CRITICAL SECTIONS of track at the site of the fatal Hatfield train crash were too dangerous for maintenance inspectors to inspect at close range, sources revealed this week.
In the months before the crash contractors were allowed to carry out vital inspections from a remote footpath at the side of the track, rather than closing the line for a close-up check.
Following the crash, Railtrack revised its Group Standard 103 to specify that a track inspection must be done from between the two rails.
Railtrack had allowed contractors to inspect live rails from the side of the railway in areas where it was considered too dangerous for inspectors to be on the track.
These areas included bends and some high-speed sections of track.
A spokesman for maintenance contractor Balfour Beatty this week confirmed that the practice had being going on 'indefinitely' with Railtrack approval.
Changes mean more possession time is now required for contractors carrying out inspection work.
Four people died at Hatfield last October when a broken rail caused a London to Leeds express train to crash. Then Railtrack chief executive Gerald Corbett described the track condition as 'not good'.
Balfour Beatty, the maintenance contractor responsible for that area of the network, said it had inspected the track the previous week and was due to inspect it again on the afternoon of the crash.
But as that section of track was on a curve, it was considered too dangerous for inspectors to walk between the four sets of tracks because they would not get adequate warning of oncoming trains. It would have been very difficult and labour intensive to provide lookouts.
When Railtrack decided it was too dangerous for inspectors to walk the track, Balfour Beatty suggested inspections from the cess, the safe walkway at the side of the track. Railtrack agreed.
The practice of inspecting from the cess was common across the network before the Hatfield crash. The Balfour Beatty spokesman said it was 'custom and practice' and complied with the Railtrack standard.
At the four track Hatfield site, the fast lines are the central two, which are approximately 2m apart. There is then about 3m to the two outside slow lanes. This means an inspector at trackside would be at least 14m from the furthest rail, and 10m from the furthest fast rail line.
An experienced track inspector told NCE that someone that far from the rails would not be able to carry out a detailed inspection.
He also explained that as the track was on a bend, rails would be at different levels to allow for cant. This means that some sections of rail would be obscured by others.
He said that even an inexperienced inspector would have spotted track problems from above the rail, as they would have been able to see that 'something was different'. But not from the cess.
The rail, which was due for renewal, would have been showing signs of gauge corner cracking on the rail head, where it was in contact with the wheel. It would also have had flaking on the surface from rolling contact fatigue.
Railtrack is now reviewing how inspectors can be given access to the track in places where they are at present banned.
Alterations to these 'red zone prohibited' areas include providing escape paths at the trackside.