Five senior rail managers have been cleared of all individual responsibility for the Hatfield disaster, prompting a wave of anger over the inadequacy of the law.
While the executives walked free from the Old Bailey, Network Rail and the engineering company Balfour Beatty were convicted of breaching health and safety legislation and face the prospect of paying unlimited fines when they are sentenced on 3 October.
However, any payment to the courts from the state-backed Network Rail will come from taxpayers. The organisation took over the legal liabilities of the now defunct Railtrack, the private sector company which ran the network at the time of the Hatfield derailment on 17 October 2000 in which four people were killed.
The acquittal of the managers, who had previously been found not guilty on charges of manslaughter, prompted an angry reaction yesterday. John Pickering, of the solicitors Irwin Mitchell, who represented the families of those who died in the crash, said there was an "urgent need" for corporate manslaughter laws to be reformed. "I think there is a recognition that the law as it stands at the moment is problematic," he said. "There is a tension between wanting to create a system for corporate accountability so the victims think that someone could be facing prosecution and for business to know where the borderlines are."
Maureen Kavanagh, whose son Peter, 29, was killed in the Southall crash in 1997, said she was sickened by the decision. Ms Kavanagh, who runs the Safe Trains Action Group, said: "It is not about holding up people as scapegoats, it is about people doing the job they are supposed to do, having a duty of care and being accountable."
It is still not known when the Corporate Manslaughter Bill, a Labour Party manifesto commitment, will finally find its way on to the statute book.
The Great North Eastern Railways service involved in the Hatfield crash was travelling at 115mph when a broken rail caused it to career off the track.
The court heard of a series of safety lapses in the run-up to the fatal derailment. A faulty rail at the crash site was identified 21 months before the crash, but left unrepaired. A replacement rail had been delivered and left alongside it for six months. Despite concerns about the stretch of track, speed restrictions were not imposed in the area of the faulty rail. A backlog of essential work had been allowed to accumulate which could have closed down King's Cross station if the rule book had been followed.
Richard Lissack, for the prosecution, said the approach was "cavalier", but the defence argued it was unfair to make the five rail executives scapegoats.
The managers, who denied the charges, were Anthony Walker, 48, regional director, and Nicholas Jeffries 50, civil engineer at Balfour Beatty Rail Maintenance; Alistair Cook, 52, and Sean Fugill, also 52, Railtrack managers; and Keith Lea, 55, a track engineer with the company. The men shook hands with each other and their counsel after they were cleared at the end of a seven-month trial. The jury of 10 men and one woman had spent 15 hours over four days considering their verdicts.
As they left court, all five rail managers expressed sympathy for those who had died or been injured in the crash. They also spoke of the trauma they and their families had faced during years of criminal investigation.
The acquitted managers
Track engineer with London North East Zone of Railtrack. Oversaw maintenance contractors. Later a regional track maintenance engineer, ensuring standards were met. Spent 26 years on railways. Age 55
Started with Balfour Beatty in 1996. Was regional director in charge of contract to maintain East Coast Main Line. Left the company in 2000 before the Hatfield accident. Still works in the rail industry
Asset manager for track and signals maintenance of Railtrack's London North East Zone, from King's Cross to the Scottish border. Later head of maintenance improvement at Network Rail's headquarters
Area asset manager of Railtrack's London North East Zone. Later part of a headquarters team working on the transfer of maintenance work back to the company. Age 50; 26 years on the railways
Employed by Balfour Beatty; oversaw all engineering and advised management on engineering. Several years on railways before he joined Balfour in 1996. Left Balfour but still works in rail industry. Age 53
Fatal accidents and who took the blame
A set of points outside the Hertfordshire station broke when an express train sped over them on 10 May 2002. Seven died in the crash. Jarvis Rail, which maintained the track, said sabotage might have caused the derailment. Two years later the company apologised for its role in the disaster. A prosecution for manslaughter may result from British Transport Police inquiries.
A driver was prosecuted for manslaughter after driving on 8 August 1996 through a red light into an empty train, killing one of his passengers. He was found not guilty after it was discovered that management had made a series of errors. An "overlap" after the signal - a safety margin - was less than the prescribed 200 yards. Signalling was not well-aligned, and boards announcing speed restrictions had been put in the wrong place. The case was the first of its kind.
On 5 October 1999, 31 people died when a Thames Trains commuter service crashed into a Great Western express. The Thames Trains driver had passed a red light. Railtrack was criticised for failing to simplify the complex signalling, and Thames for not offering the driver proper training. The CPS has not decided whether to press charges.
On 19 September 1997 a First Great Western Express went through a red light on its way into London Paddington and hit a freight train as it was crossing in front of it. Seven people died. The train operating company was fined £2m for breaches of health and safety legislation - a record at the time. The company had failed to ensure that Automatic Train Protection (ATP), which was available on the route, was operational. ATP automatically stops trains at red lights. The mechanism is now used on the route.
On 12 December 1988 three trains collided at Clapham Junction, killing 35. British Rail admitted culpability. A signalling technician, who had been working long hours as part of a BR initiative to save money, had not secured cabling correctly and vibration caused wires to touch, making a signal show green instead of red.Reuse content