Balfour Beatty changes plea to guilty in Hatfield trial

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The engineering giant Balfour Beatty admitted yesterday that it was guilty of breaching safety standards before the Hatfield train disaster in which four people died.

The company's dramatic change of plea came after it was formally cleared by an Old Bailey judge last week of a corporate manslaughter charge.

Five senior rail executives were cleared along with it of unlawfully killing the four people who died in the 115mph crash in October 2000, which injured more than 100 passengers and sent the national rail network into meltdown. However, they still face criminal charges under the Health and Safety Act and their trial will continue.

As the defence case was due to begin, Balfour Beatty's counsel Ronald Thwaites QC told the judge the company wished to plead guilty to the Health and Safety Act charge which it still faced.

He read out the basis of its plea of guilty, which did not accept all the allegations outlined by the prosecution at the start of the case five months ago. He said the company accepted "there was no one single cause of death", but "an aggregation of causes".

The company maintained "if re-railing had taken place as planned, there would have been no derailment", Mr Thwaites said. Balfour Beatty was not responsible for that, he said. Shares in Balfour fell 4.75p, or 1.4 per cent, to 341p.

Richard Lissack QC, for the prosecution, told the court: "We continue to maintain that in the totality of the indictment this company is guilty."

Mr Lissack has argued that the rail line involved in the crash was a "disaster waiting to happen". Railtrack noticed the defect near Hatfield in January 1999, more than 18 months before the incident, he claimed when opening the case in January. A replacement sat beside the defective rail for about 200 days without being laid, he said.

Railtrack, which is now owned by Network Rail, also knew that Balfour, which was contracted for repairs to the section of track where the crash occurred, was "seriously behind" in its repairs schedule, Mr Lissack said. Network Rail, which is also facing trial alongside Balfour Beatty, is still contesting the health and safety charges.

The judge explained to the jury that Balfour Beatty accepted some particulars of the allegations but not others, but the prosecution did not agree. "That is not an issue with which you are now concerned in any way," Mr Justice Mackay told jurors. "It will, or may have to, be resolved by me at a later date." He instructed the jury to formally convict the company.

The five rail executives who face Health and Safety Act charges are Balfour Beatty Rail Maintenance's regional director Anthony Walker, 48, and its civil engineer Nicholas Jeffries, 50, Railtrack London North-east zone managers Alistair Cook, 52, and Sean Fugill, 52, and the Railtrack LNE track engineer Keith Lea, 55. They all deny the charges.