Two trains travelling towards each other on the same track on the Mallow-Killarney railway line narrowly avoided a head-on collision when they came to a stop just 175 metres apart at Millstreet station.
Details of the high-risk incident which occurred on December 8, 2013, have been revealed in a major new report by the Railway Accident Investigation Unit (RAIU) into incidents of train drivers passing warning signals without stopping.
The RAIU reviewed 45 SPAD (signals passed at danger) incidents which were recorded on the Iarnród Éireann network between 2012 and 2015.
It found the immediate cause of the Millstreet incident was the failure of one driver to stop at a warning signal. An accident was only prevented after a signal controller became aware of the danger and contacted the drivers to stop their trains.
It noted the driver had become stressed and distracted earlier in the journey when two young children were left unattended at the train station in Killarney.
As in many of the other SPAD cases under review, RAIU inspectors found other contributory factors were a loss of situational awareness and an incorrect expectation of signal readings.
On the Millstreet incident, the RAIU observed: “Under slightly different conditions, the SPAD incident may have led to a head-to-head collision which had the potential for fatalities and serious injury.”
Rail safety inspectors also blamed the inadequate use of “error protection techniques” as part of driver training programmes as a root cause of many incidents. They noted that many train drivers were failing to report “near-miss” SPADs because of the fear of losing their job or being demoted.
The review said it appeared that actions taken by Irish Rail against some drivers were “quite punitive”.
“The above factors have resulted in drivers not reporting near miss SPADs or other incidents, for fear of further sanctions, or fear of being removed from the driving grade and Irish Rail,” the report stated.
The RAIU found that more than half of the country’s rail network is only protected by basic safety measures to prevent trains from potential collisions due to drivers passing stop signals. Enhanced safety equipment is only in use of 46% of the railway system. The RAIU criticised Irish Rail’s internal investigations of SPADs claiming a large number took an excessive amount of time to complete; while there was also a lack of consistency in the compilation of such reports.
In response to the RAIU report, Iarnród Éireann said it had further developed professional driving standards, recruitment and training as well as improving SPAD prevention strategies.
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