Prescott calls for urgent report into latest train crash

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Rail safety experts were today investigating another train collision - just 13 days after the Paddington disaster in which more than 30 people died.

Rail safety experts were today investigating another train collision - just 13 days after the Paddington disaster in which more than 30 people died.

They were ordered in when a commuter express ploughed into the back of an empty train last night after it was feared to have gone through a red light.

No one was injured in the low-speed collision, shortly after a Connex commuter train left Lewes station in East Sussex at 7.24pm, said police.

All 10 passengers were evacuated, shocked but unhurt, from the commuter service travelling from Gatwick to Hastings. It crashed into the 1841 Seaford to Brighton train, operated by the same company and consisting of empty rolling stock, travelling at around 15mph.

British Transport Police said they were investigating whether the driver of the Hastings-bound train may have gone through a red signal, renewing concerns over safety on the country's rail network.

Railtrack said that both drivers involved were experienced, with no history of passing a signal at danger. The signal under suspicion in last night's accident has had no reported incidents in the past.

Connex spokesman Dave Ewert promised a full inquiry into the accident. He said: 'The passenger train involved was the 17.53 from Victoria to Hastings which had actually started from Gatwick some 10 minutes late.

'The empty train was being shunted towards the platform and it was crossing the track at the time the accident happened.'

Mr Ewert said no carriages were derailed, but one set of wheels under the passenger train had come off the rails and part of the front had been damaged. The empty train had sustained side damage.

He said that he could not speculate on whether there had been communication between the drivers, in the light of the late departure of the passenger train from Gatwick.

The signal at the junction near Lewes station was not among the 22 which were highlighted by the Health and Safety Executive after the Paddington rail disaster, but questions are being asked about whether the signal system failed. A BTP spokesman said: 'The passenger train hit the other train, that is not in question. What is not clear is why. It is possible he went through a red signal.'

Lewes MP Norman Baker, speaking from the scene, said: 'The public will be very concerned at this latest breach of rail safety.

'The need to be extra vigilant after Paddington is clearly not being fully observed.

'There needs to be an inquiry into this incident,' said the Liberal Democrat MP, adding that he intended to raise the matter in the Commons later today.

Bernard Jenkin, shadow transport minister, said: 'This is a matter of very grave concern. I trust that the Government will be setting up a suitable inquiry into this accident in order to add to the conclusions that will be drawn from the Paddington and Southall crashes.

The collision came just hours before Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was due to brief MPs on the Paddington crash. Mr Prescott's statement, to the Commons this afternoon, could now include discussion of the Lewes incident. Mr Prescott has called for an 'urgent report' into the Lewes accident to be on his desk this morning, according to the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

The DETR said in a statement: 'We are extremely concerned that another crash has occurred so soon after Paddington. 'However we are relieved that no one was seriously hurt in this case.

'The Health and Safety Executive is investigating the circumstances surrounding the accident and the Deputy Prime Minister has called for an urgent report from the Railway Inspectorate.'

Father-of-two David Sherwood, 42, of Whitbread Close, Eastbourne, was on his way home from Gatwick Airport, where he works as a luggage handler, when he was caught up in the crash.

He said: 'There was an almighty thud and bang and I thought: 'oh no'. I just said to the other people 'I think we've hit another train'.

'It's frightening. After the last one at Paddington I thought, 'are we going to get off or not'.' Representatives from the Health and Safety Executive and Railtrack arrived on the scene last night and were involved in the immediate investigation.

Early today, Railtrack and British Transport police allowed journalists remaining to visit the area immediately around the collision site.

The front carriage of the passenger train was leaning precariously towards the side of the track, its foremost bogey clearly askew beneath it.

The nearside live rail had been displaced and was lying at an angle to neighbouring rails, several of the insulators it would usually be resting on lying dispersed at intervals in front of the train.

The inside front corner of the engine was mangled at the point of impact with the oncoming train, while the nearside driver's cabin teetered.

Gareth Leslie, Connex station manager, said: 'The two drivers were checked over for injuries, before being interviewed by their managers about the accident.

'As a routine part of the investigation they will be tested for drink and drugs.'

He said: 'We don't take safety lightly. We will look at every aspect of this incident. Everybody will be concerned by this. It's our responsibility to find out exactly what happened.'

He added: 'We need to make sure that the track and signals are made safe and obviously until that stage we can't reopen the track.'

When asked why a light near the front of the passenger train by the side of the track was red, he said it was too early to confirm if either train had passed a red light.

He said: 'There's nothing unusual about that light being red. Lights go back to red automatically after something like this.'