Alton Towers operator, Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd, has been hit with a record industry fine of £5m for the crash on its Smiler rollercoaster last year.

Sixteen people were injured including two teenage girls who needed leg amputations.

Merlin admitted breaching the Health and Safety at Work, etc., Act 1974 and accepted it should have done more to protect the safety of passengers.

While Merlin was credited for pleading guilty and co-operating with the HSE investigation, Judge Michael Chambers QC said the crash was a “needless and avoidable accident in which those who were injured were lucky not to be killed”.

Catastrophic failure

Judge Chambers said Merlin was guilty of a “catastrophic failure to assess risk”. They also inadequately trained, supervised and managed staff, and failed to communicate and put in place safe systems of work.

A catalogue of errors included:

  • Engineers failing to notice an empty carriage had stopped halfway round the 14-loop ride.
  • Control room CCTV not being checked.
  • Engineers over-riding a stop mechanism and sending another train into the carriage.
  • Workers not being given a system to safely deal with the issues.
  • Engineers neither reading nor seeing the rollercoaster’s operating instructions.
  • Operation in 45mph winds despite the manufacturer stating the ride should not be operated in winds above 34mph.
  • Safety alarm not going off when winds were over 32mph.
  • Taking 17 minutes to call emergency services and over four hours to release passengers.

The HSE stated “This avoidable incident happened because Merlin failed to put in place systems. This made it all too easy for a whole series of unchecked mistakes, not just the single push of a button, to result in tragedy”.

Judge Chambers said “This could have been avoided if a proper plan was in place”. Given the lack of systems he agreed with the HSE investigation’s finding that Merlin was highly at fault.

The judge added human error was not to blame as Merlin had suggested but that its engineers “were doing their best in a flawed system”.

New sentencing guidelines

New sentencing guidelines came into force in February. Fines are worked out according to “harm category” and “culpability”.

Merlin disputed a HSE claim that it had “very high culpability”, urging the judge to view it as “medium to high”. However, Judge Chambers said the operation “fell far short” of the safety standards expected of the UK’s biggest theme park and was “woefully inadequate”.

He said “I am satisfied there was a high risk of harm, so this is category one. Having found high culpability and harm for a company of high turnover, the starting point is £2m up to £6m”.

Although Merlin had a good overall Health & Safety record, the judge noted two previous convictions should have left a “ringing in the ears”. The court did hear of Merlin’s £500m turnover.

The judge subsequently imposed a record £5m fine. Merlin would have been fined £7.5m had it not pleaded guilty.

Summary

Under the new sentencing guidelines Health & Safety offences are attracting much higher fines.

Last month, Network Rail was fined £4m after an elderly woman was killed on a level crossing and G4S was fined £1.8m after failing to reduce the risk of Legionnaires’ disease.

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