Senior engineer's 'error contributed to rail crash'

A senior railway engineer's alleged gross act of negligence was yesterday blamed for contributing to the October 2000 Hatfield rail disaster in which four people died.

A senior railway engineer's alleged gross act of negligence was yesterday blamed for contributing to the October 2000 Hatfield rail disaster in which four people died.

Nicholas Jefferies, Balfour Beatty's civil engineer, had done nothing to implement safety recommendations sent out after another broken rail incident a year earlier, an Old Bailey court was told. Had the guidelines been properly applied, the Hatfield crash would not have happened, said Richard Lissack QC, for the prosecution.

"A 20mph speed limit would have been applied and the track been replaced in 36 hours," Mr Lissack told the court. "For a man of his standing and experience, he just did not do what he was meant to have done. He made an error - of some considerable gravity, we suggest."

The broken rail in the earlier incident had been found on the east coast main line and replaced. Afterwards, Railtrack's head of track, David Ventry, sent out an urgent letter highlighting the problem of gauge corner cracking (GCC) - a metal fatigue which was known to cause broken rails - and recommending that checking procedures on tracks should be stepped up.

The Ventry letter was discussed at a civil engineering conference where Mr Jefferies was present, said Mr Lissack.

"What did he do with the Ventry letter? He did nothing. As head of civil engineering, he was sufficiently senior to be regarded as 'mind of the company'. On receipt of the Ventry letter, he had a clear duty to advise track engineers of its implications: that there was a potential for existing GCC sites to be in a dangerous position and all such sites should be revisited forthwith."

Mr Lissack was outliningthe prosecution case in the trial of five rail executives, including Mr Jefferies, accused of manslaughter following the Hatfield crash. The five executives: Mr Jefferies; Balfour Beatty Rail Maintenance Ltd's regional director Anthony Walker; Railtrack's London North East zone asset managers Alistair Cook and Sean Fugill, and a Railtrack LNE track engineer, Keith Lea, all deny manslaughter.

The trial continues.

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