On October 5, 1999 two trains collide at Ladbroke Grove junction near London’s Paddington station after the driver of one fails to stop his train at a red signal. When two London trains collide at high speed, the impact and resulting fireball kill 31 people and leave hundreds injured. Investigators lift the lid on one of Britain’s worst rail accidents.
The Ladbroke Grove rail crash (also known as the Paddington train crash) was a rail accident which occurred on 5 October 1999 at Ladbroke Grove, London, England. With 31 people being killed and more than 520 injured, this remains the worst rail accident on the Great Western Main Line. This was the second major accident on the Great Western Main Line in just over two years, the first being the Southall rail crash of September 1997, a few miles west. Both crashes would have been prevented by an operational ATP (Automatic Train Protection) system, but wider fitting of this had been rejected on cost grounds. This severely damaged public confidence in the management and regulation of safety of Britain’s privatised railway system.
A public inquiry into the crash by Lord Cullen was held in 2000. A separate ‘joint inquiry’ in 2000 confirmed the rejection of ATP and the mandatory adoption of a cheaper and less effective system, but noted a mismatch between public opinion and cost-benefit analysis. The Cullen inquiry was carried out in 2 blocks of sittings, sandwiching the ‘joint inquiry’; the first block dealt with the accident itself, the second block dealt with the management and regulation of UK railway safety; this had always been part of the inquiry terms of reference, but was given additional urgency by a further train crash at Hatfield in October 2000. Major changes in the formal responsibilities for management and regulation of safety of UK rail transport ensued.
At about 08:06 BST on 5 October 1999 a Thames Trains train for Bedwyn in Wiltshire left Paddington Station. From Paddington to Ladbroke Grove Junction (about 2 miles (3.2 km) to the west), the lines were bi-directional (signalled to allow trains to travel in either direction, in and out of the platforms of Paddington Station); beyond Ladbroke Grove the main line from London to South Wales and the West of England switched to the more conventional layout of two lines in each direction (‘Up’ for travel to London, ‘Down’ for travel away from London) carrying fast and slow trains. As an out-bound train, the train (a 3-car turbo class 165 ‘Turbo’ diesel unit) would have been routed onto the Down Main line at Ladbroke Grove. It should have been held at a red signal at Ladbroke Grove until this could be done safely. Instead, it ran past the signal; the points settings beyond this brought it in under 600 metres onto the Up Main Line; at about 8:09 as it was entering this it collided nearly head-on and at a combined speed of about 130 miles per hour (210 km/h) with the 06:03 First Great Western train from Cheltenham to Paddington.
The latter train was an HST High Speed Train, driven by 52-year-old Brian Cooper (who was killed in the accident) and comprising eight Mark 3 coaches with a Class 43 diesel power car at each end. It was of much more substantial construction than the Turbo train, whose leading car was totally destroyed. The diesel fuel carried by this train was dispersed by the collision and ignited in a fireball, causing a series of separate fires in the wreckage, particularly in coach H at the front of the HST, which was completely burnt out. Thirty-one people, including the drivers of both trains involved, were killed (24 on the Turbo train, 6 on the HST as a result of the impact, with one further fatality as a result of the fire), and 227 people were admitted to hospital. A further 296 people were treated at the site of the crash for minor injuries.
The immediate cause of the disaster was identified as the Turbo train passing signal SN109 (located on an overhead gantry – gantry 8 – with 4 other signals serving other tracks) at which it should have been held. It was established that the signal had been showing a red aspect, and the preceding signal (SN 87) had been showing a single yellow which should have led the driver to be prepared for a red at SN109. Since the Turbo driver, 31-year-old Michael Hodder, had been killed in the accident it was not possible to establish why he had passed the signal at danger. However, Hodder was inexperienced (he had only recently qualified as a driver)) and his driver training had been defective, whilst the signalling in the Paddington area was known to have caused problems – SN 109 had been passed at danger on eight occasions in six years, but Hodder had no specific warning of this. Furthermore, 5 October 1999 was a day of bright sunshine and at just past 8 o’clock the sun would have been low and behind Hodder, with low sunlight reflecting off yellow aspects. Deficiencies in ‘signal sighting’ (i.e. siting of signals to give good visibility and readability) meant that Hodder would have seen sunlit yellow aspects of SN109 at a point where his view of the red aspect of SN109 (but not of any other signal on the gantry) was still obstructed. The inquiry considered it more probable than not that the poor sighting of SN109, both in itself and in comparison with the other signals on and at gantry 8, allied to the effect of bright sunlight at a low angle, were factors which had led Hodder to believe that he had a proceed aspect.
The recommendations of the Cullen inquiry led to the creation in 2003 of the Rail Safety and Standards Board and in 2005 of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch in addition to the Railway Inspectorate. Standards-setting, accident investigation and regulation functions were henceforth clearly separated, on the model of the aviation industry
On 5 April 2004, Thames Trains was fined a record £2,000,000 for violations of health and safety law in connection with this accident. It was also ordered to pay £75000 in costs.
On 31 October 2006, Network Rail (the successor body to Railtrack, formed in the wake of a subsequent train crash at Hatfield) pleaded guilty to charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in relation to the accident. It received a fine of £4 million on 30 March 2007, and was ordered to pay £225,000 in costs.
Signal SN109 was brought back into service in February 2006. It and many other signals in the Paddington area are now single-lens type signals.
A memorial garden has been set up, partially overlooking the crash site and accessible from the adjacent Sainsburys supermarket car park.
Power car 43011 sustained heavy damage in the crash and was subsequently written off, being officially withdrawn in November. After the completion of the inquiry of the incident it was cut up by Sims Metals in Crewe, Cheshire in June 2002. Excluding one of the prototypes, it is one of the only 3 class 43 (HST) locomotives (power cars) to be scrapped. The Turbo train was also written off in the accident. While the front two carriages were scrapped, the rear trailer was undamaged and is now a spare carriage.