CONTINUED FAILURE by rail maintenance contractors to ensure that rail signals can be seen clearly could lead to another major rail disaster, experts warned this week.
Sources told NCE that shoddy maintenance work by contractors will lead to poor visibility of signals and more signals passed at danger (SPADs).
The revelation came in the week that the Cullen Inquiry into the Paddington rail crash stressed the importance of train drivers being able to see signals clearly, heavily criticising Railtrack and safety bodies.
One industry expert said the re-painting of signals' black back boards - essential to give drivers a clear signal - is being 'deferred'. The paint flakes or fades with time and the signal becomes difficult to see.
He also said damaged or vandalised signals were only having the lamp holders replaced in situ, because it 'is simpler'. But this means the exact position cannot be set precisely. Setting the signal is vital. To ensure the angle of the signal is accurate, the whole signal head should be replaced after having been set in the factory. Just 1mm out of line can mean that when the driver starts braking, the beam of light can be metres out of alignment, delaying the driver's line of vision.
Another track engineer said that vegetation was not being cut back adequately, also making signals difficult to see especially on bends.
'Maintenance contractors are not up to speed, ' said a rail contractor. Railtrack said it had no knowledge of any SPADs being caused by poor maintenance practice.
The first part of the Cullen report into the accident near Paddington in October 1999 focuses on visibility of signals.
The head-on collision between two passenger trains in October 1999 left 31 people dead (NCE last week).
Lord Cullen highlights the difficulty drivers had with signal SN109 which was passed on red by the Thames Trains train seconds before the collision. The First Great Western train was only given a red signal when signallers realised the situation, seconds before impact.
'The overall objective of signalling arrangements is that the driver has adequate advance sighting, ' the report states.
Obstructions, the complexity of the track layout, incorrect positioning of the signal and poor alignment were all listed as problems that could have contributed to Signal SN109 being passed at danger eight times in the previous six years.
Warnings were sent to Railtrack from First Great Western about the signal. Railtrack then wrote to the operator to say it had commissioned consultant WS Atkins to undertake a study on the signalling in the area, but had not, said Cullen.
A suggestion in 1998 to change certain lines of track from having trains running in both directions to just one direction, in an attempt to reduce the rising number of SPADs, was dismissed by Railtrack commercial director Richard Middleton 'as seriously bad news' because of capacity implications, the report says.
Cullen slams Railtrack for its 'serious and persistent failure to deal with SPADs, ' and also its 'lamentable failure' to implement the findings of two previous formal inquiries on SPADs in the area.
Although the latest monthly figures show SPADs to be at their lowest since figures began, serious SPADs, those with a likely potential to give rise to serious consequences, are the highest since 1999.
Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate (HMRI) is also criticised in the report. The HMRI wrote to Railtrack in 1995 saying that until certain items were dealt with, safety approval would not be given for the length of track where the Paddington crash occurred. Approval had still not been given when the accident occurred.
Giving evidence, Jenny Bacon, then director general of the Health & Safety Executive, admitted matters were not followed up with enough urgency.
Cullen said the management of the HMRI 'must take responsibility'.
Cullen's key recommendations
Holistic risk assessment to be carried out for changes to signalling and track layout.
Formal inquiry recommendations must be carried out in a specified timescale - with progress reports.
Risk assessments and action to be carried out on the Paddington area.
Signallers and drivers should attend joint training courses.
Signal sighting standards must be based on readability.
Signal standards should allow for the fact that some signals require longer to read, for example those on gantries.
Report by WS Atkins, Initial Study of Signal Sighting practice on Railtrack Infrastructure be commended.
SPAD standards to be reviewed to ensure there is no presumption that driver error is the principal cause.
Signallers response to SPADs should be clarified.
A review of standards to improve crash resistance of fuel tanks.
A review of compliance of recommendations to be carried out by the Health & Safety Commission within six months, and published.