Railtrack bosses to escape charges over Paddington

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The Independent Online

Senior executives at Railtrack are to escape manslaughter charges for their part in the Paddington disaster despite accusations in an official report that they were guilty of "lamentable failure" and "dangerous complacency".

It also expected that Railtrack as a company will evade prosecution under health and safety law for both the Paddington and Hatfield crashes because the company, in effect, no longer exists.

The news will anger the relatives of the 31 people killed at Paddington in 1999 and the four who died in the derailment at Hatfield a year ago today.

The Crown Prosecution Service(CPS) is expected to announce that it has not been unable to identify a "controlling mind" at Railtrack who could be charged with unlawful killing for the Paddington crash.

The official report into the tragedy by Lord Cullen made it clear that the train driver who passed a red light just outside the west London station was not the primary cause of the catastrophic collision and that senior management was guilty of "serious and persistent" failure.

However, the CPS has decided against asking British Transport Police to renew its inquiries on the basis of the Cullen report published in June. Under present law, it is notoriously difficult to identify individuals in a large company who can be charged with manslaughter under such circumstances. The Home Office is still considering ways of tightening up the legislation.

Senior rail industry figures also predicted that it would no longer be possible to prosecute Railtrack for the two disasters after the decision by the Transport Secretary to turn the organisation into a "not-for-profit" company. The shareholders who owned the company are to be replaced by "members" which include major stakeholders in the industry, thus creating a completely different legal entity that is unlikely to take on the liabilities of the original Railtrack.

Representatives of those bereaved by the Hatfield crash, in which a Great North Eastern Railways express was derailed, still hope that senior executives at Railtrack and the engineering company Balfour Beatty will face manslaughter charges.

Managers at Railtrack and Balfour Beatty have been accused of inaction and complacency over the Hatfield tragedy, which was caused by a broken rail. But the CPS decision over Paddington shows how difficult it could be to pursue criminal charges against individuals.

Louise Christian, lead solicitor for those bereaved in both crashes, hopes that it may be easier to use another piece of health and safety legislation in which directors who are seen to be "complicit" may be brought to book.

In the 1997 Southall disaster, in which seven people were killed, charges of manslaughter against individuals could not be sustained. But the Great Western train company was fined a record £1.5m for failing to ensure safety systems that would have stopped the train passing a red light were in operation. It was found that neither the Automatic Train Protection system nor an advance warning device were working on the Great Western express that crashed.

A spokeswoman for the rail inspectorate at the Health and Safety Executive said the organisation's lawyers were aware of the difficulty posed by the fundamental changes at Railtrack and were considering the legal implications.