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Investigations into fatal Scottish passenger train derailment now underway

RAIB analysis of Stonehaven accident will take place in parallel to a joint ORR and police investigation

Mark Moran
14 August 2020
Aerial photograph of derailment site (RAIB)
Aerial photograph of derailment site (RAIB)
Google Earth image showing key locations (RAIB)
Google Earth image showing key locations (RAIB)


Parallel investigations are being undertaken into a fatal accident that occurred on the national rail network in Scotland. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) has launched its study of the incident. In parallel, Scotland’s Lord Advocate has asked Police Scotland, British Transport Police and the Office of Rail and Road, the independent regulator, to conduct a joint investigation into the accident.

There has been speculation that torrential rainfall and flooding was the cause of the accident. Network Rail has announced it is to inspect high-risk trackside slopes across Britain and the UK government has also asked Network Rail to review its resilience to, and management of, extreme weather.

The incident: What is known
This RAIB has set out what is known about the derailmant. At around 9.40am on Wednesday 12 August 2020, all six vehicles of a passenger train derailed after striking a landslip around 1.4 miles (2.25 km) north-east of Carmont, Aberdeenshire.

There were nine people on the train at the time of the accident: three train crew (the driver, conductor and a second conductor travelling as a passenger on this train) and six passengers. Driver Brett McCullough, conductor Donald Dinnie and passenger Christopher Stuchbury suffered fatal injuries in the accident. The remaining passengers and member of train crew were taken to hospital.

The site of the accident was approximately four miles (6.4 km) south-west of Stonehaven and 20 miles (32 km) north of Montrose, on the double track main line that runs between Dundee and Aberdeen. The train, which was operated by Abellio (trading as ScotRail), was a High Speed Train set with a leading power car, four Mark 3 passenger coaches and a rear power car.

It had originally been operating as train reporting number 1T08, the 06.38 hrs service from Aberdeen to Glasgow Queen Street. Train 1T08 had departed on time from Aberdeen and then from Stonehaven, its next scheduled stop. After departing Stonehaven, the train continued past Carmont on the up (southbound) line until it was stopped by the signaller at Carmont, using a radio message. This was because the signaller had just received a report from the driver of a train on the down (northbound) line that a landslip was obstructing the up line between Carmont and Laurencekirk.

When it became apparent that train 1T08 could not continue its journey south, the decision was taken to return it to Aberdeen, and it was routed back over a crossover at Carmont onto the down line. After travelling for approximately 1.4 miles (2.25 km), the train struck a landslip covering the down line and derailed. As the track curved to the right, the train continued in a roughly straight line for around 100 yards (90 metres) until it struck a section of bridge parapet, which was destroyed.

The leading power car continued over the bridge and then fell from the railway down a wooded embankment, as did the third passenger carriage. The first passenger carriage came to rest on its roof, having rotated to be at right angles to the track. The second passenger carriage also overturned onto its roof and came to rest on the first carriage. The fourth passenger carriage remained upright and attached to the rear power car; it also came to rest on the first carriage. All wheelsets of the rear power car derailed, but it remained upright.

Scottish Transport Secretary Michael Matheson provided some additional detail about the response on the day: “There was a call made by someone who believed that an incident had taken place locally and they contacted Police Scotland. There was also an off-duty railway person on the train who, after it derailed, walked around a mile to the next signal box and advised them that an incident had occurred, which allowed Network Rail at its national control centre to close the line. During the course of that, Police Scotland obviously dispatched their staff and Network Rail dispatched some of the staff that they had working nearby to respond to the incident.”

The RAIB investigation
The RAIB is currently collecting evidence needed to identify factors relevant to the cause of the accident and its consequences. The scope of the investigation is likely to include:

  • the sequence of events and the actions of those involved
  • the operating procedures applied
  • the management of earthworks and drainage in this area, including recent inspections and risk assessments
  • the general management of earthworks and drainage and associated procedures designed to manage the risk of extreme weather events
  • the behaviour of the train during, and following the derailment
  • the consequences of the derailment and a review of the damage caused to the rolling stock
  • underlying management factors
  • actions taken in response to previous safety recommendations.

