Fresh evidence emerged yesterday that poor maintenance was responsible for the Potters Bar rail disaster – undermining the "spin" operation by Britain's biggest rail contractor aimed at blaming the incident on sabotage.
After a new report by safety inspectors, the Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling, pointedly ignored the controversial claim by Jarvis Rail. He declared that the points at the crash site were in an "appalling" state and called for tighter control on engineering companies.
While British Transport Police and rail inspectors publicly refused yesterday to rule out the possibility that vandals had tampered with the track, in private they utterly dismissed the maintenance contractors' explanation.
As its share price slumped days after the tragedy, the company tried to divert attention away from an examination of its own competence by claiming that saboteurs may have been at work.
Transport correspondents from national newspapers were called to a City PR firm where senior directors, including Kevin Hyde, chief operating officer of Jarvis, explained their theory that vandals may have deliberately loosened critical nuts on the points while tightening others.
"These were acts of commission. They were done deliberately. They were the reverse of what would be expected under the maintenance regime," he said at the time. Despite the PR strategy, the company's shares have slumped from 520p to 333.5p.
But as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) rail inspectorate published its second report into the disaster yesterday, Mr Darling indicated his deep scepticism on the Jarvis sabotage theory. "The state of the points at Potters Bar was clearly appalling. Safety is of paramount importance, and maintenance and inspection are fundamental to the continued improvement of safety on the railways," he said.
Arguing that the not-for-profit Network Rail – the successor to Railtrack – would be totally focused on safety, the Transport Secretary said there should be a single point of responsibility to "decide what work is necessary and to ensure that it is done and done properly".
Mick Rix, leader of the train drivers' union, said the HSE report confirmed the Jarvis contention was "nonsense" and that the company's senior managers should face prosecution. Bereaved families called for a full public inquiry into the tragedy.
One senior source said the police had run intensive forensic science tests and interviewed more than 600 individuals and could find "no evidence" to support the theory of sabotage.
Yesterday's report confirmed preliminary conclusions that nuts were missing from the points. This caused them to "fail catastrophically", detaching the last coach of the West Anglia Great Northern train, which then lurched sideways down the track, coming to rest across two platforms at Potters Bar station.
The report discovered that the points were not up to standard and that tests on nuts on the "adjustable stretcher bars" of nearby points revealed that one in five was not fully tight. Supporting the theory that the nuts may have worked loose, the document said: "There may be mechanisms that cause nuts to lose tightness."
An examination of similar crossings across the network found that none was in the condition found in the points that caused the Potters Bar crash. As a "precautionary measure", three sets of points on the west coast main line in Wembley and Watford have been taken out of service. Some points in the Potters Bar area could not be tested by rail inspectors using the tools supplied by the maintenance contractors.
Frank Hyland, leader of the inquiry by the Health and Safety Executive's rail inspectors, indicated that sabotage was not part of his investigation, which was concentrating on three aspects.
The first was the inspection and maintenance work done on the points over the previous year. The second was to look at the guidance, training, experience and competence of those carrying out the work. The third aspect was the extent and accuracy of records kept about points 2182A.
Mr Hyland was specifically asked about the role of Jarvis. He replied: "Our inquiries include the work carried out by Jarvis. The inquiries do not point the finger at Jarvis. They include them. Jarvis are co-operating fully."
Jarvis said last night that it welcomed the HSE report. It added: "It is clear from the report that no other points at Potters Bar, or indeed on the rail network, have been found in the unique condition of points 2182A
"HSE state that they have not yet established any technical evidence that unauthorised interference was the cause of the derailment but that they are keeping an open mind."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies