Southall rail crash

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Southall rail crash
The remains of Coach G of the High Speed Train
The remains of Coach G of the High Speed Train
Date 19 September 1997
Time 13:20
Location Southall
Country England
Rail line Great Western Main Line
Operator Great Western Trains (InterCity 125), English Welsh & Scottish Railway (EWS) (Freight Train)
Cause Signal passed at danger
Trains 2
Passengers 212
Deaths 7
Injuries 139
List of rail accidents in the United Kingdom

The Southall rail crash was an accident on the British railway system that occurred on 19 September 1997, on the Great Western Main Line at Southall, west London. An InterCity 125 passenger train failed to decelerate on entering within sight of two warning signals, one of which was slightly mis-aligned, and collided with a freight train crossing its path, causing seven deaths and 139 injuries.

Great Western Trains, whose managing director survived the crash in one of the most badly affected carriages, was fined for failure to ensure High Speed Trains were not operated for long journeys with automatic warning system (AWS) inoperative. AWS had been gradually introduced in the British Rail Network since about 1958.

A malfunctioning AWS in the power car at the relevant leading end of the train was switched off ("isolated") before its first journey of that day which reached the London terminus from the train depot, and two of four parties required to be informed of this at the time by the relevant rule book, were not informed: Railtrack and the signaller. A signaller made the permissible routing of the freight train which would not have been permissible had the status of the warning system been known to the control centre.[1] The HST driver, Larry Harrison, was indicted with and charged for manslaughter by gross negligence but the case collapsed.


The crash occurred as the 10:32 Great Western Trains (GWT) InterCity 125 high speed passenger train (HST) returned from Swansea toward London Paddington. The train was formed of power car 43173, eight Mark 3 carriages and power car 43163 and the driver boarded the train at Cardiff. The first driver found the inability to reset the Automatic Warning System (AWS) to disapply the brakes (a recurrence of the previous day but the whole system had not malfunctioned since December 1996) so he isolated (disabled) it at 06:00, which was not reported to the signaller and to Railtrack — required by the Rulebook to enable extra signalling precaution.[1] The train passed the separate locations of signals, one at double yellow, one at yellow and the intended limit of travel one at red, two of these without slowing.[2] Since 1996 such trains have had their minimum number of drivers cut to one per journey and the driver admitted a lack of focus.[1]

As the tracks straightened ahead of the HST, the driver saw the (signalled) English Welsh & Scottish (EWS) Class 59 locomotive 59101 a mile in the distance, moving "at a funny angle" and realised that it was crossing its path (the Up Main line). The EWS-operated freight train hauling twenty empty bogie hopper wagons was coming from London on the Down Relief line toward the north side, and had been signalled to cross the main lines at Southall East Junction on its way into Southall Yard on the south side. A collision was now inevitable. The HST was before coming into sight of the red signal at 125 miles per hour (201 km/h) and its driver's application of the brakes at that point meant it was travelling at more than 80 miles per hour (130 km/h);[1] emergency braking could not at that time have halted the train.[2]

Alan Bricker, the driver of EWS locomotive 59101, observed the approaching HST and expected it to stop, but was alarmed by its speed and apparent brake application. He was praised for trying to accelerate his train out of its path of the HST. The later accident report found that:

  1. At 13:20, the front power car of the HST collided with a 22-tonne (22-ton) hopper car.[3]
  2. Two seconds later, coach H collided with a hopper. The HST power car severed the brake pipes of the freight train, causing the stranded rear hopper wagons to stop immediately. A coupling from one of the hoppers was then severed by the derailed and damaged front power car as it passed by, causing debris to land on the track.
  3. Four seconds into the accident, with the HST still travelling at 60 miles per hour (97 km/h), coach H collided with the severed coupling from the freight train, and began to topple away from the freight train onto its left side. It slid on its side for a further four seconds. Two people died in this carriage, both from falling out of the destroyed coach windows and being crushed under the sliding Coach H.
  4. Eight seconds into the accident, with both the forward HST power car and coach H clear forward of the scene, coach G—the second coach in the HST formation—hit the now stationary rear of the freight train. The freight wagons were driven back and jackknifed.
  5. Both coach G and the struck hopper wagon lifted into the air. The hopper wagon was restrained in its movement, and collided and jammed up against the nearby overhead line stanchions. The front of coach G was flattened as it slid under the hopper.
  6. Ten seconds into the accident, the rear of the HST train led by coach F, collided with the now stationary coach G. The energy release of the still moving rear of the HST bent the structure of coach G into a distinct half-curve at its midpoint. Five people died in coach G, which was almost completely destroyed.
  7. The rear of the HST, led by coach F, collided with the stationary rear of the freight train. Coach F was left derailed.

