RAIL UNION RMT will today (15th February 2012) mark the eighth anniversary of the disaster near Tebay in Cumbria, where four rail workers were killed by a runaway wagon, with a renewed call for action to stop a repeat of the tragic safety failure from ever happening again.
Six years ago I wrote this piece for the Big Issue in the North magazine, which was later re-produced in the Morning Star, on Tebay.
"IF WE don't get something done, there will be another similar incident that will see other rail workers die like my friends."
That was the first thing that Ronnie- not his real name- said when he was asked about the death of four rail workers at Tebay, Cumbria, in February 2004.
Genuine concern, fear and sadness were etched on his face. "I'd like to give you my name, but I'd probably get the sack," he said- which immediately begs the question whether this government's "whistleblower's charter," which is supposed to protect public servants who speak out, has got round to covering railway workers.
Ronnie is lucky to be alive. He could easily have been killed like the four men on Sunday February 15 2004, when a runaway road/rail trailer ploughed down the hill from Scout Green South in Cumbria during maintenance work on the West Coast Main Line, bringing death and destruction to a gang of 13 workers three miles down the line at Tebay.
Both sites were the responsibility of Carillion, which is contracted by Network Rail to maintain the line. Chris Walters, Colin Buckley, Gary Tindall and Darren Burgess were killed. Others suffered horrific injuries and were off work for months.
'Our injuries may have cleared up, but the memory of that night never goes away.'
"Our injuries may have cleared up, but the memory of that night never goes away," said Ronnie. Those who died were employees of Carillion, which quickly accepted its civil liability for the deaths and injuries under the Employer's Liability (Defective Equipment) Act 1969, which introduced a presumption that, where an employee is injured by defective equipment, his employer is liable.
Mark Connolly, from Anglesey, north Wales, and his employee Roy Kennett, from Kent, were found guilty of the manslaughter of the four men at Newcastle Crown Court in March this year and sentenced to nine and two years in jail respectively.
The court heard that Connolly's firm MAC Machinery Services had been subcontracted by Carillion to work alongside employees from a further seven separate firms at Scout Green.
Such high numbers of different contracting companies working on site has been roundly condemned by rail workers' union the RMT, but it is not particularly unusual.
On the day of the tragedy, the two men were offloading 20-foot rails which had been transported to the Scout Green site by a road/rail vehicle, to which a road/rail trailer was attached.
The use of an off-rail road crane to load old track onto the trailer made it necessary to detach the trailer from the road/rail vehicle so as not to interfere with the overhead power lines.
Connolly was later found to have disconnected the trailer's brakes, due to the fact that the hydraulic systems would not work properly in conjunction with the crane.
The two were relying on placing wooden chocks under the trailer's wheels to prevent it running away. It didn't work. As a second piece of track was being loaded, the trailer slipped away and hurtled down the track towards the Tebay gang.
Records show that MAC had only been given approved supplier status with Carillion Rail less than two months earlier, on December 19 2003, and it was only after the company had received an "unsolicited approach" a month later that MAC became a second-tier supplier to "fill in" when "Carillion's two principal plant-hire suppliers in the Preston area" couldn't "accommodate the requirements for road/rail vehicles and associated equipment."
MAC had first come to Carillion's attention in April 2003 when it discovered that another plant-hiring company was cross-hiring plant from it. Procedures were adopted to ensure that MAC became "link-up qualified" and "Carillion Rail-approved."
In July 2003, MAC management claimed to be link-up qualified, when, in fact, they were not. This should, perhaps, have alerted Carillion to the type of company that it was happy to hire plant from.
Carillion had notified MAC that it intended to negotiate a working framework agreement. This was not in place at the time of Tebay. MAC had also failed to supply a risk assessment for the tasks that it was to undertake. MAC was also expected to undertake inspections of machinery, including "to check all brake systems."
Connolly had employed two fitters to do this. One had no formal qualifications and the other had previously done work on similar vehicles to road/rail vehicles.
No record of safety checks appears to have been requested by either Carillion or Network Rail.
Neither had Carillion itself carried out a "civil method statement" or, as it is better known, a risk assessment for the maintenance work at Tebay. This was in spite of the fact that, following the formal investigation into events at Culgaith near Carlisle in January 2003, the company had announced in its rail safety brief of April 2003 that "it has been recorded that our method statements should be improved in the area of working on gradients with plant and equipment."
