A LEADING expert in rail safety has repeated calls for improvements after a second Selby-style disaster was avoided by seconds at the weekend.

Professor John Knapton, of Newcastle University - who conducted a nationwide survey into rail bridge safety - said bridge barriers needed to be replaced urgently.

He spoke out after a vehicle broke through a barrier and careered down an embankment close to a branch line of the East Coast Main Line on Saturday.

Since the Selby disaster, in February 2000, The Northern Echo has highlighted the shocking state of safety measures at bridges along the east coast route, which takes in the Selby site.

In the past two years, a funding row has been simmering between local authorities, Railtrack and the Highways Agency over who should finance urgently-needed safety repairs.

Prof Knapton, a structural engineer, said last night that it would cost the Government just £15m to replace all inadequate railway barriers in the UK.

He said: "The heavier the vehicle, the greater the chance of a serious collision between a train and the vehicle.

"It would cost the Government only £15m to replace all the barriers. This is peanuts. It represents only three hours of the revenue collected in one year from all road users in the UK, including fuel taxes, road tax and the purchase of a new vehicle.

"The Government simply doesn't have the political will to spend this money."

After the Selby tragedy, officials pledged to do whatever was needed to prevent another disaster.

Ten weeks after Selby, The Northern Echo was the first to reveal that bridges across the East Coast Main Line were still in a scandalous state. Ten months later, another investigation showed nothing had changed.

In 2001, almost a year after Selby, Prof Knapton found that there were 500 railway bridges across the UK that were potentially dangerous.

In November last year, the "who pays what" row rumbled on, sparking fears that another tragedy could easily happen. Today, many bridges remain in need of repair.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has already promised that the row will be resolved to ensure that the work can be speeded up.

Read more about the Railway bridges scandal here.