The train driver who averted a major disaster on a London commuter line in nine seconds
An accident report out today on the landslip at Watford that derailed an early morning London Midland commuter train last September reveals the importance of having properly trained staff on our railways.
It reveals that without prompt action by the driver there would have been large number of casualties and possibly fatalities when another commuter train running in the opposite direction collided with the derailed train.
It also shows having a guard on the train meant that passengers on the service who had not been injured got immediate reassurance and help after the driver was trapped in the cab following the accident.
The report praises both the driver and the guard for the way they handled the accident - caused by heavy rain leading to a landslip on the line just inside the entrance to a tunnel at Watford.
Simon French, Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents said:
" The collision of a passenger train with a derailed train in Watford tunnel on the morning of 16 September last year serves as a reminder of why everyone in the railway industry continues to work so hard to manage risk - the collision of two trains in a tunnel is a scenario we all hoped never to witness.
The derailment of the 06:19 service from Milton Keynes could so easily have led to a catastrophic sequence of events were it not for two notable factors. The first was the sheer professionalism of the driver who, within moments of becoming derailed, had the presence of mind to apply the brake and then transmit an emergency message using the train’s ‘GSM-R’ radio. His actions alerted the driver of a train approaching in the opposite direction who immediately applied the brake. As a consequence, the northbound train had reduced speed from 79 to 34 mph before striking the derailed train a glancing blow. This reduction in speed may well have made a big difference to the eventual outcome.
The second mitigating factor was the slotting of one rail of the track in the gap between a gearbox and a traction motor on three of the axles, so preventing the derailed train deviating any further into the path of the approaching train. This unintended consequence of the train’s design probably made the difference between a glancing blow and something closer to a head-on collision.
The report reveals that the driver had just nine seconds to alert the oncoming train after his train had been derailed - but as a result it certainly saved lives.
The circumstances of the crash are also a grim warning in the age of climate change given that very heavy rain caused the landslip at exactly the same spot as another landslip in 1940.
The rail accident investigators found details of the earlier landslip in Network Rail's archives but unfortunately the management of Network Rail had not alerted people who had been working on removing vegetation and trees in the cutting on the need to revamp an old drainage system.
The report also reveals that had there been a serious accident access by the emergency services to the scene would have been difficult and there did not appear to be any plan for organising a major rescue should an accident happen in the Watford tunnels.
All this suggests to me is that ministers and privatised railway companies - such as Southern railways - who want to save money by continually cutting staff should be wary of doing so. It could cost lives and passengers need help and reassurance should the unexpected happen on their daily commute.