Loose bolts found at scene of death crash
Independent Online: 25 February 2007
By Ian Herbert and Cole Moreton
It seems to have been a faulty line - again. Another disaster is added to the disturbing track record of Britain's rail network.
A faulty line was to blame for the Cumbria rail disaster, insisted crash investigators, railway workers and Sir Richard Branson last night. As rain poured down on the remote floodlit scene, Network Rail was coming under huge pressure again for its record on track maintenance. The company announced that it would be checking all its 700 points in the coming weeks "as a precaution".
The elderly woman who died in Friday night's crash was named as Margaret Masson, 84, from Glasgow. More than 70 other passengers were hurt including her daughter and son-in-law who were in the same carriage. "We are devastated by the death of our nan and about mum and dad being so poorly," said Mrs Masson's grand-daughter Margaret Jones.
It was reported last night that loose bolts had been found near the crash scene. Earlier in the day, Bob Crow of the rail union RMT had compared the accident to the Potters Bar crash in 2002, when bolts were also found. "I don't see nuts and bolts falling off 747 jets," he said. "Isn't it about time we had some decent nuts and bolts on the railways?"
British Transport Police made an unprecedented decision to declare, only 12 hours after the 95mph derailment, that they suspected a set of points was to blame. This prompted swift demands for answers from Sir Richard, who was visibly angry on arriving at the remote crash site in Cumbria.
"There must be a post-mortem as to why there was a faulty track again," he said after breaking off from a family holiday in the Alps to return to the UK. "We've said in the past that the companies that actually use the track should have some say in maintaining the track. I am near 100 per cent certain that the train was 100 per cent safe. It is built like a tank."
The engine and carriages came to rest down the side of an embankment 300 yards from the set of points at the centre of the inquiry. The chief executive of Network Rail, John Armitt, whose job may be at risk, admitted the points' proximity to the scene made them "suspect". Poor maintenance by contractors has led to disasters in the past, prompting the Government to bring Network Rail back into state hands.
Without the hothouse atmosphere of companies competing for work on the tracks this sort of thing was not supposed to happen any more.
Mr Armitt insisted these particular points had undergone routine inspections three weeks ago and a few months before that. But he said: "I have to live with the reality that it could be something that has gone wrong on our watch."
The 17.15 service from London Euston to Glasgow Central was three hours into its journeyand travelling at 95mph on Friday evening when it plunged down an embankment in mountainous countryside at Grayrigg, north of Kendal.
"I heard a sudden thump. I thought the train was going to catch fire and I thought I was going to die," said Vanessa Robinson, 25, a tourist from Perth in Australia. Thrown from the train through a smashed window after her carriage turned upside down, she suffered cuts and bruises but did not go to hospital.
"A man flew across the carriage and he landed on top of me," said a fellow passenger, Amy Wilson, a reporter with the Bloomberg news agency.
Despite this, people remained calm "in a very British way", she said. "Everyone was saying, 'Oh gosh, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to land on you.'"
Some called the emergency services, who already seemed aware of the crash. Half an hour later a man arrived with a ladder he had borrowed from a nearby farm, and climbed on to carriage D. A door was smashed and some people climbed through with the help of firefighters. Others were reluctant, for fear of touching high-voltage power lines. "You can climb out if you want," the man told Ms Wilson. "You're in the middle of a field."
Eventually a group of about 40 passengers from the carriage were helped in the dark to a farmhouse, where they were given cups of tea and painkillers. Rescue services praised local people who helped.
The passenger who died, Margaret Masson, was in the first carriage, where her niece and nephew were among 11 others seriously injured. Last night her neighbour, Mhairi McDonald, said, "She was a lovely person. She was 84 but still very active and always out and about."
Mrs Masson was one of 22 people taken away from the crash by mountain rescue teams and RAF helicopters, whose efforts were hampered by foul weather. Sir Richard praised the train driver, Ian Black, for his courage in maintaining a course on the track ballast for half a mile after the derailment, which meant that the train had slowed by the time his cab plunged down the embankment. "He could have got out of his seat and dashed to the next carriage to save himself," Sir Richard said of Mr Black, a former Cumbria Police officer recruited by Virgin three years ago. "Instead he stayed put."
The Pendolino's computerised systems would have dictated how it slowed once Mr Black had pulled a small brake lever to his left. But the experience as he hurtled towards freefall in the pitch dark on the highest spot in the English railway network would have been terrifying. Mr Black was found crouching in the foetal position in his cab by rescue workers, who cut their way in an hour after the crash. He had a broken collar bone and a broken bone in his neck.
