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LONDON-Britain's Health and Safety Commission has launched a public inquiry into the fatal railroad accident outside London earlier this month, hoping in part to determine what lessons those in charge of rail safety can learn.

Last week, the HSC announced that the public investigation would be headed by Anthony Barrell, former chief executive of the Health & Safety Executive's North Sea Safety initiative after the Piper Alpha platform disaster in 1988.

The train accident occurred Sept. 19 when a packed, London-bound high-speed train operated by Great Western Trains from South Wales collided with an empty freight train operated by English, Welsh & Scottish Railways. Six people were killed, and scores were hurt (BI, Sept. 22).

"The purpose of the inquiry is to determine why the accident happened, and in particular to ascertain the cause or causes, to identify any lessons which have relevance for those with responsibilities for securing railway safety and to make recommendations," the HSC said last week.

The inquiry will examine:

The actions of the rail staff immediately prior to the accident. Both train drivers survived the crash.

The signaling systems, which allegedly were faulty, according to news reports.

The state of the track. News reports said the passenger train was traveling too fast for the available track.

The availability and operation of safety equipment on the trains, including the automatic train protection and the automatic warning systems, which allegedly were turned off, according to news reports.

After the privatization of British Rail last year, the apportionment of liability is governed by a complex interparty agreement known as the Claims Allocations and Handling Agreement.

Though CAHA is under review, its procedures went into effect last week.

For example, under CAHA, all parties must decide who should be the administrator of all claims if an accident occurs. Last week, all parties met and decided the claims lead would be Great Western, said Keith Purvis, product manager for St. Paul International Insurance Co. Ltd. St. Paul is Great Western's primary liability insurer but does not insure the freight train operators or Railtrack.