A contract worker has been suspended from performing safety work on the railways after allegedly committing "the most serious breach of procedure" since the network was privatised.
Network Rail is conducting an inquiry into an incident in which an employee of the engineering company Amey allegedly failed to connect signalling cables properly on a 100mph section of the West Coast Main Line after allegedly defying an instruction to leave the equipment alone.
A Network Rail log recorded that although the warning lights on the track continued to function, the defective connection meant that a control panel in the signal box gave staff confusing information.
Signallers working on a section of track at Norton Bridge near Stone in Staffordshire on 1 January could not tell where trains were. At one stage the panel incorrectly showed a train going backwards. Controllers need to know where trains are because they sometimes have to override signals and tell drivers to proceed against red lights.
Staff employed by Amey were upgrading the West Coast Main Line as a subcontractor to Birse, which was contracted to the state-backed infrastructure organisation Network Rail.
Although Network Rail has made moves to reclaim responsibility for track maintenance, contractors are still being used for "enhancement" work on the main London to Glasgow line. The incident is likely to generate calls for Network Rail to take more control over all work conducted on the track.
Peter Rayner, a rail adviser to the Commons transport select committee, said yesterday: "Of all the cases of contractor failure we have experienced over the past five years this is by far and away the worst and potentially the most dangerous of them all.
"Here we have contractors disconnecting signalling illegally without the correct documentation and then performing work incorrectly.
"History tells us that if the wiring alterations are being done without the correct procedures being rigorously applied, a train can be given a 'proceed' signal when the line is occupied."
Mr Rayner added that incorrect wiring affecting a trackside signal led to the disaster at Clapham in 1988 in which a rush-hour train crashed into another, killing 35 people.
Mr Rayner, a former British Rail manager, said if a contract worker could break the rules and undertake faulty work on cabling which affected the control panel, he could easily have performed work which affected lights on the track. The Network Rail document reported that on 24 December an Amey employee contacted a signaller at Norton Bridge and asked for permission to undertake work on signalling cables. The signaller declined the request until the relevant forms had been completed. The Amey worker said he would "come back to him". However the work was undertaken and "wiring incorrectly terminated" without the knowledge of the signal box.
Mr Rayner believes that the incident could throw fresh light on a collision at Norton Bridge on the same stretch of line in October last year.
Investigators concluded at the time that a driver of a freight train passed a red light before smashing into the rear of another. The driver, who was injured in the crash, said signals had told him to proceed.
A spokesman for Network Rail said that the incident did not threaten the immediate safety of passengers, but it raised serious concerns. He said: "We have started a full investigation to find out exactly what happened."
Investigators will begin interviewing the employees concerned next week.
A spokeswoman for Amey said that the company would be co-operating fully with the investigation.
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