Defective track the likely cause of fatal UK train derailment


Mon, Feb 26, 2007 - Page 6

A set of points at the center of the investigation into this weekend's fatal train crash were hardly ever used, it emerged on Saturday night. Network Rail, the company responsible for the track, said the points were part of a straight section of track and were only used occasionally, such as to divert trains on to another section of line during engineering work.

A woman died and eight passengers were injured when the Virgin Trains service came off the line and crashed down an embankment at Grayrigg, north of Kendal in the Lake District. The dead woman was named as Margaret Masson, 84, from Glasgow. Her daughter, Margaret Langley, 61, and son-in-law Richard Langley, 63, from Southport, who were also in the carriage, are in hospital.

This is the first time a crash is likely to be blamed on a track failure since Potters Bar nearly five years ago, which followed a spate of fatal accidents that raised serious concerns about the break-up and privatization of British Rail. This crash is likely to raise questions about the standards of infrastructure and maintenance at Network Rail, the government-backed company that took over when the privatized track owner, Railtrack, collapsed in 2002. Network Rail took direct control of maintenance, which had been let out to subcontractors. It has also slashed the annual operating and maintenance bill by ?1.5 billion (US$3 billion) since it took over.

John Armitt, Network Rail's chief executive, said: "A points failure can obviously be due to various causes, but clearly there is a possibility it has been something Network Rail is responsible for, but I cannot say that. I hope that's not the case, but I have to live with the reality that it could be something that has gone wrong under our watch."

Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group, said: "Network Rail are going to have to look at this and make sure nothing like this ever happens again."

However Paul Martin, director general of the Railway Forum industry lobby group, said passengers should not be worried about travelling by train: "Rail transport is still the safest form of public transport and certainly safer than cars."

There was also widespread praise for how the train carriages appeared to have protected many passengers.

"At 152kph it shows the industry's got it pretty well right," said Professor Roger Kemp of Lancaster University, and a former manager at Alstom, which built the Virgin trains.

Network Rail said the stretch of track at the center of the investigation had last had a regular weekly inspection five days previously, on Sunday, and it was done by a section manager. The last more detailed quarterly inspection was in December.