Until a few years ago serious railway accidents were followed within a few days by an internal inquiry and within a few weeks by a public inquiry taken by an inspecting officer of railways. There were no lawyers present, witnesses were invariably open and the whole process was focused on finding the cause and recommending any necessary improvements. Prosecutions were rare.
The process has changed out of all recognition. The police seek to prosecute, encouraged by the media seeking scapegoats. Once a prosecution is under way the investigative process is delayed and complicated by witnesses seeking to defend themselves or their employers from legal retribution. Meanwhile the daily death toll on the roads exceeds that of the Southall rail crash.
A rail crash at Watford on 8 August 1996 will not come before the courts until April 1998. Until the criminal processes are completed the public debate about causes and remedies cannot take place. Under previous procedures inquiries would have been completed and any recommendations could be in course of implementation. The defensive culture surrounding railway accidents serves as a platform for politicians and provides an income for lawyers. It does nothing to illuminate the causes or speed the implementation of remedial action.
Professor W P BRADSHAW
Senior Visiting Research Fellow
Centre for Socio-Legal Studies
University of OxfordReuse content