I pass the site of the Ladbroke Grove train crash frequently on my cycle ride to watch QPR and every time I think of the terrible scene there on the night of the disaster which I observed from the roof of a nearby warehouse where TV interviews were being conducted. I have since written numerous articles on the disaster and a chapter in my book Broken Rails also covered the disaster.
However, I have always been mystified by one aspect which, oddly, was not at all properly covered in the subsequent report by a judge, Lord Cullen – indeed I have never thought that judges were the right people to carry out such enquiries as they come with no knowledge and inevitably lots of prejudices but that’s another question. Now, thanks to a chance meeting at the Fawley Steam and Vintage Fair, organised by Lord and Lady McAlpine (highly recommended by the way) the mystery has been solved.
The issue was why the Thames Turbo train which went through a red light at signal SN 109 was routed into the path of the Cheltenham Flyer heading up to London rather than back to the down relief which would have been far safer. Let’s recap a moment for those of you who do not remember those horrific days after the accident. The collision occurred on October 5 1999 and resulted in 31 deaths and several hundred injuries, many very serious. The Turbo basically disintegrated in the face of a collision whose combined impact was reckoned to be 130mph, the highest ever on Britain’s rail network.
There were, as in all such accidents, a series of contributory factors. Most notably, there had been a series of eight – yes eight – SPADs (signals passed at danger, pleasingly a word that is now largely forgotten by the British public) at the same signal in the previous six years and through a series of administrative bungles, no signal sighting committee had been convened to examine whether the lay out needed improving. In the wider Paddington throat there had been no fewer than 67 SPADs in that period, a clear warning that disaster was afoot.
There were other issues too. The training programme by the small Thames train operating company was inadequate and Michael Hodder, the driver in charge of the Turbo train, was only two weeks into his job. The other issue was about ATP – Automatic Train Protection – a system that was being tested under BR on the Great Western and the Chiltern lines. Whereas when the railway was privatised, Chiltern had retained and invested in the system, Thames’s management had decided soon after they took over from British Rail not to bother with ATP, reckoning it was an unnecessary cost.
All this was well covered by the Cullen enquiry but it did not properly investigate the question as to why the Thames train was routed by the positioning of the points into the path of the Cheltenham Flyer. As can be seen by the accompanying diagram, after SN 109, there is an overlap, which is around 700 metres, before it merges with the up main line on which the Flyer was travelling. About half way between the gantry holding SN109 – and a series of other signals which clearly confused Hodder – there is a set of points, 8059, which, had they been switched the other way, would have taken the Turbo back to the down relief line from which it had come. That might have resulted in a collision but it would have been unlikely – a train would have had to travelled behind the Thames and then gone faster than it – and in any case it would have been a side on impact at a much slower speed (or conceivably a rear end shunt).
The explanation given to me at the time was that the logic of leaving the points open towards the up main was that it gave a longer overlap than had they been pointed the other way. The assumption was that no driver would ever go through SN109 by 700 metres because they would realise they were on a prohibited section of track. I was never satisfied with this explanation – it failed to consider the situation whereby a driver might be unaware of having gone through the signal. The general feeling is that at this stage Hodder was lost, as demonstrated by the fact that he actually accelerated after passing SN109.
This has never satisfied me. I could not understand why the people determining the signalling logic had not balanced the risks of a relatively minor side on collision with that of a head on disaster. My informant at Fawley, who had worked on the permanent way at Paddington before and after the crash was able at last, to enlighten me. He told me the reason that the points defaulted in that direction was that there was supposed to be a crossover at line 2, the up main, which would then have connected with line 1, the down main. That makes sense – a collision on the down main would, again, not have been as serious as a head on crash. However, for some reason, the crossover was never installed and therefore the overlap ran on to the up main, almost guaranteeing that a serious SPAD at SN109 would result in, at best, a dangerous situation and, at worst, a disaster. owe
Revisiting this story is actually quite painful and brings up all the anger I felt at the time. Rereading the chapter in my book, On the Wrong Line, (sadly out of print but available on Kindle and other eBook platforms) reminds me of the appalling mistakes that were made in the privatisation process and how the rush to break up and sell the railway resulted in the series of four major accidents between 1997 and 2002 (Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar). Ladbroke Grove was by far the worst and was without a single shred of doubt caused by the hasty and radical restructuring of the railway. For those who do have such doubts, let me leave you with just one little fact which is mentioned in that chapter – one of the people charged with dealing with chasing up safety concerns in the aftermath of a series of SPADs in the Paddington throat was called a ‘business development manager’. That says it all: business development and safety sit uncomfortably together.
Rereading the detailed account of the build up to the accident and the failings of various people and organisations involved is instructive. Fortunately the lessons have been learned and we have had a fantastic period of safe operation on the railway. However, that relies on people in the industry being prepared to stand up for safety concerns at all times, even when under commercial pressure. So far so good, with only Grayrigg with its one fatality in the dozen years since Potters Bar, but eternal vigilance is the key.
Thameslink – a tough act
The fact that the Thameslink etc franchise is almost unmanageable seems to have been recognised in the decision by the Department for Transport not to let it as a conventional franchise. Instead, because of all the uncertainties over the introduction of new trains, the expansion of Thameslink services with the completion of the project once known as Thameslink 2000 (muffled chuckle), the rebuilding of London Bridge and numerous other changes, the franchise has been let as a management contract. In other words, the revenue risk has been taken by the Department and Govia, the successful bidder, only has to run the operation and collect a set fee, boosted by a small percentage based on passenger numbers.
This is the model that is used widely abroad and is similar to the way that London Overground services operate. Indeed, that begs a question – why was not the franchise – or much of it simply transferred to Transport for London. It could have been part of the process of TfL acquiring more and more London services and improving them to the standards already seen on the North London line, Euston – Watford Junction services and so on. Apparently it was Mike Mitchell, the former director general of railways (he had various titles eventually) at the Department who blocked this expansion of TfL controlled services. Yet, it would make sense, as long as there were safeguards about maintaining services that are regional rather than suburban. Network SouthEast was, after all, a highly successful initiative and its recreation would bring London into line with most European cities and make sense in terms of managing the network and making maximum use of Oyster. Oh well, only seven years to wait – unless the franchise falls apart which given its size and complexity is not impossible.