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Monday, September 20, 1999 Published at 22:30 GMT 23:30 UK


Train disaster driver had 'feet up'

Inquiry was shown previously unreleased footage of the aftermath

The driver of a high-speed passenger train which crashed in 1997 with the loss of seven lives was seen earlier in the journey driving with his feet up on the dashboard of his cab, a public inquiry heard on Monday.

The BBC's Simon Montague reports on the inquiry's first day
Larry Harrison, 52, later drove the Great Western Swansea to Paddington train through two warning signals and a red stop signal before colliding with a freight train crossing the line in front of him at Southall, in West London.

The evidence came on the first day of the reopened public inquiry, two years and a day after the fatal crash - which also injured 147 people.

Among fresh evidence to emerge was video footage of the immediate aftermath of the crash which happened just after 1315 BST on 19 September, 1997.

Shot by railway worker Christopher Malyon who had been working on restoring steam engines nearby, it showed the devastation in the moments before the emergency services arrived.

[ image: Seven people died and 150 were injured in the crash]
Seven people died and 150 were injured in the crash
The derailed train could be seen concertinaed along the line with overturned yellow freight wagons lying beside the track.

Passengers and their relatives attending the hearing were visibly upset by the footage.

Manslaughter charges against Great Western Trains and Mr Harrison were dropped in July 1999.

However Great Western was fined a record £1.5million for a breach of the Health and Safety Act.

In his opening statement on Monday counsel to the inquiry Ian Burnett QC said that Mr Harrison had earlier been seen driving with his feet up.

This prompted speculation that he may have put a bag on the so-called "dead man's handle" - the pedal which stops the train if the driver takes his foot off it, said Mr Burnett.

He added: "Mr Harrison attracted the attention of a number of passengers waiting on the platform at Bristol Parkway.

"They independently described him as having both feet on the dashboard as he drove the train into the station.

"In addition to giving a very casual impression to undertaking an important job it raises the interesting question of how he was managing to operate the driver's safety device with both feet on the dashboard."

The inquiry heard that the train's Automatic Warning System (AWS) - which sounds a klaxon when the train goes through danger lights - had been switched off after apparently malfunctioning earlier in the day.

Mr Burnett said one theory was that tea could have been spilt on the device's reset plunger affecting the wiring.

The Southall train was also fitted with Automatic Train Protection (ATP), but this was also switched off because the driver who had been in charge of the train earlier in the day was not trained to use it.

Mr Burnett said ATP would automatically stop a train going through a red light and would have prevented the Southall crash.

Scars of disaster

For survivors of the crash, the hearing represents a chance to find answers to what went wrong.

Angela Duffus, from North London, who fractured her pelvis and hip in the crash, said: "I hope this inquiry will give me some answers and I hope it will be able to find out exactly what happened and ensure someone is made accountable."

Debra Barton, from Bristol, said the psychological scars of the crash had left her feeling almost suicidal.

She said: "Every day is a battle. I don't use public transport if I can help it and I can't say when I will be able to get on a train."

Inquiry chairman Professor John Uff QC were entitled to expect answers from the hearing, expected to last until November.

The first passengers from the Great Western train are due to give evidence to the inquiry on 27 September, and next day Mr Harrison is scheduled to appear.

In the New Year a report will be compiled by the Health and Safety Commission under the guidance of Professor Uff.

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