Nine rail workers were just seconds from death after being given no warning that an 80mph passenger train was bearing down on them, rail accident investigators have said.
The track workers, operating on a small bridge on the West Coast main line in Lancashire, were reliant on getting visual and audible warnings of approaching trains as their view was restricted by the curvature of the track.
But they received no advance warning that an Edinburgh to Manchester Airport train was approaching.
The Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) said: “They were forced to take immediate evasive action when the train first became visible, approximately four seconds before it reached the site of work.
“Some staff were unable to reach a safe position and pressed themselves against the bridge parapet.”
The RAIB has launched an investigation into the incident that happened south of Hest Bank between Carnforth and Lancaster on the afternoon of September 22 this year.
The RAIB said the track workers comprised contract staff and a controller of site safety employed by Network Rail (NR).
They were packing ballast under sleepers on the up (towards London) main line on a small bridge.
A lookout-operated warning system (LOWS) was being used to give warning of approaching trains because of the gang’s restricted view. This system is designed to allow lookouts to signal the approach of a train by operating two toggle switches on an LOWS lookout unit. This then transmits a radio signal to a LOWS static unit which then gives both visual and audible warnings.
The RAIB said that on the afternoon of the near-miss, the LOWS equipment was being operated by two NR lookouts, one on each side of the site of work and each equipped with an LOWS lookout unit.
The lookout watching for trains on the up line was located about half a mile from the site of work, in a position which gave him a good view of trains approaching from the north. The static unit was located near the track workers. The LOWS is reported to have been both tested and operating normally prior to the incident.
The RAIB said: “Our investigation will examine the reasons why no warning was provided to the track workers. It will consider the sequence of events and factors that may have led to the incident, and identify any safety lessons.”
Mick Cash, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, said: ``This incident once again illustrates the dangers that confront track workers on Britain's railways on a daily basis.
“We have repeatedly raised concerns about the safety of the LOWS and this RAIB report should force the pace for Network Rail to come up with a safer alternative.”