The RAIB will publish its findings, including any recommendations to improve safety, at the conclusion of its investigation. Simon French, chief inspector of the RAIB, said: “Following the tragic accident near to Carmont, my thoughts, and those of all of my colleagues at the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), are with the families of the three people who lost their lives. It’s the job of the RAIB, the UK’s independent rail accident investigation body, to identify the immediate and underlying causes of the accident, and to make safety recommendations to reduce the risk to the UK’s travelling public and rail employees alike.

“Thankfully, fatal derailments are a rare occurrence on the UK’s national network. However, landslips and other earthworks failures remain a risk to trains that needs to be constantly managed – and this is becoming even more challenging for the rail industry due to the increasing incidence of extreme weather events. We have an expert team at the site of the derailment who are gathering the evidence that is needed to understand what happened, and why. They share my determination to pursue every line of enquiry, to analyse the evidence, and to identify important safety learning.”

The police and ORR investigation
The RAIB investigation is independent of reviews by the railway industry, and of the joint investigation instructed by the Lord Advocate to be carried out by Police Scotland, British Transport Police (BTP) and the industry’s regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). The joint investigation will be carried out under the direction of the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service, which is Scotland's prosecution service.

Police Scotland's Assistant Chief Constable Judi Heaton said: “Officers from Police Scotland, BTP and the ORR are working together closely as the investigation seeks to establish the full circumstances of what happened, and will utilise the skills of all agencies. The multi-agency response to the incident remains ongoing, and we are working with partners to support the family and friends of those involved, as well as the rail family and local community.”

The ORR will investigate all of the circumstances surrounding this tragic accident using its powers under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. The ORR has issued this statement: “Our thoughts remain with the families and friends of those who lost their lives and those impacted by yesterday’s tragic incident. Britain’s railways have an excellent safety record and incidents like yesterday are thankfully rare.”

The ORR noted that the UK government has also asked Network Rail to review its resilience to, and management of, extreme weather. The ORR said: “There are increasing risks from extreme weather which are well known in the industry and our recent annual health and safety report showed that there have been six times more flooding events and a trebling of earthworks failures on Britain’s railways in the last year. We look forward to receiving the outcome of the review, in addition to plans from Network Rail responding to the requirement we set out last month for improvements to the monitoring of assets and more sophisticated responses to forecast adverse weather.”

Transport Secretary Shapps visits the scene
Throughout Thursday, emergency services remained at the scene and were seen examining the wreckage and land.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Network Rail’s chief executive Andrew Haines undertook a helicopter survey of the site, before talking to responders and investigators.

Shapps warned against jumping to conclusions, but added: “My observation is that a flash flood seems to wreaked havoc at the scene behind us. Rail, in general, has an enormous budget – £46bn – over what’s called a controlled period. It’s record sums of money, we’ve never spent more on our railways. But I don’t want to get into speculation, let’s find the facts.”

Shapps has ordered Network Rail to carry out an urgent resilience review of areas affected by recent poor weather, and issue a report this month. He also requested a wider assessment of the impact of the weather on the entire rail network, resulting in an interim report by 1 September and a final analysis in the autumn.

Network Rail's response
Network Rail is implementing additional safety measures in place following the derailment and will be inspecting trackside slopes as part of a government-ordered review as a landslip is suspected to have played a part in the incident.

As an immediate precaution, dozens of sites nationwide with higher-risk trackside slopes, similar to Stonehaven, will be inspected by both in-house engineers and specialist contractors and will be supplemented by helicopter surveys.

In the light of the current weather conditions, extreme weather action teams have been nominated. These teams already monitor the network and will incorporate immediate learning into their plans as soon as it becomes available.

