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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

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Carlisle rail worker claims he is ‘scapegoat’ for train near-miss

A Carlisle rail worker claims he was “used as a scapegoat” for a near-miss that almost saw a colleague hit by a 105mph Virgin train.

Related: Rail worker two seconds from being hit by 105mph express train in Cumbria

It happened on June 3 last year on the northbound mainline at Tebay, where the Network Rail team were carrying out routine repairs.

While waiting for their look-out to get in place further up the track, the group breached safety rules by walking up a goods track then starting work on the high-speed main line – just seconds before the train went thundering past. After dashing off the rails one member turned back to retrieve his hat from the track.

Michael Howlieson, 39, was the nominated safety officer at the time and was sacked following an investigation. But at a tribunal in Carlisle this week, he claimed he was unfairly dismissed by bosses who wanted someone to bear the blame. He accused them of using him as a scapegoat to ease relations with Virgin trains – whose driver reported the near-miss accident.

He also claimed the company’s safety systems were flawed, and said he believed near misses like this happen on the rail network regularly, but simply go unreported.

On the day of the incident, Mr Howlieson was the nominated COSS (Controller of Site Safety), working alongside supervisor Dave Rankin. Although he was at the scene during the near-miss, Mr Howlieson did not go on the track. He claims it was Mr Rankin who led the team onto the mainline, knowing there was no look-out in place.

He said that his boss was keen to “crack on” and did not want to wait. It was also him who went back to collect his hat – causing the near-miss.

Mr Howlieson claims he was filling in his clipboard when he heard his supervisor suggest they do a quick repair. The others followed him onto the track but seconds later they heard the train and quickly moved off again.

Afterwards the whole group breached more rules by walking across the north and southbound main lines to safety.

Mr Howlieson said he was looking down so didn’t see Mr Rankin go back for his hat. In fact, he claims he didn’t even know there had been a near miss until he saw the video footage – which is why he didn’t report the incident.

Mr Howlieson added that all of the men who went on the track knew that there was no look-out and they were breaching safety procedure.

Mr Rankin quit before his disciplinary hearing and Mr Howlieson was subsequently sacked for “gross misconduct”. The other team members were given final warning letters and demoted.

Mr Howlieson accepted that he had broken the rules and though he didn’t authorise anyone to go on the track, he allowed it to happen.

But he believes he deserves the same punishment as the others – who breached the same rules and went one step further by going onto the track – yet were not dismissed.

However, Network Rail argues that his punishment was more severe because as the nominated COSS that day, he was responsible for the whole group.

The tribunal will reach a verdict in the coming weeks.

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