There is an eerie symmetry between Friday’s train accident and the similar crash at Potters Bar five years ago. Attention very quickly focussed yesterday on a set of points used to connect the south and north bound lines and similar pointswork was the cause of the Potters Bar disaster.
At Potters Bar part of a set of points broke underneath a train, causing it to derail, also at around 100 mph. The similarities become positively chilling when the details are considered. Yesterday, crash investigators quickly found bolts belonging to the stretcher bars, the part of the points which holds ensures the rails are held in position, neatly laid out next to the track, just as they were at Potters Bar.
After Potters Bar, Steve Norris, the former Tory transport ministers and chairman of Jarvis, the maintenance company responsible for that section of track, was widely criticised for suggesting that sabotage may have been the cause of the accident. The points were generally thought to have been merely very badly maintained, though it was never explained how they would have got into such a bad state simply through bad workmanship.
Now even senior executives within Network Rail are so bemused by the pattern of these two accidents that privately they are not ruling out the possibility that this latest incident may have been a deliberate act.
In the wake of Potters Bar, the maintenance of the rail network, which had been handed over to private contractors when the railways were privatised in 1996/7, was back taken in house by Network Rail. The ostensible reason was that it would be cheaper, but in fact Network Rail, which is effectively a nationalised government company since it has no shareholders and benefits from grants of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. was worried about the safety implications of having outsourced basic maintenance.
This should ensure that Network Rail can track down the precise maintenance history of these fateful points. After Potters Bar, lack of cooperation from the contractors, Jarvis, and the failure to keep proper records meant that the British Transport Police was unable to track down precisely who had been on the track and what work had been carried out, leaving its precise cause as a mystery. A senior Network Rail source told me last night: ‘This time we will be able to find out precisely who was on the track and what they did’.
Unlike the points in the Potters Bar accident, which were among the most heavily used on the network, the points concerned in Friday’s accident were little used as they were only installed to allow trains to cross from the one track to another during maintenance work, a procedure that is now rarely used because, as Sunday travellers know to their cost, the fashion now is to close the whole line. This should, in fact, have made maintenance easy and routine, thus deepening the mystery as to what happened to cause this accident.
While the rail industry will be smarting from the disaster, there are some positive points to be taken from it. The new tilting Pendolino trains introduced by Virgin over the past three years have passed their most demanding test with flying colours. The very low number of serious casualties is a tribute to the excellence of the Anglo-Italian design of the trains. The coaches seemed to be remarkably undamaged to such an extent that the boss of Virgin, Charles Belcher, reckons that the train will be salvageable. Not a single window appeared to be broken, ensuring that there was no potentially deadly flying glass.
Inside, the passenger, who were fortunately all seated as the train was not full, were not thrown around as much as in previous accidents thanks to the improved seat design, with higher headrests, that helps keep them in place. Moreover, the emergency lighting system withstood the impact, enabling people to leave the upturned carriages safely, a very difficult task had the lights failed. One only has to consider what an accident at a similar speed in car would have done to the occupants to realise why rail travel is far safer than motoring.
The railway can, too, demonstrate an improving safety record. After the spate of accidents in the wake of the 1996/7 privatisation, there has been a period of nearly five years since Potters Bar in which the only passengers to die in a rail accident were the six victims of the Ufton Nervet level crossing collision, caused by a suicidal motorist deliberately leaving his car across the tracks. This is an unprecedented long period without a major accident in the industry, a far cry from the immediate postwar era when an annual death toll of fifty was considered unexceptional.
Nevertheless, Friday was a dark day for the railways and for the industry to suffer no long term ill effects, which could lead to financial difficulties for many companies in the privatised network, public concern about the condition of the track will have to be assuaged. After the Potters Bar crash, ministers rejected the call for a public enquiry from the bereaved and survivors, arguing that it was a one off incident that was unlikely to happen again. This time, given the similarity between the accidents and the fact that Potters Bar remains a mystery, the calls for such an enquiry are likely be too strong to ignore.
Christian Wolmar’s book on the history of the railways, Fire and Steam, will be published by Atlantic Books in September