No one saw the red light

The Wealden train disaster is a very British story of sloppiness and sh ort cuts, says Christian Wolmar
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The Independent Online
IN ALMOST any disaster, human error and simple bad luck play some role. So it was with the Cowden rail disaster on the Wealden line in east Sussex two months ago. But the public hearings into the crash, which ended last week, suggest much more. Th e story of the Wealden line is a very British story, not just of systematic under-investment in an important public service, but of sloppy management which often cut corners because of financial pressures. In microcosm, it illustrates much that has been wrong with this country and its rail network for the past 25 years. Further, the hearings raise quite frightening questions about what is likely to happen when the rail network is parcelled up for privatisation, making the responsibilities of management and staff much less clear.

We should perhaps be thankful that the casualties at Cowden were so few. This was because it was a Saturday morning and there were only half a dozen passengers on the 8am Uckfield to Oxted service, against the 50 or so commuters on an average weekday.

After leaving Uckfield and passing through Crowborough the train stopped at Ashurst, a section of the line which still has double track. A short distance beyond this point, the line becomes single track. A pair of signals at the entrance to the single track section should ensure that trains from both directions do not enter it simultaneously.

As the train left Ashurst, the signal was set at red. Normally, the driver would pass an earlier signal, showing yellow, which would warn him of a red signal ahead. But, on the Uckfield to Oxted line, the distance signal comes before Ashurst station. This is because, though the present maximum speed is only 70 mph, British Rail had hoped that, with new trains, 85 mph would eventually become possible. At that speed, a yellow light situated beyond Ashurst would give insufficient warning of the red ahead.

There is no doubt that, on 15 October, the day of the disaster, the signals were set respectively at yellow and red. Brian Barton, the driver, must have acknowledged the yellow by pushing a button because, otherwise, the train's brakes would have been applied automatically. By then, the guard, Jonathan Brett-Andrews, a rail enthusiast with ambitions to become a driver, was in the cab alongside Mr Barton, in breach of the rules. He had been told off a couple of times in the past for travelling in cabs. Possibly, subsequent events are partly explained by the men being distracted because they were chatting to each other.

For whatever reason, Mr Barton, after stopping at Ashurst, forgot that he had earlier passed through the yellow light. Nor did he think about why the down train, the 8 04 from Oxted to Uckfield had not passed him on the lengthy double section loop at Ashurst, the normal passing place. He pulled away from Ashurst, with fog surrounding the train but, according to one survivor, "at no time was the visibility less than 50 yards".

The red light which Mr Barton then ignored would have been accompanied by a horn and a visual display on his screen. Again, he would have had to cancel the automatic brakes by acknowledging the signal. The inquiry heard no evidence that any of this equipment had malfunctioned but the red light was dim because insect faeces had clogged up the lens and it was nearing the end of its useful life.

The driver and guard missed all the warnings. The train ploughed through the points set against it. But Steve Webb, a signalman with 23 years' experience, immediately heard an alarm sound in his box. It was not too late for him to have prevented the disaster. But he could only act if the trains had been fitted with radios. They were not; all Mr Webb could do was to ring the controllers to say that an accident was inevitable.

And here we go beyond the human errors and come to financial pressures on the rail system which, in this case, were compounded by obfuscation and dishonesty.

The lack of radios is part of the wider history of the line and the story goes back to 1969. BR had then wanted to close the whole line but had been unable to do so because of political pressure. Instead it chose its normal path: keep the line open, but don't spend a penny on it. This is what is being done to thousands of miles of the network around the country.

The Wealden line was falling apart. The timetable could not be met because of speed restrictions of 20 mph. Track renewals costing £2.1m over five years were needed. It was decided to make much of the line single track and to introduce new signalling. This, BR calculated, would save £1.1m over 25 years. The extra safety risk of a single track was not considered.

Gordon Pettit, who was then Southern Region's general manager, assured local rail lobbyists that drivers would be provided with "cellular radio" - though this was to help drivers during breakdowns, rather than for safety, the inquiry was told.

In the event, cellular telephones were issued to the drivers at first. Mr Webb remembers being given a list of which drivers had which telephones. But sloppy management swiftly led to a collapse in the system. The telephones were not charged up properly,nobody was responsible for issuing them and the drivers stopped bothering to use them. Neither of the drivers in the crash had taken telephones.

Nor did the trains have "cab secure radios", which would have enabled Mr Webb to order the trains to stop. Such radios - or an alternative system - had been recommended for the entire rail network by the Hidden inquiry into the Clapham rail disaster in 1988. BR had promised to implement the recommendation by 1994. But somehow that decision had got lost in the successive reorganisations that led first to the creation of Network SouthEast and then to the dismemberment of the railway into 25 train operating units in preparation for privatisation. One of the trains did indeed have radio equipment in the cab but it could not have been used since there was no transmitter in the area.

So, sometime around 8 30am on that misty morning, on a lonely piece of track far from any road, two trains hurtled into each other, killing two passengers, Mr Barton, Mr Brett-Andrews and David Rees, the driver of the second train. The other dozen or so passengers who were on the two trains received only minor injuries The accident was the first fatal collision under the "new" railway, created in readiness for privatisation. The inquiry was different from any that had gone before. The railway has alwaysprided itself in conducting such investigations in a blame-free environment. No longer. Railtrack and BR were represented separately at the inquiry and both tried to minimise their own role in the accident. The tone of the evidence was often "not me guv".

But there is an even bigger question about our attitude to the rail network which the inquiry could not really address. Privatisation will make it politically even more difficult to shut lines like the Wealden line because closures will immediately blamed on the Government. But really it seems pointless running this sort of half-cock railway. Introducing single track led to delays and breakdowns which made it too unreliable for regular users. Most commuters have long deserted it for railheads such as Tunbridge Wells and Haywards Heath where trains are more reliable.

Few local villagers live within walking distance of a station. They have to use a car to get to the line anyway; a drive of a few more miles to a better supported line would hardly matter.

There is an inherent dishonesty in all this. It is either worth keeping such lines and investing in them or they may as well be left to the steam enthusiasts. Local rail lobbyists say that the rush-hour trains from the other railheads are full and there is a need for the capacity that can be met by a properly upgraded Wealden line. Maybe, but such decisions need to be assessed within the context of a real policy for rail, not based on sentimental, Thomas the Tank Engine visions.

Compromises such as spending £3.7m on new signalling and single track to provide a service that was worse than before were pointless exercises which have now led to a tragic accident. Two questions need to be asked: what are our railways for, and is the network that Dr Beeching left us the right one for the 21st century? The story of the Wealden line suggests that we need to think again.