Network Rail faces criminal charges over fatal Scottish crash
The UK infrastructure agency Network Rail is to face criminal charges over the fatal derailment at Carmont in the North East of Scotland in August 2020. Three people died in the accident which saw the Aberdeen to Dundee main line blocked for several weeks. The route is often regarded as the northern end of the East Coast Main Line. Independent investigations, by the Office of Rail and Road, put the responsibility firmly on the shoulders of Network Rail.
The primary failing was inadequate supervision of work on the section of the track where the accident happened. A faulty installation of a drainage system ultimately led to a landslide which derailed an early morning Aberdeen to Glasgow train. Normally a very busy service, it was mercifully almost empty due to travel restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic.
On 7 September, Network Rail, as a corporate body, will be required to appear at the High Court in Aberdeen, the supreme court of law in Scotland. Aberdeen is the closest High Court location to the scene of the accident and potentially the scene of the crime. The charges in connection with the fatal derailment at Carmont have not been made public, although Corporate Homicide (the Scots Law equivalent of Corporate Manslaughter) could be levelled against the agency. However, some sources claim that the charges will be lesser, and potentially relate to breaches of the Health and Safety Act.
In Scotland’s highest court again
The accident at Carmont on 12 August 2020 was the first UK passenger fatality in a derailment for thirteen years. In 2007 one passenger was killed when a West Coast Main Line service heading for Glasgow was derailed over faulty points at Greyrigg in the northwest of England. At the time of the Carmont investigation, the Office of Rail and Road reserved the right to take action if necessary. Concurrent with the railway investigation, Police Scotland conducted enquiries into the three deaths in the accident. Under Scots Law, the police are required to submit a report to the Procurator Fiscal, the law officer responsible for deciding if a prosecution should be brought to court. That procedure has brought Network Rail to court in two weeks’ time.
Network Rail has a record and has been previously fined for shortcomings in its operations. In 2022, the agency was fined 1.4 million pounds (1.7 million euro) after it was found responsible for permanent injuries sustained by a contractor. In 2020, the agency was fined a smaller amount for allowing trains to run too fast over a damaged bridge in the south of Scotland – an incident with some similarities to the Carmont tragedy. However, the agency faces a potentially far more serious and damaging court case over the Carmont accident.
Other agencies involved
The three-hundred-page report, published by the independent Rail Accident Investigation Branch was highly critical of Network Rail. In an earlier statement, Network Rail said they had implemented more than four dozen safety measures. “Following the tragic incident, we commissioned an assessment of the impact of extreme weather on the resilience and safe performance of the railway, and an initial report was provided in September 2020”, says the Network Rail statement. “In March 2021, we provided an update which included the reports and recommendations from independent task forces we set up – one on earthworks and one on weather. [They] offered more than 50 recommendations on how we can improve safety and performance and achieve a more effective approach to managing weather risk across the rail network.”
The court case could involve other agencies involved in running the railways in Scotland. Although Network Rail is a UK government-mandated agency, it works in partnership with Scotland’s Railway, effectively the public body appointed by the Scottish government in Edinburgh – which has devolved powers over transport matters. The overarching transport infrastructure agency, Transport Scotland, part of the Scottish civil service, could also be summoned to the hearing.
After Carmont, Network Rail made highly public its resilience programme, designed to maintain Britain’s nineteenth-century railway network to a standard fit to withstand, among other things, twenty-first-century extreme weather. In an echo of the aftermath of Carmont, and back in 2000, a fatal accident caused by a broken rail brought to light other failings in procedures. In that case, track maintenance by Railtrack was found to be lacking over the entire network. Railtrack was eventually dissolved, and replaced by a much safer agency called … Network Rail.