Rail firm fined for commuter train 2.5 mile overshoot


Ruth Lumley
Friday 06 July 2012 16:43

A rail company responsible for a commuter train which overshot a station by two and a half miles because it did not have any sand on board to help with braking in poor weather has been fined £65,000 and ordered to pay £22,589 in costs.

The 6.45am Southeastern service from Charing Cross to Hastings overran Stonegate station in East Sussex by 2.43 miles (3.91km) on November 8, 2010, just after 8am, despite the driver applying emergency braking, Maidstone Crown Court was told today.

Prosecutor Richard Evans said: "Effectively, the train was out of control for 3.2 miles from when braking started to when the train stopped."

He said inadequate logging procedures and a lack of communication between Southeastern employees meant that the train travelled 929 miles after a sand refill report was generated, and that the train was likely to have had no sand on board for about two days when it overran.

Southeastern pleaded guilty in May to two charges under two sections of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act involving the risk the incident caused to its employees and the general public.

The court heard that leaf mulch on the line meant that conditions between the steel rails and train wheels were much like "oil on a non-stick frying pan".

Neil Garnham QC, representing Southeastern, said that even if everything that should have been done had been done, the train would still have overshot Stonegate station by up to 0.8 miles because of poor rail adhesion.

Judge Andrew Patience said he was disturbed by the fact there had been no warning system in the cab for the driver and that it was only down to good fortune that there had been "no loss of life or limb" or serious damage to property.

Judge Patience said: "These were very serious breaches of duty to provide a safe system of work which ensured the health and safety of railway employees and members of the public, be they passengers or not.

"The risks taken in operating a system which falls far short of the required standards, as this did, is a matter which the court has to take very seriously indeed.

"Had there been a loss of life or limb, or grave damage to property, the fines would have been in six figures."

The court was told the train driver was informed when he started his shift on the morning of November 8 that rail conditions were classed as a "black day" - the worst kind - because of the poor weather and leaves on the line.

But there was nothing in the driver's cab to warn him that sand levels were low, Mr Evans said.

The driver went through all three stages of braking before applying the emergency brakes and informing the signalman at Robertsbridge that he was not going to be able to stop at Stonegate station, the court heard.

Mr Evans said the train was not taken out of service until it had travelled another 400 miles after the incident.

He said following the investigation into this overrun, it was discovered that another four trains did not have adequate sand on board to be able to cope with the poor conditions.

He added that although the state of the empty sand hoppers was flagged up on Southeastern's computer system when trains started to run low, the messages would drop off after 24 hours, meaning that whoever looked at the system the following day would think the work had already been done.

The court heard that although there was no risk to life as the train had run through a green signal, the potential risk of low adhesion could have been "catastrophic" had the train collided with another train on the track, derailed or crashed into a vehicle on a level crossing.

Mr Garnham said Southeastern had taken the incident very seriously and had made significant changes to the way it runs and maintains its trains.

Charles Horton, managing director of Southeastern, said that although leaves on the railway line had become something of a standing joke it was not remotely funny for train operating companies.

He said: "Extremely low friction between rails and train wheels - caused by leaf mulch and rain - produces a slippery surface, making braking difficult.

"As we've made clear in the past, this was a significant incident that we've taken very seriously.

"In conjunction with Network Rail we undertook a thorough investigation and also worked closely with the Rail Accident Investigation Branch and the Office of Rail Regulation's investigations. And we've fully implemented all recommendations.

"We never compromise on safety and have made changes to procedures to further reduce the possibility of this extremely rare event occurring again."

The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), which investigated the incident, said that, in order to improve braking performance, sand is deposited on to the track when the brakes are used, increasing friction and reducing braking distance.

The ORR's investigation found that, in addition to the runaway train, four more Southeastern trains showed evidence of not having sand supplies refilled.

Ian Prosser, director of railway safety at ORR, said: "Train operators have an important duty to ensure that their workers and members of the public are not exposed to unnecessary safety risks.

"In this case, Southeastern, through poor planning and management, failed to ensure their trains were safe for use on the rail network.

"This is clearly unacceptable, and led to the potentially catastrophic incident in East Sussex where a train ran out of control for over three miles.

"We welcome steps taken by Southeastern to improve its safety management since this incident.

"ORR is pressing Southeastern, and the whole rail sector, to develop and maintain systems which identify potential dangers so that they can be addressed before catastrophic risks become reality."