Chilling echoes of Selby crash raise safety issues

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The Independent Online

In the Selby rail crash report earlier this week, the Health and Safety Commission warned it would take 300 years for a disaster of the same magnitude to occur again in similar circumstances. Details of the Nocton crash suggest it nearly took three days.

As The Independent revealed on Tuesday, research by THE civil engineer Professor John Knapton has shown that near-repeats of Selby – when Gary Hart's Land Rover fell across the east coast main line, are not so rare. A total of 42 vehicles have plunged through roadside fences towards railways since the disaster of 28 February last year, with 27 landing on tracks. Minor roads such as the B1188 running alongside the Lincoln to Sleaford line at Nocton are notoriously bad, accounting for 80 per cent of road-rail incidents.

Professor Knapton, whose greatest concern is protection near road bridges, estimates the cost of erecting steel barriers alongside them to be £10m and, last night, he reiterated his appeal for work to begin.

He said: "The commission report said, 'Do nothing for the time being, keep talking. We're saying there should have been barriers in place within eight weeks of Selby but nothing's happened. The walls and fences people are crashing through are not engineered. Nobody has worked out what force may be applied to them. They were erected to keep out trespassers. Tonight demonstrates the fact again."

The Nocton incident is full of painful resonances. It occurred in Lincolnshire, the county of departure for both Hart and the freight train involved in the crash he caused. Great Heck had barely concluded its first anniversary memorials when the collision happened.

It bore little detailed comparison with the almost impossible combination of factors that caused the Selby crash. Gary Hart, driving on the benefits of a 35-minute cat nap at best, just happened to fall asleep while approaching a 30-yard section of motorway unprotected by a barrier, near a bridge on the eastbound M62. The freight train approached because it had left 10 minutes early and, with a five-second time lag, railway points would not have catapulted it into the GNER Newcastle to London express heading the opposite way at 117mph.

But similar – if less fateful – incidents have been quietly occurring in the past 12 months and one involved a van in rural Lincolnshire. It plummeted on to the east coast line at Wilsford on August 30 and was hit by a train.

In the same month, Frank Kelly, a 64-year-old millionaire property tycoon who owned large chunks of Blackpool's Golden Mile, died when his Mercedes left a country lane at Great Plumpton, Lancashire, ploughed through trees and plunged 20ft down an embankment on to a railway where it was hit by a four-carriage train. The train was not derailed.

Within a few days, a motorist escaped serious injury when his Skoda plunged down a slope near an M62 bridge at Rochdale and landed in a bog.

The Health and Safety Commission wants an assessment of high-risk locations, though the Highways Agency, which published its own report on Monday, believes there are "no serious shortcomings".

A problem is who pays for barriers. Local councils, responsible for secondary roads, and the Highways Agency, under whose aegis motorways and trunk roads fall, had been battling it out with Railtrack before it went into administration.

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