Bomb scare closes reopened Paddington station

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The Paddington to Reading railway line opened this morning for the first time since the October 5 crash which killed 30 - only to be shut down again almost immediately by a bomb scare.

The Paddington to Reading railway line opened this morning for the first time since the October 5 crash which killed 30 - only to be shut down again almost immediately by a bomb scare.

Army bomb squad experts were moving in after the morning rush-hour to make safe a Second World War bomb discovered by workmen just 175 yards from the main line, disrupting services for an estimated five hours.

In Parliament, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and representatives of Railtrack were today expected to face close questioning on the Paddington crash from the Commons Transport Committee.

The Committee is currently taking evidence on the Government's Railways Bill but has agreed to also discuss rail safety, and yesterday heard stiff criticism of Railtrack and the post-privatisation operation of the railway network.

Campaigners from Transport 2000 said that profits had been placed before safety on the railways, while the Railway Reform Group, consisting of former top rail executives, said it was unhappy with the way Railtrack monitored instances of signals passed at danger.

Railtrack's commercial director Richard Middleton was last night forced to apologise after labelling concerns over rail safety "hysterical" in a radio interview.

His words were criticised by lawyers representing Paddington victims, and Maureen Kavanagh of the Safety on Trains Action Group, who lost her son Peter in the 1997 Southall crash, described them as "outrageous and insulting".

Mr Middleton later said: "With hindsight, I accept that the unqualified use of the word 'hysteria' was wrong. I am sorry if anyone was upset or offended by this comment.

"But I must stress that the safety ethic is deeply ingrained in our company culture and any suggestion that it is no longer safe to travel by rail is simply untrue."

The first train to run out of Paddington Station this morning after its midnight reopening was the 5.10am Heathrow Express service.

A number of passengers who turned up at midnight found Paddington in confusion, with trains said to be running from the central London station actually starting their journeys elsewhere.

In the first full-run of the services involved in the crash, Great Western was operating the 6.03am train from Cheltenham in Gloucestershire while Thames was running an 8.05am train from Paddington to Bedwyn in Wiltshire.

The two trains were due to pass one another near Ladbroke Grove at about 8.11am, the time of the crash a fortnight ago.

The Thames train is running one minute earlier than the 8.06 train wrecked in the crash, out of respect for the victims of the disaster.

Great Western said it was trying to get back to normal but keeping events of two weeks "very much to the fore of our minds".

The company added: "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, passed at red just before the crash, means the Thames train will follow a different route from the service on the day of the disaster.

A near-normal service will be offered during the busy rush-hour, despite new speed restrictions and other safety measures put in place after the crash.

But at 9.45am, the line will be closed at Woodley, near Reading, Berks, to allow work to start on defusing the bomb.

Trains will terminate at Reading and Twyford and connecting bus services will be provided for commuters.

Thames Trains advised passengers wanting to travel between London and Reading during the disruption to use Waterloo services.

Railtrack chief executive Gerald Corbett said: "We are frustrated a stretch of line has to be closed for this vital work but we will work closely with the train operators to ensure there is the minimum of disruption for passengers."

Seven local schools were being closed and as many as 2,000 people moved from homes near the spot where the bomb was discovered on Tuesday by workmen building houses on a new development near the A4 road.

Army bomb disposal experts worked through last night to prepare for the delicate task of defusing the device.

Major Bob Tomkins, of the Royal Engineers, said: "The bomb has been identified as a German World War Two 1,000-kilogram device which contains 50% high explosives.

"It is very unlikely to go off but of course we must be prepared for the worst case."

He said the bomb would be defused in four phases with the fuse being immobilised and the explosives removed in an operation that was likely to last five hours.

Emergency services will be on hand as the operation gets under way.