Another rail inquiry, but this time the relatives' anger will not be soothed by bland assurances

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The Independent Online

A "deathly silence" descended over the Great Western express after it shuddered to a halt leaving a trail of twisted wreckage and the debris of shattered possessions littering the trackside.

A "deathly silence" descended over the Great Western express after it shuddered to a halt leaving a trail of twisted wreckage and the debris of shattered possessions littering the trackside.

For what seemed an eternity, the passengers sat in stunned disbelief. There was very little panic but among the survivors there was one question on their minds: "How could this happen again?"

Those same survivors yesterday relived the horror of last year's Paddington rail crash in which 31 people were killed as Lord Cullen's inquiry was officially opened in London. Ironically, the disaster happened on 5 October, just after the public hearing opened into the 1997 Southall rail crash which killed seven people. The latest inquiry will attempt to answer the fundamental question: why?

Colin Paton, the conductor on the express which collided with the Thames Trains service at Ladbroke Grove outside the London terminus, had told investigators how immediately after the impact he saw a scene of chaos with "people draped over seats, passengers cut and passengers lying on the floor". Mr Paton was in the least damaged coach furthest from the impact, Robert Owen, senior counsel, told the hearing at Central Hall in Westminster.

In contrast, the first carriage of the commuter train "virtually disintegrated" - damaged beyond recognition, Mr Owen said in his opening statement. Most of it ended up draped like a piece of material across the top of the express. Twenty of the 31 who died were in that coach, including the driver, Michael Hodder, who had qualified just 13 weeks previously.

The commuter train was shunted 10 metres back from the point of impact, while the front of the express travelled about 100 metres further on.

Fire broke out while the trains were still moving. Some passengers spoke of a fireball shooting along outside the carriages, others heard a sound like thunder or a bomb exploding. One coach on the Great Western train was subjected to a sustained inferno which reduced its interior to little more than ash. The fire was fed by more than 6,000 litres of diesel which spewed out of the trains' fuel tanks.

Given the extreme violence of the crash and the harrowing scenes, Mr Owen told the inquiry that the trains were evacuated with considerable calm - despite the imminent risk of people being burned alive.

"Above all, the evidence of evacuation is marked by an absence of panic, by remarkable control and selfless behaviour on the part of almost all, and by acts of courage on the part of many," he said.

He told how some trapped passengers tried to smash a window to escape, but found that the hammers provided for the purpose failed to break the glass. Eventually the window was kicked out by two men.

The relief of those who survived and the grief of the bereaved yesterday turned to anger. The question heard in the wreckage was heard once more. "How could this happen again?"

The injured and the relatives declared that they were considering a private prosecution against directors of the companies involved.

In the wake of a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) not to take criminal proceedings against any individuals over the accident, Robin Kellow, whose 24-year-old daughter, Elaine, died in the tragedy, said that members of Railtrack's board should face trial. "Every time it comes down to taking their bonuses, they do. But they clearly haven't done their jobs," Mr Kellow said.

Pam Warren, 33, who was severely burnt in the accident and now wears a transparent surgical mask, said private legal action might be the only way to bring individuals to book.

The CPS decided on Tuesday that there was no real prospect of a conviction for manslaughter under the present law. It argues that it is notoriously difficult to isolate a "controlling mind" in any organisation, which is what the law requires.

Ms Warren declared her anger over the decision and asked the law service to reconsider. She argued that rail companies were being allowed to get away with safety systems of "Third World" standards. "I'm angry but I think that the country should be angry. They should not put up with a second-rate or third-rate network," she said.

Beside Ms Warren at a press conference called at Central Hall before the inquiry started, sat fellow survivor Evelyn Crosskey, 28, of Oxfordshire, who suffered leg injuries in the crash. Her family were mistakenly informed that she was dead after she covered one of the victims with her coat.

"I find it incredible that the problems exposed by Southall and Clapham [the 1988 crash in which 35 people died] go on and on, and nothing is implemented," Ms Crosskey said.

Birgit Andersen whose daughter, Charlotte, 32, was killed, travelled from her home in Virginia, United States, for the hearing. Mrs Andersen said that politicians had a duty to make "courageous decisions" to ensure rail safety, even if this meant stripping railway companies of their licences.

Railtrack is expected to come under fire for failing to take action to improve the safety of the signal at the heart of the crash, SN109. The Thames Trains commuter service heading out of Paddington sped through the signal set at red and then smashed virtually head-on into the incoming Great Western express. The light has been passed at red on eight occasions since 1993.

Thames Trains is also expected to face criticism over its systems for recruiting and training drivers. The bereaved called for the nationwide introduction of the fail-safe automatic train protection system which would have prevented the overwhelming majority of fatal accidents. Mr Kellow said claims that it would take 10 years to install the ATP system were nonsense. "They could do it overnight if they wanted to. They just don't want to spend the money on it."

Emily Houch, 31, of San Jose, California, was thrown 20 feet into the air on impact and broke her back. She suffered up to 40 per cent burns and spent four months in hospital. Ms Houch said Britain should be "ashamed" of what happened.

"There seems to be an equation that it is cheaper to kill people off than put the safety systems in," she said, adding that there should be some way of punishing the people involved. "They are playing Russian roulette with people's lives."

Louise Christian, leading solicitor for the bereaved and injured, said she had spoken to Natalie Adams, whose husband Michael, of Portland, Oregon, US, was still receiving hospital treatment after the crash. Mrs Adams had described the decision by the CPS not to bring manslaughter charges as "an insult". Ms Christian said: "I think it is a matter of international shame the way the Director of Public Prosecutions took this decision."

Maureen Kavanagh, chairman of the Safety on Trains Action Group (Stag), which was set up after the Southall crash, said: "We hope there will be some sensible recommendations and that something good will come out of this inquiry." Mrs Kavanagh lost her son Peter, 29, in the Southall crash.

The Uff inquiry into the 1997 disaster, which reported in February, found that the driver of the Great Western express was primarily at fault for driving through a red light. However, both Railtrack and Great Western were taken to task for organisational failures.

The vice-chairman of the action group, Carol Bell, who was injured at Southall, said: "What's the point of bringing out recommendations if they are not implemented? Rail company directors have to be accountable, otherwise things will never change."