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Steam train operator fined after locomotive came agonisingly close to catastrophic collision with high-speed train

The steam locomotive Tangmere was just a minute away from a collision with a high-speed London-bound train. Credit: PA Images

A major steam train operator has been ordered to pay more than £260,000 after admitting health and safety breaches that led to a high-speed near miss in Wiltshire.

The West Coast Railway Company admitted two charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act following the incident at Royal Wootton Bassett in March last year.

The train driver for the company also pleaded guilty to two charges and was handed a four-month prison sentence suspended for 18 months.

Swindon Crown Court heard the steam locomotive Tangmere, driven by 67-year-old Melvyn Cox from Dorset, passed a signal at danger after a safety system that automatically applies an emergency brake was deliberately disabled.

The train had 477 passengers and 39 staff on board at the time. It came to a halt almost 700 metres after the signal, leaving it straddled across a junction on the Great Western main line.

A high-speed London-bound train, carrying 240 passengers, had passed over the junction a minute before Tangmere, the court heard.

Judge Peter Blair QC said:

"A collision thankfully didn't occur. Nobody disputes that the result could have been catastrophic. There would have been catastrophic injuries had there been a collision of the sort that one fears."

– Judge Peter Blair QC
The train was carrying 477 passengers and 39 staff. Credit: ITV News

The judge said the driver knew of the rules and intentionally breached them to make life easier for himself as a driver with potentially catastrophic consequences.

He also ordered Cox to pay a victim surcharge and carry out 80 hours of unpaid work.

What happened

  • Cox was driving with his head out of the window of the cab due to a steam leak when a horn sounded to signal a temporary speed restriction on the line.
  • The court heard drivers must acknowledge the warning by pressing a button within 2.7 seconds but Cox took 4.2 seconds - meaning the braking system was activated.
  • Rules say drivers must allow trains to stop when braking is triggered and inform the signaller but Cox instructed a colleague to disable the system.
  • The horn sounded a second time for a yellow warning - informing the train that the next signal was red and to start slowing down - but Cox believed it was for the temporary speed restriction.
  • Tangmere continued towards the junction at 53mph and Cox missed a red warning light inside the cab as his head was out of the window, so did not slow down.
The driver Melvyn Cox said it was 'common practice' for drivers to turn off the safety system. Credit: PA Images

Cox, a train driver for more than 40 years, informed the signaller of the incident and was relieved of his duties when he arrived at Swindon.

In interview after the incident, Cox claimed it was "common practice" for drivers to turn off the safety system, adding he was under constant pressure for timekeeping by his employer.

The judge ordered the West Coast Railway Company to pay £200,000 in fines and £64,000 in prosecution costs.

Mr. Cox's lawyer said: "it was a brief moment of madness in an otherwise diligent career in the railway industry."