Anger over 'hysteria' claim by Railtrack boss

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A Railtrack director was criticised today after appealing for an end to what he called 'hysteria' about rail safety in the wake of the Paddington crash in which 30 people died.

A Railtrack director was criticised today after appealing for an end to what he called 'hysteria' about rail safety in the wake of the Paddington crash in which 30 people died.

Railtrack's commercial director Richard Middleton was commenting after defending the company's proposals for re-opening Paddington at midnight tonight.

He said: 'The arrangements we have put in place are safe. They will be reviewed when the service is phased in over the next few weeks.

'We will await the results of Lord Cullen's inquiry before finalising any other changes at Paddington.'

He continued: 'But I must stress that it really is time for the hysteria around rail safety to be calmed down. Rail is a safe mode of transport and Paddington station is safe.'

Mr Middleton was speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, on the same programme, appeared to distance himself from the 'hysteria' comment.

He said: 'I think there is a lot of reduced confidence in the railways. I don't think 'hysteria'. I think probably Railtrack are feeling they have got an awful lot of press pressure. We understand that kind of thing.'

Asked whether 'hysteria' was his view, the Deputy Prime Minister said: 'No, it isn't. I think what they (Railtrack) mean by that is that they would say the railways are more safe than the car. 'If you look at the last 12 years, deaths on the railways have halved.'

Lawyers acting for victims of the Southall and Paddington crashes as well as the earlier Watford collision in 1996 attacked Mr Middleton, saying his words would add to the sense of insult felt by many families and victims.

Solicitor Karen Darbyshire, of Watford law firm Collins, said: 'Relatives and campaigners have been battling for three years for the lessons of the Watford and then Southall crashes to be learnt.

'It has now taken the loss of 30 lives for the issue to finally be taken seriously and for Railtrack to talk about hysteria after Paddington is going to leave some victims feeling deeply insulted.

'There should be hysteria when we see the sort of level of fatality that occurred at Paddington and it is outrageous to suggest otherwise. Something has got to be done because we have had two accidents too many.'

Mr Prescott, who is in charge of transport, appeared to indicate that he would consider resigning from the Government if there was another rail tragedy.

During persistent questioning from interviewer John Humphrys, he was asked: 'You would feel you would have to resign if there was another crash, would you not?'

He replied: 'Let's wait for the circumstances. I would only try to keep doing my job the best I can. 'If I can sleep easy at night saying: 'Iÿve done everything I can possibly can ...' then if at the end of the day, another tragedy was to come about, God forbid, then judgments would be made by others.'

Mr Humphrys went on: 'The reason I raise the issue is that you have in the past called for transport ministers to resign when accidents have happened and people would be entitled to say that somebody at the top should have to carry the can.'

Mr Prescott said: 'If it's the man at the top - there are far too many responsible for these matters. I'm not entirely responsible.

'I am responsible to try and get a safer railway, but it's not like it's publicly-owned, where I could send an edict out to the chairman and say I want it to be done, ABC.'

The two train services involved in the Paddington disaster will tomorrow pass the scene of the collision for the first time since the tragedy.

Passengers will board the 6.03am Great Western Cheltenham to Paddington express and the 8.05am Thames Trains Paddington to Bedwyn service as the London terminus re-opens with a near-normal service following a safety audit.

Thames Trains announced it was retiming its service to one minute earlier than the 8.06am train destroyed in the crash out of respect for its driver, Michael Hodder, and passengers involved in the disaster.

The two trains will be running in full for the first time since the crash at Ladbroke Grove on October 5 as train operators, including the Heathrow Express, resume services from Paddington after it reopens at midnight tonight. A Great Western spokeswoman said: 'We are trying to get back to normal but at the same time keeping events two weeks ago very much to the fore of our minds.

'We will be very aware of what some of our passengers might be going through on the Cheltenham service and expect to have extra staff to hand to offer any assistance.'

The continuing ban on the use of Signal 109, the signal at the centre of the inquiry into the crash after it was passed at red, means the Thames train will follow a different route from the service on the day of the disaster. Train operators were promising a near-normal service despite new speed restrictions and other measures put in place after the crash with Heathrow Express running the first train out of Paddington at 5.10am tomorrow.

Great Western said it was cancelling four services out of Paddington - the 16.30 to Cardiff, 17.12 to Hereford, 17.42 to Oxford and the 19.03 to Penzance, which runs on Fridays only. The Motorail service has also been cancelled. A further three Great Western services to Paddington were cancelled - 07.22 from Oxford, 06.50 from Swansea and the 16.24 from Bristol. The 18.50 Bristol Temple Meads to Oxford and 17.10 Oxford to Bristol trains will also not run. Thames Trains said it was cancelling two services - 16.51 Paddington to Didcot Parkway and 10.20 Paddington to Windsor. Many services are subject to arrival and departure times up to three minutes later than advertised. Four weekday Heathrow Express trains will not run - 17.25 Heathrow to Paddington, 18.25 Heathrow to Paddington, 17.55 Paddington to Heathrow and 18.55 Paddington to Heathrow. Otherwise services will run every 15 minutes.