Rail safety plan delay 'will put lives at risk'

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Rail chiefs were accused yesterday of "playing Russian roulette with people's lives" after they opted to delay the introduction of a critical safety system.

Industry leaders decided to introduce a sophisticated form of Automatic Train Protection (ATP), which is unlikely to be installed on high-speed lines until 2015.

A more basic and more costly version of ATP, which governs the speed of trains and stops them at red lights, could have been introduced by around 2012, two years after the deadline envisaged by last year's Cullen report into rail safety.

A working group led by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) and Rail Safety opted for level two rather than level one of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) – a form of automatic protection – because it would enhance rather than reduce the capacity of the network. The industry would also be saving money by opting for level two, which would cost around £3.5bn to install. Largely because of the need for extensive line-side equipment, level one would cost £6bn.

Carol Bell, vice-chairman of the Safety on Trains Action Group, said: "I am very unhappy about the report. They are playing Russian roulette with people's lives."

Mrs Bell, a survivor of the Southall crash in 1997, added: "What is the point of having a public inquiry if the recommendations are ignored? No doubt, the 2015 date for fitting ERTMS to high-speed lines will slip a few years. It seems the rail industry is always pushing the safety boundaries back as far as possible."

Bill Callaghan, chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, said he was "disappointed" with the timescale envisaged by the report.

Richard Bowker, chairman of the SRA, said the industry was fully committed to ERTMS. "The basic systems ready for use now are simply not good enough and would actually reduce capacity and force people on to our already crowded roads. It is essential that the system we choose is robust and reliable," he said.

Yesterday's report was sent to the Health and Safety Commission. There will be three months of consultation before the commission makes recommendations to the Government.

ATP was first recommended after the 1988 Clapham rail disaster, in which 35 people died.