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Network Rail admit breaches of safety

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Three breaches of health and safety laws have been admitted this month by Network Rail following the deaths of two teenage girls in Essex in December 2005.

Charlotte Thompson, 13, and Olivia Bazlinton, 14, were hit by a train as they walked over tracks at Elsenham station. Lawyers on behalf of Network Rail, in the case heard at Basildon Magistrates' Court, confirmed a guilty plea.

The breaches of duty were confirmed as failing to carry out a sufficient risk assessment, failing to prevent the girls from being exposed to the risks which lead to their deaths, and failing to properly control protective measures at the level crossing.

In 2002, a risk report prepared by Network Rail had recommended that new gates be installed that locked automatically as trains approached. These recommendations were not taken up by Network Rail at the time, and were not made public.

The safety features which were in place were red lights, warning of approaching trains, and yodel sounding. A London to Cambridge train passed over the crossing setting off the warnings, however, as the lights and alarm remained ongoing, the girls opened the unlocked wicket gates, and walked onto the crossing. They were struck by another train which was travelling from Birmingham to Stansted Airport and killed instantly. Locked gates and a footbridge, amongst other safety features, were brought into effect at the station in the summer of 2007.

The inquest into the girls' deaths returned a verdict of accidental death, but following a campaign by the girls' families, further evidence emerged in February 2011 in the form of the Network Rail risk report of 2002. In November last year, the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) confirmed their intention to prosecute Network Rail over the tragedy, after re-opening their investigation into the incident.

The Chief Executive of Network Rail, Sir David Higgins stated "In this tragic case, Network Rail accepts that it was responsible for failings, and therefore we have pleaded guilty". He apologised to the families of the girls, echoing his apology to them in person in 2011. He added "In recent years, we have reassessed all our 6500 level crossings and closed over 500, I accept that there is still a long way to go but we are making progress".  Sentencing will take place on the 15th March 2012.

So how safe are our railways, and in particular level crossings? Statistically Great Britain's railway network has a low fatality rate in respect of accidents at level crossings compared to other European countries. In 2008 for example, there were 14 fatalities, compared to 118 in the same year in Hungary.  However, one must take account of the size of the country's rail system, and the number of level crossings in operation, to view these statistics objectively. Worryingly in 2008 and 2009 in the UK, there were over 300 recorded near misses between trains and other vehicles.

However, in more recent years, safety on our railway network has been shown to be improving following publication of the Ore's annual health and safety report for the period 2010 - 2011. It showed only 5 actual collisions between trains and vehicles at level crossings in recent years. The Ore's Director of Rail Safety stated that the report highlighted positive strides in safety, but that their report " ... also highlights areas for attention, particularly passenger safety at stations and safety at level crossings".

As more people are encouraged to use public transport, to free up the country's gridlocked roads, one can only hope that rail passengers will be able to take their journeys in safety, and that the headlines like the one regarding the tragedy of Charlotte and Olivia's deaths, will become increasingly more rare.

By personal injury expert, Pauline Smith