Seven passengers died: six in situ and one in hospital.[4]

The driver said he was aware of the switched off AWS and refers to putting items in his bag before the incident twice in his tape-recorded conversation with signallers at the nearest trackside telephone:

"I'm okay, yeah, I was just putting me stuff away in the bag the A, the A, the, the AWS has been isolated because some, some brake problem, I believe, so, I had no AWS so, I put me stuff away in the bag and the next thing I knew, I was coming up against red, up, such coming through, through...Through Southall, yeah"... ..."I was just putting me stuff away in the bag, like I would normally do, you see. (signaller: Right.) And all of a sudden I was whizzing through Hayes with a red at Southall (signaller: Right.) I see the slow train crossing over then"[5]

He either did not see or process the preceding signals; functioning AWS would have given him extra warnings of two signals which were displaying aspects (colour coding) to start braking, namely a visual warning and a horn warning in the cab.[1] Failure to acknowledge either warning would have caused the emergency brake to be applied. Automatic Train Protection (ATP) equipment would have almost certainly prevented the accident. The train was fitted with ATP but this was switched off. The equipment, both at trackside and in the London-end power car was fully operational, but was not switched on because neither Drivers Harrison nor Tunnock were then qualified to drive with ATP.

The parallel AWS had been reactivated at the depot overnight and mandated electrical tests on it were not carried out.[1][6] If the AWS or the ATP equipment on the HST had been working, the chance of the accident occurring would have been highly unlikely.


Following this accident and the Ladbroke Grove rail crash, First Great Western (as GWT had become) required all its trains to have ATP switched on. If the equipment is faulty the train is taken out of service. It emerged after the incident that the reset switch of the warning system had contamination on its electrical contact surfaces which rendered its performance intermittent, hence its disabling at Oxford the day before the crash.[1]

The HST driver, Larry Harrison, was indicted with and charged for manslaughter by gross negligence but the case collapsed.[7] GWT was fined £1.5 million for not having a system to ensure HSTs were not operated for long journeys with AWS inoperative.[8]

View of the aftermath from a passing train

The action of the signaller in stopping a high-speed passenger train to allow a slow freight train to cross in front of it has been criticised. However, this is standard procedure when regulating trains to minimise overall delay; there was no reason for the signaller to expect that the HST driver would not stop at the red signal he generated. At the time there was no requirement for the signaller to have been informed that the HST was in service with its AWS isolated. The rulebook was altered to cover this;[9]

"Driver.....if you become aware that the AWS has become defective when it is required to be in operation, you must.....tell the signaller"

The key point identified in the report was that drivers had become increasingly reliant on AWS with single-manning and high speeds, and that it was no longer acceptable to run trains at full speed if the equipment was inoperative. The rulebook was changed,[9] so that if AWS is isolated the train may only run at high speed with a competent person accompanying the driver in the cab. This person must have full knowledge of the route and know how to stop the train;

"If a competent person is provided....proceed at normal permissible speed to the location where the train can be dealt with. During poor visibility, the train speed must not exceed 40 mph (65 km/h)"


"If a competent person is not provided...proceed at a speed not exceeding 40 mph (65 km/h), or any lower permissible speed that may apply, to the location where a competent person is available or to the location where the train can be dealt with"

Among survivors in the two most severely stricken coaches in front of the buffet car were Richard George, then Managing Director of GWT, who played a valuable role in establishing calm and four staff in the buffet car, injured, quickly organised help for passengers.[1] After the completion of the inquiry, power car 43173 was scrapped at a remote site, MoD Shoeburyness.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Professor John Uff QC FREn. "The Southall Rail Accident Inquiry Report" (PDF). HSE Books. Retrieved 7 November 2011. 
  2. ^ a b "Seven die as HST ploughs into stone empties'" Rail Magazine |issue 315 8 October 1997| pages 6–11
  3. ^ TheRoute19 (27 August 2010). "Southall Train Crash 1997". Retrieved 12 December 2016 – via YouTube. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ "The Southall Rail Accident Inquiry Report: Annex 08 (Transcript of driver's SPT conversation with signaller at Slough IECC)" (pdf). Retrieved 2017-03-31. 
  6. ^ "The Southall Rail Accident Inquiry Report: Paragraph 6.26 "ATP not switched on"" (pdf). Retrieved 2017-03-31. 
  7. ^ Rail crash manslaughter charges dropped BBC News 2 July 1999
  8. ^ Record fine after Southall crash BBC News 27 July 1999
  9. ^ a b "Online Rulebook - Module: TW5 Defective or isolated vehicles and on-train equipment - Section 4.5 (If the AWS is defective or isolated)". RSSB. 
  • Hall, Stanley (1999). Hidden Dangers. Ian Allan. ISBN 0-7137-1973-7. 
  • Vaughan, Adrian (2000). Tracks to Disaster. Ian Allan. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°30′23″N 0°22′30″W / 51.50639°N 0.37500°W / 51.50639; -0.37500