Paddington train disaster: Human error regarded as the most likely cause

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The Independent Online

INVESTIGATORS WERE examining whether the tragedy yesterday was a fatal rerun of a near-miss last year in which a driver misread a signal at danger. It is thought signal 109, the subject of many complaints to Railtrack, might have been at the centre of the crash at Ladbroke Grove yesterday.

INVESTIGATORS WERE examining whether the tragedy yesterday was a fatal rerun of a near-miss last year in which a driver misread a signal at danger. It is thought signal 109, the subject of many complaints to Railtrack, might have been at the centre of the crash at Ladbroke Grove yesterday.

It is possible that the driver of the train service from Paddington may have missed a red light, according to sources.

Officials close to the investigation contended that the express service from Cheltenham had been cleared to move into the west London station. It is understood that both trains would have been travelling at about 60mph, producing a lethal combined speed of 120mph. Most authorities agreed that the 8.06am service from Paddington to Bedwyn in Wiltshire was heading on to the same line occupied by the 6.03am Cheltenham to Paddington express.

The Great Western train involved in the near-miss in February 1998 was thought to be on collision course with a stationary London-bound Heathrow passenger service. The Great Western driver, who was carrying 370 passengers, managed to brake in time.

Both trains yesterday would have had an advance warning system (AWS), which alerts the driver to red signals. But it is suppressed near the mainline station because trains are assumed to be travelling at relatively low speeds. However, the cross-over points allow for greater speeds than usual at such junctions.

It was not known last night whether the high-speed train's automatic train protection (ATP) device, generally thought to be fool-proof, was operational. The system would have stopped the express automatically if the train encountered signals at danger. The smaller Turbo train does not have ATP, although public inquiries into rail accidents have called for its universal introduction.

There were three possible explanations, say experts: signal failure, a mechanical fault such as defective brakes or human error. Human error was thought to be the most likely cause.

Alan Marshall, publisher of Rail News, said the signalling system may have been at fault, but argued that it was unlikely, given that the system was not only state-of-the-art but also proven technology.

The Railway Inspectorate will examine the trains' "black boxes" to ascertain their speeds on impact and the degree to which they had applied their brakes. It was thought the inferno at the site was caused by burst diesel tanks on the Turbo train, which may have come into contact with overhead electricity cables brought down by the devastating impact.

Louise Christian, a solicitor for the victims of the Southall disaster, which happened two years ago a few miles away, said the technology to introduce fail-safe computer protection systems on all trains already existed. "It is simply that so far the privatised railway industry has not been prepared to spend the money installing these systems. The system which is relied on to prevent signals being passed at danger - the advance warning system - was introduced in the 1920s and is antiquated." Ms Christian said yesterday's crash showed the need for urgent action on safety. "The whole purpose of the inquiry we are engaged in was precisely to prevent another terrible rail cash occurring."

The Southall inquiry recently heard that a "halfway house" between AWS and ATP, which is favoured by John Prescott, Secretary of State for Transport, would not have prevented the accident.

Any investigation into yesterday's accident will want to establish whether it would have averted the tragedy.

Observers said the disaster bore "striking similarities" to the Southall crash, when a Swansea to Paddington service smashed into a goods train. It was on the same piece of track and also involved Great Western.

Chris Jackson, deputy editor of the Railway Gazette International publication, took issue with the length of time it had taken to stage a public inquiry into the Southall tragedy. He said two years had been wasted in pursuing court cases. If the recommendations of the inquiry had been implemented, yesterday's disaster may not have happened, he said. Although it opened in February 1998, some six months after the accident, the public inquiry was adjourned almost immediately and only restarted on 20 September this year.

Mr Jackson said he was "99 per cent certain" that it was a repeat of the Southall accident, with one train crossing in front of another.

"Because we have had two years of trundling through the courts, we are only now learning the lessons from Southall in the form of a detailed, meticulous public inquiry."

He added: "If you are going to hold back everything for two years, then it's going to mean a delay to lessons being learnt. It's certainly very, very sad and worrying that there should be another tragedy of this kind in the same area of west London."

The two train companies involved in yesterday's accident were both involved in an incident near Paddington in November 1995 when an empty Thames Turbo collided with Great Western's Swansea-Paddington high-speed service after the Thames driver misread a signal.

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