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Tuesday, 19 June, 2001, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
A lot still to do
Ladbroke Grove
Travel on: The spot where 31 people died
Safety on Britain's railways is the focus of attention again, but what has been done since the Ladbroke Grove crash to improve standards? And how much is there left to do?

If the report into the Ladbroke Grove train crash is to mean anything then Railtrack and the train operating companies must act on its safety recommendations.

That is the frank opinion of Lord Cullen, who chaired the public inquiry into the crash which claimed the lives of 31 people in October 1999.

Burned carriage
One recommendation is for improved crash worthiness of rolling stock
The newly-published report lists 89 recommendations designed to ensure such a disaster never happens again, says Lord Cullen.

But what are the chances of these recommendations ever being put into action?

In his assessment of Railtrack, which is responsible for the rail network's track and signals, Lord Cullen acknowledges an "institutional paralysis" and the company's apparent "inability to achieve anything with speed".

Of Thames Trains, one of the two train operators involved in the crash, he noted a "safety culture in regard to training [that] was slack and less than adequate".

Among the recommendations set out in the Cullen report, are:

  • improvements in safety information for passengers
  • emergency lighting in train carriages
  • revision of signal sighting training (the Ladbroke Grove crash occurred when a newly-employed Thames Train driver mistakenly ran through a stop signal)
  • a national system of radio communication between trains and signallers
  • improved crash worthiness among the type of rolling stock involved

    Lord Cullen
    Lord Cullen has made 89 recommendations
    In addition, Lord Cullen also recommended in a previous report in March, the introduction of the Train Protection Warning System (by 2004) and the European Train Control System (by 2008).

    Such systems are designed to override driver control in the event of signals passed at danger (Spads).

    Observers such as Carol Bell, are sceptical about such recommendations. Ms Bell, who was a survivor of the 1997 Southall rail crash in which seven people died, doubts the privatised rail companies are willing to spend the millions of pounds needed to implement these recommendations.

    She points to Lord Cullen's proposal for train warning systems, which although it imposes an absolute timetable for installation, also suggests there should be consultation over that timetable.

    Action plan

    "The Health and Safety Commission helped draw up an action plan with the train operating companies immediately after the Southall report being published," says Ms Bell, who is deputy-chair of Safe Trains Action Group (Stag).

    Signal 109
    The notorious signal 109
    "But even now I'm still getting of a revised action plan. They're still arguing about it."

    Certainly, some changes have already been put into practice in the aftermath of Ladbroke Grove. Thames Trains has improved its driver training programme and there are plans to widen access to training using computer simulation.

    It has also issued drivers with dedicated route maps to replace the sort of hand-written route guides that driver Michael Hodder was using when he passed though a signal at danger.

    The signal in question, SN 109, was notoriously difficult to read amid the complex layout of track and signal gantries on the approach to Paddington station.

    Signal improvements

    There have been improvements on this front as well, says Archie Roberts of the Scottish Rail Passengers Committee, who was called to give evidence to the Cullen inquiry.

    Thames Train
    Newly-qualified driver Michael Hodder was in control of the Thames Train
    Some awkwardly sited signals have been adjusted, relocated or fixed with backing plates to make them easier to read against bright sunshine.

    Mr Roberts also emphasised the need for a national standard on driver training, something which the Association of Train Operating Companies is committed to investigating.

    The introduction of aeroplane-style safety cards by some operators, including Great Western Trains, is welcomed by both Mr Roberts and Ms Bell and they want all other companies to follow suit.

    However, Ms Bell is dubious about more costly improvements such as safety lighting and a national two-way radio communication system. In April 1999 Railtrack cancelled plans to introduce a new cellular radio system called Dart (Digital Advanced Radio for trains).

    "Things like emergency lighting just aren't going to happen. The cost of fitting it and taking trains out of service is just too prohibitive for these commercial companies," says Ms Bell.

    Crash worthiness

    She is similarly doubtful about Lord Cullen's recommendation to improve the crash worthiness of rolling stock, which would demand significant investment to make carriages physically more robust.

    Yet public attitudes to safety are changing and she hopes this will have a knock-on effect on rail companies.

    "I think the effect of Hatfield will in time make safety better. I don't think that Southall or even Ladbroke Grove did much really, but after Hatfield the public just said this cannot go on any longer."

    The worry is that the turmoil wrought by Hatfield on the whole network has cost Railtrack so much money it may not be able to afford many of Lord Cullen's latest recommendations.

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