Posted 19th April 2016 | 7 Comments

'Signaller's error' caused Plymouth accident

A MISTAKE by a signaller is thought to be the cause of a collision between two trains in a platform at Plymouth earlier this month in which around 35 people were hurt.

The accident, on 3 April, occurred when a four-car unit arriving from Penzance at 15.30 collided at about 15mph (24km/h) with a stationary London-bound intercity train which was already partly occupying the same platform.

The trains would normally have been directed into separate platforms, but interchange would then have been difficult because some lifts were out of use for maintenance. The signaller therefore decided to bring the connecting service into the same platform behind the London train, following an established practice which is known as permissive working.

The Rail Accident Investigation Branch said the signaller could see the rear of the intercity train in Platform 6 from the signal box window and estimated that there was enough room for the approaching train as well. Accordingly, the Cornwall train driver had been given a 'proceed' indication on the approach which warned him that he would be entering an occupied platform.

As his train entered the station throat he looked at the tracks to confirm which route his train was taking and, when he realised the situation, applied the emergency brake. However, this was not enough to stop the train, and the collision followed three seconds later.

Many passengers were standing because they were about to leave the train, and some were thrown around or on to the floor. Seven of those injured were reported to have needed hospital treatment, including the driver. Both trains were also damaged, and the station was closed for around 90 minutes.

The RAIB will follow these preliminary findings with a detailed inquiry into the actions of staff involved, the signalling and platform working arrangements at Plymouth, the performance of the train during the collision and any 'underlying management factors'.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • David Cook, Broadstone, Dorset

    As a regular user of Plymouth, I would add that since the rationalisation many years ago, there are now less through platforms available to trains. This would give little choice for platforms (the curve and station buildings also restricting the view of anything occupying a platform. As the lifts have been causing intermittent problems for some time now, I would not want to pass blame on anyone too quickly as when I arrive into Plymouth from the Penzance direction it is often on a nearby platform, and the train from Plymouth to Exeter is often just two coaches (1 x 150 set) rather than 2 sets making a 4 coach train. For disabled passengers, it is very awkward to get across platforms using the steps, and making a decision to put the Penzance train in behind the Paddington train seemed like a good idea to the signalman at the time. Were a lower speed limit to have been in place when passing this permissive signal, this low speed accident would not have taken place. From my point of view, this accident was caused by a collection of events (as many are), and I would not wish to point the finger of blame at any individual.

  • Steve Alston, Crewe

    Calling on signals have been used many times without incident.

    As traincrew, I've come into York many a time on Platform 9 with a 3-car 158, nose to nose behind a GNER 91 simply for connectional purposes - it's excellent customer service to arrange this and ordinarily a perfectly safe procedure.

    If the driver of the DMU in this incident has decided come in too fast and try 'mount' the HST, it is unforgivable, and should be stood down as a minimum... that said, unless the DMU brakes are faulty or the railhead was found to be slippy.

    From recent reports, the RAIB / ORR seem to have taken a holiday recently and been replaced by some dillusional conspiracy theorists from Disneyland.

  • Steve, Kuwait City

    Lifts out of action? Hire some extra staff.

  • Tim, Plymouth

    I have to agree with Christopher Jones-Bridger, at least partial fault must lie with the driver if they were knowingly proceeding onto an occupied platform and couldn't stop in the space they could see. .Obviously there is partial fault with the signaller too for directing a train onto a platform they couldn't fit.
    Plymouth station is in need of demolition and replacement, the recent facelift hasn't really made any difference.

  • Christopher Jones-Bridger, Buckley Flintshire

    The summary released by RAIB clearly indicates that this collision is the result of a number of factors influenced by the maintenance work on the station lifts. It is clear that the signalling system allowed two trains to occupy the platform under permissive working. As one was a full length HST & the second a 4 car sprinter let the investigators determine if the signaller's judgements were justified that both could be accommodated within the platform length. Irrespective of this, having been routed into an occupied platform under permissive working the driver of the sprinter units should have proceeded with appropriate caution being prepared to stop short of any vehicles already occupying that platform. Unless the investigation reveals any other circumstances, brake defect or rail contamination, I'm afraid that responsibility for the collision rests on the actions of the driver.
    ["Let the investigators determine if the signaller's judgements were justified." Indeed. But you seem to have decided that the driver was responsible. So far, the preliminary findings indicate that a train was signalled into a platform where there was insufficient room, hence our headline. (The use of quote marks is an established convention which indicates that doubt exists.) Until the RAIB publishes its full report, this correspondence is closed.--Editor.]

  • Ian Scott, York

    Who says it was a fault of the signaller? The investigation has not yet been completed.
    From what I have read, the signaller operated the signalling system correctly, as it allows the signaller to do, therefore the "blame" must lie with the driver for not adhering to the correct procedures applicable under the "permissive working" situations.
    [This is only the preliminary report and it is not the RAIB's role to allocate blame but to identify causes. The view of platform 6 from the western approach to Plymouth is quite restricted, because the platform is sharply curved and a train already there could be out of sight to an approaching driver. To quote from the RAIB's version: "The signaller could see the rear of train 1A91 from the signal box window and estimated that there was enough room for train 2E68 to fit on the platform behind train 1A91, however, there was insufficient room."--Editor.]

  • Chris Green, Huddersfield

    This was always going to be the most likeliest reason for the accident. The signaller shouldn't be punished for this error of judgement because as humans, we are all prone to making mistakes even the most avoidable. I'm just glad there were no serious consequences at the time of the incident.