The Rail Regulator and the Courts have fined, or are about to fine Network Rail for various safety transgressions which were responsible for the regrettable deaths of three people. Is a financial penalty the right punishment and who is to blame?
Network Rail has been at the receiving end of the justice system over the last few months due to serious safety transgressions which have directly led to the deaths of three people. Because railway deaths are so rare they have hit the headlines and possibly an unjust clamour for justice.
The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) has commenced criminal proceedings against Network Rail for a breach of health and safety law which caused a train to derail near Grayrigg on 23 February 2007 when the 17.15 Virgin Trains service from London Euston to Glasgow Central derailed. It had 109 persons were on board and one passenger, Mrs Margaret Masson, was killed while 86 people were injured, 28 seriously.
The conclusion of ORR’s investigation and the completion of the coroner’s inquest into the death of Mrs Masson meant that charges could now be brought against NR, nearly five years after the accident brought under section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This results from the company’s failure to provide and implement suitable and sufficient standards, procedures, guidance, training, tools and resources for the inspection and maintenance of fixed stretcher-bar points.
Following the coroner’s inquest into the death of Mrs Masson, I have concluded that there is enough evidence, and that it is in the public interest, to bring criminal proceedings against Network Rail for a serious breach of health and safety law which led to the train derailment.
"The railway today is as safe as it has ever been but there can be no room for complacency. The entire rail industry must continue to strive for improvements to ensure that public safety is never put at risk."
The first hearing is due to take place at Lancaster Magistrates’ Court on 24 February 2012. The coroner’s inquest into the death of Mrs Masson finished on 4 November 2011 and concluded that the derailment was caused by the degradation of a set of points, which had been poorly maintained.
Network Rail Infrastructure Limited is facing one charge that, between 1 December 2005 and 24 February 2007, at the West Coast Main Line between Scorton and Scout Green, it failed to conduct its undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as was reasonably practicable, that persons not in its employment who may be affected thereby, including Margaret Masson, were not exposed to risks to their safety, in that it failed to provide and implement suitable and sufficient standards, procedures, guidance, training, tools and resources for the inspection and maintenance of fixed stretcher-bar points.
The role of fixed stretcher-bars is to hold switch rails at a set distance apart so that when one switch rail is closed during operation of the points the other one opens to create and maintain a gap for the wheel flange to pass through. The derailment was caused by the degradation of a set of points which had been poorly maintained.
This week, Network Rail pleaded guilty at Basildon Court to the ORR prosecution against Network Rail for breaches of health and safety law which led to the deaths of two teenage girls, Olivia Bazlinton and Charlotte Thompson, at Elsenham station footpath crossing in December 2005.
Network Rail pleaded guilty to two charges under The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, and guilty to one charge under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. "The court has committed Network Rail to Chelmsford Crown Court where a sentencing hearing will take place on 15 March 2012.
Network Rail has been fined £20,000 and ordered to pay costs of £9,000 following a prosecution brought by the Office of Rail Regulation for health and safety offences after a train hit maintenance equipment at Acton West junction in June 2008.
The fine was levied at Isleworth Crown Court after an ORR investigation into the incident that found Network Rail had failed to adequately plan, control and monitor the safety measures needed before its workers accessed the tracks.
"Network Rail’s poor management and planning of maintenance work at Acton West junction put rail workers in danger. In this instance, it is very fortunate that no one was injured. The safety of workers and passengers on Britain’s railways is one of the rail regulator’s key priorities.
Our railways are among the safest in Europe, but there is always room for improvement. Network Rail has made considerable changes to improve safety at its work sites since this incident, but ORR will always take appropriate enforcement action - including prosecution - when necessary to protect the safety of those working or travelling on the railway."
The Government is looking at whether to increase the legal road speed limit on motorways to 80mph. Opponents and proponents are agreed that it is highly likely that accidents, injuries and deaths will increase if speed limits are increased.
Given that the railway passengers are using pretty much the safest method of travel at the same time as it is agreed more casualties will be the result of higher road speeds, is the Government sending out mixed messages on safety issues?
Level crossings are dangerous places if road users and pedestrians ignore the rules. Last week at Brockenhurst station, a driver turned onto the railway line rather than crossing it resulting in the waterloo main line between Southampton and Bournemouth being closed for hours.
When Network Rail apply to close a level crossing, they often face objections from people who wish to retain the right of way across the railway and do not want a bridge to be built. Conversely, NR has been asked to reduce costs so by closing a crossing, will often have to spend a small fortune providing an alternative method of crossing the line conforming with Disabled access legislation.
In historical terms, most level crossings were worked by a Crossing Keeper who was located at the crossing and made sure nobody broke the rules. With modernisation, most signalboxes have disappeared so crossings are automatic and unsupervised except for CCTV linked to a control room which could be many miles away.
So, is it a level crossing debate or a level playing field that should be played on by all concerned? Food for thought.
The ORR has just published UK rail industry financial information for the last financial year, 2010-11 providing an insight of the latest financial data from train operators, Network Rail and governments. The headlines are that total rail industry costs were £11bn in 2010-2011 – 52.5% costs were incurred for operating and maintaining the rail network and 47.5% in operating trains.
The majority of these costs were covered by income from passenger fares (£6.6bn) and government funding (£4bn). So taxpayers fund the railways to the tune of 36% of its total costs rising to nearly 70% of Network Rail’s cost of operating and maintaining the network.
“Great Britain’s railways are funded by passengers, freight customers and taxpayers. It is critically important that the industry is accountable for delivering value for money and greater transparency about where the money goes and how this money is used is key to this.
Given these news stories about Network Rail being fined in essence by the Rail Regulator, who determines how much funding NR is allocated for each five year planning period, is fining the correct punishment.
Both organisations are funded by taxpayers and the fines go to the Justice System, also paid for by taxpayers, so is this a case of an expensive money-go-round?
The rail industry costs safety improvements where there is a risk of a fatality at just over £1.1m fatality saved. This means that if a life can be potentially saved by spending £1.1m, the work is carried out as a safety improvement.
Should road users pay for ‘jumping’ level crossing barriers when caught? Or should Network Rail have to foot the bill on taxpayers’ behalf for motorists errors?
Network Rail is also facing legal action from ORR over poor performance increasing delays to trains by infrastructure failures. They could be fined for this as well and this is obviously correct as most things that affect performance are under their control. This obviously excludes cable theft and other vandalism.
Would a better deterrent, for that is the purpose of a fine, be making sure that those responsible are brought to account rather than the company? The law of course may preclude this but in a heavily Regulated industry, rail seems to have got it wrong this time.
So who will pay if road speeds are increased is the question to ask?