Nearly two years after the Potters Bar rail disaster, the two companies at the heart of the crash finally admitted liability yesterday.
The head of Jarvis Rail, which maintained the points that broke apart when an express train sped across them, said "sorry" for the first time on behalf of the company.
Jarvis had continued to insist that sabotage was a probable cause of the derailment despite scepticism by Health and Safety Executive inspectors who pointed to management failures. The company has sent a letter to bereaved relatives and survivors apologising for the "hurt and anger" that its responses may have caused.
John Armitt, chief executive of the state-backed infrastructure firm Network Rail, said he wanted to restate an apology made immediately after the tragedy. Mr Armitt's company took over from Railtrack, which was ultimately responsible for maintenance at the time of the disaster in which seven people were killed and 76 injured. Louise Christian, leading solicitor for the bereaved and injured, alleged that the admission of guilt was a "cynical manoeuvre". She said that the Government was colluding with the companies to avoid the kind of full public inquiry which followed the Southall and Ladbroke Grove disasters.
Ms Christian said the police had ceased investigating the crash and she would be pressing ahead with an application for a judicial review of the refusal to hold an inquiry.
The novelist Nina Bawden, who lost her husband Austin Kark in the tragedy, expressed bitterness over the assertion by Jarvis that sabotage might have been to blame: "Why did Jarvis insist for so long that little green men were responsible for the crash?"
She said the admission of liability was welcome because the bereaved had been refused legal aid and were facing the prospect of funding litigation out of their own pockets.
But she said it reinforced the need for an immediate public inquiry. "People need to know precisely what is going wrong on the railways and why these two major companies, one of which is very close to the Government, refused to accept blame for so long."
Kevin Hyde, chief executive of Jarvis plc, said: "Everyone at Jarvis was deeply saddened by the tragic event at Potters Bar and its terrible impact on the lives of the victims, their families and friends. We are sorry that it happened. We are also sorry that, nearly two years after the accident and a great deal of expert examination, final conclusions have not yet been reached. Jarvis has co-operated fully and will continue to work with everyone involved to find the answers."
Formally accepting its share of liability, Network Rail pointed out that "a few months" after the accident, the industry announced that Railtrack would take the lead in settling claims as if liability had been accepted.
"This was to ensure that the issue of liability did not stand in the way of settling claims or cause unnecessary distress to those involved while the accident remained under investigation."
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