Inquiry team supports cheap rail safety system

Troubled Railways: Abandoning train-protection devices for more advanced package 'would risk lives' and use up funds 'disproportionately'
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An official inquiry into two fatal rail crashes appears ready to support what victims and their families claim is "second-rate" safety equipment.

An official inquiry into two fatal rail crashes appears ready to support what victims and their families claim is "second-rate" safety equipment.

The team investigating what part train-protection systems could have played in last year's Ladbroke Grove disaster and the 1997 Southall rail crash, both in west London, has suggested that installation of a cheaper and less effective package should continue.

It had been hoped the inquiry into the two crashes, which together killed 38 people, would have recommended immediate installation of more advanced and safer systems than the existing train-protection warnings system (TPWS).

Lawyers representing victims and their families had pressed for either the automatic train-protection system or more advanced European train-control system (ETCS), both of which are designed to stop a train passing a red signal. The TPWS initially alerts the driver that a red signal has been passed and then applies the brakes if the driver fails to respond. It is considered effective only at speeds below 75mph and would not have prevented either of the two crashes, the inquiry was told.

In his closing statements yesterday the inquiry's counsel said that to abort the current programme of installing TPWS would put lives at risk. Ian Burnett QC said that the number of trains passing red signals - the cause of both crashes - was now "intolerable" and that installation of the TPWS should be allowed to continue. He said the more advanced ETCS could be installed in the future.

John Hendy QC, speaking for the passengers and bereaved at yesterday at Central Hall, London, said: "Risks of high speed catastrophic collision remain. TPWS is a second-rate, stop-gap system." Rail user groups have expressed fears that installation of the TPWS will delay the introduction of the ETCS which is widely used throughout the rest of Europe.

This more sophisticated system is more effective at higher speeds but is more expensive to install than TPWS and would take about a decade to get up and running, the inquiry was told.

Mr Burnett said that to stop the current TPWS programme would not only endanger lives but would also use up financial and human resources in a "grossly disproportionate way" on lines where trains did not yet travel above 75mph and leave other important safety measures short of funds.

Roger Henderson QC, representing Railtrack, told the inquiry that fitting ETCS at the moment was not "reasonably practicable" in terms of the company's limited resources. He said although Railtrack supported the installation of this system, it would require government policy to make it mandatory and ensure that funding was made available.

Mr Burnett recommended that the industry should not wait for the final report, expected next spring, before starting a working group to set out a timetable for the introduction of ETCS.

Winding up the first part of the inquiry, the chairman, Lord Cullen, paid his respects to the passengers and families of victims of last week's derailment at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, in which four people died.

Seven people died in the Southall crash in 1997 when a high-speed train went through a red signal and collided with a freight train. Last year, 31 people died and 414 were injured at Ladbroke Grove when two passenger trains collided after one passed a red signal. Part two of the inquiry, into Ladbroke Grove, opens on Monday.