A RAIL union which is campaigning for a Parliamentary inquiry into Network Rail's level crossing safety policy has blamed the taxpayer-funded firm for the death of Bishop’s Stortford schoolgirl Katie Littlewood.
Yesterday (Thursday, May 16) an inquest jury ruled the 15-year-old Herts & Essex High School GCSE student's death at the former Johnson's footpath crossing on January 28 last year was an accident.
However, Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), said that the hearing at Hatfield had revealed a "slipshod and incompetent" NR which had failed to build a bridge over the crossing where Katie died, despite a report five years earlier indicating it should have done.
"If this bridge had been built, Katie would not have been able to open that unlocked gate at Johnson's crossing and she would still be alive today," he said.
"They effectively placed her in harm’s way through their shockingly slipshod and incompetent behaviour. Katie would simply not have been able to use that footpath over a line which trains travelled along at up to 70mph if they had done their job in a proper and professional manner."
Mr Cortes described the case as "almost a carbon copy" of the tragedy a few miles away in Elsenham in which schoolgirls Olivia Bazlinton, 14, and Charlotte Thompson, 13, were killed on another unsafe level crossing in December 2005.
"NR were rightly fined £1m last year over those tragic deaths after we revealed that a lost report in 2001 called for a bridge to be built at Elsenham and another lost report in 2002 called for unlocked gates to be automatically locked by approaching trains,” he said.
"How does NR keep losing reports which are meant to save lives? Are commercial considerations being allowed to compromise safety with fatal consequences for rail users?
"We really do need an inquiry by the Transport Select Committee to find out if the bottom line is being put ahead of the safety line on level crossing safety.”
His concerns about cost were shared with the coroner, Edward Thomas, at the inquest by Katie's father, Simon.
The hearing was also attended by Olivia Bazlinton's father, Chris, who revealed to the Observer that he had spoken at length to Mr Littlewood the day before the hearing about their tragic shared experiences.
In January last year, Network Rail admitted breaching health and safety laws at Elsenham station’s crossing where Olivia and Charlotte were hit by a train as they crossed the tracks to catch a train to go shopping in Cambridge.
Following both fatal accidents, Network Rail built footbridges to protect pedestrians. The bill for the Johnson's crossing structure was said to be around £2m.
Mr Bazlinton said yesterday (Thursday): "My view is there's lots of technical talk about the costs of putting up bridges, but at the end of the day Katie Littlewood died. If they had spent the money [sooner] we wouldn’t be talking about this now."
He acknowledged there had been positive changes within Network Rail but said key questions about his own case remained unanswered and, without a proper investigation, the organisation was still flawed.
"I understand how the [Littlewood] family feel and we just don’t want this to happen to anyone again. It shouldn’t have happened to Olivia and Charlotte and it shouldn’t have happened to Katie."
During the inquest, Richard Crockford, for Network Rail, said: "Network Rail would be very pleased to close all crossings because it would make life so much easier."
He went on to explain that the company faced opposition from cyclists, leisure users and local residents when it tried to shut footpaths over the tracks when the rights of way predated the railways.
In addition, he said, negotiating with local authorities to get closure orders and planning permission was often a lengthy process.
Nevertheless, he said, Network Rail had closed 700 of 6,500 crossings nationwide since 2010 and was investing £130m in new bridges.