Railtrack last night admitted that it was in breach of guidelines drawn up after the Clapham rail disaster by allowing a signalman, who inadvertently risked the lives of fellow rail staff on the track, to work 43 days without a day off.
The company said that it was to examine "the issues raised by this case" after being alerted by The Independent. Earlier this summer, the signalman, David Farrar, worked 27 and 43 days either side of just one break of a week's leave. The guidelines drawn up by the Hidden inquiry require signal staff to work a maximum of 13 shifts - which can be up to 12 hours - in succession.
The situation occurred just after the privatisation of Railtrack in May, which workers say has increased pressure on them to work beyond their permitted hours.
Lawrie Harris, press officer for the rail union, RMT, said: "This is by no means an isolated case. In Scotland, they are even putting pressure on people not to adhere to the minimum 12-hour break between shifts."
Mr Farrar worked in a number of boxes around the North East Zone because he is a relief signalman a job that requires particular attention since, according to one rail worker, "all boxes have their idiosyncracies". His long turn of duty only came to light because he made a mistake. He allowed a group of maintenance staff to go on the line when they were only protected by an emergency signal, whereas regulations specify that they should be protected by a normal signal.
Mr Farrar's mistake led to an automatic disciplinary hearing but he was cleared by the manager who was responsible for the case because of the lengthy tour of duty.
One local rail union representative told The Independent, "This seems to imply that if we work more than 13 days, any accident we cause is not our fault. That's no way to run a railway."
The case highlights increased pressure on signal staff to work beyond the hours specified by the Hidden inquiry and reveals confusion over the status of the guidelines. While one Railtrack spokesman appeared to say that they were only "guidelines" and not mandatory, another said that they were strictly enforced and any breach would be monitored.
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