Lessons from Britain's crash

Rail safety: Separate companies running at different speeds on same track show problems to U.S.

October 08, 1999

BRITAIN depends more on rail transport than does the United States. So as MARC tries to increase commuting in the Baltimore-Washington corridor and Amtrak plans faster inter-city service, examining British problems might prevent the worst here.

The British state railroad was dismembered and privatized into separate companies sharing facilities -- the old U.S. model -- in 1996-1997. Since then, service has improved on some lines and worsened on others. Safety remains a government regulatory responsibility.

In the head-on crash Tuesday morning that killed at least 70 people and injured 160 more, a Thames Trains commuter train leaving Paddington Station went through a red light.

Two miles west of the station, it hit an incoming Great Western intercity express, which had a green light. The two had a combined speed of 100 mph. Diesel fuel in both locomotives ignited into a fireball.

The red light, maintained by a third company called Railtrack, is less visible as a result of pylons and wires installed in recent years. It has been ignored by at least eight previous trains in six years.

The closest American parallel was the crash of an inbound CSX-driven MARC train into an outgoing Amtrak train in Silver Spring northwest of Washington on Feb. 16, 1996. The MARC train's engineer slowed for a caution light, stopped at Kensington, then resumed a higher speed.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation blamed him, but made 36 nonbinding safety recommendations.

The latest British crash happened on a stretch of line where another Great Western express crashed in September 1997, with seven deaths and 147 injuries. The railroad, whose driver ignored a red light, was fined. This time, Great Western appears blameless.

An official inquiry into the 1997 disaster had just begun, but a new one was ordered for the latest accident. After a crash in 1988, an inquiry recommended installing automatic braking systems at a cost of $1.7 billion, which was not done. Now the government is ordering the companies to do it.

Railroad privatization was an achievement of the former Conservative government. Its safety and punctuality record is a liability for the current Labor government. Whatever lessons may be learned in London should be heeded in Washington.

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