Network Rail loses appeal after crash near Beccles

PUBLISHED: 10:58 19 January 2014 | UPDATED: 10:58 19 January 2014

Earsham boy James How (10) who has recovered after being hit by a train. With his dog Tinsel.
Photo: Andy Darnell

Earsham boy James How (10) who has recovered after being hit by a train. With his dog Tinsel. Photo: Andy Darnell

Archant © 2010

Network Rail was lucky only to be fined £500,000 after a 10-year-old boy was appallingly injured on a rural level crossing in north Suffolk, the nation’s top judge has ruled.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, said the penalty was “very generous” when measured against a young life ruined by an accident which could easily have been avoided had a series of “elementary mistakes” not been made.

James How was in his grandfather’s car when it was clipped by a train at Wright’s Crossing, amidst farm fields at Barnby, near Beccles, in July 2010.

The grandfather, Richard Wright, had looked carefully both ways, but his visibility was restricted by vegetation and there was no track-side phone which he could have used to phone the nearby signal box at Saxmundham to find out if a train was coming.

He was badly bruised, but his grandson suffered serious head injuries.

Network Rail Infrastructure Limited was fined £500,000 for breaching health and safety legislation at Ipswich Crown Court in June last year after it accepted it was “guilty of significant failings”.

However, the company argued before Lord Thomas that the penalty was “manifestly excessive” and pointed out that, as it is publicly owned, taxpayers will end up footing the bill.

The judge, sitting at London’s Appeal Court with Mr Justice Mitting and Mrs Justice Thirlwall, said that, had proper risk assessments been carried out, a telephone connected to the junction box would have been installed.

Prior to the accident there had been a series of inspections of the crossing, but the judge added: “Elementary mistakes were made in the assessment.

“It should have been obvious to those conducting the risk inspection, and to those more senior persons within Network Rail responsible for level crossings that, because of the nature of the use of the crossing and the sight lines, a telephone should have been installed.

“The sight lines were such that, given the time it would take to cross and the speed of the trains on the line, there was an obvious and serious risk of collision.”

A risk assessment carried out in 2003 had concluded that the crossing was “not safe”, but the judge added: “No steps were taken to remedy it over the following six years, particularly by installing a telephone.”

Network Rail pointed out that it had pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity and fully co-operated with the investigation. Following the accident, it had taken steps to improve safety at the crossing, installing a phone and imposing a speed limit on trains.

The company insisted that it took its health and safety responsibilities very seriously and, in the context of such a large and complex organisation, had a good safety record.

But, dismissing the appeal, Lord Thomas said: “The accident was a poor indictment of the training of Network Rail’s staff who had a very important role in assessing the safety of unmanned level crossings which was recognised as a source of danger nationally”.

He added that, although there was no evidence of “specific senior management failures” within Network Rail, the failures at local operational level were “serious and persistent”.

Lord Thomas concluded: “The fine of £500,000 imposed on a company the size of Network Rail can only be viewed as representing a very generous discount for the mitigation advanced.

“We would observed that, if the judge had imposed a materially greater fine, there would have been no basis for criticism of that fine.”

In October last year Mr Wright was one of a number of people addressing the Transport Select Committee at the Houses of Parliament calling for safer railway crossings.

He described the level crossing on his land as “an accident waiting to happen.”

Mr Wright described how he had contacted Network Rail on numerous occasions before the accident to ask for a telephone to be installed at the level crossing.

Following the accident, speed restrictions were placed on train drivers approaching the level crossing and a telephone was installed.

James How, who was placed on a life support machine for a week following the accident, is recovering from his injuries.

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