Byers shelves hi-tech rail safety system

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The Independent Online

The Government has no intention of meeting the official 2010 deadline for installing on the rail network a £3bn safety system that would have averted the Paddington and Southall disasters.

The Government has no intention of meeting the official 2010 deadline for installing on the rail network a £3bn safety system that would have averted the Paddington and Southall disasters.

The industry fears that the electronic equipment for preventing trains passing red lights, recommended in the Cullen report, will not be in use until 2015 on high-speed routes.

Ministers accept there is little chance of installing the fail-safe automatic train protection (ATP) system on time and are waiting for an opportune moment to announce the delay. Whitehall sources point out that the main obstacle is the cost. There seems to be no provision for the system in the Government's £65bn 10-year plan, which was described last week by the Commons Transport Committee as "totally inadequate".

Ministers are loath to embark on another massive public-private partnership project with all the political problems that could attend it.

Apart from the safety issue, the industry believes that, without the new safety equipment, the network will be unable to take many more trains – an expansion necessary to meet the Government's target of increasing the number of passengers by 50 per cent within 10 years.

Instead of ATP, the network is pressing ahead with the less effective train protection and warning System (TPWS), which costs substantially less, at about £500m, and is scheduled to be installed by the end of 2003.

The industry believes that even if ministers decided in the next few months to press ahead with ATP, the Cullen deadline it would be difficult to meet. In theory, the system could be installed by 2008, if ministers were prepared to put up with disruption caused by the engineering work. More realistically, and with less disruption, the project would take more than eight years, putting it beyond the 2010 deadline.

Stephen Byers, the Transport Secretary, has avoided committing himself to any date. He signed up to a "Cullen Declaration," drawn up by the Paddington Survivors' Group, only after a clause was added to give the Government flexibility on the issue. Maureen Kavanagh, chairwoman of the Safety on Trains Action Group, said yesterday she was "absolutely appalled" by the Government's lack of commitment. Ms Kavanagh, who lost her son, Peter, in the Southall disaster, said the public would wrongly believe that all train collisions would be prevented by TPWS. "I don't know what Byers will do when there is another disaster. There is sure to be one. He won't be able to fool the public all the time. We will continue to fight for the introduction of ATP."

Peter Rayner, a rail consultant and former British Rail manager, said any decision to delay the introduction of ATP would be "immoral". He said TPWS was not "fail-safe" and would not necessarily prevent collisions when trains were travelling faster than 75mph.

"I despair that we are the only major country in Europe which has not committed itself to the introduction of ATP on high-speed railways," he said. "Instead of introducing the system, they pressed ahead with a flawed method of privatisation which cost the Government twice as much to complete and made disasters more likely.

"This Government is taking the cheapest option. TPWS is a con. It might be good for politicians, but it is bad for railwaymen and bad for passengers."

Mr Rayner said that while TPWS would probably have prevented the Paddington disaster, it would not have averted the Southall tragedy.

Industry sources said the Government's target of increasing passengers would be impossible without ATP. To achieve the increase, far more services would need to be squeezed on to a highly congested network. An ATP system governing the speed of trains and keeping them apart would allow more frequent services on high-speed lines.

Under European law, Britain must introduce ATP eventually. The system favoured by the European Commission is the European train management system, which, in theory, removes the necessity for a driver and stops services before they pass signals set at danger. TPWS is a more basic electro-mechanical system that stops trains after they have passed red lights. Under some circumstances, particularly if a train is travelling at more than 75mph, the equipment might not stop the train in time.