Home    Aims & Objectives    Meetings    Join SARPA    Contact Us    News   Archive    Arriva Trains Wales     Links     
 Passengers disembark at Machynlleth


This page updated 6th May 2014

SARPA is the local rail users group for the Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth line running from the English border through Montgomeryshire to the coast of North Ceredigion and ending up in the increasingly important University (and Assembly administration ) town of Aberystwyth. We exist to preserve and promote the line so that there is a more sustainable transport system for future generations. SARPA is one of the more active rail user groups in Wales and meets monthly. We are continually campaigning on various issues from train times and frequency to station maintenance and welcome any comments anybody has about the rail service in Mid Wales.

We hope that during 2014, Arriva continues to make improvements.

We are delighted at the recent announcement by the Welsh Government of an enhanced train service between Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth, due to begin in May 2015.


To begin with, on behalf of our group, I would like to say how delighted I am at the recent announcement by the Minister, Edwina Hart that there will be an enhanced train service between Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth, starting in May of next year. I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the multitude of good people who have worked so hard for so long to bring this about. We look forward to the first train of the service.

To continue, I am going to take a look at the Buttington Hall Crossing collision, where a westbound train hit a farm trailer and which occurred on 16th July last year.

Seventy five years ago, in the April 1939 issue of "Railway Magazine" the "Pertinent Paragraphs" section contained a photograph of a heavily loaded hay wain, drawn by two horses, crossing a double track main line railway. "From the safety point of view, the 'occupation crossing' increasingly a menace in these days of ever increasing speeds", commented the writer, who went on to describe the rather elementary method for crossing the line employed by the hay carters in the picture. "In these days of elaborate signalling precautions, such a procedure as this seems to be lacking in the first elements of safety, though admittedly the problem is a difficult one", he concluded.

How true: not only for 1939 but for our own time also, where various types of level crossing continue to pose an ever increasing risk to the railway. It is almost as if successive rail managements, having been unable to get to grips with what is a nasty and vexing problem, hope it will just go away. Well, it won't. In the intervening period, train speeds have continued to rise, and due to modern signalling, services can now run at greater frequency. People and vehicles crossing the line for whatever reason therefore pose an ever greater risk, not only for themselves but for rail users too.

Reading the official report of the Buttington Hall Crossing collision, the most salient factor which comes to light is that the voice communication between the signaller and the crossing users was open to different interpretations (Para. 27). The railway does not appear to have adopted a standard phraseology for use in such situations, leaving speech communication open to different meaning. Indeed, historically, rail authorities have been reluctant to rely on verbal authority for actually controlling trains, precisely for that reason. Ambiguous speech exchanges were a major factor in the Norwich Thorpe disaster as long ago as 1874. To this day it remains the worst single line collision on the British network, claiming the lives of 25 people. Conversely, the block telegraph with its rigid system of bell codes was simple and clear. For example, two beats on the bell means only one thing:- "Train entering section".

Nevertheless, given the introduction of GSMR mobile telephones between trains and signallers, it seems astonishing that train crews are not party to voice communication between signalling authorities and crossing users. Indeed, the official RAIB report makes no recommendation at all in this direction. If anything, the recommendations outlined on page 24 are rather vague and unspecific.

Some years ago, I was privileged to be part of a group visit to the Tower at Manchester Airport, at the invitation of one of the controllers. The first thing that struck me is just how quiet it was up there. You could almost hear a pin drop, whilst outside aircraft screamed and roared as they taxied and sped down the runway. The secret, apparently, is some very, very good multiple layer glazing. Our host explained to us the basic principles of Air Traffic Control. I remarked that it seemed a bit like railway signalling except that you could not actually stop an airliner in mid-flight. His response was that you could effectively stop an aircraft by sending it somewhere to orbit and that yes, they had indeed borrowed many principles from the railway.

Voice communication forms a far greater part of the picture in aviation than is the case on the railway and the safety record is impressive. The more so when one considers that if a conflict were to occur, you might have as little as 5 seconds to do something about it! Oh and just to help, it's the one that remains stationary in your field of vision that is going to hit you.

The way the aviation industry has achieved this is in no small part due to the rigid standards set for verbal communications. Syntax and phraseology are tightly controlled. For instance, the phrase "Take off" is not uttered unless you are being told you can actually go and do it. Otherwise, the word "departure" is always used, even to issue instructions to be carried out after take-off! "After departure climb straight ahead until passing altitude 2500 feet". Moreover, most of these instructions require to be read back to the controller by the pilot. All this information is contained in the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) publication "CAP 413, Radio Telephony".

So, what relevance is this to the railway and crossing users? Well, nowadays it,s not beyond the wit of man to enable a train driver to hear what is being said to a crossing user by the signaller, and this could provide useful advance warning information. Neither would it be that difficult to give each crossing an alphanumeric designator with a lineside board to aid identification. Drivers could then be advised of activity on the crossing and told to approach at reduced speed if necessary. Rigid control of syntax and phraseology as in the aviation industry would aid safety. Of course, it would be up to the authorities to decide what to do about contractors and users who do not wish to be co-operative, though the fact that train crews could be party to exchanges between signallers and crossing users would in itself be of enormous benefit.

Maybe it's time for some good folk from Network Rail's "Safety Central" to take the train to Gatwick and have an informal discussion with the CAA. The conversation could prove fruitful. Possibly I will bring down a heap of odium upon my head for having had the temerity to suggest such things. After all, suggesting that people think differently is often unpopular. Whatever, it is clear that the present state of affairs is unsatisfactory and needs to be addressed.

Spare a thought for the consequences if the tractor driver involved at Buttington had crossed the line just a second later. The train would have hit the tractor rather than the trailer, with much more serious consequences. A lot of people had to die before passenger trains were compelled to have continuous automatic brakes; the scourge of fire caused by gas lighting was removed; and automatic train control (aws) enabled trains to run safely in fog. Leaving this serious problem unsolved for 75 years is clearly unsatisfactory.

Angus Eickhoff
Moel y Garth

May 2014

You can see what we said about the railway industry in the past by clicking on this link to our archive page. We have archived all the newsletters back to November 2001.

Views expressed on the SARPA website are those of contributors and not necessarily representative of the Association and its Officers as a whole. Information provided is published in good faith, but the Association cannot accept responsibility for any loss or damage arising therefrom.

The Webmaster reserves the right to abridge or amend copy.

Please note that hyperlinks included in the text throughout this site are intended for the benefit and information of our visitors. We try to include links that will be helpful for the understanding of railway terminology. They do not constitute an endorsement or recommendation on our part.

Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth Rail Passengers Association (SARPA)
   Llidiart Wood,   Moel y Garth,  Welshpool,  Powys,  SY21 9JF,  Wales,  United Kingdom
© SARPA 2005-2014
All Rights Reserved
Website:- Angus Eickhoff