Britain's largest rail company today admitted a string of health and safety blunders leading up to one of the country's worst train disasters.
Network Rail, which owns and operates the entire rail infrastructure, now faces an unlimited fine following a crash which left 31 dead and 400 injured at London's Ladbroke Grove in 1999.
It happened when First Great Western Trains' 6.30am Cheltenham Flyer crashed into a Thames Trains local service to Bedwyn, Wilts, at the height of the morning rush hour.
The first-class carriage at the front of the high speed intercity service burst into flames.
Among the many injured was author Jilly Cooper, who had to be pulled from the wreckage.
Nigel Sweeney QC, defending, told a 20-minute plea and case management hearing at London's Blackfriars Crown Court that he had been instructed by Network Rail Infrastructure Limited to enter a guilty plea to the single count indictment.
It was not read out in court but detailed various breaches of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.
It stated that between January 1 1995 and October 5 1999 it failed to ensure "so far as was reasonably practicable that persons not in its employment who might affected thereby were not thereby exposed to risks to their health and safety".
The charge, covering two A4 sheets of paper, listed inadequate signal sighting distance, said part of a signal had been obscured by a large insulator and criticised its visibility "aspects".
It maintained that the signal configuration discovered at the scene had been "found nowhere else in the UK".
The charge went on to criticise Network Rail - Railtrack Plc at the time - for failing to ensure the convening of a signal sighting committee, not only following equipment installation in 1995, but also in the wake of no fewer than six so-called Spads - Signals Passed At Danger incidents - between 1996 and 1998.
In addition, it did not carry out any "adequate risk assessment" or investigation following them.
Today's guilty plea is simply an admission of risk creation, and does not mean the company accepts responsibility for the deaths and injuries caused by the crash.
Sentence was adjourned to December 18 to give the defence an opportunity to examine a mass of "unused material" and decide its precise basis of plea.
Depending on the result, the Crown may seek a Newton hearing, to determine Network Rail's precise level of culpability.
Among those attending the hearing were relatives of three of those who died.
Without exception they criticised today's adjournment as yet another example of "prevarication" by Network Rail.
"It seems it is just a game to them," Linda Di Lieto insisted.
Her son, Sam, a 24-year-old Cellnet sim designer manager, from Bloomsbury, central London, was killed on the Thames train.
"How many times can they keep delaying? This has been going on for seven years. But we are going to stick this out, we are not going to vanish."
Maureen Groves agreed. Her chartered accountant daughter, Juliet, 25, who lived in Chiswick, west London, was also on the three-carriage local service.
"As far as I'm concerned they are playing for time, just trying to wear us down. The legal costs of all this must be staggering and could have gone on making the railway safer.
"They have wasted so much money and they have put all the bereaved families through torture," she said.
Robin Kellow's daughter, Elaine, a 24-year-old IT worker, from Paddington, central London, was also among the fatalities.
He said simply: "Railtrack killed my daughter. Everybody knows they did."
A spokesman for Network Rail said: "The Ladbroke Grove tragedy was a terrible event for everyone involved. Lessons have been learnt and the rail industry has changed enormously for the better over the past seven years.
"The tragedy happened before the Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS) became available.
"TPWS automatically applies a train's brakes if it is approaching a red signal too quickly to stop. This system has greatly reduced the risk of an accident caused by a train passing a red light.
"This change, along with many others, has helped to make rail travel today the safest form of transport."Reuse content