At Culgaith, a trailer had run away for nearly two miles, joining a list of incidents that Network Rail admitted may have been underestimated, as it discovered "that more runaway trailer incidents had taken place than had been reported," due to "a perception amongst the workforce that, if incidents and accidents are reported, then blame may be laid against them."
RMT members who asked for copies of the method statement for the job at Tebay were later given one dated April 4 2004, two months after the tragedy.
"I must be honest- when we were given the report, none of us looked at its date. It wasn't until a few weeks later that someone noticed it was dated for April. It angered a few people, I can tell you," said Ronnie.
Some of the workers believe that, if the trailer had been equipped with flashing lights and hooters, then those who were killed might be alive today. "All we wanted was a couple of seconds notice," said Ronnie.
RMT health and safety officer Phil Dee is not convinced, stressing that "what we as a union want is to stop runaways. We need to ensure that every vehicle is braked and there are no problems with them."
'Under British Rail, RMT would not have had to worry about these safety issues.'
RMT general secretary Bob Crow also remains concerned that, "two years after Tebay, we still have a confusion of contractors, subcontractors and one-man-and-a-dog plant-hire operators" on the railways.
He urged Network Rail to bring renewals work back in-house, as it did with rail maintenance for safety and efficiency reasons, in July 2004. Crow is adamant that Tebay was no accident and was the "result of privatisation," repeating the union's demand for the railways to be renationalised.
A few years ago, the RMT would not have needed to have concerned themselves with safety concerns over road/rail vehicles or trailers. Back in the British Rail days, the Scout Green job would have involved rail-based cranes and wagons that were attached to a locomotive being manned by a qualified train driver. This, of course, would cost more money and mean that jobs take longer than with road/rail vehicles.
One method which would certainly have prevented the deaths- and could save the lives of others in the future- would have been to chain a railway sleeper across the track. The runaway trailer would have been derailed before it got anywhere near the 13 workers at Tebay.
But such actions are apparently considered unsafe, since, if the sleeper were to be forgotten, then a passenger train could be derailed the next morning, with even more horrific consequences.
As might be expected, the injured have been forced to take time off work. Carillion's sympathy did not extend to ensuring that they were paid their average earnings rather than their basic wages, a sum of money equivalent to around Â£120 a week per worker.
The company only backed down after strong representations from Crow to both Carillion and Network Rail. In 2004 and 2005, Carillion made nearly Â£120 million profit.
The Carillion Rail website states: "Our vision is to be a company renowned for working in a spirit of openness." Yet, when asked a series of questions relating to Tebay, a company spokesperson replied: "The issues raised are subject to a formal investigation by Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate and, therefore, we cannot comment."
Andy Boyack of the RMT Liverpool office said that this "is news to members of the RMT, as we know of no other inquiry taking place," pointing out that the union has "vigorously pushed for a full public inquiry from the start."
'Carillion's sympathy did not extend to paying injured workers their average wage.'
This silence adds to concerns raised by Hilda Palmer from the Manchester Hazards Centre that "the failure of the prosecution to examine the legal responsibility of Carillion in determining that subcontractors at least comply with minimum health and safety standards may be denying rail workers the safety and security the law should ensure."
"No comment" from Carillion Rail was, at least, more than the Transport Department at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was prepared to say on the Tebay tragedy.
No-one was available to reply to any questions or telephone inquiries, while emails to former transport minister Alistair Darling and the department went unanswered.
But a Network Rail spokesperson claimed that, since Tebay, the company had "worked closely with the rail industry to implement a number of improvements in the control, maintenance and operation of the type of rail equipment involved at Tebay" and that, by bringing 15,000 staff in-house, this meant that there is now "absolute clarity over roles and regulations," allowing "easier control of work practice" on sites.
Ronnie and his fellow rail workers are not so sure. "It's true that there does appear to be a reduced number of reports of runaways," he said, "but let's not forget that, late last year, a locomotive even ran away and hurtled at 60mph down the track at night between Birmingham and Lichfield.
"I don't want what happened at Tebay to ever be repeated."