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Fury as Whitby hosts confidential briefing over Potters Bar

OUTGOING ICE President Mark Whitby's decision to host a private briefing by rail contractor Jarvis last week to a select audience of rail professionals about last May's Potters Bar rail crash has been severely criticised by the lawyer representing people injured and bereaved in the crash.

Louise Christian, a partner at solicitor Christian Fisher Khan, described Whitby's actions as a 'betrayal of the people who have lost loved ones'. She expressed surprise that the ICE would hold such a meeting, which she claimed raised 'huge questions about the impartiality of the ICE'.

Seven people died and eleven were injured when a train derailed over points last May along a stretch of track maintained by Jarvis. Bolts found missing at the points enabled switch blades to work free, causing the derailment (NCE 16 May 2002).

Christian added: 'I will be writing to Mr Whitby asking for an explanation and whether the ICE will involve the injured and bereaved in this process which they have embarked on, whether the ICE will tell them what Jarvis said, and whether they'll allow the victims to respond.'

However, Whitby this week vigorously defended his decision to hold the meeting, insisting that it was called in the interest of furthering debate.

'I brokered a meeting between Jarvis and a number of key professionals from the Transport Board in order that they could address any lessons that could be drawn from Jarvis' experiences, ' he said. 'Access to this kind of information is to the benefit of the entire rail industry.

The last thing we want is another incident of this kind.'

The cause of the crash remains under investigation by the British Transport Police and the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). Jarvis maintains it correctly maintained the points and has suggested that sabotage could be to blame.

Whitby invited a number of key rail and transportation experts to the briefing which was held on 31 October. In the invitation he referred to the recent ICE/NCE State of the Nation report card which mentioned the Potter's Bar incident.

'I happened to think that the jury is still very much out and that we need to keep our minds open, ' he said.

His invitation added: 'I have met with a number of engineers and believe that the story is very much more complicated than the one which has been reported by the media. I have therefore asked Jarvis to put their case to a meeting of their peers, and to this end, would like to invite you to a short briefingàin my office at the Institution.'

The State of the Nation report stated: 'Potters Bar plunged the rail industry into despondency and focused attention on the condition of infrastructure highlighting fundamental problems with maintenance contract management.'

No details of the meeting behind closed doors have emerged. A Jarvis spokesman did confirm that the briefing was similar to one held for journalists in May. Then, Jarvis executives presented photographic evidence which they said backed up the sabotage theory (NCE 23 May 2002).

But Christian, who has already criticised the HSE and police investigations as secretive and slow, pointed out that relatives and injured were demanding a public inquiry to be held by a High Court judge. 'If the ICE is dissatisfied with the flow of information, they should be backing our call, ' she said.

In response Whitby insisted: 'The ICE exists for this level of discussion as a learned society so the profession is better informed. Nobody can draw any conclusions from what was said.

It wasn't a secret meeting - it was an 'in confidence' meeting, ' he added.

An HSE spokesman said the HSE was unaware of the meeting and it had not been invited. However he said that any facts relevant to railway safety unearthed by the official accident inquiry had to be made public.

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