Potters Bar rail crash could be repeated, says coroner

Seven people died in the Potters Bar rail crash as a result of a points failure caused by track inspection and maintenance failures, an inquest jury concluded yesterday.

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 10 May 2002.

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

The jury appointed to hear the inquest into the deaths heard that points near Potters Bar station were "cracked" and "poorly" maintained.

Judge Michael Findlay Baker, the presiding coroner, will now file a report to the Lord Chancellor warning of the potential for another fatal crash on the railways. Rail regulators will consider criminal proceedings and the Crown Prosecution Service will look at any new evidence that came to light during the inquest.

Relatives said the eight years since the crash had been a "long traumatic haul" and "the most difficult journey". They thanked the jury but insisted that there were still questions to be answered. Many are unhappy that the jury was limited in what it could consider.

Pat Smith, the daughter of Ms Quinlivan, called for a public inquiry and expressed her hope that lessons had been learned. John Knights, father of Ms Knights, 29, said after the verdict: "I'd like to say we are grateful to the jury and we are somewhat disappointed that the jury was not allowed to consider systemic failures of the accident, as opposed to being allowed to consider immediate causes."

The writer Nina Bawden, widow of Mr Kark, 75, said she would like to feel that the inquest would help improve rail safety. The inquest into the rail crash deaths took seven weeks. But relatives were unhappy they had to wait so long to see it.

The coroner admitted their wait for answers was "indefensible". He 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.

"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," said Judge Baker.

A further 70 people were injured in the crash when the 12.45pm King's Cross to King's Lynn train, travelling at 98mph, and within the legal speed limit, derailed as it approached Potters Bar station at around 1pm.

All of the passengers killed were travelling in the fourth coach, which detached from the rest and became airborne.

Jurors heard that less than a year before the crash, a workman fixing a set of points near to Potters Bar found one of the nuts – designed to stay fixed under pressure from vibrations – missing. A Railtrack production supervisor said the workman did not replace it, but instead used the chisel in an improvised attempt to prevent the remaining nut coming unscrewed.

Two people, one a rail worker, had made three separate reports about "rough rides" on the northbound approach to the station, jurors were also told. The lawyer representing the families expressed the concern that maintenance staff were still ill-equipped to deal with defects on the railway.

A Network Rail spokesman insisted that safety standards have improved: "The railways are almost unrecognisable since the days of Railtrack and the Potters Bar tragedy of 2002." The spokesman added that private contractors are no longer involved in day-to-day maintenance of the rail infrastructure.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, claimed that cuts to maintenance and renewals were "dragging us back to exactly the same poisonous cocktail of conditions that led to Potters Bar".

He demanded an end to "the axeing of safety-critical rail maintenance jobs, and an end to the shelving of essential renewals work".

The CPS announced five years ago that there would be no criminal charges brought. But a spokesman said yesterday: "We will now consider whether any evidence arose out of the inquest which would require us to review our decision from 2005." The inquest was held in Letchworth in Hertfordshire.

Eight years of waiting

10 May 2002

A train travelling at 98mph derails at a set of points near Potters Bar station in Hertfordshire. Six passengers and one pedestrian are killed as a carriage leaves the ground and crashes along the platform into the station building.

14 May 2002

Four nuts on the points where the train derailed were not in position, a Health and Safety Executive interim report into the accident reveals. Jarvis, the company responsible for maintaining the track, says two of the detached nuts had been found out of position nine days before and been put back.

11 July 2002

Railtrack was alerted to a problem on the line at Potters Bar just hours before the crash but directed maintenance workers to inspect the wrong section of track, Jarvis claims.

29 May 2003

The points which failed were poorly maintained and not properly adjusted, says the HSE's third report.

27 March 2004

Network Rail and Jarvis accepted liability on behalf of the rail industry for "all legally justified claims brought by the bereaved and injured in respect of the Potters Bar crash".

10 October 2005

No criminal charges will be brought over the derailment which claimed seven lives, the Crown Prosecution Service announces.

8 December 2005

The Government rules out holding a public inquiry.

30 July 2010

The jury decides the crash occurred as a result of a points failure caused by the unsafe condition of the points, adding that there were failures of inspection and/or maintenance of the points in the period before the crash.

Relatives' reaction: It's been a long haul – and we've not got all the answers

Anne and Pat Smith, daughters of Agnes Quinlivan

Pat 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.

"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."

Anne said: "I think within the limitations placed upon them, the jury answered the questions as well as one could hope for. I hope that we may begin to draw a line under it, as the coroner said, but these findings will take a little time to bed in.

"The greatest thing that could happen is that they take another look at safety. Instead of investing in directors' bonuses, they should invest in people."

Nina Bawden, author and widow of Austen Kark

"I would like to feel that the inquest has served the purpose of leading to improvements in safety on the railways."

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