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London train crash investigation looks at whether safety system was off

September 21, 1997

LONDON (AP) _ Rail officials are investigating whether a computerized warning system was switched off when a passenger express train plowed into a freight train, killing six passengers, track operators said Sunday.

The question of whether the safety mechanism, which slams on brakes in an emergency, was operating is ``fundamental″ to the inquiry into Friday’s accident, said Andy Hancock, acting director of Railtrack, which operates the rail lines.

Hancock refused to confirm or deny newspaper reports that the system, known as the Advanced Warning System, was switched off because Great Western, the train operator, and Railtrack considered it unreliable.

The passenger express, heading to London’s Paddington station from Wales, slammed into an empty freight train crossing the track Friday, killing six male passengers and injuring more than 150.

Five of the dead were British: a lawyer, a business executive, a college official, a local government officer, and an army colonel. Also killed was Swedish radio journalist Marcus Olander.

Six of the most seriously injured people remained hospitalized Sunday, two in critical condition, hospital officials said.

The driver of the passenger express is out on bail for investigation of a manslaughter charge. He was arrested and questioned Friday, but has not been charged.

The accident was Britain’s worst rail crash since December 1988, when three trains collided outside London’s Clapham Junction, killing 35 people.

The crash has revived public debate about the Advanced Warning System, which overrides the driver and halts a train automatically if it goes through a red light or there is an obstruction on the track.

The system is fitted to most high-speed trains in Germany and France, and after the Clapham disaster state-owned British Rail said it would increase its use in this country. British Rail is now broken up into privately owned companies.

Great Western said the wrecked Intercity 125 express was fitted with the Advanced Warning System.

``It is for the inquiry to establish the status of the equipment, along with all other aspects of the incident,″ a Great Western spokeswoman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Both Railtrack and Great Western said a pilot trial of the system was under way on the line from Wales.

Press Association, the British news agency, quoted an unidentified Railtrack spokesman as saying tests with the system had found it unreliable when fitted as an added feature to existing track, as opposed to new tracks.

The Sunday Times said that the system was switched off because it had performed erratically in trials.

At the crash site, giant cranes winched mangled cars off the tracks and swung them onto flatbed trucks for removal by road as work continued to clear the track at Southall station in west London.

Railtrack said the line would not reopen until Tuesday, meaning that Paddington, the London mainline station that serves Wales and much of southwest England, will remain closed during Monday’s commuter rush.

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