Will Network Rail face more severe punishment over Carmont crash?
Three years have passed since the tragedy that unfolded near Stonehaven when an Aberdeen to Glasgow train derailed after striking a landslide at Carmont. Three lives were tragically lost that day, and it is a stark reality that the toll could have been far higher if the train had not been nearly empty – a consequence of Covid travel restrictions in force at the time. Since that fateful day, 12 August 2020, a lengthy investigation has aimed to answer critical questions: What went wrong? Who bears responsibility? What measures can be taken to prevent a recurrence?
One glaring finding of the investigation that was brought under the spotlight was the incorrect installation of a drainage system in the area by the now-defunct construction giant, Carillion. Network Rail engineers had failed to conduct thorough inspections of this drainage system, leading to problems being identified too late. The consequences were devastating. Severe weather caused the installation to fail and a train, ironically returning to its origin because of another landslip down the line, crashed into debris on the rails, derailing catastrophically. Driver Brett McCullough, conductor Donald Dinnie, and passenger Christopher Stuchbury lost their lives in the crash.
On Friday of last week (8 September), Network Rail faced the judgment of the Scottish courts, which imposed a 6.7 million pound (7.8 million euro) fine on the rail infrastructure manager. At the High Court, sitting in Aberdeen, Network Rail pleaded guilty to various maintenance and inspection lapses before the August 2020 crash, including failure to warn the train driver about unsafe track conditions or instruct him to reduce speed. That driver, Brett McCullough, was among three fatalities in the crash. In passing sentence, the judge noted that – had the infrastructure agency contested the action, and subsequently been found guilty – the fine would have been greater, with the law permitting ten million pounds (11.7 million euro) to be levied.
However, for the corporate body, which is a UK government agency and therefore funded from taxation in addition to its earned revenue, the fine must be considered in the context of its multi-billion pound budget. Amidst the legal proceedings, voices of discontent have emerged. Unsurprisingly, the rail unions have been vocal in their criticism, contending that Network Rail has received a lenient penalty. They have argued that corporate manslaughter charges should be an option in similar cases in the future. “The company has already effectively ignored most of the recommendations made by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) and now it is cutting back on maintenance, renewals and drainage work”, said Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT union, the biggest in the sector. “Instead of fining the publicly-funded body, Network Rail should be forced to halt the culture of continual cutbacks which will are inevitably leading to a more dangerous railway”, he said.
Key changes not yet implemented
Britain has been in the position of questioning the stewardship of the railways in the recent past. In October 2000, a crash at Hatfield, north of London, killed four people and injured many more. The cause was put down to unmanaged metal fatigue in the rails, which proved to be a network-wide issue, improperly addressed by the previous infrastructure agency, Railtrack. That company collapsed on the back of the scandal and was replaced by Network Rail, albeit in a different corporate structure to the current model of public ownership. The ‘never again’ rhetoric seems to have a limited shelf life.
Network Rail now finds itself compelled to implement significant changes in response to the Carmont rail crash. Observers note the investigating body – the Rail Accident Investigation Branch recommended twenty key changes to working practices, and claim that Network Rail has thus far completed only two of them. Several others are pending approval by rail regulators, while the remainder is scheduled for implementation over the next two years, some of which will require rail operators to cooperate. Fully five years after the disaster, some recommended changes may remain unimplemented. Rail may well be an inherently safe way to travel, but that hardly means it should not be as safe as possible.
Learn by mistakes is not good enough
Britain was the first nation in the world to have a railway network. With that accolade, comes the stark reality that much of the nineteenth-century learning curve is still in use today. Climate change is having its affect on infrastructure built to pass muster in the 1850s. Network Rail insists that they are moving swiftly to introduce upgrade to the twenty-first century standards, but some would say their pace is glacial in a time of global warming.
In any case, a Scottish judge has found that there is no room nor excuse for lax attention to mistakes. At the time of the publication of the report into the accident, Network Rail responded to criticism of its practices. “This report makes clear that there are fundamental lessons to be learnt by Network Rail and the wider industry”, said Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive. “We acknowledge it should not have taken this tragic accident to highlight those lessons. We must do better and we are utterly committed to that.”
Network Rail has allocated approximately 200 million pounds for drainage systems, earthworks, and bridge protection in Scotland alone between 2014 and 2024. The fine for their culpability at Carmont is about three per cent by comparison. Like their nineteenth-century counterparts, Network Rail has been found to learn by its mistakes. This has been the case too often in the UK rail industry. The Carmont crash has, once again, flagged up the need for competent and enforced safety measures, fast response, and a genuine commitment to protecting both passengers and rail workers. The call for corporate manslaughter charges in cases like these underscores the strength of feeling. Early calls for a full pubic enquiry could yet see individuals brought to account. The case is anything but closed.