THE DRIVER of a steam train involved in a 'near miss' had his head out of the window to see where he was going, because the windscreen kept misting up.

Melvyn Cox also told a colleague to turn off safety systems which would have automatically stopped the engine before the incident at Royal Wootton Bassett.

By the time he saw the red light it was too late to stop the train, going from Bristol to London, which was left straddling the junction seconds after a high speed passenger train had passed through.

Had he got there a minute earlier the steam train Tangmere could have been involved in a 'disastrous' smash with an Intercity 125 from South Wales to London.

Cox, of Shirley Close, Swanage, Dorset, and his employers West Coast Railway Company Limited, both admitted two health and safety offences. Cox was given a suspended jail sentence and the rail company was fined company £200,000 with £64,000 costs.

Mark Watson, prosecuting, told Swindon Crown Court on Monday how the two warning systems fitted to the train had been switched off before the incident.

As a result, when the driver failed to hear the alarm going off the brakes were not automatically applied, as they were supposed to be.

He said Cox had his head out of the window to see where he was going as the front window was misted up due to a small steam leak.

So when a safety system was activated for a temporary speed limit, which didn't affect them, he was late pressing a button causing the brakes to kick in.

Instead of bringing the train to a halt and contacting the signalman, as the rulebook says, he told his fireman to switch off the safety system so they could carry on.

Moments later the horn sounded to warn of a yellow signal, but they thought it was still referring to the speed limit so acknowledged it by accident.

When the alarm went off again for the red light at signal SN45 they again carried on until Cox spotted it flashing at the side of the track and put on the emergency brake.

Mr Watson said "A red flashing light would have appeared in the cab but Mr Cox would not have seen it because of limited visibility from the steam leak.

"He passes the signal. The horn sounded. Mr Cox acknowledges the horn. Saw signal SN45 was red and applied the emergency brake.

"As he was travelling at excessive speed and the heavy locomotive came to a stand across Wootton Bassett junction 690 metres from the signal.

"A London bound high speed train carrying approximately 240 passengers had passed over the junction on the Badminton line a minute before.

"Therefore a collision was only narrowly avoided, with the potential consequences that can be imagined."

He told the court "Whilst no accident actually occurred, a catastrophic collision was only narrowly avoided.

"It will be appreciated that had one occurred the consequences for the approximately 750 on those two trains would have been significantly catastrophic.

"The historic train is much heavier that the high speed train 125 and a collision between the two of them would be disastrous.

"That there was not an accident, though a significant feature, does not go significantly to the seriousness of this case."

David Travers QC, for West Coast Railway, said the company was the main operator of steam trains on the rail network, directly employing 115 staff.

He said the knock-on effect from the company's business was enormous and said they had changed their health and safety training since the incident.

Mark Watson, for Cox, said "He fully recognises his breach and the fact he put a number of people at risk.

"he public are very right to expect the very highest standards of care to be exercised by train drivers on the public railways.

"He fell inexcusably short of that standard on this particular day. This was, we would say, a brief moment of madness in an otherwise diligent career in the railway business."

Although his client accept responsibility for turning off the safety device he said it was not an uncommon practice.

The court heard the train driver, who has been in the business since leaving school as a 15-year-old more than 50 years ago, had been left a broken man by the incident.

Judge Peter Blair QC imposed a four-month jail term suspended for 18 months saying "He knew what the rules were.

"He intentionally breached them or flagrantly disregarded them so as to make life easier for him as a driver with the potentially catastrophic consequences that I have mentioned."

He fined the company £200,000 with £64,000 costs.

Ian Prosser, HM Chief Inspector of Railways said “Train operating companies and their drivers hold positions of great responsibility, with a duty to protect the safety of colleagues and passengers. Almost all undertake their roles in accordance with the rules and their training.

“West Coast Railway Company’s (WCRC) ineffective management led to their train driver deliberately misusing a key safety system on a train travelling between Bristol and Southall.

“This prosecution has led to WCRC taking significant steps to improve its management of safety, with support from the regulator.

“Rail safety remains one of the regulator’s key priorities and we will always take action against companies or individuals if failings are found.”