Llangennech disaster: Why is no-one to blame for one of Wales' worst rail accidents?

Ten wagons have come off the tracks, spilling nearly 450,000 litres of fuel.

It's 11:04pm on 26 August 2020.

A freight train carrying 25 laden tank wagons from Robeston oil refinery in Milford Haven to a village in West Berkshire suddenly derails near Llangennech in Carmarthenshire.

Later inspection shows that ten wagons - from third to twelfth in the train - have come off the tracks, spilling nearly 450,000 litres of fuel.

The fire consumed about 116,000 litres, with the remaining 330,000 litres draining into the surrounding wetlands.

That is about 7,300 average-sized cars full of fuel, emptied into habitats, waterways and the environment.

The driver and another rail worker escape unscathed, but the damage to the natural environment and track took months to repair.

To this day, cockle fishermen say they are unlikely to ever recover their losses after they were stopped from working for seven weeks while tests were carried out.

A report by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) in 2022 eventually showed the disaster was caused by defective brakes that caused damage to the wheels during the journey.

  • So why will no one be held responsible for one of Wales' most dramatic and important disasters?

The simple answer is that no one has been charged, no organisation has accepted liability, and those investigating the cause of the incident say they have not been able to find sufficient evidence to bring a prosecution.

"We're equally frustrated - we're very frustrated about that", Martyn Evans from Natural Resources Wales (NRW) told me.

"We've undertaken a thorough and exhaustive investigation. We've covered every angle, looked at every lead but disappointingly we've found insufficient evidence to seek a prosecution".

The driver and another rail worker escape unscathed but damage to the environment is still being felt

The RAIB report in January 2022 identified a number of faults in the design and maintenance of brake components, causing one set of wheels on the third wagon to stop rotating during the journey.

This meant that the wheels were unable to safely negotiate Morlais Junction, near Llangennech, causing the wagons to derail on the damaged track.

"The RAIB report pretty much identified the cause of the derailment", Martyn told ITV Wales, "But it's another thing proving to a criminal standard who is responsible and accountable and that's where we've become stuck.

"That's what you have to prove to a criminal standard".

Pinpointing blame is incredibly difficult and complex when there are so many different companies and operators involved.

DB Cargo (UK) Ltd was the operator of the train (on behalf of Puma Energy) andemployed the driver and the member of ground staff who carried out the train preparation at Robeston oil terminal.

DB Cargo Maintenance Ltd carried out the day-to-day maintenance of the wagon that had the fault.

The incident saw a huge emergency response Credit: PA

Arlington Fleet Services Ltd was contracted to carry out a seven-yearly ‘General Repair’ on each of its wagons and Wabtec Faiveley (and its predecessor companies) designed and manufactured the braking system.

After the RAIB report was published, DB Cargo UK said it "remains of the view that it did not cause or contribute to the incident but notwithstanding this, took the lead in the remediation efforts".

A Welsh Government spokesperson confirmed on Wednesday 15 February, "Those involved in the incident covered the costs of the recovery operation ensuring the polluter paid for the damage they had caused".

  • So who has lost out the most?

The cocklers in the Loughor estuary say they are still wearing the biggest burden of the accident that happened more than two and a half years ago.

While pollution monitoring was carried out in that area, The Food Standards Agency (FSA) advised the closure of shellfish beds in the area’s estuary as a precaution.

To compensate them for the loss of income, a compensation scheme was set up by the relevant local authorities, which the Welsh Government said it would underwrite in the event that no one was found liable for the incident.

In effect, if no individual or company was blamed in a court of law then there would be no damages recouped, and in that instance the Welsh Government would act as a guarantor for the loans given by local authorities.

"We were always reassured by the NRW that there was a case to answer here", Ashley Jones told me.

"I think they even discussed figures that we actually receive and it would have been a big, big help for fishermen".

Ashley Jones, owner of Selwyn's Seafood, told Hamish Auskerry that he was "dissappointed" but "not suprised"

Ashley is the owner of Selwyn's Seafood, which sells cockles and other products local to the Loughor estuary and Burry Inlet special area of conservation.

"We're very disappointed for the guys and for our company that we aren't able to pursue on this claim, but we're not surprised", Ashley continues.

"We do feel that if we were in the agricultural sector, more would have happened and we would have had more help, but in the end we were just forgotten about".

The Welsh Government has not yet announced what its plan is with regards to the compensation scheme for cockle fishermen.

A spokesperson said: "As was made clear when we launched the scheme, in the case of no party being found liable, the Welsh Government would act as guarantor for the scheme, up to the value of £200k.

"It was right we stepped in and acted as guarantor for the loans, if we had not acted it would have resulted in significant financial hardship for the cockle gatherers affected by this.

"Following NRW’s decision [not to seek a prosecution] we are considering the implications in relation to the compensation scheme".

Many cockle fishermen operate at increasingly tight margins and some fear even more people will leave the industry if businesses and individuals face a bill for the income loss compensation they received.

"I don't think there is enough interest in the industry", Ashley says. "There are so many wider issues affecting us, and when it comes to something as simple as this [the closure of the shellfish beds following the derailment] we're not protected whatsover".

The site near Llangennech now looks almost entirely back to normal. The train lines are running as they used to, most of the heavy machinery used to tidy up the mess has been removed and all that visibly remains are blue poles in the ground which are monitoring any remaining pollution.

"This could have been a catastrophic event", Martyn Evans from NRW admitted, "but the environmental, social and economic impacts were minimised by the brilliant efforts by everybody".

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