A record fine for a health and safety offence of £1·5m was imposed on Great Western Trains in July by Mr Justice Scott-Baker for not preventing the collision at Southall in West London on September 19 1997. Seven passengers died when a diesel High Speed Train ran through signals at 200 km/h and hit empty hopper wagons crossing its path. The driver was packing his bag on the cab floor, but GWT was severely censured because neither the standard British automatic warning system, nor the automatic train protection with which these trains are also equipped, was switched on. A public inquiry starts belatedly on September 20, although the essential facts have been well aired in court.

August 10 saw publication of the Railway Safety Regulations 1999. They come into force on January 30 2000 and have two principal effects.

The first has been widely welcomed, although it will cost Railtrack and the rolling stock leasing companies at least £200m. By January 1 2004, between 30% and 40% of Railtrack’s signals and all trains must be equipped with the Train Protection & Warning System. TPWS provides a limited ATP function by stopping trains which approach too fast a stop signal, buffers in terminal platforms at stations, or permanent speed restrictions requiring at least a 33% speed reduction from 97 km/h or more (RG 1.99 p55). Any train which passes a TPWS-equipped signal at red is stopped within the overlap.

The regulations state that the only signals (apart from shunt signals) which need not be equipped are those which simply enforce block separation on plain lines, and do not protect conflicting moves. Railtrack is obliged to agree with HM Railway Inspectorate by January 30 precisely where TPWS is to be installed.

The other legal requirement is that the remaining 1950 Mk I coaches in the national fleet must be withdrawn by January 1 2003. These have a non-structural body mounted on a robust underframe, and are vulnerable to destruction by over-riding of underframes in a collision. They can survive for two more years if modified with an anti-climbing device to prevent over-riding, but it is barely conceivable that this could be financially justified. A further 350 crashworthy MkII coaches with hinged slam doors are also banned from January 1 2005 unless fitted with centrally controlled locking, which again seems highly unlikely.

The net result is that some 1300 coaches (all 750V EMUs) will have to be replaced earlier than planned by two operators who will both be within weeks of the end of their franchises on December 31 2002. There is no agreement as to how this situation will be handled, yet if replacement trains are not ordered immediately they will not be available in time.

HMRI has given up all pretence that this regulation meets the ’reasonably practical’ benchmark of some £2m per life saved, given that many Mk I coaches would be restricted to peak-hour use by 2003.