Train firms told to improve safety after latest near-miss

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The Independent Online

The two train companies at the heart of the Paddington and Southall disasters were among 10 operators warned yesterday that they could face legal action if they fail to improve safety.

Thames Trains and First Great Western were ordered to tighten procedures for preventing trains passing red lights – the cause of both tragedies, in which 38 lost their lives.

As the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) rail inspectors began to enforce a far tougher regulatory regime, it was revealed that a Connex South Eastern commuter service had driven through a red signal, coming within seconds of a head-on crash.

The other eight train operating companies on the HSE's hit list yesterday were the Sea Containers flagship subsidiary Great North Eastern Railways; GB Railway's Anglia franchise; Arriva's Merseyside train operation; the First Group's other train company, Great Eastern, and three National Express franchises: Cardiff Railway, Scotrail and Wales and West.

The operation now run by Connex South Central – a sister company to Connex South East and due to be taken over by Go-Ahead's Thames Trains – was also singled out for criticism. On present trends, the South Central operation is expecting 36 signals passed at danger (Spads) this year, the highest total for six years.

In 1999, First Great Western was fined £1.5m for failing to make sure equipment that prevents trains passing red lights was in operation at the time of the Southall crash. The company is expecting six Spads this year, compared with none in 1999-2000.

Last week, Thames Trains came under fire in the Cullen report on the Paddington crash for failing to instruct drivers properly in the dangers of passing red lights.

The HSE wil publish figures today that show the number of Spads in May was 21 higher than the same period last year and seven more than the average figure over the past six years.

However, the Association of Train Operating Companies pointed out that the latest official year-on-year figure of 475 was the lowest on record and half the number regularly reported in the early 1990s.

In his letter to the 10 companies, Bob Smallwood, deputy chief rail inspector at the HSE, said he was "very concerned" that "management weaknesses" may have contributed to their relatively poor record over Spads. The 10 were instructed to give a detailed explanation for their failure and ordered to submit a statement by 13 July on how they are to improve matters.

He also wrote to the chief executives of the groups owning the operators, urging them to get involved in the campaign to improve safety.

All train operating companies received a memorandum taking them to task for failing to complete a 22-point action programme by the 31 March deadline, which was imposed before the Paddington crash. Dr Smallwood issued 30 September as a fresh deadline, but said that two unnamed operators might not even be able to meet that objective. That was "not acceptable", he said.

Dr Smallwood said that after criticism by a signalling consultant, there would be fewer inspections of Spads, but they would be focused on the most dangerous incidents.

The new hardline policy adopted by the HSE follows criticism of their monitoring procedures in the Cullen report.

Rail inspectors were yesterday investigating the cause of a near-miss involving two trains in south-east London on Wednesday. The 3.44pm Faversham to Victoria train went through a red signal at Bickley Junction in Kent and came to rest just a coach length away from a Sevenoaks-bound Connex service from London Blackfriars.

A company statement said the driver of the Faversham "slam-door" train had realised the signal was red as he passed it and stopped "immediately". The driver of the sliding-door Blackfriars train was alerted and halted his train "well clear" of the other train, the Connex statement said.

The driver of the Faversham train was tested for drink and drugs, but the results were negative.