Refugees killed as train hits minibus on farm crossing

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Three farmworkers were killed on an unmanned railway crossing yesterday after the driver of their minibus apparently failed to contact a signal box to ensure the line was clear.

Three farmworkers were killed on an unmanned railway crossing yesterday after the driver of their minibus apparently failed to contact a signal box to ensure the line was clear.

The vehicle, with a dozen people on board, was hit by a high speed train at 8.24am as it attempted to drive across the track two miles west of Evesham, in Worcestershire.

Police said there was no record of any contact with the local signalman to check whether a train was due and the owners of the farm said there was no reason for the workers to be visiting fields on the other side of the line.

Train drivers have reported two "near misses" with road vehicles at the site since 1995, according to the Rail Safety and Standards Board. There have been a further 15 occasions when there was "misuse" of the crossing, usually referring to the fact that a road user had failed to use the track-side phone to contact the signalman before crossing.

The men in yesterday's accident were all believed to be Iraqi Kurds in their late 30s and early 40s and are likely to be refugees, who are employed as cheap labour on such farms. Apart from the three deaths, six of the bus passengers were injured, two seriously.

Among those on the train was Peter Luff, Conservative MP for Mid-Worcestershire, who said he would be tabling a question in the House of Commons regarding the rules governing the employment of foreign workers who might not understand the procedures at such crossings.

The accident took place close to the village of Charlton, which is surrounded by fruit and vegetable growing fields. The minibus was on the level crossing in the middle of land belonging to Whitehouse Farm when it was struck by the 7.03am First Great Western express heading from Hereford to London. At the crossing, one of hundreds of its type in rural areas, there is a sign that instructs anyone crossing to phone the signalman to check to see if it is safe.

A call was received by the signal box at 8.03am, but it is thought it referred to an earlier passage of farm vehicles across the line.

The train, which had been due to stop at Evesham, had not been travelling at the normal top speed of 95mph as its front power unit was not working. The minibus was knocked about 20ft down the line and onto its side; the bodies of the three dead men were all recovered nearby.

Police mounted a search using helicopters and trackers dogs in the initial belief some of those on the minibus had been stunned and wandered off into the fields, but said later everyone had been accounted for. The driver was one of two men seriously injured who were taken to hospital in Birmingham. One passenger on the train was slightly injured and was also taken to the hospital. Two other people on the minibus were also slightly injured and were being treated at Worcester Royal Infirmary.

The train, which sustained damage to the right-hand side of the engine and the first carriage, came to a halt about three-quarters of a mile further down the track. It eventually limped into Evesham station four hours later. Rail services in the region were severely disrupted and work was still continuing late last night to clear the track so that normal services can be resumed.

Mr Luff said: "I was sitting in the front carriage of the train and there was a hell of a bang. A window broke on the right-hand side of the train, there was glass everywhere, and then the train came to an emergency controlled stop.

"A few seconds later the driver came on and said in a very apprehensive voice: 'We've hit something'." Mr Luff added: "The driver sounded very shaken when he came on the intercom. The guy sitting by the window was very calm - he was picking glass out of his laptop."

Another passenger was Mike Noel-Smith, a rower who had to be rescued by the Australian navy during a record-breaking attempt to row across the Indian Ocean a month ago.. Mr Noel-Smith, from Hereford said: "This is the second disaster to happen to me in three weeks."

Simms and Woods, the owners of Whitehouse farm said that gang labour was used in the harvesting of produce on the farm who were transported in minibuses.

The company added: "It appears that the vehicle involved was attempting to deliver harvest workers to the current production field. Simms and Woods Ltd at present have no crops on the northern side of the railway line suitable for harvesting and we are still trying to establish why the van was in fact using the crossing.''

Peter Rayner, an expert in railway operations and a persistent critic of the standards of safety since privatisation, said that such crossings were not dangerous provided everyone obeyed the instructions.

During much of the year they were not in frequent use, Mr Rayner said. It was only during the summer when there was more agricultural activity that they were used to any significant extent. It was not practical to spend money replacing the crossings with bridges because use was so infrequent, he said.