The decision not to prosecute railway managers over the Ladbroke Grove accident was inevitable. Indeed, that decision had already been taken by the Crown Prosecution Service, only for it to be re-examined at the behest of politicians following pressure from the survivors and bereaved.
That was bound to be a waste of time. The sheer complexity of railway accidents – like the one at Hatfield which resulted in a failed prosecution – is a barrier to successful prosecutions. It is impossible to identify specific managers who behaved in such a way that there could be a clear trail between their actions and the disaster.
The most obvious error was by Thames rookie driver Michael Hodder died in the crash after taking his train past a red light and continuing for 700 yards until it hit the oncoming Great Western Cheltenham Flyer. Underlying causes included Thames’s driver inadequate training programme and Railtrack’s failure to heed the lessons of previous incidents involving signals passed at danger near Paddington but neither company (which coincidentally are both now defunct) could be solely blamed for the disaster and clearly the CPS found it difficult to identify any executives who could be held to be negligent.
The Health & Safety Executive which was in charge of overseeing the safety of the lay-out of the tracks in the Paddington area that had been reconfigured in the early 1990s for the Heathrow Express services, could also be held partly accountable.
It is understandable that the victims want to see someone in the dock for what was a terrible accident caused by a catalogue of errors by various people in the rail industry. But the most important consequence of the disaster is to ensure that the lessons have been learnt and improvements introduced.
And they have. The safety record of the industry measured in terms of dangerous incidents has greatly improved since 1999 and, indeed, has steadily got better virtually every year since the early postwar period when major fatal accidents on the railways occurred at the rate of one every couple of months. Hopefully, the victims and relatives can take some comfort from that progress.