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EDITIONS
Friday, 28 June, 2002, 18:56 GMT 19:56 UK
Rail safety
Wreckage at the station
Rail safety

One of the most experienced rail accident investigators in the country is being frozen out of the industry he's served for 32 years.

This might not seem particularly newsworthy, until you discover that the man in question - the officer who's attended every crash since Clapham - has been sacked from Britain's top committee of rail disaster experts.

He went public with his concerns about the appalling state of the track after the recent Potters Bar crash.

Richard Watson reported on how a whistleblower is being silenced.


RICHARD WATSON:
This man has been at the heart of the emergency response to fatal train crashes across the country. Clapham, Hatfield, Ladbroke Grove, he has been a key figure at them all, co-ordinating the police response, briefing the media. His management of major incidents has been incorporated into training manuals. He has worked with the bereaved, commended by Prince Charles. He has never been afraid to speak his mind on safety issues. Now he is being silenced and Newsnight can reveal how.

TONY THOMPSON:
Why do they want to gag anybody who is speaking out about public safety issues? This is Clapham on 12th September.

WATSON:
Tony Thompson served with the Transport Police for 32 years. His experience really began amid the carnage at Clapham.

THOMPSON:
It was horrendous. I parked the police car, walked through, one of my colleagues threw me the instant officer jacket, which I put on and then took charge of the police activity at the scene.

WATSON:
The Clapham crash and public inquiry established Thompson as an expert and he helped found a rapid reaction force. It is known as MDAT, the police major disaster advisory team. Since then, he has also worked for victims and the bereaved. This is the memorial garden to those who died after the Ladbroke Grove crash, Tony Thompson was responsible for making it happen.

REV MILES MITSON:
I think he is probably the most professional guy that I have ever had the privilege of meeting. Whether they're a bereaved family or survivors he treats everybody quite the same. He is approachable.

WATSON:
Trustworthy?

THOMPSON:
Absolutely trustworthy.

WATSON:
But Tony Thompson's trait of speaking out began to land him in trouble with his boss. Two months ago he retired early but his work with the disaster team was set to continue, and he was offered a six-month consultancy contract. His recent trouble came to a head three weeks into his retirement when he went to the scene of the Potters Bar crash as a member of the team.

THOMPSON:
When I was walking along the track side, well away from the scene, past where the train, the three carriage at Potters Bar had come to a stand. I was walking down the track and I looked down. As I'm looking down I see these sleepers are really badly worn.

WATSON:
What he saw shocked him so much that he recorded the scene with his digital camera.

THOMPSON:
Decay is the best word to describe them. I saw several sleepers with large chunks missing. At least two with orange crosses marked across them to indicate that at some point during an inspection they had been identified as being detective.

WATSON:
Yet at the time Railtrack's maintenance provider had been suggesting the track was in good condition and sabotage was the likely cause of the accident. Tony was in possession of evidence suggesting the contrary. Controversially he decided to released some of the images to a national newspaper. He old boss was furious but Thompson said he had no choice.

THOMPSON:
If I hadn't released that picture it wouldn't have seen light of day.

WATSON:
Wouldn't he argue it would have seen the light of day but after a six or eight month investigation. What's wrong with that? That is due process.

THOMPSON:
I think it is important that these issues, in terms of maintenance, are brought to the public notice immediately. If pressure can be brought by any means possible for them to speed up the renewals or the replacement, then six months or eight months down the line, if people have missed that they could have another crash. I'm not being wildly inaccurate about this. There was clear evidence there these tracks were sub-standard.

WATSON:
Three weeks after the photographs were published his consultancy work was being scrapped. And his work with the MDAT committee, he founded, was to end. He later called back the man in charge for an explanation.

THOMPSON:
He said that Ian Johnson had made it clear as far as he was concerned I would not be allowed near the site of any other train crash in the future. And I would no longer be a member of the police major disaster advisory team. Transport Police Chief Constable Ian Johnson told Newsnight he had met with the man in charged and said Thompson would be unlikely to be allowed on to a crash site again, but he denied that this effectively banned Thompson from working in the railway disaster field. In a statement he said, "Former Superintendent Tony Thompson was given privileged access to the crash scene, and he added that giving out photographs was "¿clearly a breach of trust. It was unprofessional and unacceptable." The police college told us that MDAT committee has to "safeguard the integrity of its work." And confirmed that Thompson has been sacked.

THOMPSON:
I was appalled. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. In view of my experience and the service that I'd given to the police service and the British Transport Police and my work with victims over the last three years, to hear the Chief Constable say that I wasn't to be allowed near a crash site when I went to assist is outrageous. In my view amounts to an abuse of power because I don't work for British Transport Police. What I said was in the public interest.

WATSON:
So why has one of Britain's leading experts in rail disasters been frozen out by the transport police when he wasn't a serving officer when he released the photograph to the press. Critics say the transport police's severe response is indicative of of a deeper problem, their closeness to the railway industry. The transport police is the only force in the country to be 100% funded by the industry they investigate. All other forces are funded by local and national taxpayers. The train operating companies pay 49%, Railtrack pays 27%, London Underground 22% with 1% coming from other rail resources. Some outspoken critics argue this leads to a conflict of interest.

PETER RAYNER:
The British Transport Police is paid for by the train operating companies and by the industry so they owe a loyalty to the people that pay them. It makes it more difficult for them to be independent and more or less, in my view, a poodle of the industry rather than an independent arbiter in times of unrest and upset.

WATSON:
For its part, the industry denies seeking any undue influence over the transport police and the police constable told Newsnight he was acting on his own initiative. Like most whistle blowers Tony Thompson is paying heavy price. Even so he says he has no regrets about releasing the picture.

THOMPSON:
I know lots of people who have lost people in the recent train crashes and have been injured and if I was to go and take one of the them and say this is the state of Britain's railway, this is normal, this is acceptable, they would be horrified.

WATSON:
Those like the Reverend Mitson who has worked with Tony Thompson over the years are astonished to see him go.

MITSON:
I feel Tony Thompson is at the peak of his career really. I do feel that he has so much to contribute to the rail industry and to major disasters in particular.

WATSON:
Senior transport police officers have repeatedly called for a new independent funding regime for the transport police to bring them into line with other forces in the country. Successive governments have endorsed an independent rail authority but want the industry to continue to pay. Critics argue while funding arrangements remain the same the robust police force is that much harder achieve.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

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Newsnight's Richard Watson
reports on the sacking of one of Britain's top rail safety experts

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10 May 02 | UK
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