I’ve been on a roller coaster of emotions over the last few days following the publication of the Transport Select Committee report into safety at level crossings. The report can be seen in full here.
Friday, 7 March 2014 started when I set my alarm to hear Mark Carne, the new CEO at Network Rail, and Reg Thompson, Charlie’s dad, on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. I was concerned that Reg seemed to have forgotten that NR had already apologised for the failings in 2012 following the prosecution for Elsenham and how badly treated we had been following Liv and Charlie’s deaths. I was annoyed with John Humphries who suggested that Mark was the new CEO because his predecessor had been fired over NRs failings. Had I been on the programme I would have challenged this more stridently than Mark did. David Higgins, who has moved on to take over at HS2, was actually the one who initiated the changes at Network Rail and facilitated the £130m funding that enabled the national level crossing programme to get underway.
What I have realised over this weekend is the depth of feeling that still exists over the way Network Rail has behaved in the past, and apparently still does to some families who have been so badly traumatised by the death of their loved ones in such circumstances. As I have been working with Network Rail for the past two and a half years to help them focus on the changes that need to be made, I have been in a privileged position and can see how things are changing – but their reputation has a very long way to go before it can catch up with what is really happening. I feel rather like I have betrayed other families by trying to focus on the positive things that are happening – especially when others are clearly feeling very aggrieved about the callous way they are being treated still.
On reflection I would rather be in this position, no matter how uncomfortable it has made me feel personally, than still feeling that I was up against a huge monolithic company like Network Rail as I did for so many years. We had to fight to get Network Rail to stop saying that Elsenham was a safe crossing – even after accident reports pointed out that the crossing was one of the most dangerous on the network. It was not until documents, that Network Rail had previously withheld, proved that they knew how dangerous Elsenham actually was, that David Higgins (CEO from Feb 2011 til Feb 2014) forced the company to acknowledge it’s failings and invited me to speak to their people about the impact those failings had on us. It is the honest and heartbreaking story of Liv and Charlie’s unnecessary deaths and the appalling aftermath that makes people stop and reconsider the way that they think and behave. That culture of blaming users for their own demise and the inability to acknowledge systemic failings will take a long time to change. Despite what many think, Network Rail is changing and that must continue.
Having met the new chief executive, Mark Carne, I have great confidence that he will drive the change through. He comes from the oil and gas industry where horrific incidents, such as Piper Alpha in 1988, have forced that sector into safer working practices over several decades.
In making the public apology required by the Transport Select Committee, Mark Carne said that the only safe level crossings are closed ones and otherwise they are all dangerous. It’s an obvious statement but one I have not heard from a senior manager in public previously. Robin Gisby, the managing director did say it at the Transport Select Committee hearing back in November 2013, I had presented only that morning to Network Rail’s executive board and button-holed him just before he gave his evidence reminding him that he really must stop saying “that level crossings are perfectly safe, if they are used correctly”. He was surprised that he did so but I had seen him on a news programme the week before saying just that!
I hear the inner dialogue of those reading this, and many others who challenge me about Network Rail not being to blame for Olivia and Charlie’s deaths. I’ve had quoted the Darwin theory about stupid people and the less offensive, but equally difficult to handle on a personal level, arguments about people having to take responsibility for their safety at level crossings. I agree, we do need to take responsibility for our own safety, and I have thought very long and hard over hundreds of sleepless nights about whether I had taught Liv how to use a level crossing properly in the same way we all do to cross the road when our children are little, or by example, obeying traffic lights when we drive them around.
However, Network Rail has a statutory duty to provide a level of protection to reduce risk at level crossings so that people can cross safely and they failed to do that at Elsenham. As a result two beautiful girls lost their lives in a split second error of judgement. But this was a fatal error of judgement that they should not have been able to make. Another train coming alarm, recommended following a death in almost identical circumstances in 1989, had not been actioned; there was no ticket machine on the north bound platform so the girls had to cross the track twice before they could even catch their train; many near miss incidents had occurred there which showed a complacency by local users that was replicated by children and adults as ‘normal’ behaviour to cross immediately behind trains. All of these things and many other factors could have been recognised at Elsenham and the pedestrian gates should have been locked to prevent the girls from stepping out the very second that the signals would have stopped – had there not been another train coming. As we later found out Network Rail had known about the dangers at Elsenham for several years before 2005. And the company withheld that evidence from the accident investigators, the rail regulator and even the Coroner so that the changes now being undertaken now did not start until 2011. Six years of denial – how many deaths on level crossings since 2005 might have been avoided in that time?
I can understand why the families feel so aggrieved, believe me, I have those intense periods of anger and hopelessness when I am faced with the reality of my loss not only of my beautiful daughter but also the loss of all that potential – her future, her successes and failures and my grandchildren that will never be. The loss of a child is beyond anything that can be appeased by a public apology.
As a project manager with a good understanding of risk management I, probably more than others, felt extremely frustrated that the legal arguments made by Network Rail before the Inquest thwarted all efforts to have Network Rail’s appalling risk management practices aired at that time. The opportunity to admit failings and make changes seven years ago was missed.
I can understand Olivia’s dad’s need to get to the bottom of who knew what and when and Reg not wanting to acknowledge that we had a full and unreserved apology from Network Rail two years ago . I can understand how other families feel when asked to remove posters and signs at a memorial to their loved one. I can understand the need to blame Network Rail for the death of the death of a loved one. My loved one was my precious child. Of course, I understand. But I also know that pointing the finger at individuals, in an operating environment which was systemically failing as Justice Taylor said of Network Rail over Elsenham, is not going to make any difference and could even generate defensive resistance to change. The company must acknowledge the past failings and those individuals must embrace the change and become advocates for a new way of working. If they don’t then I hope that their new chief executive will flush them out.
I leave flowers each year near the station at Elsenham to remind others of the lives lost there but I do not think that Network Rail should allow anything to be attached to the fences or railings near level crossings that can distract from the important safety instructions to users. I find it hard to understand how people who have lost a loved one would want to do something that might endanger others. I have also seen evidence from the Samaritans that although comforting to the families, these shrines are a reminder to those who see those sights that a railway line is an option when life gets too tough to carry on. (I have been there, too).
Since the evidence was found and I knew that the regulator would follow through to make change happen and the the chief executive would make the company face up to its failings, my focus has been to work with Network Rail to help make change happen; to make level crossings as safe as they can be and that can only happen by understanding the risks, prioritising the limited budget to target those crossings that pose the highest risk by closing them or upgrading them to the appropriate level of protection level.
That also means working with users to recognise the risks that level crossings pose by educating them to pay attention to the warnings, not to weave around barriers to catch a train or run across when the barriers are coming down, not to use phones or headphones when crossing, not to make crossings more dangerous by distracting users; we all need to set a good example in our use of crossings and encourage everyone to take extra care when using them.
The impact of Liv’s death has been truly awful for me and our family but it is also a traumatic experience for everyone who was involved in her death – the driver, Network Rail staff, emergency services and even the funeral director who looked after Olivia, when I couldn’t even hold her hand to say goodbye. We need to work together to reduce the risks on level crossings and prevent others from making the same fatal error of judgement that Olivia and Charlie did.