Two crucial safety systems were not operational on a train in which 7 people died in west London in 1997 a court was told on Friday (23 Jul 99).
Great Western Trains, operator of the Swansea to London, Paddington train is being prosecuted under the Health and Safety at Work legislation. The company has entered a plea of Guilty to a single charge that it failed to provide transport to the public "in such a way as to ensure that they were not exposed to risks to their health and safety".
The train, an Intercity 125 was just 10 minutes from its destination when it collided with a freight train that was crossing its path. The passenger train was travelling at a speed in excess of 120 mph.
Relatives attended the Old Bailey and heard the prosecuting counsel, Richard Lissack QC say that there was a dereliction of duty by Great Western in permitting the train to remain in service with safety systems inoperative. The Automatic Train Protection (AWS) was switched off and the other safety device, the Automatice Warning System (ATP) was not working. These systems could have prevented the accident. They would have warned the driver of his error in ignoring two warning signals and a danger signal. They could have automatically brought he train to a halt. Mr Lissack told the court that the company accepted it was at fault and that it would have been "reasonable practice" to stop the train at Swansea.
Defending, Jonathon Caplan QC, said that the primary responsibility lay with the driver and that GWT's failure was not "a significant factor" in the accident. He said
"The degree of fault in not turning the train was not high. Their failure was a contributory factor. As a matter of law we say it was not a significant cause. We say the driver did not do what he was trained to do."
Great Westerm Trains was found not guilty on 7 counts of manslaughter 3 weeks ago.
Judge's Criticism of MD
The Judge, Mr Scott Baker criticised the managing director of Great Western, Richard George for not attending the hearing. He asked if Mr George was in court to answer questions he appeared astonished to be told "No". The judge told lawyers "He is the man in charge of safety, yet he is not here. He has not taken the trouble to come to court." He told Mr Caplan "one would have thought he would have come if your clients are really concerned about this matter".
A spokesperson later said that Mr George had been attending a meeting to prepare for the forthcoming HSE inquiry into the accident. He said that Mr George "had been advised by our legal advisers that he would not be required at the Old Bailey, otherwise he would have been there."
Dividends before Safety
The Judge also highlighted the conflict "between profit and safety" yesterday after learning that GWT had paid all its profits in dividends and made no specific provisions for safety measures nor for the unlimited fine they face.
Mr George has been promoted to head of FirstGroup UK which has taken over GWT. He is now a substantial shareholder with 500,000 shares in the company
The Judge was told that all last year's profits, of more than £17 million, plus some held over, had been paid in dividends and an operating loss of more than £6 million recorded. The company had made no specific provision for safety measures.
Mr Lissack claimed that Mr George, was aware of the recommendations regarding ATP, but that he had been reluctant to expend time, money and effort on the system.
The case resumes on Monday July 26, 1999.
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