Tube rail cracked months before accident, says union

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The Independent Online

The crack in the rail which caused the first of two accidents on London Underground at the weekend could have been there for months, a photograph supplied to The Independent suggests.

The rail broke apart when a Tube train on the Piccadilly line travelled over it on Friday night, but the picture shows that much of the break was rusty and industry sources say it should have been spotted long ago.

It is thought that the breakage, which caused the train to jump off the tracks between Hammersmith and Barons Court, would have been discovered by a half-yearly "ultra-sound" check, which had not taken place for five months.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT rail union, said there was evidence that 80 per cent of the cracking had been there for some time. "This accident did not just suddenly happen," he said.

Mr Crow gave the privatised infrastructure companies on London Underground until Friday to restore "rigorous" safety standards or face a ballot on industrial action. He called for the resumption of daily track inspections and the reintroduction of speed restrictions whenever track defects were found.

The crash on Friday was followed by a derailment on Sunday morning at Camden Town station in which at least seven people were injured after the last carriage of a Northern train left the rails and hit a wall. It was thought that defective points may have caused the accident. One of the injured was still in the Royal Free Hospital, north London last night and will undergo surgery on a fractured thigh bone.

Investigations are under way to find the cause of the accidents. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) warned, however, that it would not be easy to determine the exact origins of the Camden Town derailment.

The RMT reminded its members on the Tube system that they have the right to take "appropriate action" including operating at slower speeds should they consider that they or passengers were at risk.

Mr Crow said: "There have been enough weasel words about safety. The time has come for action. Our members and the travelling public will no longer be reassured about the safety of a fragmented network when it is quite clear to everyone that safety standards have been seriously undermined."

The union has written to Alistair Darling, Secretary of State for Transport, Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London and the HSE calling for the suspension of the privatised infrastructure contracts.

A spokesman for the consortium Metronet, which maintains the track between Hammersmith and Barons Court, said the crack in the rail had started from the bottom and was not detectable by visual inspection. One of the members of the consortium is Balfour Beatty, the engineering group which was at the heart of the Hatfield rail disaster in 2000.

The spokesman said visual inspections had been conducted every 72 hours since 1995, long before the present semi-privatised structure was envisaged. The staff involved in inspecting lines on behalf of Metronet were all former London Underground employees, the spokesman said.

Tube Lines, the consortium responsible for the Northern line, said nothing had been found in 48-hourly inspections of track. The company said work in the area had been carried out on Saturday night.

"We have obviously got a lot of thinking and a lot of work to do to understand what caused these incidents," said Terry Morgan, chief executive at Tube Lines.

Mr Livingstone, who led the opposition to the part- privatisation of the Tube, said that if the accidents could be linked to the introduction of privatised maintenance, he would be asking the Government "for the suspension of the contracts and the restoration of a safer regime".