THE rail industry was hit by a double blow last night after fresh safety revelations about Britain's ageing infrastructure.

Bereaved families called for a public inquiry into the Potters Bar crash after a report into the tragedy revealed network-wide problems with points on the track.

An interim report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said the disaster, which claimed seven lives, had been caused by missing nuts and improper points. About 20 per cent of nuts on points in the area were loose.

The report came on the same day that figures obtained by The Northern Echo revealed a catalogue of near misses involving cars crashing through safety barriers.

On more than 700 occasions in the past decade, vehicles have plunged off roads across Britain and come perilously close to causing a tragedy similar to the Selby disaster, in which ten people died.

In the last year alone, 41 vehicles have ended up on railway lines. Five of them were struck by trains and two people were killed.

Only yesterday a coach smashed into a rail-over-road bridge in the Leeman Road area of York. No one was injured, but train services were delayed for about an hour.

The statistics will add further weight to The Northern Echo's campaign to end the scandal of the region's crumbling railway bridge barriers.

The HSE report into Selby described the crash as "wholly exceptional" caused by a "unique set of circumstances". Safety campaigners claimed that the latest figures made a nonsense of those claims.

Structural engineer Professor John Knapton, of Newcastle University, said: "It shows that Selby wasn't an unexpected occurrence but was just the worst of a whole series.

"In a week's time there will have been another incident and as for whether someone will die, you could throw a dice."

The figures were compiled by industry watchdog Railway Safety. It estimates there are an average of four vehicles struck by trains every year - and a further 35 occasions where drivers end up veering off roads and on to the tracks. The peak of the last decade came in 1998-99 when 89 vehicles crashed on to railway property, 41 of them blocking the line and four being hit by trains.

Experts say the vast majority of incidents occurred at danger spots where only flimsy bridge barriers shield motorists from the railway line. And the revelation has reopened the debate over who should pay for urgently needed repairs.

Squabbling between county councils, the Highways Agency and Railtrack has delayed work on scores of potentially lethal sites, while the Government has stood accused of washing its hands of the problem.

Prof Knapton said: "For all the Government will say there are funds in place, the path to getting those funds has not been eased.

"If a contractor comes up with a scheme to repair any bridge for less than £50,000 the Government should fund it as an emergency measure."

In February, both the Health and Safety Executive and Highways Agency published reports on how to improve road-over-rail bridges and claimed the Selby disaster was a million-to-one chance.

But they were ridiculed when, in the same week, a van plunged on to a railway line in Lincolnshire and was hit by a train, killing the motorist.

The Government insists it has taken major strides forward by ordering checks on thousands of sites and that the Department of Transport has taking the lead in developing risk assessment methods for use by local authorities.

Read more about the Railway bridges campaign here.