Abellio £2.5million lawsuit over livestock accident sparks safety concerns

The incident commemorated the railway accident near Polmont station, near Falkirk, in July 1984 which killed 13 people in what was then Britain’s worst railway disaster in 17 years.

Then a westbound train running from Edinburgh to Glasgow struck a cow that had gained access to the track from a field through a damaged fence. About 61 others were injured.

Subsequent investigation made recommendations for improving fencing where livestock might stand next to the railroad.

Dutch state-owned transport company Abellio, which operated ScotRail until last year, is seeking damages from Network Rail, the owner of the rail infrastructure including tracks, stations and signals, after a train crash in Lothian four years ago that has sparked fears over the teaching of Polmont 38 years later learned.

A train bound for Edinburgh suffered major damage when it plowed into cattle that had strayed onto the line over a ‘broken’ border fence near Broxburn.

READ MORE: Stonehaven rail disaster: Series of deadly management blunders exposed

Concerns have also been raised that the Lothian crash was not investigated by the Department of Railway Accidents Investigation.


Looking back at the Polmont rail disaster

Farmer Walter Dandie, who saw 12 cattle die in the Broxburn crash, said it was just luck there weren’t multiple victims. Four cattle died from the train’s impact, while the rest were believed to have been electrocuted.

He and union representatives fear there are problems with fences next to farms across Scotland and that it was “a disaster waiting for us”.

In the UK, responsibility for the railway boundary fence lies with Network Rail under the Railway Safety (Miscellaneous Provisions) Regulations 1997.

The requirement is based on the principle of preventing unauthorized access to the tracks by people or animals, which dates back to Acts of Parliament in 1842.

The investigation into the Polmont disaster by the Department of Transportation’s Rail Inspectorate found that higher fencing standards were needed where there was an “additional hazard” such as rail electrification in an urban area.


Looking back at the Polmont rail disaster

Greater efforts are needed to ensure adequate fencing and in particular to investigate potential weak points.

At the Lothian train crash, onlookers said they saw up to 30 people on the train, which was traveling from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Network Rail says there were 15.

Abellio’s lawsuit against Network Rail states that the cattle were able to access the rail lines because they were not prevented from doing so by the presence of a reasonably strong and properly maintained fencing.

READ MORE: Stonehaven train crash: Union demands Network Rail probe ‘every mile’ of Scottish tracks to prevent repeats

The boundary fence at the crash site between Uphall and Newbridge stations was part of the railway infrastructure for which Network Rail was responsible.

Mr Dandie, of Learielaw Farm, said Network Rail had previously been made aware of problems with the three-foot fence but had had trouble taking action.

And he said there was a lack of urgency on the part of the Railway Infrastructure Agency and Police Scotland in the lead up to the May 2018 incident.

Up to 21 heifers were on the tracks and those that survived went into shock.

Scores of passengers stayed on the train for two hours as power to the tracks had to be shut down to allow maintenance personnel to move in.

He said problems with fencing were an “ongoing up and down problem” and that there was a “disaster waiting to happen”.

“We gave up warning Network Rail about the fence here a long time ago,” said Mr Dandie, who was surprised that no RAIB inquiry took place.

“I know from other farmers that there are problems up and down the Network Rail lines, fences are not respected. It is not a situation where the farmer can dismantle and replace the fence. If we touch the fences, we’re liable.

“Network Rail is required by law to maintain the fences but that doesn’t seem to make a difference.

“Their own [Network Rail] The inspectors knew that the fences along the route were in poor condition. They ignored it.

“Then when the cattle were killed, the inspectors replaced the fences as quickly as they wanted, a few days later.

“It could have been a major disaster. It was lucky that the train stayed on the tracks.

“I don’t know why there wasn’t an investigation, personally I think they can get away with anything.

“If this is the case, as happened previously at Pomont, certainly no lessons will be learned.”

Video: Flashback to the Polmont train accident

There is growing concern over Network Rail’s plans to cut safety-critical maintenance staff in Scotland from nearly 2000. The RMT union has announced that 300 Scottish maintenance workers are to be made redundant.

Network Rail has also sought to reduce existing scheduled maintenance tasks by up to 50%, citing “better use of technology and data” and reducing the number of manual inspections teams conduct.

It has suggested that it would significantly reduce the safety risk for maintenance personnel, who need access to railway infrastructure to carry out these inspections.

Transport workers’ union TSSA said it was concerned the cuts, which would reduce track inspections, could lead to increased problems with fence breaches.

Interim TSSA Secretary General Peter Pendle said: “We have repeatedly asked to show the rationale and remedial actions for the reduction in planned maintenance tasks, but we have received nothing to justify the reductions or to reassure us that this is for the purpose railway staff is safe or for passengers.

“We are deeply concerned that Network Rail’s plans, driven by a desire to save money through downsizing, will result in an increased risk of tragedies like that at Polmont.

“As more dramatic weather events take place in Scotland due to climate change, at Network Rail we need more maintenance staff, not fewer, to keep our railways safe.”

The RAIB said there had been a decision not to investigate the Lothian crash because those on board the train sustained no injuries and it had not derailed.

They said that “appropriate recommendations” had previously been made as a result of an investigation into a crash.

This included the derailment of a train carrying 70 people, which the RAIB says could have been avoided had ill-conditioned fences been maintained in the weeks leading up to the accident.

The train went off the tracks near Godmersham in July 2015 after hitting and killing eight cows that had wandered onto the line.

The RAIB recommended that Network Rail change its risk assessment methodology for fence inspections and noted that it is already in the process of reviewing its border management.

Network Rail confirmed that a “damaged section of fence” was replaced after the Lothian crash.

The rail infrastructure authority said they conduct regular maintenance and renewal fences nationwide every year. Following any incident where an animal or human intruder has been on the line, trackside border controls are conducted to try to identify gaps and then make repairs.

A Network Rail spokesman said: “We are working hard to maintain our line limitations and this year we have renovated or renewed over 260km [160 miles] the fencing of the Scottish Railway. The types of fences we install vary from metal fences designed to reduce intrusion into urban areas to traditional camp fences in more rural settings. ”

Network Rail said the train affected at Polmont was lighter than modern rolling stock and it was also running in a way modern trains on its routes don’t – being pushed by a heavier carriage behind the one that hit the cow and derailed.

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