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London train crash Thursday, 7 October, 1999, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
Changing policy on safety
clapham rail
Clapham rail crash killed 35
By the BBC's Vivien White

In 1988, 35 people were killed in the Clapham rail crash. A public inquiry into that disaster chaired by Anthony Hidden QC was published on 27 September, 1989.

The Hidden report was unambiguous about introducing Automatic Train Protection, ATP. It said: "After the specific type of ATP system has been selected, ATP shall be fully implemented withing five years, with a high priority given to densely trafficked lines."

The then Transport Secretary, Cecil Parkinson, was equally unambiguous: "We have made it clear that the cost of implementing these recommendations will be met. And that British Rail in carrying through won't be hampered in any way by a shortage of money."

But ATP did not get implemented. As Gwyneth Dunwoody MP, chairman of the Transport Select Committee, said: "The government which thought it was a good idea, then ran away from it when they discovered how much money they were going to have to cough up.

"You have to remember at that time the government was not anxious to put money into British Rail because it was anxious to move towards other forms of privatisation."

Key conference

british rail
Putting a price on safety
British Rail was still running the railway. But Railtrack was in the wings as one of the players waiting to take over, when, in 1994, a key conference took place at the Royal Society of Medicine in London.

The issue was safety and the price to be put on it. The conclusion of the conference was that ATP, which Hidden had called for, cost too much.

Rod Muttram, Railtrack's director of safety and standards put it this way: "Hidden said that British Rail and the government should look at techniques for ranking safety investment in a business-led railway to see how much should be spent on safety and how you make decisions about safety investment."

He said: "It's looking at how you actually value a safety investment against other safety investments and against other things government has to spend its money on."

The railway was going to go a cheaper route.

The cost of safety

The Department of Transport has told the BBC that the cost of introducing a full automatic train protection system would be about 17m per life saved. But introducing the simpler train protection warning system, TPWS, would be far more economic, 4.6-6.5m.

TPWS therefore became the favoured option. ATP still exists but it's still on trial.

Gwyneth Dunwoody points out the problems with safety on a privatised railway: "Inevitably, if you as a railway system have a statutory duty to consider the interests of your shareholders before the interests of your passengers - and that of course is the legal situation - you do get clashes where you are looking at the rate of return. You end up saying to yourself 'We will do this, but we will do it over a long period of time'."

Ten years after Clapham and no decision on safety system
By the time of the Southall rail crash in 1997, when a driver went through a red light and seven people died, no decision had been taken on a new safety system for the network.

The public inquiry into that crash is still taking place. It was delayed because a criminal prosecution against Great Western, the train company, took place first.

The solicitor for the Southall rail crash victims, Des Collins said: "I don't think the criminal prosecutions served any useful purpose, public or otherwise. It was quite clear - the government of the day had us believe that we had an effective government controlling the privatised rail industry."

The case for TPWS

In 1998, a House of Commons select committee said the privatised railway should improve its safety culture: "Train operating companies should be pressed to improve their own safety standards and practices."

In the light of Southall and other accidents, the select committee proposed a new independent safety authority. The government's Health and Safety Commission is now considering this. This year, the government finally decided that it would introduce TPWS on key signals throughout the railway network.

But Mr Collins points out that TPWS does not cover all cases: "There are several accidents it would not avoid. In particular, John Prescott doesn't tell everyone that it doesn't cover an accident which is going to take place at speeds above 70 miles per hour."

Railtrack, however, says that TPWS would have averted the Paddington disaster.

Its director of safety and standards, Rod Muttram, said: "Based on the best of the knowledge I have at the moment, this accident would have been prevented by TPWS."

How long will we wait?

Growing death toll of Paddington changed views of safety
He said: "The train protection warning system which we are planning to implement ... on a timescale which has been set by the government ... I believe would have prevented this accident.

"I think the important thing now is to look at what can be done quickly. The fact is because TPWS is simple, it can be done in a relatively short timescale. If we were to go to ATP now, it would take a minimum of 10 years, in my view, to implement."

And no-one, in the light of Paddington, is in a mood to wait.

Vivien White looks at the debate over the levels of investment for rail safety
Links to more London train crash stories are at the foot of the page.

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