HSE prosecuted over just one rail accident last year

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The Independent Online

THE HEALTH and Safety Executive brought prosecutions over just one train accident last year, during which the number of "significant" accidents increased to 104, a jump of nearly 15 per cent, according to new figures released to The Independent.

THE HEALTH and Safety Executive brought prosecutions over just one train accident last year, during which the number of "significant" accidents increased to 104, a jump of nearly 15 per cent, according to new figures released to The Independent.

In 1998-99, 304 people died in incidents on railways in Britain,including those killed in collisions, level-crossing accidents, falls and suicides. There were were 120 train collisions ­ down from 127 ­ and 119 derailments, an increase of 26. Of these, 104 accidents were considered "significant" ­ an increase from 89 in 1997-98.

Normally the data would not be released until December as part of the annual report by HM Chief Inspector of Railways, Vic Coleman. But after the Paddington crash the HSE agreed to allow The Independent to publish them early.

Noting that more than half of rail accidents were caused by vandalism, Vincent Cable, Liberal Democrat MP and a rail safety campaigner, said there was a history of not giving enough priority to safety on the railways. "The overall culture has to change."

The HSE instigated 11 prosecutions last year. There were three over one accident in February 1997 when seven freight wagons derailed in Bexley, south-east London, injuring four. A report by Railtrack conceded faults had been found on the track some months earlier but had not been put right. Railtrack, South East IMC and Southern Track Renewals all pleaded guilty in September last year. Three other companies were prosecuted after maintenance work on a track point (known as CY102) was considered negligent. Another HSE case was dismissed. There were also safety-at-work prosecutions.

The chief inspector of railways ­ part of the HSE ­ is responsible for almost all rail safety prosecutions. Only in very serious accidents where there are questions of manslaughter or other criminal charges does the Crown Prosecution Service take the case.

In 1998-99, the HSE received 449 complaints from passengers and workers. The executive is unable yet to say what the complaints were. In his 1997-98 report the chief inspector noted that most complaints from passengers related to overcrowding on stations or trains. "There is very little evidence to suggest that overcrowding in itself is dangerous, but it is clear that if a train is crowded, more people may be exposed to risk in a single incident," he said.

The figures have raised questions as to whether the HSE is too reluctant to prosecute rail companies. The HSE approach is that prosecutions result only where there is evidence of serious negligence.

The new figures also show that the number of broken rails increased 21 per cent from 801 to 973. There were no prosecutions in these cases.

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