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Remembering Hatfield – 20 years on

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Just 13 minutes after leaving London, the 1210 from Kings Cross to Leeds, travelling at about 115mph, derailed south of Hatfield station. Over 70 people were injured, including 2 members of on-board staff, and tragically 4 passengers died. At the time, Mark Phillips was based at Railtrack in East Anglia, and went to the site to support the response. Mark reflects on what happened 20 years ago:

I should have remembered the day for very different reasons.

My wife-to-be and I had a rehearsal for our wedding that would take place three days later in Thaxted.

But before that I was speaking at the Railtrack East Anglia Annual Conference alongside the chief operating officer Jonson Cox.

It had been a tough year, working through the improvements we had to make to various signals following the Ladbroke Grove accident almost exactly a year earlier. The conference was a chance to reset and rebuild morale in the East Anglia team.

Just before our break for lunch I received a message on my pager—this was several years before smartphones. A passenger train had derailed near Hatfield. Although this was not quite on the East Anglia patch, I rang our control office to find out what had happened. As the East Coast team were mainly based in York and would need more time to reach the site, Jonson and I decided to drive to the site of the incident and offer our help. 

It took about an hour to drive to Hatfield. We arrived at the same time as Gerald Corbett, Railtrack’s chief executive. British Transport Police (BTP) officers escorted Gerald and Jonson to the crash site, and I made my way to the make-shift response tent where silver command had been set up to take control of the situation.

The emergency services were already working closely with BTP and local forces to initiate the rescue effort. The seriously injured were taken to the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Welwyn and an emergency centre set up in University of Hertfordshire’s nearby campus.

At the site, it stuck me how eerily quiet it was, when normally the sound of trains pounding along the East Coast Main Line was continuous. Soon the silence was broken by a helicopter overhead. It brought Christopher Garnett, chief executive of GNER and Nick Pollard the Railtrack Zone Director. Then another helicopter could be seen, transmitting pictures back to ITV and BBC news.

Hours passed like minutes as I set up a communications hub at the site back to Railtrack’s headquarters in Euston Tower where John Curley the performance director took charge. Further news teams arrived with huge telescopic ladders to get maximum footage of the wreckage.

By the early evening, we were clearer about what had occurred. But, having been there from the early afternoon we were utterly drained, and so new teams were arriving to take over. Needless to say, I didn’t make our wedding rehearsal. But four people never returned to their loved ones, and over 70 were injured.

To bear witness to the aftermath of a major derailment, which had caused loss of life, was chilling and saddening. What followed was a sense of focussed determination to get to the bottom of what went wrong. To ensure that nothing like it happens again.

The investigation found that the primary cause of the accident was the rail fracturing as the train passed over it. It is very rare, but occasionally assets fail without warning. However, at Hatfield there had been warnings. The industry, collectively, failed to act on the data and intelligence it was receiving about the risk of “rolling contact fatigue” at that location. Unfortunately, the work to replace the rail was scheduled to take place months after the fatal accident took place.

The accident prompted worry that the same problem could be undetected in hundreds of miles of track across the network. Blanket speed restrictions were imposed immediately as a precautionary measure. The fallout led to Railtrack’s later collapse and over two years of rail replacement work to get the industry back to normal operation. If anyone ever needed proof of the link between safety and performance, there it was. It took many years to fully restore faith and patronage in the rail service.

The Hatfield derailment was not as severe as the Ladbroke Grove rail crash in terms of the human cost. However, in many ways it was a worse because of the lost opportunities to prevent it. Further, the weaknesses in the way the rail industry managed corporate memory, competence, asset integrity that were identified from Ladbroke Grove, also emerged at Hatfield.

While we will have all been shocked by the train accident at Carmont in August, the overall risk of train accidents is very low. Over the years significant progress has been made in making the railways safer, including better crashworthiness of rolling stock, improvements to operational safety, signalling and control systems. So today, we are in a much better place and trains are now one of the safest forms of transport.

Key lessons from Hatfield have been learned and re-learned. Broken rails have fallen from a 40-year average of 750 a year to an 8-year average of around 150. Asset data is monitored closely, and risk-based interventions can be made by infrastructure managers.

There have been significant improvements in the way the rail industry works collaboratively across company boundaries to improve safety performance—a common uniting goal. There is a shared commitment to monitor risk, to use research and analysis to find underlying causes of problems and identify solutions.

More is understood about the way train and track interact with each other, particularly from research and insights sponsored by RSSB’s Vehicle-Track System Interface Committee.

Industry leaders are committed to rail becoming safer and healthier together through the Leading Health and Safety on Britain’s Railway strategy.

While the railway is currently facing big challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is vital that we don’t lose that sense of collaboration and commitment—and maintain a risk-based approach to safety.

Mark Phillips is RSSB’s CEO.

Further information

The four people who died at the Hatfield train accident were:

  • Robert James Alcorn, 37, of Auckland, New Zealand
  • Steve Arthur, 46, of Pease Pottage, West Sussex
  • Leslie Gray, 43, of Tuxford, Nottinghamshire
  • Peter Monkhouse, 50, of Headingley, Leeds

If you are interested in this topic, you may want to read the article by RSSB’s Operational Feedback Lead, Greg Morse in RAIL magazine (issue 915), ‘Hatfield, the Lessons Continue”

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