Trade unions have marked the 30th anniversary of a south London rail disaster by issuing a warning over safety standards.

The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) accused train companies of “starting to think more about performance than safety” and train drivers’ union Aslef stressed the importance of “a fully staffed railway”, amid a long-running row over the role of the guard.

Five people were killed and a further 88 were injured when a Littlehampton to London Victoria train crashed into a Horsham to Victoria train at more than 60mph in Purley, south London, on March 4 1989.

The Littlehampton train careered down an embankment into gardens below, trapping people on board for several hours.

The trains should have been two-and-a-half minutes apart but the Littlehampton service went through a red light.

The crash happened less than three months after the Clapham rail disaster in south London which claimed 35 lives.

One of the Purley train crash carriages is hoisted by a crane during the clear up operation Credit: Michael Stephens/PA

TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said the rail industry owes it to the family and friends of those who died at Purley to “ensure safety remains paramount in all we do”.

He went on: “Thankfully we have railway workers carrying out safety work on the network each day. There can be no going back to the bad old days of Purley and Clapham.

“Sadly though we have seen in recent times the spectre of train operating companies starting to think more about performance than safety.

“The best way of eradicating that risk and really learning the lessons of the past would be to remove the profit motive from our railways and return the network to public hands.”

Rescue workers at the carriages which rolled down the embankment Credit: PA

The Railway Inspectorate, which oversees rail safety, said an automatic train protection (ATP) system – which stops trains from going through danger signals – would have prevented the crash at Purley.

ATP had been recommended by Mr Justice Hidden in his report into the Clapham disaster.

Widespread ATP fitting on the railways was scrapped, on cost grounds, by the Conservative Government in 1995.

The alternative train protection and warning system (TPWS) was rolled out five years later.

Scene of the Purley train crash Credit: PA

Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan said: “On this anniversary it is right that we remember the families and the staff impacted by the crash and to strive to ensure we have a well-invested, and safe, national rail infrastructure.

“It took far too long to introduce the lesser system of TPWS, against the recommendations for national ATP, but, more importantly, the report into the recent Waterloo derailment suggests that many lessons of the past have not yet been learnt.

“We have a safe railway but we cannot, and should not, ever be complacent.”

Emergency services on the scene of the Purley rail crash Credit: PA

The last train crash in Britain which caused a passenger death took place in February 2007 when a Virgin Trains service derailed at 95mph in Grayrigg, Cumbria.

Paul Plummer, chief executive of industry body the Rail Delivery Group, said: “Today we remember the victims of the Purley rail crash and the families and friends who lost loved ones.

“Over the last 30 years, everyone working in rail has worked tirelessly to make Britain’s railway one of the safest in the world, to help ensure that a tragedy like this does not happen again.

“The safety of our customers and our people continues to be our top priority as we invest to improve performance and introduce thousands more services across the country.”

Robert Morgan, the driver of the Littlehampton train involved in the Purley crash, was jailed for 18 months, with 12 months suspended, in September 1990 after pleading guilty to two charges of manslaughter.

But his convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal in December 2007

His appeal hinged on evidence that the signal at the centre of the case had been passed when on red on four previous occasions between 1984 and 1987, and had been passed again in June 1991.

Mr Morgan died in a river accident in March 2009.