The Paddington rail disaster: Safety must now rule over profit

Widespread anger means railways will never be the same again
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The Independent Online

Harrow. Lewisham. Hither Green. Ealing. Watford. Clapham. Southall. And now Paddington. In the past 45 years, hundreds of commuters have perished in train crashes, but it has taken this final horror in the terrible litany of disasters to force promises of radical change. The public response this time - first disbelief, then grief, now justified anger at how two trains came to collide, sending people to their deaths in a fireball - has made politicians and train companies realise they have to act, and act fast.

Harrow. Lewisham. Hither Green. Ealing. Watford. Clapham. Southall. And now Paddington. In the past 45 years, hundreds of commuters have perished in train crashes, but it has taken this final horror in the terrible litany of disasters to force promises of radical change. The public response this time - first disbelief, then grief, now justified anger at how two trains came to collide, sending people to their deaths in a fireball - has made politicians and train companies realise they have to act, and act fast.

But what should be done if we are to have a safe, reliable railway? A raft of recommendations has been drawn up, by Vic Coleman, the government inspector of railways. He does not dance to the tune of point-scoring politicians, Railtrack, train companies or trade unions. His instructions are to the point: the 22 worst signals must be inspected, Great Western Trains must not switch off its train protection equipment, and comp- anies must pull their staff together within a fortnight to overhaul working practices. Those are quick fixes, but there are other long-term reforms which must be implemented.

Warning systems

Railtrack marked the tenth anniversary of the 1988 Clapham crash, which killed 35 people, by saying it was prepared to spend £150m on its new train protection warning system (TPWS) to prevent trains passing its 26,000 signals at danger. Rolling stock leasing companies agreed to spend £25m on cab equipment.

TPWS is a low-cost version of the automatic train protection (ATP) recommended by the inquiry into the Clapham disaster. With ATP the brake is applied if the engine passes a red signal or if drivers ignore speed restrictions. TPWS covers only a third of the network and does not stop trains travelling at more than 60mph. ATP was never implemented because there was neither the political will to burden British Rail or its privatised successors with a bill of £500m-plus. Both Conservative and Labour balked when they saw the bill.

In early 1997 the three major rolling stock leasing companies announced a joint agreement to install new driver reminder appliances (DRA) to most of the national passenger fleet by the end of 1998 to reduce the risk of trains starting against red signals. DRA equipment, installed in the cab alongside the AWS device, can reduce the red signal threat by 10 per cent. It has, of course, fallen behind schedule. TPWS is taking so long to come through because of its complexities. But they are as nothing compared to those of ATP, another reason why it was rejected.

Signalling

Until now there has been a one in 50 million chance of becoming a train crash fatality. Before Southall and Paddington, we could be perversely gratified that the main causes of death on trains were robbery, violence, and trespassers. Despite the furore about signals being passed at red (SPADs), collisions and derailments have been declining. Now, claims that railways are safer have a hollow ring.

Railtrack has been responsible for monitoring its own safety; it's time that system came to an end. Instead, Mr Coleman could well be the person to advise Mr Prescott of the best way ahead, but if that means he becomes mired in quango-like bureaucracy, we should oppose it.

Our railways are a hotch-potch of 10,000 route miles, 50 per cent less than once criss-crossed the country before Dr Beeching acted in 1963. However, passenger numbers are no less, and are climbing fast as motoring becomes less fulfilling and more expensive. The signalling - and safety - of our railways depends upon a complex mix of 150 years of technology, and it is ironic that manual signalling is still functioning successfully on lesser-used routes. Its demise is due to the need to replace worn-out equipment, the constant drive to reduce labour costs, and the need for high operating speeds. The technology installed in the 1960s and 1970s is causing many problems because it continually breaks down.

Trains At Clapham old electric trains were much less able to withstand the battering than the Great Western and Thames Trains stock. The Great Western's coaches have solid steel bodies which have withstood several head-on collisions and high-speed derailments with little or no loss of life. The catastrophe at Paddington was, of course, worsened by the fire. However, we must question the use the Thames Turbo-style trains. There are hundreds of these aluminium coaches in service, which crumple readily. German Railways, for instance, has used aluminium in high- speed expresses and last year's crash which killed 150, showed that a side-on collision "unzips" a coach, spilling passengers on to the track.

There should also be an immediate rethink of the design of the 140 mph Virgin High Speed trains ordered for the West Coast main line, which have seats immediately behind the driver's cab. What needs most attention?

The most heavily trafficked lines - 10 per cent carry 90 per cent of the traffic - should receive the most attention and investment. There is little excuse for companies such as Great Western not to install ATP on routes such as Paddington-Bristol-Penzance and Cardiff-Swansea.

Virgin Trains' West Coast Main Line, soon to receive a £5bn makeover to raise speeds to 140mph, will soon be so sophisticated that it could logically operate without trackside signals altogether, and maybe even drivers. But in rural areas, where the railways operate at a thumping loss, demands for ATP may become another excuse for their replacement by buses.

Finance

Mr Coleman and the railway inspectorate do not have the power to authorise spending. Railtrack has been criticised for not moving forward fast enough, even though it has spent £27bn on improving track, signals and stations. The waters are further muddied by John Prescott and his claim that the money needed will be available. Regardless of this, he is at the mercy of the Treasury. It will be up to the Government to show it has the political will to act.

Profit v safety

Opponents of railway privatisation argue that profits and safety can never be reconciled. This is not true. The Health & Safety Executive has shown that action can be taken: the £1.5m fine imposed on Great Western after Southall shows that negligence can be expensive.

The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) will have the ultimate weapon, namely non-renewal of franchises to companies who are not responsible. As it delivers bonuses to those who run their trains on time, could the SRA not hand over cash to those with a good safety record? Perhaps only then will there be a widespread understanding of the need for greater vigilance and an end to this trail of tragedy and destruction on our railways.

Howard Johnston is a columnist for 'Rail' magazine.

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