Six rail bosses charged with manslaughter over Hatfield

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The Independent Online

Six railway managers could face life imprisonment after being charged with the manslaughter of the four people who died when a train was derailed near Hatfield in 2000.

The charges are the first to be brought against senior employees arising out of the deaths of railway passengers and represent the biggest corporate manslaughter prosecution of its kind.

Four of the defendants are employed by Railtrack's successor company, Network Rail, and two work for the railway maintenance firm Balfour Beatty. Both companies have been charged with corporate manslaughter, which is punishable by an unlimited fine. None of the defendants facing manslaughter charges is believed to be a senior board member of either company.

The former Railtrack chief executive Gerald Corbett, who resigned from the company shortly after the crash, is to be tried with five other railway managers for a lesser offence under health and safety legislation. None of these offences attracts prison sentences.

All defendants are to appear at Central Hertfordshire magistrates' court in St Albans on Monday morning. The prosecution is expected to centre on a broken rail, which is alleged to have caused the derailment of a GNER London to Leeds express on 17 October 2000 near Hatfield in Hertfordshire.

Lawyers for the families of the victims of the crash welcomed the decision to bring the prosecutions. John Pickering, a solicitor, said: "We are pleased that steps are now being taken to bring this matter to the courts. My clients ... are concerned that those responsible should be held to account."

Network Rail said the company and its employees would defend themselves against the charges. "We believe that our employees conduct their duties to the best of their abilities with the sole intention of delivering a safe, reliable and efficient railway network."

Balfour Beatty said: "We see no justification for manslaughter charges to be brought against our maintenance business (BBRIS) or its former employees. The charge of manslaughter against our maintenance business will be firmly defended as we see no plausible basis for it in law or on the evidence. "

Mr Corbett told BBC Radio 4's The World At One that he would defend himself vigorously. "I was the chief executive when something went wrong, and that is why I immediately tendered my resignation. But taking responsibility for one's organisation does not necessarily mean that I accept that the rail breaking was in any sense attributable to neglect on my part."

A Crown Prosecutor, Andrew Faiers, said the decision to press charges was based on "substantial evidence". More than 1,500 witnesses gave evidence during the investigation, which lasted two and a half years. The police seized more than a million pages of documentary evidence and interviewed 54 people, the CPS said.

The six men who were all charged with four offences of manslaughter and one health and safety offence were named by the CPS, with their job titles at the time of the crash.

They were Charles Pollard, director of the London north east zone of Railtrack; Alistair Cook, infrastructure contracts manager of the London north east zone of Railtrack; Sean Fugill, area asset manager of the London north east zone (south) of Railtrack; Anthony Walker, regional director until August 2000 of Balfour Beatty; Nicholas Jeffries, civil engineer for Balfour Beatty; and Keith Lea, track engineer of the London north east zone of Railtrack.

The six who were summonsed under the Health and Safety at Work Act were also listed with their job titles at the time of the crash.

They were Gerald Corbett, chief executive of Railtrack; Christopher Leah, director of safety and operations of Railtrack; Stephen Huxley, managing director until 31 August 2000 of Balfour Beatty; Kenneth Hedley, a track engineer for Balfour Beatty; Vernon Bullen, King's Cross area maintenance engineer for Balfour Beatty; and Keith Hughes, an acting track engineer for Balfour Beatty.

The scale of the intended prosecution belies the weakness of the current law of corporate manslaughter in this country. Only 10 individual directors of small companies have ever been convicted and two high-profile prosecutions against large companies both ended in failure. David Bergman, director of the Centre for Corporate Accountability, said: "The decision to prosecute two large companies over the Hatfield disaster is very significant. It is very rare for the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute a large company for manslaughter.

"There have only ever been five companies convicted of manslaughter - all of which have been small companies.

"This is because the law requires that a company director or senior manager is prosecuted as an individual for the offence, before the company - a separate legal entity - can be prosecuted. It is therefore necessary to have sufficient evidence to prosecute a director or senior manager of the company before the company itself can be prosecuted."

Britain's first high-profile corporate manslaughter failure concerned P&O European Ferries. The case was brought to court over the 1987 Zeebrugge disaster, which killed nearly 200 people. But it collapsed when the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence against any director or senior manager.

Great Western Railways was prosecuted over the Southall train crash, which killed seven people in 1997. Because the CPS did not charge any individual with manslaughter, the case was thrown out, although the company was fined £1.5m under health and safety laws.

No one was prosecuted for other transport disasters at King's Cross and Clapham, while accidents at Paddington and Potters Bar are still being investigated by British Transport Police.

Only small companies have so far been convicted of corporate manslaughter. In 1994, Peter Kite, managing director of an activity centre responsible for a canoeing tragedy that killed four schoolchildren, was jailed for three years. His company, OLL Ltd, became the first of five in the country to be convicted of manslaughter and was fined £60,000. One reason successful cases have been brought against smaller companies is that it is easier to establish lines of responsibility.

Under present corporate manslaughter law, a company can be convicted only if a person is identified as its "controlling mind" and found responsible for a death.