THE RAIL industry has become 'obsessed' with sophisticated train protection systems and is ignoring fundamental design obligations for track layouts, a leading rail safety expert claimed this week.
Independent consultant Stephen Beakes said track layout design had played a key role in accidents at Watford in 1996, Southall in 1997 and at Ladbroke Grove last month when 30 people were killed.
But he warned that the Health & Safety Executive and Railtrack were concentrating too much on train protection systems 'which would not necessarily mean that trains would stop at red signals'.
In the Ladbroke Grove accident, a Thames train travelling from Paddington passed a red signal - known as signal 109 - and travelled into the path of a Great Western high speed train (NCE 14 October).
But the HSE's second interim report into the disaster, published on Friday, made no mention of the extent to which the track layout design was being investigated.
Beakes, who was operation standards manager for Channel Tunnel Rail Link promoter Union Railways until 1996, told NCE: 'The industry has got itself obsessed with train protection systems and driver training. Of course, these are important, but a lot more attention ought to be directed to the track layout.'
He added: 'It is quite obvious that once the Thames train had passed signal 109 at danger there was a potential for some form of incident.'
He claimed the two train protection systems being considered by the Government - the Train Protection and Warning System and the more sophisticated Automatic Train Protection - would not be fail-safe.
'These systems would substantially reduce the risk of a collision but they would by no means eliminate it,' he said. 'Trains can skid, signals can break down and brakes can fail.'
He added that under the Management of Health & Safety at Work regulations, track layout designers were required to minimise collision risk throughout the design process.
'The layouts that exist at Paddington are found at several places around the country. I would certainly be looking at junctions to see if additional protection can be given by re-routing,' he said.
Beakes' comments came on Tuesday just as a train slid straight through Bromley South station past a red light after the driver attempted to brake. No-one was hurt but the incident highlighted the technical difficulties of stopping trains. Crushed leaves on the line were blamed for forming a slippery mulch between the wheels and the rails.
But the man in charge of re-modelling the Ladbroke Grove layout up to 1993 - former British Rail Western Region operations manager Bob Poynter - claimed that redesigning junctions was not the answer.
'Moving signals and track layout is incredibly expensive,' he said. 'In terms of increasing capacity on the railway, the best way is to make track layouts as flexible as possible. But this has to be supported by an effective train protection system such as ATP.'
A spokeswoman for the HSE added that Railtrack had been required to carry out risk assessments on track layouts following the Watford accident but declined to comment on the extent of Railtrack's progress.
'A summary of what Railtrack has done to date will be provided to ministers shortly,' she said.
A Railtrack spokesman said: 'TPWS is coming in by the end of 2003 for junctions which pose a danger. Most of these accidents are preventable by TPWS.'