Railtrack: Southall crash could be repeated

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The Independent Online

The £500m rail safety system being installed throughout the network would not have averted the 1997 Southall disaster, Railtrack admitted yesterday.

Senior managers at the infrastructure company conceded that the train protection and warning system (TPWS), which stops trains after they pass red lights, would not have prevented the Great Western express smashing into a goods service and killing seven people.

Chris Leah, safety director at Railtrack, said the equipment would have slowed the train but would not have prevented the impact. TPWS is only fully effective if trains are travelling at less than 75mph, Railtrack said.

The company also conceded that the system was not entirely "fail-safe", so that a malfunction would not always halt trains.

Mr Leah said yesterday that the industry was spending £29m on altering the infrastructure and installing TPWS around Paddington station i London, including Ladbroke Grove, scene of the 1999 disaster. Railtrack said the crash, in which 31 people were killed, would have been averted under the new system.

Central to the Ladbroke Grove tragedy was the notorious signal SN109. This was passed at red by a Thames Trains service, which hit an oncoming Great Western express. About 50 new signals will be introduced between Paddington station and Ladbroke Grove. Mr Leah said the chances of a similar accident once the new signals had been installed were "virtually nil".

Railtrack admitted, however, that there was no guarantee crashes would be avoided where trains exceeded 60mph. Mr Leah said TPWS had been fitted to about 43 per cent of the track and 48 per cent of trains. In the past six months, some 50 trains had been stopped after passing red lights. The national project would be completed on time by late 2003.

The news follows revelations in The Independent that the Government has no intention of meeting the official 2010 deadline for installing fail-safe automatic train protection (ATP) – a much more sophisticated and expensive system that would have prevented both the Ladbroke Grove and Southall tragedies. The industry believes the state-of-the-art European version of ATP, which will cost more then £3bn to install, will not be in use until 2015.

Mr Leah refused to be drawn on when the network would resume "normal" service. He said reliability was already at pre-Hatfield levels.

£ ScotRail train drivers will stage 11 strikes in the next few weeks, ending on 15 May when the European Champions' League final will be played at Hampden Park, Glasgow.

The drivers' union Aslef later announced strikes in a separate dispute at the Tyne and Wear Metro, including 7 May, when the Queen is due to open an extension of the light rail network to Sunderland.

Tram staff in Croydon, south London, are to stage a series of 24-hour and 48-hour pay strikes in the next few weeks, starting on Tuesday and coinciding with a separate wage strike on the Docklands Light Railway.