Emergency services expressed astonishment that more people had not died in the crash, which left four carriages on their sides, virtually upended a fifth, and slewed more half-way down the embankment. The driver's cab plunged down the embankment. "We are amazed that we didn't have more fatalities at the scene," said Chief Supt Martyn Ripley of the British Transport Police. "It is little short of a miracle."
The Pendolino's safety systems, designed for the West Coast Main Line's terrain, certainly helped, but the suspicion of faulty points raises a spectre which Network Rail thought it laid put to rest after the Potters Bar crash of 2002, which prompted it to bring most track maintenance in-house.
This time investigations will centre on the condition in which the points were left following their last official inspection three weeks ago and whether general track maintenance in the past week might have affected them.
Why was the hi-tech train derailed?
Rail expert Michael Williams analyses the background to the crash;
Why did the crash happen?
The focus of the investigation is a fault in a set of points half a mile south of where the derailed train finally came to rest. Poorly maintained points were the cause of one of the most serious rail accidents in May 2002, when a train from King's Cross to King's Lynn came off the track in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, killing seven and injuring 76. The cause was a loose bolt, which caused the points to change as the train was passing over them.
But how could there be a problem with the track? Hasn't the Government spent a fortune upgrading the West Coast Main Line?
Yes. Nearly £9bn of taxpayers' money to be precise - a vast overrun on the original projection of less than £3bn. When the cash ran out, some of the renewals had to be postponed. Many argue that such a vast amount could have bought a brand new high-speed TGV-style line. Instead we have ended up with only a part-modernised line with high-speed trains running on track laid out in the Victorian era.
Could the driver have been going too fast for the track?
Unlikely. The three-year-old Pendolino trains are among the most sophisticated and best designed in the world. They are made to tilt to go round curves at 140mph, although in practice they are limited to 125mph. On-board computers apply the brakes if the tilt mechanism fails. Virgin says the train was travelling at 90mph.
What about Network Rail? Weren't we promised a new start on safety after the Hatfield accident?
In October 2000, an express was derailed at 115mph at Hatfield, killing four people. The cause was a broken rail, and almost the entire network was shut down, bankrupting Railtrack. Network Rail was formed and promised to improve safety, taking much of the track maintenance in-house and sacking firms like the one which failed to spot the broken rail at Hatfield. So far, its record has been good.
The damage to the train looks alarming. Why weren't more people hurt?
This is a tribute to the design of modern trains, where since the 1970s carriages have been built like a steel tube to prevent crumpling in accidents. The Pendolinos are electric, so there was no fuel to catch fire.
Is privatisation to blame?
It almost certainly will be. Even the Tories have admitted that the division of responsibilities for track and train operation was botched. Several accidents since then have been attributed to lack of co-ordination. Even though the cause of the Potters Bar disaster is known, none of the companies involved has accepted responsibility five years later.
Faulty points blamed for fatal rail crash
The Sunday Times: February 25, 2007
Dipesh Gadher and Steven Swinford
A FAULTY set of points was blamed last night for the Virgin Express train crash that killed a woman pensioner and injured 22 other passengers.
Network Rail began investigating up to 700 sets of similar points across Britain after police confirmed that points were at the centre of their investigation of Friday night’s crash in Cumbria.
Witnesses reported that nuts and bolts were missing from the points the London-Glasgow train passed over at 90mph before derailing and plunging down an embankment.
The rail expert Christian Wolmar said he understood that the points at the crash site in Grayrigg, near Kendal were in a similar condition to those in the 2002 Potters Bar crash, which killed seven people, with nuts missing and the stretcher bar between the rails loosened.
Last night Network Rail, the in-frastructure company responsible for maintaining the track, admitted that the points, which are deployed only to divert trains during engineering works, were not examined during a routine inspection of the track last Sunday. They were given a clean bill of health on February 11, however.
John Armitt, the company’s chief executive, said: “A points failure can be due to various causes. I have to live with the reality that it could be something that has gone wrong on our watch.” All points on high-speed lines, where trains travel in excess of 80mph, will now be checked. “It’s a stringent visual check to ensure all the components are in place and in working order,” said a spokesman for Network Rail. The line from Lancaster to Carlisle will be closed for up to a fortnight.
The dead woman, Margaret Masson, 84, had been travelling home to Glasgow with Margaret and Richard Langley, her daughter and son-in-law, who were seriously injured.
Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin boss, praised Iain Black, the train driver, as a hero for remaining in his cab in the minutes after the train derailed.