BR planned to fit radios in crash cabs

BRITISH Rail was weeks away from fitting cab radios to the trains involved in Saturday's rail crash, a move which may have prevented the accident which killed five people.

A local BR spokesman said last night that a beacon for the radio system for the Oxted to Uckfield branch line had been installed last month. However, he added: 'We do not know when the radios would have been installed in the cabs.'

The radios are being fitted as part of BR's programme to meet the recommendations of the Hidden report into the 1988 Clapham rail crash, which killed 35 people. BR's director of operations told the Hidden inquiry that all cabs would have radios by 1992 and that pounds 5.5m had been earmarked to pay for them but later broke that commitment, claiming it was because of government cuts in investment.

BR now has a target of the end of 1995, but even after a day of inquiries from the Independent, it was unable to confirm whether that target would be met. A spokesman for the British Rail board said: 'We've had three changes of organisation since then. It's a matter of finding out who the right people in charge are. We are now 25 separate companies.'

To save money, BR has selected a system for most trains which only allows the driver, not signal staff, to initiate a conversation. In an emergency, however, the signal staff can contact the control centre which in turn can speak to the drivers. Whether this could have allowed the signalman in charge of the line at the time of Saturday's crash, who was aware the trains were on a collision course, to get the control centre to contact the drivers remains a matter for conjecture.

BR says that one-way radios are sufficient to meet the requirements of the Hidden report. But BR has said it is not implementing another key recommendation of the Hidden report, Automatic Train Protection, a device to stop a train automatically if it goes through a red light. The absence of ATP increases the need for two- way radio communication.

Indeed, the usefulness of two-way communications was demonstrated as recently as last August when it prevented a potential major disaster at Waverley station in Edinburgh. A runaway locomotive was heading for an InterCity high-speed train and a signalman was able to radio the driver to warn him. The InterCity driver managed to stop the train and the collision caused only three serious injuries. The driver, Tam Campbell, managed to move to the back of the cab, which probably saved his life.

Users of the Oxted to Uckfield line on which Saturday's accident occurred had been assured that the trains would be fitted with radios after the line was changed from double track to single track five years ago. Gordon Pettit, the manager of In March 1989, British Rail Southern Region wrote to Brian Hart, of the Wealden Line Campaign, stating: 'All trains will be equipped with cellular radio so that the train crew can be in constant touch with the signalmen at Oxted'.

The trains did indeed sometimes carry cellular telephones, but a spokesman for South Central said: 'Carrying the phones was voluntary. They are like a comfort blanket for the drivers, but they are not a requirement.' In any case, the telephones were routinely turned off to save power on the batteries which meant they could not receive incoming calls.

The line is expected to be reopened today but following talks between management and unions, only one train will be used on the route. Aslef, the train drivers' union, wants to see a series of safety measures such as cab radios and safety traps at points introduced before normal running is restarted. Lou Adams, Aslef's general secretary, said: 'There have been numerous safety complaints on this line which has a bad record. These precautions are absolutely essential.'

The fifth victim was named yesterday as Brian Barton, a train driver, from East Croydon, south London.

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