Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Elsenham: A bear trap in the woods known as Network Rail

A friend asked me not so long ago, ‘what past event would you want to return to and change?’ This thought flashed across my mind this morning as I jostled in a media scrum outside Basildon Magistrates Court in a sleeting Essex chill. 
  Chris Bazlinton and Reg Thompson stood amidst the jostle. Their respective daughters, Olivia, aged 14, and Charlotte, 13, were struck and fatally killed by a train at a footpath level crossing at Elsenham station in December 2005.
  Six years later, inside the tiny magistrates court, with graffiti etched on the public seats, both men strained to hear a swish Network Rail lawyer sheepishly say the UK's rail infrastructure company was pleading guilty to criminal charges of breaching health and safety law – criminal breaches that had led to the girls’ death (See London Intelligence for details). 
  The Office of Rail Regulation had brought the criminal prosecution against Network Rail.
  Behind the guilty plea lies a sordid mix of incompetence, deceit and arrogance - and a  sickening trail of 'if onlys'. 
  If only...Network Rail had acted on respective warnings issued by its own staff in 2001 and 2002 saying Elsenham’s footpath level crossing was dangerous and life-threatening. 
 If only...the company had rendered Elsenham safe – via locking gates, a footbridge and effective audible warnings - then Network Rail could’ve prevented the girls from being killed on a Saturday morning that was brightened, from all accounts, by their cheerful, youthful exuberance. Let's not forget, although this was a rural station, the London-Liverpool Street-Stansted Airport route is very busy, with some trains, including the express that killed Olivia and Charlie, roaring through at speeds up to 110mph.
  If only Network Rail managers had admitted to the existence of these prior warnings to the Rail Accident Investigation Branch...
 If only Network Rail had told the Essex Coroner, Caroline Beasley-Murray, in January 2007...
 And, if only, Network Rail had admitted responsibility for failing to act on those previous warnings, the company could at least have accorded Chris, Reg, Tina and the rest of the girls’ families the honesty and dignity they surely ought to have received.
  Instead, Network Rail treated the families to a six-year cover-up that piled frustration and outrage upon the families' already unimaginable anguish. 
 Of course, even a substantial fine won't hurt Network Rail too much. After all, this not-for-profit eats up taxpayers' money, providing handsome salaries and bonuses for its top executives whilst cutting lower grade staff and jobs and humping its massive accumulated debt back onto the public purse. 
  The new man at the top of Network Rail – chief executive David Higgins – promises to be a new broom sweeping transparency and accountability through the company. “Nothing we can say or do will lessen the pain felt by Olivia and Charlotte’s families but I have promised them we are committed to making our railways as safe as possible,” said Higgins after today’s hearing.
 Give Higgins his due. He has earned Chris Bazlinton’s confidence but is cited as saying there is no evidence the prior risk assessments and warnings were wilfully witheld.
 Chris Bazlinton told the media pack outside the court this morning: “We shall be watching closely to make sure that changes Network Rail have promised to improve level crossing safety are carried out.
  Going back to my friend's question, sadly, there’s no way anyone can go back in time and whisper a warning to the girls – ‘Be careful. That level crossing at Elsenham is like a bear trap in the woods'.
That’s how Reg Thompson once poetically yet aptly described Elsenham station.
 By failing to act on those warnings several years before Olivia and Charlotte lost their lives – and for harbouring individuals who covered up their responsibility for that tragedy – ‘a bear trap in the woods’ seems an equally apt description for Network Rail itself. 

Paul Coleman, London, January 2012

Monday, 9 January 2012

Tottenham: The Riots, a play by Gillian Slovo, at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre

I saw The Riots in Tottenham last week (Wednesday, 4 January). This thoughtful play is the result of the Tricycle Theatre Company’s own investigation into last summer’s unrest in London and the rest of the UK.
  Writer Gillian Slovo* based The Riots on 56 hours of interviews with rioters, riot victims, police and politicians. For instance, well-known actor Cyril Nri plays both Superintendent Leroy Logan and Reverend Nims Obunge; and Michele Austin was superb as gushing Diane Abbott MP one minute and, after a rapid costume change, as flamboyant children’s advocate and charity leader, Camila Batmanghelidjh.
   The government refused to hold an inquiry into the August 6-10 unrest that claimed the lives of five people – Trevor Ellis, Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali, Abdul Musavir, and Richard Mannington Bowes.
  The Tricycle has transferred Slovo’s play from its Kilburn home to show to Tottenham audiences at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre until January 14. The riots kicked off in Tottenham following the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, a young father from the local area, during a police raid in Tottenham Hale on August 4.
  Senior politicians, such as Michael Gove MP and Iain Duncan Smith MP quickly condemned the rioters as criminals, arguing only criminality and nothing political motivated the violence and looting. Slovo interviewed both politicians. Actors representing their testimony in The Riots will allow Tottenham audiences this week to make up their own minds.
  Testimony also includes a letter written by Chelsea Ives from Holloway Prison. Ives, a former London Olympic Games ambassador, wrote to the Tricycle with her story and views. Ives is serving a two-year sentence for criminal damage and burglary. Her mother Adrienne contacted police after seeing CCTV footage on TV news of her daughter involved in a group attack on a police car in the north London suburb of Enfield.
  On stage, Ives (played by Clementine Marlowe-Hunt) expresses remorse for her actions but condemns a media witch-hunt for trashing her as the country’s most notorious and archetypal rioter.
 A passionate and informed Tottenham audience took part in an after-play discussion with Gillian Slovo and Stafford Scott, a ‘veteran’ Tottenham community advocate and interrogator of police tactics from the days of the Broadwater Farm riots in Tottenham in 1985. Scott’s insights into how police approach black people and communities will be considered in some detail at www.londonintelligence.co.uk
 * South African-born Slovo is the daughter of Joe Slovo, leader of the South African Communist Party, and of Ruth First, the anti-apartheid activist and journalist who was murdered by a parcel bomb in 1982.

The Riots plays in Tottenham until January 14. For tickets and info: www.berniegrantcentre.co.uk

Paul Coleman, London, January 2011

Sunday, 1 January 2012

You Me On the 2012 Bum Bum Train?

This neon flash, advertising a temporary London theatre show on New Oxford Street, seemed to sum up the global crisis as 2012 dawned. 
 If you want to know how Londoners are coping with the crisis during 2012, visit www.londonintelligence.co.uk

Photo: Copyright Paul Coleman, London 2011

Paul Coleman, London, January 2012.