LIVE: Court proceedings begin as Merlin sentenced for Smiler crash

Merlin Entertainments are in court today for health and safety breaches after last year’s accident on The Smiler, which left two passengers needing leg amputations.


The two day sentencing, which begun earlier today, has heard from prosecutors that the fault of the accident lies “in the absence of a structured and considered system” for engineers.

The accident occurred last June after engineers manually overrode the ride’s system, allowing a train loaded with 16 passengers to collide with an empty stalled train on the batwing element of the ride.

Overseeing the proceedings at Stafford Crown Court, barrister Bernard Thorogood said the engineers were “without guidance from above”, and had not been given an official system to follow to safely deal with the problem on the track.

The court heard that the impact of the accident was similar to the force a family car crashing at 90mph, with the front row riders sustaining injuries of a similar nature.

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Daniel Thorpe, Vicky Balch, Joe Pugh, and Leah Washington were all on the front row of the loaded train when the accident happened.

 

The hearing also heard how operational standards set in place by Gerstlauer, the ride’s manufacturer, were not adhered to on the day of the accident. The manufacturer’s manual stated the ride should not be operated at wind speeds above 34 mph, but it is reported that speeds on the day reached 45mph, leading to the stalling of the first train before the impact.

Speaking for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which brought the prosecution, Mr Thorogood said: “Engineers who came to remedy the situation, regarding the indicated block-stop, thought it was a false one reflecting a recently corrected issue and did not see the stalled train, and proceeded to reset and restart the ride, overriding the computer-generated block-stop.”

He added that although there had been “a number of human errors”, the “fault here is with the employers”, and not individuals.

The prosecution proceeded to state that Alton Towers fell short of its responsibilities, and fundamental breaches existed over the entire working life of the ride.

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Speaking on behalf of Merlin Entertainments, Simon Antrobus stated he was at the court to “to re assert a public apology to those affected”.

He went on to add the company accepts its responsibility and the accident was avoidable.

Mr Antrobus proceeded to claim it was wrong to blame human error in its press release when the crash happened, and has since been corrected and wishes its “response had been more human than corporate”.

He confirmed that no members of staff had resigned as a result of the accident.

Assuring the court the ride was properly designed and independently assessed, Mr Antrobus stated there were a number of safety measures in place including CCTV.

He went on to admit there were blind spots prior to the accident, including on the batwing element. He claimed the firm had assumed engineers attending the scene would be able to confirm the presence of another carriage by going trackside, but accepted it shouldn’t have been left to an assumption.

When asked how wind procedures prevented the ride from operating, Mr Antrobus revealed that The Smiler at the time relied on neighbouring attraction Oblivion’s wind detection system, which alerts staff when winds gust at a constant speed of 32mph. The system however failed to alert staff at the time of the accident.

He stated that since the crash, new anemometers had been installed on the ride to detect the wind speed.

The court also heard that only two of the electrical engineers who attended the accident had been trained by Gerstlaurer, an approach that Merlin Entertainments believed to be the best method.

An aerial view of the rescue attempt after the crash. Image by PA.

An aerial view of the rescue attempt after the crash. Image by PA.

The Smiler, which opened after many delays in 2013, had been subjected to a rocky operational life prior to the accident. Several ride trains had stalled on the batwing element, where the crash took place, in the months prior for a variety of reasons.

Merlin Entertainments, which operates over 124 attractions globally, were told in April to expect a very large fine for admitting a health and safety breach. The company could now be fined up to £10 million at the end of the sentencing.


After the accident:

Following the crash, Alton Towers stated that the resort’s theme park would be closed the next day, June 3, to allow investigations into the crash to begin. The theme park remained closed for several days after.

Upon the re-opening of the theme park the following week, several rides within the Merlin Entertainments portfolio were temporarily closed, including SAW – The Ride at Thorpe Park, as well as Rattlesnake and Dragon’s Fury at Chessington World of Adventures. This allowed the company to evaluate the procedures and protocols of their multi-car roller coasters.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) served a Prohibition Notice upon The Smiler, preventing the ride’s use until remedial action had been completed. It was confirmed The Smiler would not reopen for the rest of the summer, and ultimately remained closed for the rest of the year.

The ride eventually reopened on 19 March 2016 for the start of the 2016 season with additional safety features, including:

  • A lead engineer to be responsible for decision making on fixing faults.
  • The ride is to be temporarily closed when winds reach 35 mph.
  • Improved access to the pit section of the ride, where the accident occured, to access passengers.
  • New ride reset panels and emergency stop buttons installed at ground level around the ride.

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