Leading Article: British Rail has some explaining to do

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RECOMMENDATION 43 of the report by Lord Justice Hidden into the Clapham rail crash in south London, in which 35 people died, seems clear enough: 'BR shall implement as a priority its programmme to install a system of radio communication between driver and signalman on all traction units.' And, in the body of his report, Lord Justice Hidden notes: 'I am glad to say that BR has . . . given a commitment to extend its plan for the introduction of cab radios and to quicken the timescale to ensure that all units are fitted by 1992.'

The Clapham disaster took place in 1988. The Hidden Report was published in 1990. Last Saturday, 15 October 1994, two trains on a single-track section of railway on the Kent-Sussex border crashed head- on, killing five passengers and injuring 11.

As we revealed yesterday, the signalman responsible for the section of track knew for several minutes that the trains would collide, but was in the appalling position of being unable to do anything to stop them because there was no way he could make contact with the drivers. The cabs had not been fitted with radios. For some reason, the deadline of 1992 was missed.

BR says plans do exist to fit cab radios by the end of next year, although it is not certain whether this schedule will be met. But the radios will not be part of a two-way system. The apparatus BR intends to install will allow only one-way communication between drivers and signalboxes. The decision to plump for this cheap, driver-to-signalbox system appears perverse. Common sense suggests that what is needed is the opposite: a method that allows signallers to contact drivers to warn them of trouble ahead.

There is to be a public inquiry into Saturday's crash. Its terms of reference must be wide enough to ensure that BR is compelled to explain why the commitment it gave to Lord Justice Hidden was allowed to slip, and how and why BR's management came to choose a communications system that seems inappropriate to the task of issuing safety warnings to drivers.