Monday, 4 November 2013

Olivia Bazlinton, Charlotte Thompson, Elsenham, MPs inquiry into level crossing safety, Robin Gisby: "Negligent", "Appalling", "Fundamental watershed"

A top ranking and highly-paid Network Rail director admits management was "negligent" over the deaths of two young girls at a level crossing - and says the company's treatment of the bereaved families was "appalling". Paul Coleman reports.

"Negligent" and "appalling"

...but a "fundamental watershed"

Robin Gisby, Network Rail managing director for network operations, admits Network Rail management was "negligent" at the time of the December 2005 rail disaster at Elsenham, when two friends, Olivia Bazlinton, aged 14, and Charlotte Thompson, 13, were killed by a train at the Essex station's footpath  level crossing.
"Elsenham was a fundamental watershed for this business," says Gisby, speaking on 4 November 2013 to Members of Parliament on the House of Commons Transport Select Committee inquiry into level crossing safety.
Committee chairman Louise Ellman asks Gisby about the fatalities of Olivia Bazlinton and Charlotte Thompson: "Would you agree it was negligent management at the time of Elsenham?"
- "Yes," replies Gisby.

"It was a watershed," adds Gisby, who is paid over £380,000 in 2013. "What happened there, the state that our company was in over risk assessments (of level crossings), and the subsequent behaviour of the company towards the families involved was quite appalling."

In 2005, Gisby, as Network Rail director of operations and customer services, was responsible for day-to-day train operations. "Somebody else was responsible for maintenance, engineering and asset management," Gisby tells Ellman.
Gisby, asked by Ellman if he was responsible for level crossing risk assessments in 2005, says: "People I had in the organisation at that time were responsible for filling in some of the data. The models and algorithms and their application lay elsewhere within the business."

Ellman asks Gisby to explain an accident report, issued after the 2005 tragedy, that said the two girls were 'trespassers', even though they had both purchased train tickets.
"I think it was quite inadequate and quite inappropriate to use that phrase," replies Gisby. "That choice of words was completely wrong."

Hudd and Hill
Ellman then quizzes Gisby about why two critical documents about Elsenham's level crossing were not revealed before the tragedy and also not disclosed to investigators in its aftermath.
"I can't easily explain," replies Gisby."I don't know why those things weren't produced. They certainly should've been. They were somewhere within the organisation."
The Hill Part B risk assessment and the 'Hudd memo' - revealed only in 2010 by a whistleblower within Network Rail - had warned four years before the girls were killed that the 'risk of disaster' at Elsenham level crossing was 'real'. If Network Rail had acted on recommendations made in the documents - chiefly to install locking pedestrian gates - the two girls would not have been able to access the tracks.

Gisby claims Network Rail is a much different organisation in 2013 - especially in managing level crossings. Tina Hughes and Chris Bazlinton are sat right behind Gisby in the Grimond committee room. Gisby pays tribute to the "actions of the families" of Olivia Bazlinton and Charlotte Thompson after the disaster. 
The families have campaigned against Network Rail to reveal the truth about the dangers of Elsenham's footpath crossing and the risk assessments that predicted disaster - and they have worked with the company to improve level crossing safety at Elsenham, and elsewhere.
"Elsenham was a fundamental watershed for this business," says Gisby. "We are much better now at managing level crossings. The data from accident investigations stands up much better now than the appalling place where we were back in 2005."

Risk at Inquest
Ellman asks Gisby why Network Rail lawyers argued - successfully - in 2007 that risk assessment should not be given to the coroner's inquest into the girls' deaths. "I can't be sure of the view of our legal team there," replies Gisby. "We are in a completely different place. All the risk assessments of our level crossings, we have published in the last year, part of our move to much greater transparency."
Gisby tells Ellman that Network Rail have added a "narrative" element to data and algorithms used to assess risks to level crossing users. "We talk to train drivers and talk much more to the local community to get a much richer view of the current risk profile of a level crossing," he says.
Gisby adds Network Rail will spend over £100 million making risky level crossings safer and closing those deemed as dangerous. "We've still got a long way to go," says Gisby, before reporting another "tragic incident" has occurred at a level crossing that very morning (4 November).

Misuse of 'misuse'
The committee session ends after Stephen Hammond, the government's parliamentary under secretary of state for transport, has given oral evidence. Afterwards, Tina Hughes and Chris Bazlinton, Olivia's parents, personally reproach Hammond for persistently misusing the term 'misuse of level crossings' during his evidence. 
Bazlinton and Hughes tell Hammond that if a level crossing is deemed not safe it is surely wrong to casually say someone involved in an incident there has 'misused' that crossing. They tell Hammond users involved in accidents misunderstand instructions at unsafe crossings; but only a minority deliberately misuse those crossings.
Hammond listens but offers no direct reply, before he shakes their hands and leaves the room.

In January 2012, Network Rail pleads guilty to breaches of health and safety law in relation to the deaths of Olivia Bazlinton and Charlotte Thompson. In March 2012, Network Rail is fined £1 million.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, November 2013

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