Merlin in court for Alton Towers Smiler crash
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Merlin in court for Alton Towers Smiler crash

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Merlin Entertainments has been to court today for health and safety breaches in relation to last year’s Smiler rollercoaster crash which left two people needing leg amputations and several others with serious injuries.

In a packed Stafford Crown Court, the prosecution said that the fault for the accident – down to human error – was “with the employers not individuals doing their best within a flawed system.”

Speaking in front of Vicky Balch and Leah Washington – who each lost a leg in the crash – and Joe Pugh, Daniel Thorpe and Chandaben Chauhan, who were seriously injured, Judge Michael Chambers said that the wounds suffered, both physical and psychological, had “changed the lives of the some of those injured, in the most dramatic way”.

The court was told of how those on front row of the Smiler train could see what was going to happen moments before the crash, which was likened, in terms of kinetic energy exchanged at impact, to a family car crashing at 90mph (144.8kmph).

The prosecution also said that a “gale force” headwind of 46mph (74kmph) likely was the reason the train came to a stop halfway round the rollercoaster’s track. It is recommended that the Smiler does not operate in winds above 34mph (54.7kmph).

Representatives for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had previously said that the Gerstlauer-manufactured £18m (€16m, £13.9m) Smiler, which opened in 2013, never had a "proper settled system" for staff to follow if a carriage stopped on the track.

During the hearing prosecutors said the fault of the accident was thanks to “the absence of a structured and considered system” for engineers, with those working on the ride at the time considering an alarm warning of a train on the track as a false one, overriding it.

Four engineers working on the day of the crash had not read or seen the ride’s operating instructions, and two had not seen the risk assessment for the ride, according to the prosecution.

The Smiler ride itself, the prosecution said, was “well-designed” as were the computer and “sophisticated” control systems, while the actual operator of the ride had also followed the set-out “safe working practices”.

It concluded that Merlin had fallen “far short” in regards to a need for engineers from the park’s technical service’s department to fix faults on the ride, adding that there was “absolutely no evidence of a task analysis-based approach for engineering work, in particular in dealing with ride faults”.

In its defence, Merlin said that it wanted to “make clear” that it has accepted responsibility and that while no one intended the accident to happen, the crash “was avoidable”.

The defence also set out the reasons why Merlin is a “good organisation”, including its charity work and previous safety record, and accepted that training and protocols needed to be improved.

“It would be wrong to say the company simply left engineers to be trained by the manufacturer,” added defence barrister Simon Antrobus.

“There were specific documents provided to the manufacturer on the basis for which the training should cover.”

The defence also refuted claims that wind was the cause of the train getting stuck on the track, rather the train’s brakes slowing the ride “more than they should have done”.

The combination of factors which resulted in the accident was a “low likelihood”, added the defence, evidenced by the “three million times” the Smiler ride was operated prior to the crash. Antrobus also said that Merlin has acted to make sure such an incident “can’t happen again”.

The Smiler reopened in March for the first time since the accident. During its closure, the ride was equipped with new safety features, including technical improvements. Staff were also given additional training and the park has also added further protocols to the manual override process so that a senior staff member has to authorise and action the decision. Additional surveillance cameras and additional staff inspection checks have also been put in place.

Sentencing is due tomorrow at 10:30am. Merlin has previously been warned that fines could be “in the millions”. Check back with Attractions Management for the result.

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Merlin Entertainments has been to court today for health and safety breaches in relation to last year’s Smiler rollercoaster crash which left two people needing leg amputations and several others with serious injuries.
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