Network Rail is now in dialogue with meteorologists to understand how it can use real-time information on flash flooding caused by unpredictable extreme weather to inform train operations. Network Rail engineers are also reviewing an existing programme for remote monitoring using sensors and CCTV of high-risk sites to test whether this can go faster or further.

Speaking at the site, Network Rail’s Andrew Haines pledged a thorough investigation of the crash. “My heart goes out to everyone affected by this tragedy, especially the families and friends of the three people who died and those that are injured. I want to express my thanks to my colleagues at Network Rail, ScotRail, the British Transport Police and all the emergency services who responded so quickly and professionally and continue to do so.

“Questions are inevitably being asked as to how this could happen and I am determined that we understand the circumstances that led to this devastating event. It’s too early to draw conclusions but it is critical that we investigate thoroughly and with care, and work closely with rail safety authorities, to make sure this can’t happen again.”

Addressing speculation about the impact of adverse weather, Haines made it clear that while the cause is not yet known, precautionary measures were being immediately implemented. Haines said: “I will not pre-empt the outcome of the investigation into this awful event, but it is clear the weather was appalling and there were floods and landslips in the area. I have asked my teams to put extra measures in place, from immediate, heightened inspections, to medium-term work with meteorologists to improve information and forecasting.

“Our climate is changing and it is increasingly challenging the performance and reliability of the railway, but incidents like yesterday’s devastating accident are incredibly rare, and our railway remains the safest major railway in Europe. Our network was designed for a temperate climate, and it’s challenged when we get extremes such as storms and floods. We’re seeing this more and more and although we can address them on the ground with precautionary measures, we are acutely aware we need a long-term resolution, and we had already secured additional funding and resources to help achieve this. Yesterday was a tragedy, a truly horrific event, and my thoughts remain with everyone affected. Understanding what happened is the key to making sure it never occurs again.”

Messages of sympathy
Condolences were expressed by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “An investigation into the accident is now getting underway and it's important we allow that to do its work. In time, we must ensure any lessons are learned. For the moment, my thoughts are with the injured, all those affected directly by this tragedy, and indeed with everyone who works on the railway. I know they will all be grieving today. I'm thinking particularly of the bereaved families who face an experience that all of us dread - coming to terms with the sudden and tragic loss of a loved one.

“No words can heal their pain or the awful situation they are now faced to confront, but the hearts of a nation are with them today. All we can do is send them love and support, and in doing so, I’m sure I speak on behalf of everyone in Scotland. I also want to thank our emergency services. The scene they encountered was horrific in itself. But the location itself also presented major logisitcal and practical challenges for a rescue and recover operation.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson also shared his sympathies, saying: “Our thoughts are very much with those who have lost their lives and their families and, of course, those that have been injured in the derailment. Clearly the most important thing now is that the British Transport Police, who are in charge of the investigation, find out exactly what happened and we all work together to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”

The Queen issued a message of condolence following the crash, saying: "It was with great sadness that I heard of the train derailment". Prince Charles visited the crash site on Thursday and thanked emergency responders for their bravery on Friday.

On the day of the derailment, HM Chief Inspector of Railways Ian Prosser CBE, said: "We are saddened by the incident and our thoughts are with the families and friends of those affected. ORR Inspectors are on site at Stonehaven, assisting in the preliminary investigation. We will work with other agencies, including RAIB, BTP and emergency services, to find out exactly what happened and identify the causes of this tragic incident.”

Rail union RMT also expressed its sadness at the fatalities. Senior Assistant General Secretary Mick Lynch said. “The confirmation that there have been three fatalities in the Stonehaven derailment, including the driver and one of our conductor members, is the most dreadful news and this trade union's thoughts are with the families, colleagues and friends of those who have lost their lives in this tragedy. RMT will unite to provide support, assistance and solidarity at this distressing time. Safety on the railway has to be an absolute priority and this union will be working with the various agencies to establish the facts behind this disaster which has sent shock waves right throughout our industry.”

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