HIGHWAYS AGENCY officials have held back from carrying out emergency inspections of motorway overbridge crash barriers following last week's fatal train smash at Great Heck.
They are waiting for deputy prime minister John Prescott to give the go ahead following the publication on Tuesday of the Health & Safety Executive's interim report on the crash, caused when a Land Rover left the M62 and ended up on the main rail line.
There are around 230 motorway crossings of rail lines and more than 350 rail overbridges supporting trunk roads in England.
Current safety barrier rules concentrate on protecting vehicle occupants, and there is no guidance on providing extra protection where roads cross high speed main lines.
No-one knows if there are other locations where it would be possible for a vehicle to leave the road, pass behind the safety barrier and crash on to a rail line as at Great Heck.
'We are waiting for instructions from John Prescott once he has studied the interim report by the HSE, ' an Agency spokesman said on Monday.
The report was published on Tuesday, six days after the crash.
Ten people died when a Land Rover towing a trailer, left the M62 at Great Heck near Selby last Wednesday. It missed the end of a crash barrier on an overbridge across the East Coast Main Line, broke through a timber farm fence and plunged on to the southbound track.
Less than a minute later the 04.45 Great North Eastern Railway commuter train, travelling at 200km/h from Newcastle to London struck the vehicle. The train derailed, but continued substantially upright and in line until it hit a set of siding points 700m further on.
The points deflected the train into the path of a fully laden Freightliner coal train travelling at 95km/h in the opposite direction.
The GNER train was completely derailed and slipped down an embankment, landing in an adjacent field. The freight train was also derailed and ended up in a rail side garden.
Prescott is not expected to announce a decision on emergency barrier inspections until the end of the week.
In the meantime, the Agency has commissioned road research body TRL to carry out an emergency review of current and recent research into safety barrier performance.
This should include the findings of an 18 month study carried out for the Agency by consultant Mouchel completed last year. It looked into the implications of forthcoming harmonised European standards for safety barriers and bridge parapets.
Currently BS7669: Part 3 1994 Vehicle restraint systems - guide to the installation, inspection and repair of safety fences is under review.
But this only covers the mechanical details of the various types of barrier, from the familiar corrugated steel Armco to tensioned wire rope systems. The choice of barrier type and length is still left to the highway engineers responsible for a particular crossing.
According to the Agency spokesman, the only known previous occasion when a vehicle left a motorway and travelled a significant distance behind a safety barrier was a fatal accident on the M4 in 1995.
The coach involved eventually crashed into the culvert which was protected by the barrier, killing 13.
He added: 'Under current rules, a safety barrier at a bridge is there primarily to prevent a vehicle from running into the parapet and injuring its occupants.
'There is no specific requirement to take extra precautions where a road crosses a busy high speed rail line. Our specification only refers to rail crossings once, where it requires a safety barrier when there is a railway line at the foot of an embankment.
'But there are usually meetings between rail and highway engineers when each crossing is designed, where safety is on the agenda.'