LIGHTWATER Valley claims to have an “excellent safety record” but the fatal accident involving a university student yesterday was the second in its 22-year history and there have been a series of incidents and Health and Safety prosecutions over its “white knuckle” rides.
The incidents began in June, 1980, the year after Lightwater Valley opened, when two rowing boats containing young farmers from Scotland, visiting North Yorkshire on an exchange visit, collided following what police later described as horseplay.
Six swam to safety when one of the boats overturned on the theme park’s boating lake, but Kenneth Baird, 21, a non-swimmer, of Burrelton, near Coupar-Angus in Perthshire, was pulled unconscious from the water and efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
The theme park began life in 1969 as a low-key affair with Robert Staveley and his wife, Lynne, welcoming the public to self-pick fruit farmed on the estate.
Mr Staveley’s family have owned land at North Stainley, near Ripon, since 1516. It first expanded by allowing visitors to see how the estate produced 40,000 pigs a year.
But as it grew to become a major theme park, it was the 5.3m Ultimate – the world’s longest rollercoaster – which brought Lightwater Valley many of its headlines. Its trains, each weighing 10 tonnes, reach speeds of up to 65mph as they swoop 157ft downhill on the one-and-a-half mile track.
Eleven days after it was opened by the boxer Frank Bruno in 1991 five people were taken to hospital with whiplash injuries after one
of the trains had a low-speed collision with another in the station.
There had already been other problems. In 1989 Lightwater Valley was fined 6,000 after a 17-year-old boy working at the park was partly paralysed when he was crushed for 90 minutes beneath a ride called the Swinging Gym.
The fine imposed by Recorder Simon Lawler at York Crown Court also followed injuries to three girls on a “hell slide” where 60 accidents were catalogued by the Health and Safety Executive.
But the most dramatic incident came when an axle broke and a set of wheels came off the Ultimate as it was carrying 38 passengers at 60mph. It resulted in a 15,000 fine for Lightwater Valley and 10,000 for its maintenance contractor, Serco Ltd, of Sunbury-on-Thames, Middlesex.
Magistrates heard that months before the mechanical failure in September 1994, engineers found cracks in 16 of its 23 axles. When the axle failed passengers were bumped around, suffering shock, bruising and one minor fracture after the car dropped on to the track, causing half-a-mile of damage before stopping.
Both companies admitted exposing the public to safety risks by fitting replacement axles on the Ultimate without taking into account stresses on the ride. Lightwater, which changed its plea to guilty on the morning of the prosecution, was ordered to pay costs of 4,988 and Serco had to pay 1,983.
Health and Safety Executive prosecutor Steven Kay said: “Problems caused by stress were noticed soon after the Ultimate opened in July, 1991.
“At the end of 1992 cracks were found in two-thirds of the bogeys, three-quarters of the chassis units and three axles. The designer advised reducing the stresses.”
Lightwater, whose barrister Richard Greening said the failure was serious but not potentially catastrophic, modified the axles after 16 out of the 23 had to be condemned because of cracks at the end of 1993.
Mr Staveley later sold the park’s 25 rides for little more than the 5.3m he paid for the Ultimate to the leisure group Queensborough in 1997, but retained ownership of the site.
It is now operated by Lightwater Valley Attractions Ltd, part of
the Heritage Great Britain PLC Group.