Vandals struck while BR man was on duty

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The Independent Online
ALMOST 500 passengers had a 'miraculous' escape when vandals tried to derail an InterCity train by throwing two heavy metal benches on to the track.

A British Transport Police inquiry into the incident on Saturday night at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire will centre on how the benches, each weighing about a quarter of a tonne (550lbs), could have been unbolted from a waiting room without alerting a station employee who was on duty. The worker concerned has told police that he did notice the benches being thrown on the line.

A BR spokesman said: 'A rail operator who has platform, cleaning and ticket duties is rostered to be on duty until midnight. He did not see anything. He might have been in his office.'

But a regular commuter who often travels through Berkhamsted station in the evening said: 'I have never seen anyone on duty when I get a late train home.'

The train from Liverpool to London was passing through the station when it hit the benches which became wedged under the front of the engine. Police said it was a 'miracle' that the train, which ploughed on for half a mile around a severely banked bend, had not derailed. Supt Peter Edwards, of British Transport Police, said yesterday: 'There was considerable potential of derailing the train because it happened so close to the bend.' He said it could have resulted in a major disaster. The train remained on the track because the benches were almost flattened and did not get under the wheels of the engine.

Police do not know if tools were used to prise the benches, which were bolted into concrete at the front but had free-standing rear legs. Mr Edwards said that at least two people would have been needed to lift the benches and throw them on to the track. BR has offered a pounds 1,000 reward for information about the incident. Vandalism costs BR more than pounds 40m per year.

Most of the passengers were Chelsea supporters returning from the game against Liverpool, but police say it was unlikely that the attempted derailment was the work of rival fans. Mr Edwards said: 'They would need to have been very lucky to get the right train because with trains going through every half an hour they wouldn't have known which was carrying the Chelsea fans.'

The benches were placed on the track some time after the previous train had gone through Berkhamsted, at 8.35pm, and before the Liverpool express, travelling at 90mph, crashed into them at 9.01pm.

BR rejected rail union criticisms that the incident reflected a lack of investment. A BR spokesman said that spending on safety had risen by pounds 85m to pounds 225m this year and an extra 1,600 staff had been recruited throughout the network.

Jack Straw, Labour's environment spokesman, who was a passenger in the front carriage of the train with his children William, 11, and Charlotte, 10, said: 'It is a miracle the train did not come off the lines and the driver deserves high praise for what he did.'

(Photograph omitted)