PASSENGERS on the York to London line were placed at serious risk when a five-inch gap developed in the track just south of York, a rail union claimed today.

The RMT has released this picture, which it said showed the rail having crumbled away to nothing, leaving a potentially lethal gap at Colton Junction where normal running speeds are 125mph.

The union claimed the picture was taken at the beginning of last week. “The original crack had been identified on inspection and painted blue to mark it down for repair or replacement,” it said.

“However, due to cuts it took four days to replace, in which time a crack had become a five-inch gap, leaving trains, passengers and staff at risk of a serious and potentially lethal incident.

“A train could have derailed, jumped the tracks and collided with an on-coming service.”

But Network Rail said that as soon as it knew about the crack, it stopped all trains and rectified the problem. “This was managed within all safety standards and was in no way affected by changes to staffing levels,” said route managing director Phil Verster.

“A minor defect in the rail – not a crack - was picked up by our monitoring train on November 12. A rail replacement was scheduled for December 9 and the defect was maintained on November 21.

“On November 21, there was no crack in the rail. Weekly inspections of this defect were completed. This is fully compliant with best practice and industry standards.

“The rail deteriorated which was identified by a train driver on the neighbouring line at 12.01 on Wednesday November 28. We immediately stopped all trains from travelling over the fault and the track was replaced by 19.37 that evening. Safety issues will never be compromised in the name of managing costs.

“As this incident illustrates, all reports from drivers are investigated and action taken as appropriate.”

The RMT said it understood there was massive pressure to keep the East Coast Main Line running from the Government as it looks to re-privatise the service.

General Secretary Bob Crow claimed: "This shocking picture highlights the reality on Britain's railways today. Staffing and inspections have been cuts in the dash to save money and there is massive pressure right from the top of Government to keep services running at all costs regardless of the potential human cost.

"This is exactly the same set of poisonous conditions that lead us to the Hatfield disaster and as this picture shows we are dicing with death and risking another major rail tragedy. RMT is demanding action before it is too late.”

An East Coast spokesman said: “Safety is our number one priority for our customers. No East Coast train services used this section of track once the track defect was spotted.

“Our trains were diverted onto alternative tracks at this four track section of the route until repairs were carried out and the line reopened in the evening.”