trains run in front of fast services and cause delays to passengers.

Lawyers for Aslef, the train drivers' union, will contend that before privatisation there was less commercial pressure and far fewer trains ran without the Automatic Warning System (AWS). The Health and Safety Commission inquiry will attempt to determine the cause of the accident and make recommendations to the Government and the industry.

Other statements from British Transport Police disclose Great Western reported only 10 of the 63 incidents to Railtrack, the infrastructure company.

When the AWS is operational it sounds a klaxon when the train goes through lights at danger and will stop the train unless it is overridden by the driver. Police point out that not one of the services on which the system was faulty was cancelled.

It has emerged that the driver was putting something into his bag at the time he was running through the signals, but his union will argue that the signals were badly sited.

Two weeks after the crash Vic Coleman, Chief Inspector of Railways, wrote to Railtrack and all train operators warning them of an "overly liberal interpretation" of the safety rules.

Great Western pleaded guilty to health and safety offences arising out of the disaster. The judge, Mr Justice Scott Baker, criticised the company for running the train without the safety mechanism and for not turning it round at Swansea so that the faulty cab was at the back.

A charge of corporate manslaughter against the company was withdrawn after the judge ruled that no manager was individually guilty of reckless behaviour. Charges against the driver of manslaughter and of breaching the health and safety laws were also dropped. The driver has suffered severe psychological problems since the accident.

Louise Christian, leading solicitor for the victims' families, said that the safety systems in use were "antiquated" and were difficult to maintain. All train operators should be made to use engines equipped with Automatic Train Protection, which was more expensive but was more reliable and could not be overridden by drivers, she said.

A Great Western spokesman said the safety procedures adopted by management before the disaster were widely used in the industry. Trains were not allowed to leave the depot with the AWS out of commission, he said. The device failed after leaving the workshop, while the train was at Paddington, and so was allowed to continue.