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Railways may face death charges

THE RAILWAY industry could face corporate manslaughter charges over three separate train crashes in a series of legal moves this week.

Lawyers for victims of the 1996 Watford rail crash have asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to consider bringing charges against railway companies.

In a separate move the Crown Prosecution Service is expected to decide whether to prosecute Great Western Railway (GWR) over the Southall rail crash a year ago, in which seven people died.

And this Wednesday Railtrack will appear in court to answer charges of corporate manslaughter over the death of a train driver - the first case of its kind to reach court.

Collins, a Watford law firm, has written to the DPP to examine the Watford train crash in the light of the prosecution of Railtrack. "On behalf of those whom we represent we would ask whether further consideration will now be given to the question of corporate liability following the Watford rail crash and the possibility of proceedings arising therefrom," it said.

One person died and 73 were injured in the crash. The driver, Peter Afford, who was cleared of manslaughter this year, admitted at his trial he had passed three warning lights after switching off his cab's alarms.

Des Collins, whose firm represents 40 of the injured, said: "At his trial the issue of rail safety became a matter of concern and it was very clear that there must be serious misgivings as to the competence of risk assessment management by one or more of the relevant operators at the time."

The move comes against a background of mounting criticism of the time it takes to discover the causes of major disasters. Under the current system, public inquiries are often delayed by criminal proceedings to avoid the risk of prejudicing a defendant's chances of a fair trial.

As The Independent reported in September, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, has ordered a review to look at streamlining the inquiry process. This may require a change of the law and the co-operation of other government departments.

A spokesman said: "He has expressed his concern over this. Officials here are working on this but it involves more than just this department because others are involved in criminal proceedings."

Mr Prescott is known to be concerned over the delay to the Southall inquiry. The driver of the Great Western train, Larry Harrison, appears before magistrates on Friday on seven manslaughter charges. His case has been adjourned a number of times because of the outstanding CPS inquiry into corporate manslaughter. The CPS is under pressure to make its decision before Friday and the industry expects it to press ahead with manslaughter charges against GWR.

Mr Collins, who also acts for 40 Southall victims, said the continued delay to the inquiry meant the injured relatives of those killed were not able to learn the reasons for the crash.

"The victims should not be forgotten. The trauma continues for the vast majority of them and to make a full recovery they need to know what happens. I am anxious that the delay caused to the commencement of the criminal proceedings because of the failure of the CPS to reach a decision should be investigated in the Southall public inquiry."

This week also sees the first corporate manslaughter prosecution of a rail company when Railtrack and two employees answer summonses from the British Transport Police concerning the death of a train driver three years ago. Alan Griffiths was hit by a passing train at Longsight, Manchester, in July 1995 after leaving his own train cab to make an emergency call.

Manchester magistrates will hear the case on Wednesday.

It is understood Mr Harrison intends to plead not guilty to all counts of manslaughter.