Out-Law News 2 min. read

Network Rail Stonehaven fine ‘unusually high’

The record fine that Network Rail, the UK's railway infrastructure company, has been ordered to pay following the fatal Stonehaven rail crash is unusually high, according to one legal expert.

Network Rail was fined £6.7 million by the High Court in Aberdeen on 8 September after pleading guilty to a series of criminal charges relating to health and safety. It is the highest financial penalty ever to have been levied on the UK government-owned track and signalling body for health and safety failings.

Judge Lord Matthews said the fine had been reduced from £10m because Network Rail had admitted culpability on the first occasion the case was called in court; it had taken actions immediately following the crash to improve health and safety standards, and was a publicly-owned body.

Bruce Craig, litigation and regulatory expert at Pinsent Masons, said: “When any accused is convicted in a criminal case, the court is trying to strike a balance between punishing them and trying to provide a deterrent to others against engaging in similar conduct. When the accused is a corporate entity the only way the court can express society’s displeasure at what has happened is by imposing a fine.”

“Sometimes, as here, the corporate entity is owned by the state. Whilst the court should not have regard to the fact that an entity is in public ownership in setting the initial level of fine, after determining culpability and harm together with any aggravating or mitigating circumstances, that may have a bearing on the actual fine imposed. Before determining that, a court should step back and consider if any other factors are at play which justify either a reduction or indeed an increase. A reduction may be justified for a public organisation where, for example, payment of a fine from public money would have a significant impact on the provision of its services,” Craig said.

He added: “There have been occasions in the part where other parts of the state have also faced financial penalties, such as when Police Scotland was fined £100,000 in September 2021 over failures in investigating an accident on the M8 when two members of the public died. Nonetheless, a fine at as high a level as £6.7m is unusual where the accused is state-owned.”

A report by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), published in February 2022, made a series of recommendations for Network Rail, including better management of the risks associated with older trains and improved response to extreme rainfall. A fatal accident inquiry will now be held into the crash, the Crown Office said.

Network Rail issued a statement expressing its condolences to the victims' families and acknowledging the tragic nature of the event. The company has also committed to cooperating fully with the legal proceedings while maintaining its dedication to improving safety protocols across the UK rail network.

The fine, which will be paid to the UK Treasury via the Scottish Consolidated Fund, also shines a spotlight on broader issues of railway safety, coming weeks after Transport for London (TfL), which owns and maintains London’s transport infrastructure, received a record fine after pleading guilty to a series of offences under the 1974 Act.

Seven people died and dozens were injured – 19 seriously – when a tram, travelling in poor weather and at three times the permitted speed, overturned approaching Sandilands junction in Croydon in November 2016. Alongside TfL’s £10 million penalty, Tram Operations Limited, the network operator, was fined £4m.

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