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Friday, July 2, 1999 Published at 18:02 GMT 19:02 UK


Rail crash manslaughter charges dropped

Seven people died and 150 were injured in the crash

Manslaughter charges against the train driver and operator involved in the Southall rail crash have been dropped.

The BBC's Simon Montague: An automatic warning signal wasn't working
Seven people died and nearly 150 were injured when the Swansea to Paddington express crashed into a freight train at Southall, west London, nearly two years ago.

At the Old Bailey, the prosecution said it would be offering no evidence against driver Larry Harrison because of psychiatric reports saying he had been psychologically damaged by the accident and its consequences.

Mr Anthony Scrivener QC, for Mr Harrison, said he had been asked to drive a 125 mph train with the Automatic Warning System not working.

Driver 'went through red light'

He went on: "Driver Harrison was a victim of the accident and not the cause of it."

Richard Lissack, QC, for the crown, said Mr Harrison had driven through red lights without seeing them.

The prosecution view was that Mr Harrison was so psychologically affected that there was no chance of him being able to present a defence.

But Mr Lissack added: "To say the defendant is a victim is unfortunate in the least. He is not a victim in the sense of the families who sit and listen to this.

"As the driver, he was under a duty to look where he was going. He did not. It was his evidence provided to those on the scene after the crash that he did not see the colour of the signals because he was packing a bag while the train was travelling at maximum speed."

The judge, Mr Justice Scott Baker, entered a formal not guilty verdict against him in relation to another offence under the Health and Safety Act.

Weaknesses in law

He had earlier thrown out seven charges of corporate manslaughter against Great Western Trains because of weaknesses in the law.

The judge said that as the law stood at the moment, a prosecution against Great Western Trains could only be successful if Richard George, the managing director responsible for safety matters, had been found to have committed a criminal act leading to the crash.

Mr George, 43, was one of the passengers on the express when it crashed into a freight train at Southall in September 1997. He was in one of the first-class carriages which took the impact of the crash, but was not hurt and helped some of the injured to safety.

The Law Commission advised the government that the law of corporate manslaughter should be changed more than two years ago.

The judge said: "There is little purpose in the Law Commission making recommendations if they are to be allowed to lie for years on the shelf gathering dust."

Anger at delay

Mr Jonathan Caplan, QC, for Great Western Trains, told the court that the company would plead guilty to another offence under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

The charge alleges that the company exposed passengers to risks to their health and safety. The company will be sentenced at the Old Bailey later this month.

Christopher Mather, a member of a group of solicitors representing 30 victims and their families, said: "The case has failed on technical grounds. Our clients feel the Health and Safety offence does not reflect the gravity of what happened.

"If Parliament had done as the Law Commission had suggested three years ago and changed the law slightly, it would have been much easier to secure a conviction."

Some of the victims are said to be angry that the two years of legal proceedings prior to the case have delayed the public inquiry, which is now due to sit in September.

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