Lorry driver blamed for rail crash

By James MortlockA LORRY driver who caused a terrifying rail crash which left 20 passengers injured and cost train operators hundreds of thousands of pounds has been spared a prison sentence.

By James Mortlock

A LORRY driver who caused a terrifying rail crash which left 20 passengers injured and cost train operators hundreds of thousands of pounds has been spared a prison sentence.

Michael Read, of The Street, Hacheston, near Woodbridge, claimed dazzling sunlight obscured red warning lights at a railway crossing in Suffolk seconds before a train collided with his truck.

The impact derailed the single-carriage train and sent it - and the 56 passengers on board - “bouncing” along sleepers for more than 40 metres.

Read, who admitted a charge of dangerous driving, was given a 100-hour community punishment order, banned from driving for a year and ordered to take an extended test to regain his licence.

Sentencing him, Judge John Holt said he accepted the accident, which cost a total of £683,000, had been caused by a momentary lapse on the part of Read, who said he had failed to hear warning claxons at the barrier-less crossing because his cab stereo was on.

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But speaking after the hearing, the owner of the land around the level crossing - which is on the line between Ipswich and Lowestoft at Hoo Lane, Little Glemham, near Saxmundham - called for barriers to be installed immediately at the site labelled a “blackspot” in court.

Bury St Edmunds Crown Court was told Nigel Fisher, the driver of the 9.05am Lowestoft to Ipswich train, had known nothing of the lorry until he had seen it pull over the crossing as he approached.

Duncan O'Donnel, prosecuting, said: “Mr Fisher realised the lorry wasn't going to stop and he hit his emergency brake and threw his arms up.

“But the train hit the side of the lorry and derailed, bouncing along sleepers for more than 40 metres. Luckily, it did not turn over.”

Train guard Robert Williams, who suffered minor injuries when he was thrown to the floor by the crash impact, and Mr Fisher then set about helping the injured and frightened passengers.

Most of the 20 people injured suffered cuts to the face and bruised ribs, shoulders and arms in last April's crash.

Only one of the passenger, Juliet Brighthouse, had to be kept in hospital overnight following the collision.

Mr O'Donnel said repairs to the damaged train had cost £75,000 and the cancellation of 38 trains and the early termination of 14 other services as a direct result of the crash had cost the rail authorities just over £200,000.

Extra staffing costs had come to £55,000, but it had been the £350,000 costs of rebuilding the crossing at Blaxhall Hall which had cost the most, he added.

Jonathan Seely, mitigating, said Read accepted he had driven dangerously and added: “He did go on the crossing and that was wrong. But this is a one-off piece of bad driving which slipped well blow the accepted standards.

“He has caused this - the train driver did not and the passengers did not. But it's not something he did deliberately and it can't have been pleasant for him to have been struck by a moving train.

“The injuries to the driver and passengers are what keep him awake at night. To say he feels remorse is an understatement. I hope your honour takes into account that this is something of a potential blackspot.”

Judge Holt, who praised the train driver and guard for their “professionalism and dedication” in the aftermath of the crash, said the accident could have had far more serious consequences.

He noted from the minutes of a British Rail meeting in the 1980s that the claxon had been designed to warn pedestrians on the crossing rather than motorists.

The judge told Read he accepted one of the reasons for the crash could have been the bright sun had obscured the warning lights.

Judge Holt said he had considered a statement from Paul Cattermole, a signalman with some knowledge of the crossing, who said Read's experience with the sun had not been unusual.

But he stressed: “He (Mr Cattermole) went on to say that in the past he had had to stop and wind down his car window to listen for the claxon to be sure.

“If you didn't see the lights properly, you knew they were there and should not have proceeded until you were sure.

“That seems to me to be the dangerous driving to which you have pleaded guilty. I accept this was a momentary lapse, but a very serious lapse none-the-less.”

Speaking after the hearing, crash investigator Det Con Alan Reed, of the British Transport Police, said justice had been done.

He added: “We wholly support the community sentence and disqualification. This was not a malicious act - the man has made a bad mistake and the lesson goes to motorists using level crossings, with barriers or otherwise, to exercise extreme caution. If they get it wrong, it could lead to a catastrophe.”

But, John Kerr, the owner of Blaxhall Hall Farm and the employer of Read for more than 20 years, said he used the crossing every day and believed it was vital for safety barriers to be installed.

“At best, the present situation is a risk and at worst there is a serious danger. I believe the crossing should have barriers.

“Michael Read has worked as a farm worker, tractor driver and more lately lorry driver for me for more than 20 years and is a top man.”

A spokesman for Network Rail said: “Safety is Network Rail's first priority without question.

“Level crossings have a 100% safety record when used correctly and it's only when the green cross code of level crossings is broken that incidents happen.

“The crossing at Blaxhall, near Wickham Market, was extensively damaged in the incident on April 15, 2002. Since then a Network Rail attendant has been manually operating the crossing, which has had temporary gates installed.

“This crossing is made-to-measure and involves many components, including signalling, lighting and power equipment. The new crossing will be installed in a few months' time.”

He added the new crossing would be without gates and unmanned, as it was before the accident.