NETWORK Rail has been urged to fight legal action over motorists being killed or injured by jumping red lights at level crossings after it emerged the firm has made out-of-court settlements to save money.
In the latest incident, a relative of three pensioners killed when a train hit their car in Caithness has received a “substantial” sum, believed to be tens of thousands of pounds.
The payout by Network Rail came despite an official report into the 2009 crash stating its most likely cause was the car driver’s poor eyesight.
Angus MacKay, 81, died along with his wife Margaret, 81, and his brother Donald, 66, when their Nissan Almera was hit by an Inverness-Wick train at the barrier-less crossing.
The UK Department for Transport’s rail accident investigation branch (Raib) report into the incident stated: “The most likely cause was the car driver did not see and react to the flashing road traffic light signals because his eyesight was sub-standard.”
MacKay’s eyesight had not been up to driving test standard, despite him being twice advised to get suitable glasses.
His son, Donald, sued Network Rail over alleged safety failings.
Last year, the Crown Office said MacKay “may bear some responsibility for the collision”.
In a previous case, also involving the Halkirk crossing, a woman received a similar payout after being seriously injured when her car was hit by a train in 2002. An investigation found Sarah Jappy had driven through the red light.
Jappy, who was pregnant, was in a coma for three months after suffering multiple fractures having been thrown through the sun roof of her car. She survived and gave birth to a healthy baby.
She raised a £500,000 legal action against Network Rail, arguing the crossing lights were difficult to see and there was no barrier.
Last year, Network Rail announced it would install barriers at all 23 such open crossings in Scotland.
In both legal cases, Network Rail made the payments without accepting liability.
The firm said the cases had been settled as a “pragmatic” decision because of the likely legal costs involved. Those bringing the cases are believed to have on legal aid.
However, rail experts said the move sent out the wrong message about level crossing safety and called on Network Rail to stand its ground.
Richard Hope, consulting editor of Railway Gazette, said: “As a matter of principle, they [Network Rail] should stick it out. It’s a bit weak-kneed.
“It will encourage other people to try it on.”
Rail author Christian Wolmar said: “Network Rail should take a deep breath and defend their position, even if the other side are legally aided. Otherwise they are suggesting they are in the wrong.
“It is, after all, public money which funds most of their work, and by caving in they are wasting money that could be spent on improving the railways.”
Stan Hall, a former head of level crossing safety for British Rail, said: “This is a new trend and I absolutely hate it. It’s a compensation culture and Network Rail is suffering for it.”
However, Hall said Network Rail might have feared lawyers seeking to exploit any level crossing deficiencies referred to in investigation reports.
The Raib report into the 2009 crash said an underlying factor had been that Network Rail “did not properly understand the risk” at the crossing because it had not taken the previous accident record - of four crashes since 1987 - into account.
The report said if it had done, “the level of risk might have justified more costly risk reduction measures”, such as barriers, which might have been implemented before the crash.
Aslef, the main train drivers union, expressed anger that its members were the “unrecognised victims” by no longer being eligible for compensation from such incidents.
General secretary Mick Whelan said: “It is appalling that while Network Rail compensates relatives of people killed at crossings, the [UK] Government now refuses any compensation to train drivers who are traumatised by these incidents.
“The government has now declared train drivers to be ineligible, removing a provision which cost little and mattered much.”
Lawyer Cameron Fyfe, who represented the victims and their families in both cases, said he had been surprised Network Rail had made an offer so quickly in the MacKay case.
He said he thought this was because of the earlier case, involving Sarah Jappy, in which the settlement had been reached after a series of court hearings.
Fyfe said: “Network Rail made an offer after nine tenths of the expenses involved had been incurred.”
He added that it was usual for settlements not to include admissions of liability to avoid setting precedents.
A Network Rail spokesman said: “We have settled a legal action regarding the  Halkirk incident, but it would not be appropriate to discuss the details with a third party.”