Network Rail (NR) is facing an unlimited fine after its lawyers said they would plead guilty to health and safety breaches leading up to the fatal Grayrigg train crash.
Margaret Masson, 84, died from multiple injuries after a Virgin Pendolino London to Glasgow express crashed on the West Coast Main Line near the Cumbrian village of Grayrigg on February 23 2007.
The 300-tonne multiple unit derailed at 95mph after hitting a faulty set of points, with all nine carriages of the tilting train coming off the tracks.
Mrs Masson, who was returning home to Glasgow after spending a week with family in Lancashire, was airlifted from the wreckage but pronounced dead hours later from multiple injuries.
Eighty-six passengers and two crew were also hurt – 28 of them seriously – as the carriages sped down an embankment, .
The firm’s lawyers appeared at Lancaster Magistrates’ Court yesterday for breaching health and safety law, following criminal proceedings started by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR).
Network Rail, which is responsible for track maintenance, is facing a charge under section 3(1) of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.
Stretcher bars holding the moveable rails a set distance apart when the points are operated failed, causing the train to derail.
Network Rail chief executive David Higgins said later: “Within hours of the event it was clear that we were responsible, that the infrastructure was at fault, so it is right that we plead guilty.
“We again apologise to Mrs Masson’s family for the undoubted grief this has caused them.”
He added: “While there were faults at hand in 2007, we have been determined to recognise what we got wrong and put it right.
“An event like this affects everyone in the company, and especially those with responsibility for the track.
He added: “Since the accident, much has changed in the way we plan and carry out maintenance work, with new systems put in place to improve the quality and safety of our railway.
“We have one of the safest passenger railways in Europe and safety will always be our number one priority.”
A spokesman for the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) said: “Our thoughts are with the family of Mrs Masson and all those involved in this incident. ORR will do everything it can to ensure that the prosecution proceeds as quickly as possible.”
The crash occurred five years ago this month and the hearing took just five minutes for NR to admit they were at fault.
Prashant Popat QC, representing the firm, said he was authorised to enter a guilty plea.
Legal technicalities mean the plea is still an “indication” as the firm could not formally enter a guilty plea until a further hearing at Preston Crown Court.
Nicholas Hilliard QC, representing the ORR, told the court it was the failure of the stretcher bars, either detached, missing or broken, that caused the derailment but investigations revealed “that the system for inspection and maintenance were themselves inadequate and what systems there were had not been properly followed”.
The case was sent to Preston Crown Court where NR will face a fine, unlimited in amount, when sentence is passed on April 2.
NR had assumed responsibility for the crash from its predecessor rail infrastructure company, Railtrack.