Merlin Attractions, Alton Towers amusement park operator, has been fined £5m for the Smiler rollercoaster crash that injured 16 people and five of them being seriously injured. The fine is the third highest UK fine for a safety offence.
Originally, the theme park blamed human error for the accident that occurred on the 2nd of June 2015. However, during the sentencing on Tuesday the 27th of September at Stafford Crown Court, Judge Michael Chambers QC said that this was not the case. The judge continued to add that the accident could have been avoided if the company had a risk assessment and a suitable written system for dealing with ride faults.
He said: ‘The defendant now accepts the prosecution case that the underlying fault was an absence of a structured and considered system, not that of individuals’ efforts, doing their best within a flawed system.’
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) also concluded to say that the accident could have been avoided. Bernard Thorogood, prosecuting, said engineers did not receive the Smiler ride’s instruction manual, which stated that the rollercoaster should not be operated if wind speeds exceeded 34mph. According to the regulator, a ‘near-gale’ (45 mph winds) on the day of the crash may have prevented the test carriage clearing one of the ride’s 14 loops.
Before the accident occurred, a test carriage was sent around the rollercoaster and came to a stop midway which was unseen by staff. The computer system halted the ride but the engineers at the time believed this to be a fault and manually overrode the control system before sending a full car of 16 people along the track and into its path. The court heard how the engineer ‘felt pressure’ to return the Smiler into service.
The prosecution compared the impact of the crash, which left two people needing leg amputations and three others with life-changing injuries, to a 90mph car accident.
After their investigation, the HSE found no fault with the track, the cars or the control system that keeps the cars apart from each other during the operation. It said the root cause of the accident was a lack of detailed and robust arrangements for making safety-critical decisions. The whole system that was in place from the training to fixing faults on the ride, was not strong enough to stop a multitude of errors made by staff when working with people on the ride, it added.
Alton Towers has made 30 changes since the crash to improve the safety of the roller coaster, which reopened this March (2016). The ride will now be closed is winds reach 35mph and access have been improved.
Merlin Attractions pleaded guilty to breaching 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act this June. The £5 penalty is third in the ranking of safety fines, after the £15m for Transco for failings that led to the Larkhall gas explosion that killed 4 people in 1999 and Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services’ £7.5m for failures contributing to the Hatfield rail crash in 2000. Merlin must also pay costs of £69’955.
Neil Craig, head of operations for the HSE in the Midlands, said: ‘This avoidable incident happened because Merlin failed to put in place systems to allow engineers to work safely on the ride while it was running. This made it all too easy for a whole serious of unchecked mistakes, not just one push of a button, to result in tragic consequences.
‘Since the incident Alton Towers have made improvements to the ride and its safety protocols, and the lessons learned have been shared industry-wide.’