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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 February 2007, 12:05 GMT
Crash 'major blow for railways'
By Christian Wolmar
Railway expert

Train wreckage
The crash inquiry is focusing on a set of points, investigators say
The terrible pictures of the Virgin Train strewn across the Cumbrian countryside are a major blow for the railways after a long accident-free period.

The last major incident was at Ufton Nervet in Berkshire in November 2004 when a car across the track was struck by a high speed train, killing six people including the driver.

The last accident in which passengers died as a result of industry error was much longer ago in May 2002.

Then seven people lost their lives when a train was derailed by faulty points at Potters Bar.

The following five-year accident-free period was unprecedented in the railways' 175-year history and did much to allay fears about safety.

Previously they had been heightened after a series of disasters in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Today, the greatest area of concern for the industry will be that the probable cause of this crash is, again, something to do with the track.

Popular trains

Given the lack of damage to the front locomotive and the apparent focus of police investigation on the track, it is unlikely that the train hit an object, as had been suggested by some of the passengers.

Crucially for Virgin, there does not seem to have been a fault with the innovative and highly popular Pendolino trains introduced on the West Coast Main Line over the past three years.

If there were any concerns about the train there would already be moves to withdraw the fleet, causing an effective shutdown of the entire line.

The finger, therefore, is likely to be pointed at Network Rail which is responsible for the maintenance of the track itself.

In this respect, there has been a major change since the Potters Bar crash as, at the time, maintenance was contracted out to private companies.

After that disaster, Network Rail, which is effectively a government-controlled company since it has no shareholders, decided to take maintenance back in-house.

This was primarily done on financial grounds, but also because of safety fears.

Excellent investment

Although clearly the death and injuries in this crash are deeply regrettable, the bright side for the industry is the way that the new coaches withstood an accident at such high speed.

The death toll is far lower than might have been expected and certainly much lower than in similar accidents in the past when derailments or collisions have led to dozens of fatalities.

The fact that the coaches have remained in one piece, without shattering or crumpling, is testimony to the high standards of design, a result of experience learnt from these previous disasters.

The billions of pounds spent on improving safety since the dark days of the 1990s have proved to be an excellent investment and will reassure people that the railways remain the safest form of transport.

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