Oct 2009 - We must learn from, and not just lament, Ladbroke Grove

01 June 2013

It is ten years since the 5 October 1999 Ladbroke Grove train crash that injured some 400 people and took the lives of 31 others, including Drivers Michael Hodder and Brian Cooper. For months after this tragedy I sat through the traumas of the Cullen Enquiry. It was the most taxing and stressful period of my working life. Every day brought new grief, anger and desperation.

I vowed then, as I do today, that I would do everything in my power to ensure we had the safest railway system in the world. I do not want Michael and Brian to have died in vain. It still haunts me that they should still be here, enjoying their lives. They died in a disaster that should never have happened. One that could have been prevented.

Train drivers and other experts gave evidence that there had been persistent difficulty in the sighting of the signals between Paddington Station and Ladbroke Grove, and in particular those on gantry 8. One signal - SN109 - had been passed at danger on eight occasions since August 1993. Eight SPADs in six years – and nothing had been done.

I sat in the same room as the families of the dead and saw their disbelief turn to anger and then to bitterness. It was impossible not to share in their sorrow and grief.

Drivers, and therefore their trains and passengers, are reliant on the signalling system. Without efficient signals we don’t have a railway, we have a lottery: a gamble with death. Signals are the core of, and the key to, rail safety. That is why ASLEF must be committed to pushing for the introduction of the best possible systems. Currently that is the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). It is scheduled for introduction sometime in the 2020s. It would include features such as radio block control, continuous updates to the driver and could dispense entirely with lineside signals.

I don’t deny that we have made progress on signalling, but I believe that too often we settle for too little until the next disaster is caused. When I see the rate of change of other technologies – for music, communications and entertainment – I ask myself how much of this could be applied to rail safety.

Railway signalling is the poor relations of the iPod, GPS, HD TV and all the rest. We still do not benefit from new technology as we deserve – and as the memories of Drivers Hodder and Cooper demand.

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