Black box reveals safety failures in final moments before Paddington train crash

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The Independent Online

Details of the last moments before the Paddington rail crash were revealed yesterday as the Health and Safety Executive released data recorded by the black box from Thames Train 165.

Details of the last moments before the Paddington rail crash were revealed yesterday as the Health and Safety Executive released data recorded by the black box from Thames Train 165.

The details held in the battered device, which took three days to locate after the accident, have helped the executive to piece together the series of safety failures that resulted in the death of 30 people and injuries to 259 others, many of whom will need extensive plastic surgery.

The executive said signal 109, at the centre of the controversy after the accident, was found to have been partly obscured by overhead lines. Michael Hodder, 31, the driver of the Thames train, who had qualified just two months previously, was found to have actually accelerated rather than stopped when he went past the red "at danger" signal.

On the morning of Tuesday, 5 October, Mr Hodder, who had completed an 11-month training course, including signals procedure, checked out as usual with his controller as he took his train along the normal route to Bedwyn in Wiltshire.

It was a sunny morning with good visibility, there were no special checks or instructions and no mention of any problems ahead on the track. Signal 109 was due to stop the Thames train 750 yards from the station, to make way for the packed London-bound Great Western express from Cheltenham. In the previous six years, the signal had been passed "at danger" on eight occasions, there is no reason to think Mr Hodder would have known that.

At 8.11am the two trains crashed at Ladbroke Grove junction, two miles fromPaddington station. Carriages were wrenched off the rails and thrown some distance. A fire started almost immediately and spread, fuelled by diesel from the Thames train.

The black box shows that as Mr Hodder approached signal 109, he switched as expected from line 4 to line 3 and began to slow down. But then, instead of stopping, he accelerated and passed the signal at about 50mph.

At the control centre in Slough, Berkshire, a signaller was monitoring the traffic on a VDU display. He could see the Great Western express and the Thames train hurtling towards each other on a collision course and switched another signal - 120, on the line the Great Western express was on - to "danger". But it was too late.

For both drivers there would have been the terrifying realisation that their trains were about to hit each other. The black box shows that five seconds before impact Mr Hodder switched to neutral, three seconds later he slammed on the emergency brakes. It had taken 30 seconds from the Thames train passing signal 109 to crashing into the express.

Test train runs on the Thames driver's approach to the crash site were carried out under the supervision of the executive the day after the accident and also eight days later. It was discovered that signal 109 would have been initially partly obscured by overhead line equipment, but visible for seven seconds at the permitted approach speed of 60mph. There was, however, no direct evidence of what Mr Hodder may or may not have seen on that morning.

Mick Rix, general secretary of the train drivers' union Aslef, said: "The HSE's findings verify concerns that have been voiced about signal SN109 by our members. We await the further analysis of the HSE's tests, confident that no train driver deliberately accelerates past a red signal.

"The signal's sighting appears to be responsible for a fatal misreading on this tragic occasion. One of our concerns over a number of years has been about putting electrification masts and other equipment in front of signals."

The family of Mr Hodder, a father of two sons, aged seven and four, has always steadfastly refused to believe he was culpable for the Paddington crash. Last night a friend of the family said: "It is a slow process, but we are convinced that at the end people will know it was not his fault."

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