Rail level crossings still pose dangers to pedestrian users twelve years after the deaths of two young girls, Olivia Bazlinton and Charlotte Thompson. London Intelligence reports.
Safeguarding the legacy of Liv and Charlie
By Paul Coleman
The mother of one of two girls killed by a train twelve years ago believes railway level crossings still pose a serious danger to members of the public.
Tina Hughes is the mother of 14-year-old Olivia Bazlinton, who was killed with her friend Charlotte Thompson, 13, at the Elsenham level crossing on Saturday morning, 3 December 2005.
On the 12th anniversary of the girls’ deaths, Hughes says: “There are still thousands of crossings on the rail network with nothing but ‘stop, look and listen’ signs. That really isn’t good enough.”
Speaking to London Intelligence, Hughes adds: “Although there has been a real change in the way Network Rail manages risk at level crossings since Elsenham, progress on change has slowed significantly in the last few years.”
Mark Carne, chief executive of Network Rail, which manages and maintains Britain’s rail network, says: “Since Elsenham our approach to level crossing has been transformed. We carry out detailed risk assessments at every crossing. Level crossings are safer and we’ve closed over a thousand.”
But the regulatory Office of Road and Rail (ORR) says Network Rail ‘missed its overall annual target for risk reduction’ at level crossings during 2016-17 and says Network Rail must improve the way it mitigates risk at each crossing to avoid accidents. The ORR states: ‘Network Rail’s risk assessments are improving – but the aspirations of local managers to improve risk control, such as introducing additional warning technologies, are frustrated by resources and slow industry processes.’
The ORR reports six people dying at level crossings in 2016-17, compared to four in 2015-16. These include car occupants as well as pedestrians. Since 2010, the overall harm caused by level crossings continues to fall. But a high rate of near misses and accidents involving pedestrians at crossings show risks are still worryingly high.
Tina Hughes accepted an offer from Network Rail in 2012 to become a ‘level crossing user champion’. Since then, Hughes has spoken to Network Rail staff about the effect on families of deaths at level crossings. Hughes also appears on Network Rail safety campaign videos and speaks to schoolchildren about the dangers level crossings still pose.
Hughes retains a sceptical detachment believing her role might be seen as Network Rail’s attempt to manage a ‘hostile stakeholder’ but the role enables Hughes to stay close to Network Rail’s ongoing crossing improvement programme.
In 2011, Hughes vowed: “I shall not rest until Network Rail engages in real change, so that other people do not have to suffer the pain that we have been forced to endure.”
The Rail Accident Investigation Branch, established just two months before the Elsenham fatalities, reported in December 2006: ‘The risks at Elsenham are likely to be amongst the highest at any station pedestrian crossing on the UK mainline network.’
The RAIB states crossing users could walk across Elsenham’s Up and Down railway lines when trains approach because the level crossing’s pedestrian gates do not lock. Warning signs and systems also failed to deter users from stepping into the path of a second approaching train – but it is the lack of locking gates that most angerw the families of Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Thompson and Olivia ‘Liv’ Bazlinton.
A concrete post may also have momentarily interrupted the girls’ sightline. That sightline gave the girls – and the train driver – just three seconds before the train reached the crossing at 60 mph. ‘The broadcast of a distinct second alarm or the transmission of a spoken message…may have prevented the two girls from preceding into the path of the second train,’ adds the RAIB.
Olivia and Charlotte had no option but to cross twice over the Up and Down lines. They needed to buy a ticket for their Down line train to Cambridge – and tickets were only available from the Up platform side. With huge understatement, the RAIB adds: ‘It is possible that the presence of a ticket machine on the Down platform would have avoided the need for the girls to cross the line.’
Reg Thompson, Charlotte’s father, later describes Elsenham level crossing as “a bear trap in the woods”.
The RAIB also discovers flaws in Network Rail’s mitigation of risk at the Elsenham road and pedestrian level crossing. Network Rail initially insists the crossing is entirely safe. It says there will be no locking gates or footbridge.
But the RAIB report compels Network Rail to reverse this initial position. Locking gates are installed that interlock with train signalling. A footbridge is also built. At some time before December 2006, train operator ‘one’ Railway installs a ticket machine on the Down platform.
