Saturday, 12 February 2011

Vital information revealed about deaths at Elsenham level crossing

"It was the kind of morning that teenagers really enjoy - a Saturday morning. Olivia Bazlinton, aged 14, and Charlotte Thompson, 13, set out for Cambridge, eager to go shopping. They walked down the road to catch a train at the railway station that sits on the fringe of the quiet village of Elsenham.
   It's believed they crossed the 'protected' level crossing and bought their tickets on the upline platform for their downline, Cambridge-bound train that was already waiting at the platform. It was just after 10.40am on Saturday, 3 December 2005.
    It seems the girls tried to cross from the upline platform back over the manned, gated, road level crossing that sits between the staggered platforms at Elsenham. They were hit by an upline through-train, a Class 158 Super Sprinter, operated by Central Trains, on its way from Birmingham New Street to Stansted Airport.
   "They are likely to have died almost instantly," said a spokesman for the Essex Ambulance Service. They had to be identified by DNA...
   "...Did Olivia and Charlotte think that a red light and an audible warning related to their downline train that was already standing at the station, not the approaching upline train that took their lives? Probably, although it's likely we will never know."
   "...Chris Bazlinton, Olivia's adamant that Olivia (above, top) and Charlotte (above, belowwould still be alive if the manned, gated level crossing at Elsenham had been equipped with a pedestrian gate that locks, either manually or automatically, when a train approaches.
   I investigated and wrote this story back in May 2006 for Rail Professional magazine, commissioned by Chris Randall, the magazine's editor at that time. I found the crossing highly dangerous. It was easy to see and understand why Olivia and Charlotte logically concluded they could cross back over the tracks. The girls were not reckless but rather the victims of an old level crossing that Network Rail - nor its predecessor Railtrack, for that matter - had modernised to render safe in an era of high speed rail services. (Click on link to read the original story)
   Since then Network Rail, who are still responsible for the level crossing at Elsenham, eventually responded to a determined campaign by the girls' families by building a footbridge over the tracks at the station and by installing locking pedestrian gates. Common sense seemed to have finally prevailed, albeit too late for Olivia, Charlotte and their family and friends.
   However, earlier this week I learnt new information was coming to light that would show  Network Rail could possibly have prevented the deaths of Olivia and Charlotte. Sure enough, today (Saturday, 12 February), The Times ran Philip Pank's piece, headlined, 'Rail blunder allowed girls to die at level crossing', along with a comment piece, 'Network Failure'. The Press Association's headline is blunter; 'Network Rail accused of 'cover-up'. 
  The Times received leaked information about a Network Rail risk assessment report that recommended Elsenham's set of pedestrian wicket gates should lock automatically when a train approaches. 
   The report's key paragraph states: "Consideration should given to the practicality of incorporating the Wicket Gates into the inter-locking of Elsenham crossing controls and effectively lock them closed when trains are approaching."
  The key aspect is that this report was written in 2002, three years before the girls died. Had Network Rail implemented this recommendation, the girls would not have had access to cross back over the tracks. 
  Critically, Network Rail did not emphasise the recommendation to the two official rail industry inquiries into the disaster and, crucially, did not raise the 2002 risk assessment during the Essex Coroner's inquest in 2007. The coroner's jury was directed by Beasley-Murray to return a verdict of 'accidental death'.
  Chris Bazlinton tells me he firmly believes Network Rail deliberately withheld the information. Had the information come to light at the time, the inquiries and the outcome of the week-long inquest at Chelmsford might have been different. "I believe this goes very close to the top," says Bazlinton. "I believe it's a cover-up, absolutely."
  Network Rail deny withholding the assessment. A spokesman told Pank Network Rail would have supplied any information requested by the coroner, Caroline Beasley-Murray.     
   Of course, that begs the question, how can anyone request a piece of information if they're not told of its existence? Also, if an important piece of information is slipped into a bundle of papers without reference to its importance, does that amount to effectively withholding vital information and hence constitute a cover-up? 
  Pank's excellent piece of investigative journalism in The Times comes hard on the heels of his other story about Network Rail's other woes. It's an organisation - confirmed much by my own sources - that is deeply troubled and faces much upheaval over the next year. 
   Pank's article sheds light on Elsenham, which is perhaps the murkiest episode in Network Rail's relatively short reign as the body responsible for our railways. "Yet if there were ever an organisation that might benefit from the disinfectant of sunlight, Network Rail is surely it," says The Times editorial.
   Hopefully, Olivia and Charlotte are in a better place. Meanwhile, The Times' latest Network Rail story shows that we live in a place where accountability, integrity, respect for the rule of law and sheer common sense seems to have evaporated long ago. 
    As The Times says: "...there is now also no question that there should be a full inquiry into Network Rail's risk assessment and its handling of the accident at Elsenham in which two girls died. Justice and compassion demand no less."

Photo of Charlotte: PA via BBC News

Paul Coleman, London, February 2011.

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