Rail safety row reopens after Cowden: Single-track lines have a bad record

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THE train crash near Cowden in Kent yesterday renews fears about the safety of railway lines that have been transferred from two tracks to one.

The line where the crash occurred had been changed from double line working 'about four years ago', according to a Railtrack spokesman, 'because it is cheaper to run as a single line and involves less maintenance'. Services on the little branch line have been progressively cut to about one an hour in each direction and it was felt that double tracks were no longer necessary.

There has been a series of crashes over the past five years in locations where a second line had been removed, and several double line workings were reinstated as a result of the crash inquiries. Indeed, for a time while these accidents were being investigated, BR had a moratorium on introducing more single-line tracks, particularly at junctions.

Thefirst of these accidents - which happened just three days after five people died in a crash at Purley, London - occurred at Bellgrove station, Glasgow, in March 1989 and resulted in two deaths and 52 injuries. Scotrail, BR's Scottish arm, had a policy of single line junctions, which means trains in both directions use them, as a way of saving money and allowing InterCity trains to go faster over the tracks - they have fewer points to cross. A year later, in August 1990 two trains were involved in a similar crash on single line working at Hyde junction in Manchester in which 29 people were injured.

The most serious of these crashes occurred in July 1991 at Newton near Glasgow and resulted in four deaths and 22 injuries, many serious. The inquiry found that a local train had pulled out of the station then collided head on at 60mph with a train from Balloch to Motherwell.

The inquiry into the accident, published at the end of 1992, found that British Rail had ignored the risks when it introduced the single track rail junctions. After the Bellgrove crash, any new single tracks had to be approved by the Department of Transport, but it continued to approve the changes.

The Health and Safety Executive criticised British Rail, saying that it had not undertaken a proper risk assessment study before introducing the new types of junction.

As a result, Scotrail began reintroducing double junctions on many lines. It has also introduced extra signals so that trains have to pass two signals at red before going through a junction on which another train has been given a green one.

Yesterday's crash was somewhat different in that it occurred on a long track of single line working. However, investigators are bound to consider whether the lessons of the previous accidents had been properly learned.

(Photograph omitted)