In February 2007, an inquest jury, directed by a coroner, returns a verdict of ‘accidental death’ on the basis of evidence available at the time. The girls’ grieving families receive no legal aid and are not legally represented. Network Rail is fully represented by publicly funded lawyers.
Fast forward to late 2017. Level crossing incidents continue to busy the RAIB. On 23 October, a Southeastern service from Ramsgate to London St Pancras, travelling at 85mph (137km/h), strikes a delivery van on the Frognal Farm level crossing in Kent. The van driver suffers head and upper body injuries. None of the train crew and 80 passengers is hurt. The train does not derail.
On 1 June, a pedestrian user is struck and killed by a Cheltenham Spa to Maesteg train at Trenos footpath crossing in south Wales.
Network Rail temporarily closes Bailey Lane footpath level crossing at Grange-over-Sands in July after a train nearly strikes two people. They have tried to cross despite the train driver sounding the train horn. The driver is forced into an emergency brake. Around 50 trains a day go over Bailey Lane at speeds of up to 50mph. Network Rail want to speak to local people about the future of the crossing.
Network Rail has previously faced problems with Bailey Lane. A three-year-old child died at Bailey Lane in 1988. In December 2013, Network Rail sought permission from Cumbria County Council to permanently close the footpath crossing. A ‘near miss’ occurred in September 2013 when a train travelling at 50mph ‘came within seconds of striking a pedestrian on the crossing’.
Over 4,000 people are recorded using the Bailey Lane crossing over nine days in the summer of 2013, including children, cyclists and people using mobility scooters – even though a fully accessible subway, providing an alternative to crossing the tracks, was built in 2006.
In September 2016, Network Rail is fined £4 million for health and safety law breaches that led to the death of Olive McFarland, 82. A London-Norwich train struck McFarland as she used the Gipsy Lane pedestrian level crossing in Suffolk in August 2011. An Office of Rail and Road (ORR) investigation found Network Rail had failed to act on substantial evidence that pedestrians had poor visibility of trains when approaching the Gipsy Lane footpath crossing – exposing users to a greater risk of being struck.
Ian Prosser, HM Chief Inspector of Railways and railway safety director, says after the ORR’s prosecution of Network Rail: “Over the past decade, Network Rail has focused on improving health and safety on Britain’s railways. However, despite now being ranked as the safest in Europe, there can be no room for complacency.”
In yet another incident, a train travelling at 87mph collided with a tractor at a user worked crossing at Hockham Road in Norfolk in April 2016. The tractor driver was seriously injured. The train driver and four passengers suffered minor injuries. The tractor was destroyed. The damaged train did not derail.
With echoes of both Railtrack and Network Rail failures at Elsenham, the ORR says Network Rail must improve the way it mitigates risk at each crossing to avoid accidents, especially at vulnerable ‘user worked crossings’ like Hockham Road where users telephone the signaller before crossing.
In 2016-17, the ORR itself inspects 128 crossings and deems the sounding of train horns to be ‘an unreliable warning’. Horns are not always sounded and when they are sounded not always at the right place on the line to sufficiently warn crossing users.
The RAIB also finds that Network Rail’s guidance for its level crossing managers does not include advice on use by people with mobility scooters. This follows fatal injuries sustained by the user of a mobility scooter who was struck by a train at Alice Holt footpath crossing in Hampshire in October 2016. The RAIB says ‘the mobility scooter user’s opportunity to see the approaching train was limited by the design of Alice Holt crossing, in particular the fencing’.
Nevertheless, Network Rail insists it continues to improve safety at railway level crossings. For instance, the company reports on 29 November that new signage has been installed at Hatches level crossing in Surrey following four near misses since May. The signs and train horns warn users about the risk of crossing a line used by 77 trains a day that can reach 60mph. However, users still decide for themselves whether it is safe to cross.
Government and the rail industry accepts that the best way to remove risk and harm is to close level crossings altogether. Network Rail has closed over 1,000 crossings since 2009, including 67 in 2016-17. It says this closure programme will continue until early 2019. But, as Hughes says, that still leaves hundreds of level crossings operational across the country – and securing closure of a level crossing is often complex and controversial, as the Bailey Lane saga proves.
