Railtrack: Line was due to be replaced next month

The inquiry
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The Independent Online

The rail ran northwards for about a hundred yards, a twisted, useless piece of metal clearly embossed with the logo of British Steel.

The rail ran northwards for about a hundred yards, a twisted, useless piece of metal clearly embossed with the logo of British Steel.

It was one of the rails from which the GNER intercity had hurtled so devastatingly on Tuesday lunchtime. Now it lay twisted over the rail next to it, looking like a length of old rope.

As investigators began to form the opinion that the most likely cause of the accident was a catastrophic break in the steel track, the crucial evidence needed to prove that theory lay somewhere scattered over this curving stretch of Hertfordshire countryside.

Stan Hart, principal rail inspector for the Health and Safety Executive, said: "We have not ruled out vandalism ... but at this stage it looks unlikely.

"I would say it seems from what we know that it is nothing to do with signalling or signals passed. The site is obviously quite a mess. We have to determine whether things happened prior to the crash or as a result of the crash."

Suspicion that the track was to blame for the accident grewlast night after Railtrack admitted that the condition of the line involved in the crash was "not good".

The company said it had been decided in January to lay new lines on that section of the track. Work started in May, with the balance due to have been completed next month.

Chris Leah, safety director for Railtrack, conceded that a broken rail "may well have had some part to play" in the accident. Railtrack said the rail in question was only five years old, having been replaced in 1995. It was made of a specially hardened steel suitable for use on high-speed curves.

The company said the stretch of track on which the express crashed had been inspected visually on 10 October and was due to be inspected again on the afternoon of the crash.

If a rail maintenance problem is found to have led to the tragedy, attention is likely to focus on Railtrack's relationship with its contractors, who carry out the work. That relationship has deteriorated in recent years.

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