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Alton Towers operator Merlin fined £5m for Smiler rollercoaster crash

Published 27/09/2016

The Smiler rollercoaster at Alton Towers
The Smiler rollercoaster at Alton Towers
Injured: Vicky Balch arrives at court
The Smiler ride at Alton Towers in Staffordshire

Alton Towers owner Merlin has been fined £5m for the Smiler rollercoaster crash which left five passengers with life-changing injuries.

Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd admitted a health and safety breach on the thrill-ride.

Vicky Balch, then 19, and Leah Washington, then 17, who each lost a leg in the crash in June last year, and several other people who were trapped for hours attended Stafford Crown Court on Monday for the sentencing hearing.

Prosecuting, Bernard Thorogood told the court that the passengers on the £18 million rollercoaster watched with "disbelief and horror" as they realised they were going to collide with an empty carriage.

He said the kinetic energy involved in the crash on June 2 2015 was equivalent to "a family car of 1.5 tons having collided at about 90mph".

Losses of the parent company as a result of the smash were laid bare by Merlin's barrister Simon Antrobus, who said there had been a £14 million drop in revenue overall.

He said the company had "got the message" on health and safety, having accepted it was at fault and had fallen "far short" of the standards required.

The judge heard the firm's full-year turnover of £384 million in December 2014 was cut to £281 million two months after the crash the following year - after what would be the busiest summer trading period.

By this August, the company was £2.3 million down on the like-for-like figure.

He added that Nicholas Varney, Merlin Entertainments' chief executive - who had apologised for the accident on the day of the crash - had a £581,000 salary last year, adding up to £733,000 with pension payments.

Mr Antrobus revealed the company's directors did not get a bonus in 2015, but that Mr Varney had share options linked to performance targets worth a potential £1.2 million.

When Judge Michael Chambers QC asked Merlin's counsel if anyone had resigned over the failings which led up to the horror crash, Mr Antrobus replied: "No".

The Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) barrister Mr Thorogood said the company's financial loss "cannot properly have been said to have brought the message home".

Opening the case earlier, Mr Thorogood said the test carriage had been sent around the ride but had come to rest in a valley of the track, unseen by ride staff.

The engineers had overridden a computer system which they believed had halted the ride in error - and sent a full car along to the track and into the path of the empty carriage.

"The subsequent collision was plain to see to some in the train, and I refer to those in the front row's statements, where they speak of their disbelief and horror as they saw ahead up the track the train into which they were going to dive," he said.

The court was told the victims of the crash were held at a "very difficult angle" around 20ft (6m) above ground waiting for medical attention because of the inaccessibility of that part of the ride after the two trains on the ride "meshed together".

Among those treated for serious injuries were Joe Pugh and Daniel Thorpe, on the front row, and Chandaben Chauhan, who was in the row behind.

Those three were joined by Miss Balch and Miss Washington in court, together with friends, family and other victims.

Mr Thorogood said that while the mistakes which led to the crash were made by individuals, the ultimate responsibility lay with their employers.

In its investigation, the HSE found that a "near-gale" may have been to blame for the empty carriage failing to clear the Cobra Loop in the first place, following an early problem with one of the ride's lifts.

The Smiler ride itself, it was concluded, was "well-designed", as were the computer and "sophisticated" control systems, while the operator of the ride had followed safe working practices.

It concluded that the defendant, Merlin, fell "far short" when it came to governing the inevitable need for engineers from the park's technical services department to fix faults on the ride.

He added that there was "absolutely no evidence of a task analysis-based approach for engineering work, in particular in dealing with ride faults".

Giving an example of the idiosyncratic approach, Mr Thorogood said one engineer who worked on the Smiler that day told investigators after the crash that he had "assumed" the rollercoaster had been fitted with a type of safety trip-switch present on at least one other park ride, when in fact it had not.

Mr Thorogood added: "The staff had come to distrust at that stage the fault signal on occasions and hence they thought that the one that was showing was an error.

"There was nobody, no individual who had to sign off and take responsibility for that event."

At the beginning of Monday's hearing, the Recorder of Stafford said: "One of the features is not just the impact on those injured, but on those close to them."

The court was told that since the crash, Alton Towers has instituted 30 changes to improve safety of the ride.

Speaking about the potential fine to Merlin, Mr Thorogood said it might fall between £3,000 and £10 million, but could be increased beyond that sum should it be found to be a "large organisation".

Closing the prosecution, Mr Thorogood said there was a "frustration of those on the train that those on the ground did not grasp the enormity of the injuries" suffered by those on the ride.

The court heard that the collision between the two carriages took place at 1.51pm, with the first 999 call made 17 minutes later at 2.08pm.

Reference was also made to previous convictions against Merlin, which included a fine of £300,000 issued at Warwick Crown Court in April 2012 after the death of a person at Warwick Castle, over a separate health and safety breach.

In February 2013, a magistrates' court fined the company more than £20,000 after a worker fell from a walkway at Legoland in Windsor, Berkshire.

Mr Antrobus, mitigating, said the company's top executives had accepted responsibility for the crash from the day it happened, and had apologised.

He added: "(The company) accepts its responsibility that this should never have happened and accepted that the accident was attributable to failures that, while they were never intended, would have been avoidable with greater care."

Describing Merlin as "the most reputable operator in this field", he added that the firm employed 8,000 staff across 11 different sites - with more than 120 individual rides - serving 16 million visitors a year.

Mr Antrobus said: "It's a good organisation that made a serious failure, but is one that is of otherwise good character."

Monday's hearing was adjourned, with the judge now due to sentence the theme park operator on Tuesday.

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