BR axes pounds 600m safety measure

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BRITISH RAIL is to drop the introduction of a pounds 600m train safety system in the run-up to privatisation on the grounds that it will cost too much.

The shelving of Automatic Train Protection (ATP) - recommended by the Hidden Report after the Clapham rail disaster - will be announced soon as BR begins handing over its responsibilities to Railtrack, the infrastructure authority.

The move follows abandonment last week of a 24-hour confidential safety telephone helpline for train crews on the busy West Coast main line from Euston to Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow; calls will now be re-routed to an overworked control centre at Crewe. It also coincides with the rundown of safety training days for footplate staff. Training days and the helpline were both proposed by Sir Anthony Hidden QC in his report on safety after Clapham.

John Prescott, who as shadow transport secretary fought the rail privatisation legislation given Royal Assent last week, said: 'We always predicted during the course of the Bill that one of the main casualties would be safety. And the first casualty of the conflict between commercial priorities and safety requirements was always going to be ATP.'

After the Clapham disaster, which cost 35 lives in December 1988, BR promised to implement Sir Anthony's recommendation for ATP on 'a large percentage of the railway'. In fact, only pilot schemes costing pounds 10m were tested on two routes. But as recently as January, BR was denying reports that it would shelve ATP.

A BR spokesman said yesterday: 'Future development of the ATP system depends on availability of further funding. We cannot say whether that will be available.'

ATP, a computerised system that prevents footplate crews from driving through red lights, would not have averted the Clapham disaster. But it would almost certainly have prevented later accidents, such as the crash in Purley, south London, in March 1989 in which five died, and at Bellgrove in Glasgow two days later, which killed two, and at Newton, Strathclyde, which claimed four lives. An official inquiry into the Newton collision, published a year ago, reiterated the need for ATP.

'What is becoming clear,' Mr Prescott said, 'is that the problems of pushing the Bill through will pale into insignificance compared with those of implementing it.'

Labour MPs tried to compel the Government to write into the legislation an obligation on private franchise-holders to implement a 32-point list of conditions for maintaining safety levels drawn up by the Health and Safety Executive.

But ministers successfully resisted the move, and Mr Prescott added last night: 'Good safety on the railways depends on statutory enforcement, not the will of the board of directors. Passengers cannot feel comfortable, knowing that commercial priorities will override safety ones.'

Abandoning the confidential safety helpline on the West Coast line, together with the shutdown of five 'outbased' control centres at Euston, Birmingham, Crewe, Preston and Carlisle, has also raised fresh fears about the future of the London-Glasgow route.

Brian Wilson, MP for the Scottish constituency of Cunninghame North and Labour transport spokesman, warned: 'These are highly significant cutbacks, in terms of both maintenance and safety. The implications for the line are particularly worrying. Its rundown now seems an integral part of privatisation strategy.'

A spokesman for InterCity said: 'InterCity has been the most profitable part of the rail network, and we are taking further measures to ensure that its profitability is maintained. We would not endanger the travelling public, and we do not think that any of these measures will do so.'

(Photograph omitted)