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Tuesday, July 27, 1999 Published at 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK


Record fine over Southall crash

Seven people died and 150 were injured in the crash

The rail company responsible for a train which crashed at Southall killing seven people has been fined a record £1.5m.

The BBC's Simon Montague: "The automatic warning system was switched off because it was faulty"
Great Western Trains was guilty of a "dereliction of duty" in connection with the 1997 disaster in west London in which 150 were injured and millions of pounds of damage was caused, the court heard.

Mr Justice Scott Baker said the public had the right to expect the highest standard of care from rail operators.

"Great Western Trains failed to meet that standard and in my judgment they failed to meet it by a greater extent than they have been prepared to admit."

The judge said the fine imposed was not intended to "nor can it, reflect the value of the lives lost or the injuries sustained in this disaster. It is, however, intended to reflect public concern at the offence committed".

The BBC's Simon Montague: "The fine was a record breaker; but many think it's not enough."
But Detective Superintendent Graham Satchell of British Transport police said: "You have to ask, how much impact will this fine have on a company with a turnover of hundreds of millions of pounds?"

Louise Christian, head of a steering group of solicitors handling claims for victims said: "It is derisory and an insult."

GWT boss criticised

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In passing judgement, Mr Justice Scott Baker renewed his criticism of GWT's chief executive Mr Richard George for not attending the three-day court hearing.

"I am surprised that neither Mr George - who it is said is in personal charge of safety at GWT - nor any other director of the company came to court to express personally remorse for GWT's breach of the Health and Safety Act, and to allay any impression of complacency that may have been conveyed to the victims, their families and the public."

But he accepted defence submissions that the company "does very much regret its responsibility for the disaster".

Great Western Trains had pleaded guilty to the charge of failing to provide transport to the public "in such a way as to ensure that they were not exposed to risks to their health and safety".

Red light ignored

The ill-fated Swansea to Paddington train crashed at 125mph in September 1997.

The court was told that it had gone through a red light and other warning signals while the driver was packing his bag.

An automatic warning device fitted in the cab was not working, and another experimental device was switched off.

The judge said that the company should have turned the train at Swansea to ensure that a locomotive was at the front with a working warning device.

"More time and energy should have been devoted to appreciating the risk of what occurred and taking steps to avoid it." he said.

Landmark ruling

The previous highest fine against a single company for a breach of the health and safety law was £1.2m imposed on Balfour Beatty following the collapse of three tunnels during the building of the Heathrow rail link.

After the sentence, Jenny Bacon, Director General of the Health and Safety Executive, said: "This prosecution and record fine sends a vital message to the railway industry - safety must come first.

"The case is a warning to railway companies and industry generally, lip service and token gestures are not enough.

"Safety, like other aspects of successful business, must be properly managed."

GWT expresses regret

A spokesman for Great Western Trains said the company deeply regretted the loss of lives and injury caused by the tragedy.

"Whilst working within the rules, we have accepted there was a serious breach of the health and safety laws by failing to do all we reasonably could to avoid risk.

"The rules governing the operation of trains were applied but did not prevent this accident and we have adopted further measures so that what happened at Southall cannot occur again."

GWT representative Knowles Mitchell defended the managing director of GWT, saying he had not attended court because he had been told he was not needed as a witness.

He said: "Mr George was a passenger on the train and feels very deeply about what happened."

There was an outcry from victims and the relatives of those who died earlier this month when manslaughter charges against the company and the driver, Larry Harrison, were dropped following legal arguments.

A public inquiry into the crash is due to begin work on 20 September.

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