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Wednesday, 18 October, 2000, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
The rail expert answers your questions

As the investigation into Britain's latest rail disaster train gets underway, the cause of the fatal accident remains unclear.

Experts will focus on three possible causes - vandalism of the track, a broken rail or a faulty wheel or axle.

But is the rail industry doing enough to improve safety on Britain's trains? Will we ever have 100% safety on the railways?

Aruna Iyengar puts a selection of your questions to author and broadcaster on rail issues, Christian Wolmar.

To watch the forum, select the link below:


Judith Moore, Aylesbury: Railtrack chief Gerald Corbett has offered to resign - is that likely to make any difference to the state of our railways?

It's very bad news for the railways

Christian Wolmar on Gerald Corbett tendering his resignation
Christian Wolmar: It's very bad news for the railways if the Railtrack board accepts the resignation. Gerald Corbett has worked very hard to ensure that there is sufficient investment from Railtrack, unlike his predecessor, and that money has just started coming through. Railtrack is much better organised than it was three or four years ago. He's also popular figure within Railtrack and the rest of the rail industry. Is a chief executive expected to resign every time there is a rail accident, I really just don't think it's going to take us any further forward.

Simon Everett, Doncaster: If there was something wrong with the track why did the first carriages not come off the rails, why just was it the back end of the train that came off the rails?

Christian Wolmar: He's right, the first two carriages and the locomotive stayed on the rails. Now the explanation might be that the locomotive, which is the heaviest part of the train, would have broken the rail almost completely and then the following two carriages broke it completely and it finally snapped. I was speaking to somebody from Railtrack about the rail snap yesterday and they said it was a very clean break so that contradicts that theory but nevertheless I think it's the only viable theory.

What about vandalism?

Vandalism has largely been ruled out

Christian Wolmar
Christian Wolmar: I think vandalism has largely been ruled out, I think they would have found something by now that would have suggested it strongly. The police are really playing a very low key role. The main theory must centre around this broken rail although there are alternatives still of maybe the train was going to fast and possibly a broken wheel but I think we would have heard more about that. I think that if Railtrack has already decided to reduce the speed on all its major high speed bends, it must be pretty convinced that it's a broken rail.

Catherine in Dublin: Reports say the train was doing 115mph as it went round the bend, why don't trains slow down when going around corners?

Christian Wolmar: They are designed to a certain line speed and that was the line speed that was acceptable here. The track is designed so the curve isn't so strong that the train has to slow down. There is a great demand for high speed trains, people want them to go fast but when there's an accident they want them to slow down. So to cater for demand, the railways run at as high a speed as possible.

Wasn't there already an independent investigation by the rail regulator Tom Winsor which said Railtrack weren't doing enough to prevent them?

Christian Wolmar: Yes, he was highly critical of Railtrack and this is clearly going to put them in the dock. This is the reason Gerald Corbett has resigned really.

Mark Kent, England: Shouldn't the Government re-nationalise the railways, and so re-establish the priority of safety above profit?

Christian Wolmar: Re-nationalisation isn't really possible because it would cost such a lot of money, but I do think it might be possible to regulate the railway in such a way that a consolidation is encouraged. I heard Lord MacDonald the Rail Minister say he would like to see a more sensible structure of the railway and he claims the strategic rail authority that the Government has created can bring that about but I'm afraid it needs more concerted action before that can happen.

RM Butt, Ireland: Why does it have to be a big incident/ accident that triggers the present UK government to think about improving the deficiencies in the system? It is becoming more like a 3rd world country where there is always a disaster waiting to happen. And nobody does anything until after it has happened.

Christian Wolmar: A lot of safety improvements have been made over the years, but he is right in that most of them have been made as a result of accidents. That's not just a British phenomenon and not just a rail industry one, you get that in the aviation industry as well, you have a crash, you learn the lessons from it and improve safety. Sure there must be a better way of doing things, but we haven't really found one yet.

Dave Whyte, UK: Is the design of British high speed trains inherently less stable than those used by the rest of Europe. When a Eurostar train derailed at 300kph it remained stable and upright and this was attributed to the bogies linking the carriages together as opposed to being one set at each end of each carriage. If this is the case should high-speed operators be forced to use this apparently more stable design?

Christian Wolmar: Eurostar goes a lot faster than this and there's an argument it needs a better system and secondly this was bad luck and this was on a bend, it it had not happened on a bend it may have stayed upright.

Mike Armstrong, UK: Why is there such media hype about a single transport accident where 4 people have been killed when the same number of fatalities in a single car crash would have hardly rated a mention?

Christian Wolmar: He is absolutely right and I think there is far too much hype about rail disasters. One thing is they are quite photogenic - the pictures we have seen on our screens in the last 24 hours do make remarkable viewing - it is quite to see these enormous machines lying on their sides and I think there is a fascination about that. The second reason is the railways have always been something of an aunt sally, they have always attracted a lot of criticism, quite often unfairly and viewed in context the railways remain a 100 times safer than car journeys.

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