After a nine year wait, Network Rail and maintenance company Jarvis Rail are to be prosecuted over the 2002 Potters Bar train crash in which seven people died, writes Julian Rush.
It was announced today that criminal proceedings have begun against the rail firms over health and safety conduct which allegedly caused the fatal Potters Bar derailment.
If found guilty both companies could face unlimited fines.
The prosecution follows the conclusion of an inquest into the deaths at Potters Bar in Hertfordshire. A verdict of accidental death was returned by seven jurors.
The case is due to be heard initially at Watford Magistrates Court in Hertfordshire on January 7 2011.
ORR rail safety director Ian Prosser said today: “I have decided there is enough evidence, and it is in the public interest, to prosecute Network Rail and Jarvis Rail for serious health and safety breaches.”
Six people aboard the London to King’s Lynn were killed when the train derailed on 10 May 2002. A pedestrian also died after being struck by debris falling from a bridge.
A report following the crash found that poor maintenance led to a points failure which caused the derailment.
Nine years on, a decision is made
Nine years is far too long for the victims of the Potters Bar rail crash to wait to find out if anyone is to be punished, writes Science Correspondent Julian Rush.
Not that any individual faces punishment. Instead, two companies face potentially unlimited fines.
Network Rail, which has inherited Railtrack’s liabilities, will likely need to find several million pounds if found guilty, if past experience is anything to go by. It was fined £4m and £3.5m respectively over the Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield crashes. Though they are likely to have made some sort of financial contingency, it would be money that won’t then be spent on today’s rail network.
Jarvis Rail Ltd is in administration. If the company is found guilty, the administrators too may have to find millions and the company’s creditors get less as a result. Balfour Beatty was fined £10m, reduced to £7.5m, over Hatfield.
Why has it taken so long? The explanation is logical but just why the wheels of justice grind so exceedingly slow isn’t clear.
First, of course, the police had to investigate. Then the Crown Prosecution Service had to decide if there was any prospect of a conviction for the more serious charges of gross negligence or manslaughter against an individual or company. All that took three years but in October 2005 they decided there wasn’t.
Only then could the inquests be held. But they were adjourned after the Grayrigg derailment in February 2007, because the Transport Secretary took it upon himself to consider a public inquiry or joint inquests into both events. That took him two years, but in June 2009 he decided on separate inquests.
The Potters Bar inquests eventually ended this summer, returning seven verdicts of accidental death.
Then everyone got a chance to reconsider. The CPS looked again at their manslaughter decision, in case new evidence had emerged from the inquests. Last month they told the Office of the Rail Regulator there were no grounds to reconsider it.
So, finally, the way was cleared for a decision on a prosecution for health and safety offences, which could only be taken after the inquests in case new evidence had emerged, with the court case likely to conclude in the spring or summer of next year.
Doing these things in the right order makes legal sense; it avoids prejudicing cases so they collapse. And it is all enshrined in an agreement between the CPS, HSE, British Transport Police and others, called the Work Related Death Protocol. It ensures they all talk to each other, which has to be good. But the time it takes is intensely frustrating to those who’s loved ones died or who were injured at Potters Bar.
In 2005, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced that, after consideration of the evidence, it had advised the British Transport Police there was no realistic prospect of conviction for an offence of gross negligence manslaughter against any individual or corporation arising from the Potters Bar incident.
At the time of the crash the company in charge of rail infrastructure was Railtrack whose responsibilities were taken over by Network Rail in October 2002. Jarvis Rail, the maintenance contractor for the Potters Bar area at the time of the crash, went into administration in March 2010.
Network Rail is facing a charge under a section of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.
The ORR said this was in regard to NR’s “failure, as infrastructure controller for the national rail network, to provide and implement suitable and sufficient training, standards, procedures and guidance for the installation, maintenance and inspection of adjustable stretcher bars (part of the points)”.
The railway today is as safe as it has ever been, but there can be no room for complacency. Ian Prosser
Jarvis Rail also faces a charge under the same section of the Act for the same alleged failings in its role as “infrastructure maintenance contractor” for the relevant section of the track.
Railways ‘safe today’
“For the sake of the families involved, we will do all we can to ensure the prosecutions proceed as quickly as possible,” Mr Prosser said.
He went on: “The railway today is as safe as it has ever been, but there can be no room for complacency.
“Where failings are found those at fault must be held to account”
Network Rail said today: “Today the railways are safer than they have ever been, but our task remains to build on that record and always to learn any lessons we can to make it ever safer for passengers and those who work on the railway.”
Gerry Doherty, leader of the TSSA rail union, said it was “regrettable” that it had taken eight years to get to this stage.
“It seems at long last we are going to find just who was responsible for this tragedy,” he said.