Network Rail says its regular risk assessments at level crossings ‘consider a crossing’s location, rail, road and pedestrian traffic, and its history of near misses and accidents’. Rightly, in too many instances, Network Rail says careless and deliberate misuse of level crossings by pedestrians and drivers raises risk for trains and passengers. It says young people, often distracted by mobile phones, have been involved in more than 2,000 incidents on level crossings since 2012.
Network Rail has learnt the hard way though that it cannot excuse any defects in its own safety management of level crossings by pointing the finger at crossing users. In this respect, Network Rail is instructed – some say haunted – by its handling of safety management and risk assessment at Elsenham before the 2005 fatalities.
In February 2011 a previously unseen Network Rail risk report, revealed by a whistleblower, shows that safety concerns about Elsenham had been expressed three years before the girls’ deaths. In 2002, Trevor Hill, a Level Crossings Risk Manager, had recommended the installation of pedestrian gates that automatically lock when an approaching train is signalled.
A Level Crossing Manager, W.J Hudd, later authorised Hill’s document in 2003 after Network Rail assumed formal responsibility from Railtrack for the UK’s rail infrastructure. The shocked and angry families of Olivia Bazlinton and Charlotte Thompson say Network Rail should have acted on Hill’s recommendation. Locking gates would have prevented anyone from stepping onto the crossing, including their daughters.
“We were absolutely furious,” recalls Chris Bazlinton, Olivia’s father. “Network Rail should’ve given the coroner and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch the whole document.”
Network Rail denies withholding the risk assessment. But the families pursue a new inquiry. The ORR prosecutes Network Rail. In March 2012, Network Rail is fined £1 million after admitting health and safety breaches.
Nobody is held responsible and accountable for withholding the risk report from the original investigations, including that carried out by the RAIB. Neither is anyone held accountable for withholding the documents from the original 2007 coroner’s inquest.
In the aftermath of Network Rail’s prosecution, chief executive Mark Carne says: “Restoring public trust relies on openness and with that in mind we made risk assessment information relating to almost all our 6,300 crossings available on our website. I will continue to explore ways to make our processes even more transparent.
“As we made clear when we pleaded guilty during the Elsenham court proceedings, it was a watershed in the way we thought about our approach to the risk at level crossings, and how we treat victims and their families.”
The families of Olivia and Charlotte say the fatalities were not the ‘watershed’. The positive shift in Network Rail’s approach to level crossing safety came only after the whistleblower revealed that the company had concealed documents that showed it knew Elsenham level crossing was highly dangerous at least three years before Olivia and Charlotte were killed.
After the prosecution, Hughes voiced criticism of Network Rail’s lack of accountability. “I believe some at Network Rail do not care if it is prosecuted. It is not excluded from bids for work, as many companies might be if they had to declare prosecutions; it is not in competition with anyone.
“It has no shareholders to answer to. It is funded by the Treasury. Fines are just a financial transaction to return some of the money it is given to run the railway. Now if fines were taken from the bonus pot, that might make it sit up and take more notice.
“It has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on legal costs, when it had documentation that indicated that it was negligent. It has been allowed a privileged position for too long and it has made some believe that it is bulletproof.”
Hughes accepts that Network Rail has since improved its risk management of level crossings – and that the organisation contains many dedicated staff. In Elsenham’s long aftermath, many level crossings are now upgraded with two-tone warnings indicating a second train coming. ‘Second train coming’ voice warnings and CCTV are also installed. Sighting is improved. Brighter LED lights are fitted.
Yet safety risks at level crossings persist – even at Elsenham. Hughes visits Elsenham in December 2015, ten years after the tragedy, to find that the automatic locking system had failed in the previous week. “I was pretty upset because I hadn’t been told,” says Hughes. “It’s the tenth anniversary and I expected Elsenham to be perfectly safe. I’m delighted to hear that it’s been test and it’s now working again.”
But, in 2017, twelve years after the loss of Olivia and Charlotte, Hughes expresses doubts and worries, saying: “I worry that the tragedy of Liv’s and Charlie’s deaths will be lost from the corporate memory – and that it will take another terrible and avoidable incident to shock them back into action.”
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