Berkshire train crash: Was it suicide?

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Police investigating the Berkshire rail disaster believe the motorist involved may have driven on to the track to commit suicide.

Police investigating the Berkshire rail disaster believe the motorist involved may have driven on to the track to commit suicide.

Police sources said the man's car looked as if it had been deliberately parked in the path of the Paddington to Plymouth express which smashed into the vehicle and derailed, killing seven people, including an eight-year-old girl.

An off-duty police officer had tried in vain to avert the crash by using an emergency phone to alert signallers but the First Great Western train hit the vehicle within seconds of him picking up the phone.

Police denied reports that the officer spoke to the driver of the car which was straddling the track near the village of Ufton Nervet, near Reading, and that he had expressed a wish to commit suicide. As railway staff worked to clear the devastation caused by the crash, Andy Trotter, Deputy Chief Constable of British Transport Police, said investigators were looking into the man's background to see if it provided any clues to the tragedy.

However, he said they were not going to "make any assumptions" and the vehicle would be examined to see if there had been a mechanical fault.

Passengers in the packed train were hurled through the air as the train collided with the car and then began to derail. About half the 300 passengers on board were hurt. Jon Stace, 21, a student from London, who suffered an arm injury, said: "The lights went out. I felt like we spun over and after that I could feel bodies going on top of me and being thrown different places. It was pitch black."

Apart from the motorist, the driver of the train and five passengers on the 5.35pm service from Paddington, were known to have died.

Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, promised a full investigation into the crash ­ the first at a level crossing to involve passenger deaths since the disaster at Lockington, east Yorkshire, in 1986 in which nine people died.

The accident comes after a period in which rail chiefs were congratulating themselves on the network's improved safety record. Rail insiders pointed out that it was difficult to protect the network from accidents which may be beyond their control .

Some experts urged safety personnel to review the use of "half barrier" level crossings on high-speed lines. On busy lines where services reach speeds in excess of 100mph, crossings are monitored so that signals can be changed to red if there is an obstruction.

At the scene of the accident yesterday, the trail of wreckage began about 30 metres to the west of the crossing where a twisted lump of grey metal was all that remained of the crashed car.

Seventy metres farther along the track, the train had come to a halt. The rear engine and last carriage had been derailed and were tilted at 45 degrees; the next carriage was in a field.

Beyond that, the line was blocked by several carriages that had juddered to a halt and had been lifted off the track at either end in a concertina effect.

A total of 19 people were believed to be still in hospital last night.