Potters Bar coroner warns of risk of further deaths

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The Independent Online

A coroner warned of more potential carnage on the railways today as an inquest jury blamed a points failure for the deaths of seven people at Potters Bar.

There were failures of inspection and/or maintenance of the points in the period before the crash, the jury in Letchworth concluded.

After a seven-week inquest, Judge Michael Findlay Baker QC promised to file a report expressing his concerns.

Six passengers - Austen Kark, Emma Knights, Jonael Schickler, Alexander Ogunwusi, Chia Hsin Lin and Chia Chin Wu - were killed in the crash in Hertfordshire on May 10, 2002.

The seventh victim, Agnes Quinlivan, who was walking nearby, died after she was hit by debris.

More than 70 people were injured when the 12.45 King's Cross to King's Lynn train crashed as it reached Potters Bar, where it was not due to stop, at around 1pm.

Family members said the inquest failed to answer key questions surrounding the deaths of their loved ones as the coroner admitted their eight-year wait for answers was "indefensible".

The coroner said he would file a report under Rule 43 of the 1984 Coroners Rules which allows coroners to express concern that circumstances continue to create a risk of other deaths.

He said: "Rule 43 of the 1984 Coroners Rules provides, among other things, that, where the evidence in an inquest gives rise to a concern that circumstances creating a risk of other deaths will continue to exist, and in the coroner's opinion action should be taken to prevent the continuation of such circumstances, that the coroner has power to report those circumstances to a person who the coroner believes may have power to take such action.

"It is my intention to make a Rule 43 report and I hereby notify."

He added: "Whatever the causes, the passage of over eight years from the derailment to the conclusion of the hearing of the inquest is indefensible.

"The families are due a public apology, and as the current representative of the system whose abuse has led to this delay, I offer that apology.

"It feels wholly inadequate, but it is all that it is within my power to do. I hope a line may begin to be drawn, and a sad and lengthy chapter in many lives may be closed."

After the inquest, relatives described the emotional impact of their struggle to find out what went wrong on May 10, 2002.

Agnes Quinlivan's daughter Pat Smith said: "It's been a long traumatic haul.

"Eight years ago seven much loved and gifted people lost their lives and it has extended right out to the families. It's been the most difficult journey that I don't think anyone could have ever envisaged.

"Nobody expects to lose someone the way we have all lost somebody here, nobody expects to wait eight years to understand why it happened.

"And now we have only got some of the answers, we haven't got all of the answers yet."

The six passengers who died were in the fourth carriage, which became detached and airborne.

The train was travelling at a legal speed - 98mph - and driver Gordon Gibson was cleared of any blame.

A Network Rail (NR) spokesman said: "Today we remember the lives lost eight years ago. Since then much has changed. The railways are almost unrecognisable since the days of Railtrack and the Potters Bar tragedy of 2002.

"Private contractors are no longer involved in the day-to-day maintenance of the nation's rail infrastructure as NR took this entire operation, involving some 15,000 people, in-house in 2004.

"All of the recommendations made by both the industry's own formal inquiry and the health and safety investigation have been actioned. Today the railways are safer than they have ever been."

Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, said: "It remains an absolute scandal that it has taken over eight years to get to the point where we have at last got an inquest verdict, but it at least confirms what we already knew - that this tragic loss of life at Potters Bar could have been avoided if safety rather than profits had been the priority on our railways back in May 2002.

"Basic failures of inspection and of maintenance, driven by the greed and fragmentation of rail privatisation, led us to Potters Bar.

"Those responsible for creating that lethal culture - the politicians and their business associates - will never share the pain of the victims of their gross mismanagement. They have escaped prosecution for their role in this avoidable disaster.

"In the eight years between the Potters Bar tragedy and today's inquest verdict, two of the main players, Jarvis and Railtrack, have gone out of business. That makes a mockery of justice.

"Nobody should be under any illusions that the cuts to maintenance and renewals being imposed on our railways today are dragging us back to exactly the same poisonous cocktail of conditions that led to Potters Bar.

"RMT today repeats its demand for an end to the axing of safety-critical rail maintenance jobs, and an end to the shelving of essential renewals work, before we have another disaster on our hands."

After the verdict, relatives pointed out that the jury was limited in what it could consider and said they wanted a public inquiry.

Ms Smith said: "We've waited eight long years for this. We all wanted a public inquiry we didn't get. We've all had to sit through eight long weeks now of questions.

"We've listened to a catalogue of inadequacies and shoddy maintenance and shoddy management systems that should have been rectified a long time ago. We hope now they will put them right.

"We thank the jury because they seem to have listened, but again they were limited as to what they could do."

John Knights, father of victim Emma, 29, criticised the inquest for failing to let the jury consider "systematic failures".

An Office of Rail Regulation spokesman said: "We welcome the conclusion of the Potters Bar inquest and note the verdict of the jury.

"We will now proceed to determine whether any criminal proceedings for health and safety offences should be brought in accordance with the Work Related Deaths Protocol."