Death returns to the railway

Seven killed, dozens hurt as 100mph train smashes into Potters Bar station
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The Independent Online

Seven people died and another four were critically injured yesterday after a train travelling at up to 100mph flew off the tracks and smashed into Potters Bar station in Hertfordshire, only 10 miles from the scene of the Hatfield disaster 18 months ago.

Seven people died and another four were critically injured yesterday after a train travelling at up to 100mph flew off the tracks and smashed into Potters Bar station in Hertfordshire, only 10 miles from the scene of the Hatfield disaster 18 months ago.

Last night, police and officials from the Rail Inspectorate were trying to establish why the four-carriage West Anglia Great Northern train, which was carry-ing 151 passengers, left the track as it entered the station 10 minutes after leaving King's Cross en route for King's Lynn.

Although investigators feared that the crash was a disastrous repetition of the Hatfield accident, which was caused by a crack in the rails, Railtrack said last night that there was no evidence so far to support the theory. Early speculation also surrounds a set of points just before the station.

The Potters Bar crash comes 14 months after the last fatal accident on the country's railways, at Selby, in which 10 people died. The industry fears that this incident, the fifth in a series of rail disasters in the past five years, could trigger a complete loss of confidence in rail travel.

As well as the dead and the critically injured ­ who were treated at hospitals in Hertfordshire and north London ­ about 70 more were tended to at a first-aid post in a Sainsbury's supermarket next to the station.

One body was found under the rail bridge and another was pulled from the wreckage last night almost eight hours after the crash. An 80-year-old woman was among those killed. Fifteen people were thought to be in a serious condition with crush injuries, compound fractures, and leg and chest wounds.

Amadin Ryan, who was standing on the platform when the crash occurred, said: "The first thing I heard was the noise. It was like thunder. We had to run out of the way. There weren't a lot of people on the platform, and after that everything was just a haze for a moment. Then we saw bodies flying out of the train as that carriage slid towards us."

He added: "One guy was rolled up like a ball and came flying through the window, it was absolutely awful. Then the roof started caving in at that end of the station. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion."

The accident happened just before 1pm when the "Cambridge Cruiser" train left the rails just short of the station. The first three carriages continued along the line before coming to a standstill 150 yards beyond the station, but the final coach was left behind and jack-knifed until it was perpendicular to the rails. As passengers ran for their lives, the carriage flew over two platforms before wedging itself under the roof of another.

One early theory was that a rail broke just as the third carriage passed over it, generating a massive vibration that caused a points change, diverting the fourth carriage to the left. The detached coach hit a railway bridge and careered towards the station.

John Armitt, chief executive of Railtrack, said: "We would look at the points that were the last set of points before the station that the trains would have travelled over.''

Richard Hope, consultant editor of Railway Gazette magazine, said the derailment seemed to have started at the points because the track before them had not been damaged.

The driver of the train, Andy Gibson, was not injured in the accident. His union, Aslef, praised the way he had behaved immediately after the accident.

The crash occurred on the line where four people were killed and 87 injured in October 2000, when a London-to-Leeds express train was derailed by a broken track near Hatfield station. In both casesthe last carriage suffered by far the worst damage.

The Networker train that derailed yesterday was similar to the one used by the Thames Trains service involved in the Ladbroke Grove disaster in October 1999, when 31 people were killed. The Cullen inquiry, set up after that accident, was highly critical of the ability of Networker trains to withstand the impact of a crash. Lord Cullen proposed looking at ways to strengthen the aluminium shell of the rolling stock. Similar trains carry hundreds of thousands of commuters a day in the South-east.

Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, said he had asked investigators from the Health and Safety Executive to report their preliminary findings about the cause of the accident. He said it would be "totally inappropriate" to comment on the cause of the tragedy at such an early stage, but sought to reassure the public that train travel was safe.

Tony Blair's official spokesman said: "The Prime Minister's thoughts are with the relatives and friends of the dead and injured at this difficult time."

Louise Christian, the solicitor acting for the victims of the Ladbroke Grove disaster and the 1997 Southall crash, called for an immediate public inquiry into yesterday's accident and the crash at Hatfield.