Railtrack suffered from 'institutionalised inertia'

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The Independent Online

Railtrack must take most of the blame for the Paddington disaster, which was a "catastrophe waiting to happen',the inquiry into the crash was told yesterday.

Railtrack must take most of the blame for the Paddington disaster, which was a "catastrophe waiting to happen',the inquiry into the crash was told yesterday.

The inquiry at Westminster Central Hall heard that some safety measures were blocked on grounds of cost, some through incompetence, despite overwhelming evidence of the dangers of a highly complex signalling system outside the west London station.

Gerald Corbett, chief executive of Railtrack, had told the Commons transport committee: "We believe Paddington to be the best protected major terminal station in the world." Just over 12 months later, on 5 October last year, 31 people were killed after a Thames Trains service jumped a red light on its way out of Paddington and crashed virtually head-on into an incoming Great Western express.

In a final submission to the hearing, John Hendy QC, for the bereaved, said the problems at Paddington were well known by Railtrack. In the five years up to 1998 signals had been passed at danger on 48 occasions within two miles of the station. However, recommendations for improving safety "disappeared without trace or were pursued half-heartedly". Instead of vigorous action, "a plethora of meeting groups were established which did little more than discuss and disagree about options".

Before the inquiry started in May, the bereaved felt that the crash might have been the consequence of one or two human errors, the sort seen in the best-run organisations. "But the evidence they had heard and read had shocked them beyond the expectations of the most cynical. Human errors there were. But those mistakes moved the very background of the picture that has emerged of this crash and its causes. It is a picture dominated by Railtrack's institutionalised inertia and obsession with performance. This disaster is, above all else, a story of an abject failure of management."

The driver of the Thames train, Michael Hodder, 31, had been qualified for only two weeks before his death in the crash. He had been inadequately trained and had not been tested on his knowledge of the complicated track near the station, Mr Hendy said.

However, the complex nature of the track and the flawed sighting of SN109 - the signal involved in the crash - all made more telling contributions to the disaster. Earlier those injured in the crash and the bereaved urged the Government to back the introduction of the fail-safeautomatic train protection (ATP) instead of the less sophisticated train protection warning system (TPWS), which is being introduced.

Marion Carmichael said yesterday that her daughter Jennifer, 22, had died a horrible death. "I've scanned these men in suits and looked for compassion and sorrow. There was none of it. They can't look at the bereaved. They can't look people in the eye. They've ruined our lives. They are despicable."

The first stage of the inquiry ends today, after which Lord Cullen, who has presided at the hearing, will undertake a joint investigation, beginning on 18 September, into train safety systems. Later Lord Cullen will hold an inquiry into the whole issue of safety onthe railway.