Are delays at Stonehaven unwarranted?

Looking ready to reopen? Track in place, bridge parapet replaced, 14 October 2020, 10 weeks after the accident.

A clarification issued by the Department for Transport, on behalf of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), and published in Rail Magazine, has made it clear that delays to the reopening of the line at Stonehaven, near Aberdeen, are the result of instructions from Police Scotland.

The site in question is that of the fatal rail accident on 12 August 2020. Three people died when an HST (high-speed train) returning to Aberdeen derailed.

The facts of the matter seem fairly clear cut, although investigations are still ongoing.  The train, four carriages with a Class 43 locomotive at each end, was returning to Aberdeen after its path south was blocked by floods from heavy rail.

Rounding a bend at about 75mph, the train hit a small landslip that covered the tracks. The slip was made up of material that had been covering drain catchpits further up the bank and which was washed out and onto the tracks by rainwater pouring off the adjacent field.

Derailed, the train ploughed through a bridge parapet before the leading power car went down a steep bank. The energy released by the sudden halting of the power car threw the first three carriages across the track. Two ended up in a pile while the third also went down the bank. The fourth carriage and the rear power car, although derailed, remained upright.

It was the first fatal accident since Grayrigg, on 23 February 2007, when a nine-car train was derailed by defective points. It also went down an embankment, although without the sudden stop that occurred at Stonehaven. Of the 109 people on the train, one died.

At Grayrigg, the train also went down the bank, but with nothing like the violence of the Stonehaven crash.

At Grayrigg, in England, the authorities attended and made their investigations, the train was removed, track repaired and the line reopened, with a speed restriction, on 12 March, 17 days later.

The situation at Stonehaven is taking a lot longer. It now looks as though it may be three months after the accident that the railway reopens.  Certainly, more work needed to be done than at Grayrigg. As well as relaying track, the bridge parapet hadto be replaced and a haul road built to extract the wrecked train, and then removed again.

Looking ready to reopen? 14 October 2020, 10 weeks after the accident.

But there have also been reports of Police Scotland making fingertip searches of the ground under the wrecked rail vehicles.

Now the correction to Rail’s article makes it clear that Police Scotland has “asked Network Rail to excavate and remove the drainage catchpits alongside the line to allow further inspection”.

Fortunately, such accidents are exceedingly rare.  However, when they happen, organisations such as the RAIB and British Transport Police have the skill sets to document what happened and reach a conclusion as to what needs to be done to prevent reoccurrence and whether any prosecutions are warranted.

Having an organisation without these skills in charge of the operation seems to be delaying matters. Is this an unintended consequence of devolution perhaps?  And does the UK Government need to take steps to centralise such investigations in the future and take them out of the hands of the devolved authorities? There is no shame in having centres of excellence responsible for activities around the nation. We are the United Kingdom after all.

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