NETWORK Rail today made a “full and unreserved” apology for failings over level crossing safety and its behaviour towards bereaved families.
The move by new chief executive Mark Carne came in response to a damning report by MPs accusing the firm of a “callous disregard” for the feelings of families of those killed or injured in level crossing incidents.
The firm last year paid a “substantial” sum to the family of three pensioners killed when their car was hit by a train at a crossing without a barrier at Halkirk in Caithness in 2009.
The House of Commons’ transport committee report called for a target of zero deaths at crossings within six years.
The report was especially critical of Network Rail’s handling of the deaths of two teenage girls at a crossing in Essex in 2005, over which it was fined £1 million. Olivia Bazlinton, 14, and Charlotte Thompson, 13, were killed at Elsenham. Olivia’s father, Chris Bazlinton, described Network Rail’s failure to produce key documents at the inquest as a “conspiracy of silence”.
Mr Carne said: “I wish to extend a full and unreserved apology on behalf of Network Rail to all those whose lives have been touched by a failing, however large or small, made by this company in managing public safety at level crossings and in failing to deal sensitively with the families affected.”
He added: “As we made clear when we pleaded guilty during the Elsenham court proceedings, it was a watershed in the way we thought about our approach to the risk at level crossings, and how we treat victims and their families. As a result, level crossings in Britain are amongst the safest in Europe”
In the Halkirk case, Donald MacKay, the son of the car driver, Angus MacKay, sued Network Rail over alleged safety failings. The firm settled the case out of court without accepting liability.
Following a subsequent review, barriers have been added to the crossing and nearly all the 22 other open crossings in Scotland. Network Rail is planning to shut several other crossings, such as Cornton, near Stirling, because of the increased risk posed by planned faster, quieter, more frequent electric trains.
Level crossing safety campaigner and Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch SNP MSP Dave Thompson said: “Until a year or two ago, [Network Rail’s] attitude was there was absolutely nothing wrong with their crossings and all problems were related to misuse. They have accepted the way they dealt with this in the past was wrong.”
Transport committee chairman Louise Ellman said: “Network Rail has lowered the risk of death at a level crossing by 25 per cent since 2008, but when suicides and trespass are excluded, level crossings still account for one half of all fatalities on the railway in recent years.”
Speaking for the Elsenham families yesterday, Mr Bazlinton said: “We are very pleased with the committee’s report. It totally vindicates our view that NR have not done enough in the past to improve safety on level crossings, and that they treated us very badly.”