October 2013: People who lost loved ones at rail level crossings get an opportunity to speak to politicians. But will an Inquiry by MPs improve rail safety?
A matter of accountability
A north London vicar often preaches that an average person living in ‘an advanced and developed’ nation, such as Britain, can expect to live for ‘three score and ten’, or 70 years, writes Paul Coleman.
“Maybe, it’s better to think of this as 25,550 days,” says the vicar.
Rewind to Saturday morning, 3 December 2005. Olivia Bazlinton, aged 14, and Charlotte Thompson, 13, have lived just over 5,110 and 4,745 days respectively. The girls, on a Christmas shopping trip to Cambridge, cross over the railway level crossing at Elsenham, a quiet countryside commuter station north of London. They buy tickets from the London-bound platform.
It is now just after 10.40am. Their Cambridge-bound train halts at the opposite platform positioned diagonally further up the line. The girls open the non-locking pedestrian wicket gate to cross back over the tracks to catch that train. But a 70mph fast train, thundering through Elsenham on the London-bound line, strikes both Charlotte and Olivia.
Later, Charlotte’s father, Reg Thompson, describes Elsenham station’s foot level crossing – (at that time with no locking gates, no footbridge, and with ambiguous warning lights and alarms) – as akin to a ‘bear trap in the woods’.
Often when disaster strikes and liability is proven, guilty taxpayer-funded bodies or private companies eventually surrender to the mercy of the courts – and to the court of public opinion. Unwitting and involuntary incompetence, they hope, will be considered as a mitigating explanation – even if it fails to stretch to a full-blown alibi. The standard litany then flows, ‘Ok, some of our people got it wrong in this case, although there were mitigating circumstances. But we’ll take our punishment and indeed learn the vital lessons to ensure this suffering never happens again.’
Almost five years pass before Network Rail utters such a mantra. In November 2010, Network Rail agrees an out-of-court settlement of civil cases, one brought against the company by Tina Hughes, Olivia’s mother, and Tina’s first daughter Stephanie Bazlinton – and a second brought by Reg Thompson on behalf of Charlotte’s family. Network Rail owns Britain’s rail infrastructure and is responsible for its safe operation. Network Rail, reciting the ‘standard litany’, does not submit evidence to defend itself. The maximum fatality settlement payable is £10,000 plus expenses – enough to cover the cost of a funeral.
Network Rail agrees to settle the cases – and heaves a corporate sigh of relief.
It turns out to be a premature exhalation. Word has already reached Chris Bazlinton, Olivia’s father, of the existence of two crucial and hitherto undisclosed documents. A rail trade union member has mentioned an Elsenham risk assessment prepared by Trevor Hill in May 2002 – well over three years before the disaster. A further report, expressing worries about the crossing, is also mentioned. But neither the Bazlintons nor the Thompsons have been formally told about these documents.
The Times newspaper splashes a February 2011 exclusive that the May 2002 risk assessment had been distributed in 2006, but that a ‘Part B’ had been withheld. Part B, now traced amidst a pile of legal papers, contains a cruel twist. Part B suggests locking the wicket gates at Elsenham when trains are approaching. Had this May 2002 recommendation for installing locking gates been implemented, two young much-loved and loving girls would have been safeguarded in December 2005.
The rail regulator, the Office of Rail Regulation, receives Part B – not from Network Rail but from the families – and re-opens its Elsenham inquiry in Spring 2011. David Higgins, Network Rail’s latest chief executive, starts his job in 2010/11 with a full-blown scandal left festering in his in-tray. According to Bazlinton, further evidence of something rotten inside Network Rail emerges in March 2011 in the shape of an even earlier memo – written in May 2001 – by John Hudd, at the time Network Rail’s Level Crossing Standards Manager for East Anglia. Hudd also seems to predict fatalities, by describing the “temptation” to cross the tracks – as many people often did – and as the girls did with fatal consequences – as “irresistible”.
Hudd says of Elsenham’s level crossing, “…the risk of disaster is real”.
Thus Higgins, apparently a ‘good man’ intent on reforming Network Rail, inherits a scandalous mess surrounding the ‘Hudd memo’. Higgins tells MPs on the Public Accounts Committee in May 2011 that Network Rail had been aware of the Hudd memo since January 2006. Yet Network Rail had not passed the memo to the Elsenham disaster’s many investigators – at the Rail Safety and Standards Board, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch and Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate. Worse still, neither the memo nor the risk assessment is disclosed in evidence to the coroner and her jury at a five-day inquest in January 2007. The inquest jury, on the advice of the Coroner, reaches a verdict of ‘accidental death’.
With Network Rail’s cats totally out of the bag, ORR completes its investigation and in November 2011 announces that Network Rail will face criminal prosecution over the deaths of Olivia and Charlotte. Two months later Network Rail pleads guilty to criminal charges under health and safety law relating to their deaths. Eventually, a judge at Chelmsford Crown Court fines Network Rail £1 million in March 2012.
And, you’d be forgiven for assuming, this might be the end of this saga. Hold on. On 1 August, 2012 a footbridge replaces a footpath crossing at Johnson’s Crossing in Bishop’s Stortford – not far from Elsenham. But, sadly, the new footbridge is too late for Katie Littlewood, 15, who was hit by a train while crossing the track earlier on 28 January, 2011. Indeed, the footbridge is a reaction to Katie’s death. And, with strong Elsenham echoes, it’s a reaction cruelly far too late.
An RAIB report of December 2012 into Katie’s death at Johnson’s Crossing says: “Proposals from various bodies to close Johnson’s footpath crossing before 2007 were not translated into action. This was a causal factor.” The RAIB report adds: “Network Rail did not follow-up a proposal in 2007 to install a footbridge to replace Johnson’s footpath crossing, after analysis had shown that the benefits of so doing would exceed the costs. This was a casual factor.”
So, how should people react when an organisation like Network Rail – a hybrid public/private artifice, heavily funded by taxpayers and massively in debt too – fails to act on its own safety recommendations that could prevent fatalities? How should people view an organisation that lacks effective transparency and accountability? Will anyone be held accountable for the Elsenham disaster?
Finally, UK politicians seem to show a keener interest in seeing if Higgins is managing to dispel suspicions about Network Rail – at least on the matter of safety at level crossings. The Elsenham disaster forms part of the launch, on 21 October 2013, of an Inquiry into safety at level crossings by Members of Parliament on the Transport Select Committee at the House of Commons.
Chris Bazlinton and Tina Hughes, Olivia Bazlinton’s parents, spoke as witnesses. Network Rail was due to provide evidence at a further session on Monday, 4 November, starting at 4.05pm, at the Grimond Room, Portcullis House.
© London Intelligence, October 2013