Inspectors blame poor maintenance for Potters Bar crash

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The Independent Online

Incompetence, rather than sabotage, was the cause of the Potters Bar train disaster, an official report published today has concluded.

Rail inspectors blamed "inappropriate" maintenance procedures in the report, their most detailed analysis of the crash at the Hertfordshire station to date.

The points at the centre of the crash were poorly maintained and there was no guidance or instruction for the setting up, inspection or maintenance of this type of points, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said in its report.

The report said there appeared to have been a failure to recognise safety–related defects in the set–up and condition of the points, and to record or report them.

There were deficiencies in the response to a report of a rough ride in the area of the points south of Potters Bar station on the night before the derailment in May last year, said the HSE.

Today's report will raise fresh concerns about the ability of Jarvis, the company responsible for maintaining that stretch of track, to maintain other parts of the network for which it is responsible.

Jarvis has claimed that deliberate acts of "omission" and "commission" were the most likely cause of the derailment on 10 May last year, in which seven people died and 76 were injured.

But the HSE said today that it had found no evidence to "support speculation that sabotage or deliberate unauthorised interference was the direct or root cause of the derailment".

The HSE added that its investigation board considered that the "most underlying cause of the derailment was the poor condition of the points (namely points 2182A) at the time of the incident".

The HSE went on: "This resulted from inappropriate adjustment and from insufficient maintenance compared to what was necessary for their operating environment and safety functions.

"This situation probably arose from failure to understand fully the design and safety requirements for this type of points in this particular operating environment."

The novelist Nina Bawden, whose husband was killed in the crash, has called for corporate manslaughter charges to be brought against the contractor. Ms Bawden, who was badly injured in the accident, said Jarvis seemed to be blaming the derailment on "little green men from Mars" rather than accepting responsibility.

The Prime Minister and the Government should also take their share of the blame for failing to make railways a priority and for refusing to hold a public inquiry into the crash, she said, adding: "New Labour took a gamble on Railtrack because they didn't have the political will to put things right and my husband paid with his life."

A week after the accident, senior managers at Jarvis claimed that two attempts may have been made to derail trains outside Potters Bar. Two crucial steel nuts were found detached from the points by a three-man inspection team on 1 May and replaced. A survey of the site immediately after the crash showed the same two nuts had become detached, along with two others. Two further nuts had been tightened - the so-called acts of omission and commission.

Two earlier reports by the rail inspectorate, part of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), simply said there was no evidence to support the Jarvis claims but today's more thorough study makes clear the investigators' scepticism.

The report confirmed that the last coach of the four-carriage train was derailed after a set of points fell apart. The coach ended up straddling two platforms at Potters Bar station. The points have been the subject of exhaustive examination at the Health and Safety laboratory at Buxton in Derbyshire.

The HSE's first report came out on 14 May last year - just four days after the crash. A second, more detailed, report followed last July. The second document said the points were not up to standard and that nuts on other points in the area had not been fully tightened.

A Network Rail spokesman said: "We are fundamentally altering the way rail maintenance is done in the UK.

"Under the new maintenance programme which is now being rolled out across the network, Network Rail will have the capacity to direct rail maintenance activities, deciding what work has to be done and when it has to be done.

"We will be considering this report fully and will be working closely with the HSE on developing the recommendations," the spokesman said.

British Transport Police said that a 28-strong team was still collating evidence "around a number of lines of inquiry" in what has been dubbed Operation Declare. The inquiries relate to the degree of access to the area, management and maintenance of the lines, and reports that were received before the crash relating to the state of the track.

Officers said that extensive inquiries had been carried out, with more than 1,300 statements taken and DNA evidence from the points collected. Its findings are due to be presented to the Crown Prosecution Service in August.

Conflicting theories a two-year search for answers

1 May 2002 Inspectors for Jarvis, the company responsible for maintaining the Potters Bar line, find two of the nuts out of place and had to be tightened.

2 May 2002 Jarvis reports the nuts were "sitting neatly" underneath bolts, indicating they may have been taken off and not replaced. Two others were in the "immediate vicinity", possibly shaken loose.

10 May 2002 The 12.45 London-to-King's Lynn crashes at Potters Bar. Seven people were killed and 76 injured.

14 May 2002 Survey by HSE of 867 points found a "handful, maybe one or two handfuls" of nuts that needed tightening.

Late May 2002 Jarvis claim saboteurs meddling with the tracks to be more likely cause.

July 2002 Second more detailed report found that points were not up to standard and that nuts on other points in the area had not been fully tightened.

Summer 2003 Police inquiry called Operation Declare due to be finished.