Railtrack angers Paddington families by blaming driver

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The Independent Online

Railtrack provoked fury among the relatives of the Paddington disaster victims yesterday by placing much of the blame for the crash on the driver.

Railtrack provoked fury among the relatives of the Paddington disaster victims yesterday by placing much of the blame for the crash on the driver.

The company refused to accept that the much-criticised signalling and layout system outside the west London station made any impportant contribution to the collision, in which 31 people were killed.

That controversial assertion, however, stood in stark contrast to the submission from Robert Owen QC, counsel to the inquiry, who contended that effective management by Railtrack would probably have prevented the disaster. He said that evidence had disclosed "a lamentable picture of inertia, ineptitude and incompetence" on the part of the company.

Denman Groves, whose 25-year-old daughter, Juliet, died in the tragedy, said: "I blame Railtrack completely. They're custodians of safety on the railway and they failed." Mr Groves, a spokesman for the bereaved, continued: "Railtrack barristers have been clawing at anything to make Railtrack look innocent. The only thing they've been able to grasp at is the action of the driver. But you cannot expect drivers to give 100 per cent attention 100 per cent of the time. They are perfectly capable of introducing a fail-safe system."

In his final evidence to the hearing, Roger Henderson QC, barrister for Railtrack, stressed the failure of Michael Hodder, the Thames Trains driver. Mr Hodder, a father of two who died in the crash, drove his train through signal SN109 at danger on his way out of Paddington and crashed almosty head-on into a Great Western express at a combined speed of more than 140mph.

Mr Henderson said the driver's failure to set the Driver Reminder Appliance (DRA) at a preceding signal, warning him that there was a red light ahead, meant that he might have thought the "coast was clear". Thames Trains, whose training programme Mr Henderson described as "defective and deficient", instructs its drivers to apply the DRA at single yellow warning lights, which means they cannot accelerate at a red signal unless they switch it off. As the driver approached the yellow signal for some reason, "his attention and mind were elsewhere, but only for a moment or two".

Despite successive submissions that SN109 was badly sited, Mr Henderson insisted it was "properly visible and legible". The newly qualified driver, a written submission says, was guilty of "aberrant" driving.

Mr Owen said the driver's failure to use the DRA, his lack of experience and weak training all helped to explain his error, but deficiencies in signalling and layout were also to blame. He said there was also "disturbing evidence" that a vital 18 to 20 seconds were lost while signallers waited for Mr Hodder to stop of his own accord. It is likely that the collision could and should have been prevented had the appropriate action been taken immediately, Mr Owen said.

The main inquiry closed yesterday, but Lord Cullen is to hear further evidence on 13 September over Thames Trains' decision not to adopt the fail-safe automatic train protection system.

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