The head of Network Rail today made a “full and unreserved apology” to families bereaved by level crossing accidents - but only after a scathing attack on the company by MPs.
NR had shown “a callous disregard” for families suffering from level crossing accidents, said House of Commons Transport Committee chairman Louise Ellman.
A report by the committee particularly highlighted the treatment of the families of two teenage girls, Olivia Bazlinton, 14, and Charlotte Thompson, 13, who were killed at Elsenham crossing in Essex in December 2005.
The committee said Olivia’s father, Chris Bazlinton, “described Network Rail’s failure to produce key documents during the inquest into his daughter’s death as a ‘conspiracy of silence’”.
Today, Mr Bazlinton said that “other families shouldn’t have to go through what we have experienced” while Charlotte’s father Reg Thompson said: “I still find it very difficult to understand how NR failed to consider the feelings of any of the families involved.”
NR chief executive Mark Carne said: “Today, I wish to extend a full and unreserved apology on behalf of Network Rail to all those whose life has been touched by a failing, however large or small, made by this company in managing public safety at level crossings and in failing to deal sensitively with the families affected.
“Nothing we can say or do will lessen the pain felt by the families of those killed or injured at a level crossing. Today NR is a very different company to the one which existed at the time of these tragic accidents. “
He went on: “As we made clear when we pleaded guilty during the Elsenham court proceedings, it was a watershed in the way we thought about our approach to the risk at level crossings, and how we treat victims and their families.
“As a result of this transformation, level crossings in Britain are among the safest in Europe, but there is still much that we can, and will, do and the committee’s recommendations will help us in that endeavour.”
The Transport Committee’s report today, which had called for a full apology from the head of NR, said that hundreds of level crossings could be exceeding official death-risk limits.
It added that rail regulators should set a target of zero deaths at level crossings from 2020 and that all nine deaths at crossings in 2012/13 were personal tragedies which could have been averted.
The committee added that it would be “very concerned” if NR executives got bonuses this year, given the company was recently held responsible for a 2010 incident at Beccles in Suffolk in which a 10-year-old boy suffered life-changing injuries.
The committee pointed out that NR was fined £500,000 last year after being prosecuted over Beccles by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR).
The committee also said it was concerned that the ORR might not have enough appropriately qualified and experienced staff to provide adequate inspection of the rail network or to adequately challenge NR’s signalling work plans.
The report went on: “Calculating which level crossings are the most risky is complex but we estimate that there may be many hundreds of crossings which exceed Health and Safety Executive guidance on the acceptable level of fatality risk to the public.”
Launching the report today, Mrs Ellman said: “Looking back, it’s clear that on too many occasions Network Rail showed a callous disregard for the feelings of the families of people killed or seriously injured in accidents at level crossings.
“Victims were erroneously described as ‘trespassers’ or accused of ‘misuse’ of the railway when, in fact, they tried to use level crossings appropriately.
“A lack of transparency around safety concerns at the Elsenham crossing was particularly shocking and raises profound questions about NR’s internal culture and accountability.”
Mr Bazlinton said today: “The committee highlights the lack of transparency around safety concerns at Elsenham. ‘Particularly shocking and raises profound questions about NR’s internal culture and accountability’ is they way they put it - something we, the families, have been arguing in the eight years since the accident which resulted in the deaths of our daughters in 2005.
“Other families shouldn’t have to go through what we have experienced, and we welcome the fact that the committee wants to see NR transform the way in which it treats families, the way it handles legal issues and that bereaved families should be entitled to legal support at inquests.”
Mr Thompson said: “NR showed the utmost disregard to the families, to the point that they never contacted us, showed no concern or compassion at any point and indeed made it very clear that they blamed Charlie and Liv for their own demise up until they were forced to acknowledge their own guilt more than six years after the accident.
“My daughter died over eight years ago, and still this goes on, and it goes on because of NR’s behaviour, because of their refusal over years to acknowledge documents which they knew they had in their possession and to behave in just a human way.”
Office of Rail Regulation railway safety director Ian Prosser agreed that every level crossing death was “a personal tragedy”, adding: “We are focused on working with NR, local and national governments, industry and the public to close level crossings and minimise the risks.”
Rail Minister Baroness Kramer said: “Our railways are the safest in Europe, but the industry must not become complacent. That is why £38 billion is being spent over the next five years to maintain and improve the network, including £109 million to further reduce the risk at level crossings.
“Any loss of life is a tragedy and my thoughts are with all those affected. I will continue to press NR to make sure lessons have been learned and that safety remains a top priority.”
Manuel Cortes, leader of the TSSA rail union, said NR bonuses should “now be cancelled” and NR “should be ashamed” of its treatment of the Elsenham families.
Bob Crow, leader of the RMT transport union, said: “Every single level crossing presents a risk to life for both the public and rail staff and any political pressure that helps send this 19th century solution into the history books where it belongs is welcome.”