The Disaster | The Companies | Links
Just before twenty past one on 19 September 1997 a packed Intercity 125 train slammed into a freight train at high speed. Seven people were killed and there were 160 injured.
The scene at Southall
The express was the 1032, Great Western Intercity service from Swansea to London, Paddington. It was approaching Southall station, about ten minutes journey time from London when the accident occurred. The freight train operated by English Welsh and Scottish Railways was hauling a train of 20 empty ore wagons of the ARC company. This was part of a regular operation to collect stone from Mendip quarries. The train had started to cross the mainline to reach the freight yard at West Drayton to pick-up a further 20 empty wagons.
The Southall Inquiry
Two years and one day later, after one false start, an unsuccesful manslaughter prosecution and a TOC fined a record £1.5 million, the public inquiry into the Southall Disaster of 1997 gets under way.
The passenger train was crowded with many passengers standing in the aisles and in the vestibules at the ends of each of the carriages. What happened next is the subject of a Health and Safety Executve inquiry. At a speed of about 90 mph, the Intercity 125 struck the eighth wagon of the freight train. The brunt of the impact was borne by the first two coaches which "crumpled like tin foil". It was in these vehicles that the deaths and the majority of the serious injuries occurred. A full-scale rescue operation was in place just thirty minutes after the collision, although the last 16 survivors were only freed from the wreckage after two and half hours. A fire which started in leaking hydraulic fluid was quickly extinguished by firefighters.
Investigations into the cause of the accident began immediately and the Health and Safety Executive announced that a public inquiry would be held. Both drivers survived the impact and should be able to contribute to the investigation. This is likely to examine the signalling system and the track, particularly the signalling and pointwork in the vicinity of the accident.
Railway operations in Britain have become very complicated since the system was privatised. A plethora of companies now exist with varied responsibilites and complex relationships with each other. Five of these companies were directly touched by the Southall accident:
the track (railtrack)
The line from Paddington Station was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the original Great Western Railway. Today, Railtrack is reponsible for its maintenance. The track had recently been upgraded in preparation for the new service to Heathrow Airport. This work included remodelling junction layouts, improvements to the color-light signalling and new high-voltage electrification installations. The new service is to have Automatic Train Protect (ATP) a computerised system to prevent trains overunning signals. Experiments with this form of train protection were carried-out before privatisation and this line was amongst those where it was to be tried. However, widespread introduction of ATP was rejected on the grounds of cost.
the passenger train (1. great western)
The passenger train was an Intercity 125 unit consisting of eight passenger cars and two power cars, one at each end of the train. These units were first introduced in the 1970s, initially on the Western Region of British Rail and then on the East Coast Mainline. Here, with the excellent track alignment they were able to complete the journey from London, Kings Cross to Edinburgh in a little more than four hours.
Great Western now has a 37 strong fleet of these trains to operate its services under the first rail service franchise to be awarded. The trains, which are leased from Angel Train Contracts are more than twenty years old. Due to heavy use of these units, they have been held to be the cause of a recent fall in Great Western's reliability.
The company is a part of Great Western Holdings and its franchise has proved to be very profitable. Indeed, it is likely to be floated on the stock market in the near future. A major shareholder (24.5%) in the company is the Scottish bus operator, First Bus. The company also holds the North West Regional Railways Franchise. Great Western has a good safety record, but it has been criticised by the West of England Rail Users Consultative Committee for performance levels which fell below its Charter standards.
the passenger train (2. Angel Train Contracts)
The high speed trains used by Great Western are leased from Angel Train Contracts. This company owns 3,700 passenger train units and has contracts with 18 of the 25 train operating companies. These include heavy maintenance contracts the work on which is undertaken by a variety of train maintenance companies. The intercity125 units operated by Great Western are currently undergoing a refurbishment programme which is being completed at the rate of one unit a month. This work is due to be completed during 1999.
In December last year the Royal Bank of Scotland announced that it was to acquire ATC. The bank has acquired GRS Holding Company Limited, which is the holding company of Angel Train Contracts for a sum £395 million. ATC will continue to be run a separate entity.
the freight train (1. mendip rail)
The freight train was empty at the time of the accident. Consisting of a Class 59 locomotive and 20 ore wagons, it had started its journey at the ARC depot at Allington in Kent. The train was crossing the fast lines in order to get to the yard at West Drayton when the accident occurred. At West Drayton, it was to collect 20 more wagons before travelling to the Mendip Quarries in Somerset to be loaded with limestone.
Mendip Rail was formed in 1994 in a partnership between quarrying companies ARC and Foster Yeoman. These companies own, but do not operate the Locomotive and wagons of the freight train.
Class 59 Locomotive. The locomotive pictured here is No. 59104 standing at Newport, South Wales.
Photo: Railway Images
ARC ranks as the second largest quarrying company in the UK with twenty depots around the country.
the freight train (2. ews)
The role of English Welsh and Scottish is to provide the train crew for the Mendip Rail freight train and to negotiate track access for it with Railtrack.
EWS is owned by a consortium headed by Wisconsin Central Transportation Corporation of America. It is the largest freight operator in Britain and employs more than 7000 people. It has a good safety record in this country despite its chairman's criticisms of safety on the railways. He claimed that standards were seriously compromised by poor radio communications, ageing locomotives and maintenance standards below the best international practice.
Abroad however, the parent company's record is less than perfect. An article in the Guardian newspaper points out
...it was revealed last year that Wisconsin's safety record was the subject of controversy in New Zealand and the US, where its accident rate is three times the industry average. The US Federal Railroad Administration confirmed then that 20 people had been killed in the previous two years in incidents involving Wisconsin trains. A subsidiary, Fox Valley and Western, recorded a rate more than five times the average.
A.S.L.E.F. (Train Driver's Union)
Angel Train Contracts
English Welsh & Scottish
Health & Safety Executive