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The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator

In The Aftermath Of Hatfield

At 12.23 on 17 October at Hatfield a lot of chickens came home to roost. For lack of an overdue temporary speed restriction four people lost their lives. Considering the erroneously permitted speed of the train, it could have been far worse.

Railtrack, accepting sole blame, over-reacted. They had barely begun a huge programme of emergency maintenance when the storms and floods added to everyone's problems. Some of the operating companies have tried their very best in the face of repeatedly adjusted schedules, but others seemed to give up the ghost. It is evident that the primary cause at Hatfield was a lethal shortcoming in Railtrack's maintenance management, exposing an acute shortage of engineering expertise at Board level; but it has also become clear that some of the TOCs - train operating companies - have been insufficiently aware of their wider duty to co-ordinate closely for the service of passengers and the long-term survival of their own companies. A good job there was better cohesion, resolve and stamina during WW2.

Deeply disturbing revelations crawled out of the ballast on scrutiny of that fatal EGML curve. Developing defects had been noted in the mainline trackwork on that section, and rail replacement had been deemed prudent, although the rails were nowhere near their anticipated life expectancy. Part of this had been done in the summer; due to lack of available track possession time the remainder was rescheduled for November. Meanwhile, though a speed restriction was appropriate, none was imposed. It has been suggested the advisability of this was resisted at senior level as a result of ongoing preoccupation with maintaining punctuality, delays attributable to Railtrack being chargeable against them - with hindsight a perilous and luckless failure of judgement. It emerges that zone engineers report to senior management rather than, as in days gone by, to a chief civil engineer directly responsible to the Board.

It is just possible that by the morning of the disaster the rail had fractured, yet contrived to carry several expresses without drivers becoming aware of instability before finally breaking up under the 12.10 Kings Cross - Leeds. And even then fatalities might have been avoided had the buffet car not careered across the down slow line to collide heavily with an overhead support mast; but a train travelling at over 100 mph has a fearful amount of dynamic energy to dissipate in under 15 seconds before coming to rest.

For no adequate reason the Railway Police and the Health & Safety people seriously impeded train removal and track repair at Hatfield. (They had not been too clever at Southall or Ladbroke Grove; in the later low-speed Mossend derailment the former appear to have treated the unfortunate passengers disgracefully.) It took them 17 days to complete removal of the wreckage at Hatfield, so it was over 3 weeks before Railtrack could restore the lines to use.

It is worth recalling that, when a sleeper express was wrecked about midnight at Connington, south of Peterborough, in March 1967 with 5 fatalities, skilled teamwork saw the lines cleared and being prepared for relaying within 10 hours. More recently, after the accident at Clapham involving three packed trains on a Monday morning, two tracks were open for the Tuesday evening peak and all four were available the next evening.

So, as we learnt what Signals Passed At Danger (SPADs) were as a result of Southall, we are all now becoming familiar with 'gauge corner cracking'.

By a dreadful irony this phenomenon of gauge corner cracking has been known for several years. It has been encountered in several countries, and a good deal of ongoing research has been devoted to dealing with it. Its cause and development are well established, and it can be detected and monitored, imposing speed limits if it exceeds set parameters, well before it causes rail failure, but its rather haphazard incidence continues to puzzle engineers.

Speed and density of traffic may contribute to it. The modern use of hardened steel to prolong rail life may do so too. When permitted line speed is increased from 90 mph to 125 mph stress on the outer rail in canted track curvature may nearly double. But it has also been encountered in plain - i.e., straight - track. Virgin will be consulting widely with American, Italian, German and Swedish engineers before launching their tilting trains on the refurbished WGNL. How do the Japanese manage it?

Let us be clear. Railways have always aimed at absolute safety and this will always be a prime factor. All companies involved in our present network are only too keenly aware how hard they will have to strive to recover their reputations, not least by learning their essential interdependence with each other, the Strategic Railway Authority and the Rail Regulator. And in retrospect we will realise that nearly all the frustration and tedium of recent travel experiences by passengers has arisen because of that primary concern for safety and reliability.

A lot of invaluable lessons are being painfully learned. The new railway structure was too hastily conceived and flawed. Too much sturdy experience was lost. Too many of the 'in house' people were managers and accountants rather than railwaymen. There was (is?) too much, all too often ill-advised, political interference. Imagine how Stephenson, Locke and Brunel would have reacted! -May their shades go with us.

There will be a good many changes and adjustments under firm SRA guidance. We now have another chance to get it right, and the likelihood I confidently predict is that a better, leaner, more capable and reinvigorated network will emerge from this dismal catastrophe.

Keith Tyler