UK Government Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has vowed to meet loved ones of those killed in the Stonehaven derailment– and ensure no other family has to suffer the way they have.
In an exclusive interview, the senior politician expressed his admiration for the heroes who pulled survivors from the wreckage on August 12, 2020 and spoke of his determination to boost rail safety after the fatal train derailment left three people dead.
Mr Shapps told us: “My heart goes out to the friends and family of train driver Brett McCullough, conductor Donald Dinnie, and Christopher Stuchbury, who have suffered immensely from this tragedy.
“I simply cannot comprehend how they must feel losing their loved ones – who were so clearly adored and loved by their families, friends and colleagues.”
‘Action will be taken to ensure no family ever has to suffer what they have’
Referring to the Rail Accident Investigation Branch report into the tragedy, he added: “As soon as the independent report is available, I’ll be writing to all the families to offer a meeting at the first opportunity.
“We owe it to all three of those who lost their lives, and to everyone affected by this incident, to learn and act on every possible lesson.
“While I would want to speak to them about any findings in private and in confidence to offer my personal condolences, what I can say is that first and foremost my priority would be to personally reassure them that actions will be taken to ensure no family ever has to suffer what they have.”
Today I visited the #Stonehaven derailment & witnessed the catastrophic rail scene from the air.
I met & thanked first-on-scene officer PC Mercer & many others who responded so quickly in distressing circumstances. My thoughts & prayers are with the victims & their families. pic.twitter.com/9UAq5kKPsn
— Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP (@grantshapps) August 13, 2020
Mr Shapps said he found out about the crash quickly.
He added: “We have mechanisms in place to ensure I am rapidly informed of any significant incident on our transport networks.
“I was informed about the derailment immediately after it happened by our operations team – and immediately arranged a meeting with (Network Rail chief executive) Andrew Haines and others to get an update on the incident.
“I was kept updated on a regular basis thereafter.
“At moments like this, my first thoughts are immediately with those involved in such a distressing situation.
“You think of those involved, those who lost their lives and those who have been injured.
“My thoughts were also with the friends, families and close-knit communities who will be deeply distressed by such an incident, knowing their lives have been changed forever.”
‘Nothing prepares you for what I saw’
Mr Shapps said he knew immediately that he wanted to visit the derailment scene.
He added: “I immediately knew it was so important we come together – to express our sympathies to those affected, our thanks to all those who worked tirelessly to respond to this tragedy, and to offer the full support of the UK’s Government which includes a number of agencies under my command such as Network Rail, British Transport Police and RAIB.
“Being on-site meant I could personally meet and thank the emergency services and rail workers who responded so quickly in what were clearly deeply distressing circumstances.
“That includes personally thanking the first emergency services who were down on the scene, including PC Liam Mercer. I won’t forget that meeting.
I’d seen the photographs that we’ve all witnessed, but to see it for yourself first hand – nothing prepares you for what I saw, it was truly horrendous, but better allowed an appreciation of the environment.”
“His dedication and willingness to run towards danger was truly inspiring, which is why I have written to recommend both him and his colleague PC Eilidh McCabe are recognised for their bravery.
“I also wanted to make sure that everyone knew they could rely on the full, immediate support from the UK Government.
“That included ensuring temporary replacement services would run to keep communities in North East Scotland connected while repairs took place, and to reassure people that we would leave no stone unturned in our efforts to understand what happened.”
Mr Shapps said viewing the crash site from a helicopter helped him understand the whole picture.
He added: “I’d seen the photographs that we’ve all witnessed, but to see it for yourself first hand – nothing prepares you for what I saw, it was truly horrendous, but better allowed an appreciation of the environment.”
During that visit, he instructed Network Rail bosses to write a report on the impact of the crash on the wider rail network and have it on his desk within two-and-a-half weeks.
He said: “I immediately commissioned this report, and made the interim findings available, so people can be absolutely clear about our commitment to making changes.
“Our priority must always be to have the safest railway. That’s why we owe it to those who lost their lives, were injured, and were affected by this incident, to learn and act on every possible lesson.”
Network Rail review ‘progressing well’
Mr Shapps said a Network Rail review was “progressing well” and he was “closely following” work taking place.
He also acknowledged Network Rail’s creation of two task forces aimed at addressing the impact of climate change, landslides and unpredictable extreme weather on the rail network.
Mr Shapps added: “As a short-term measure Network Rail has invested in better-automated monitoring of rainfall from weather satellites to provide automated alerts of high rainfall.
“It was important that we do not hesitate in making changes to ensure our railways are safer, and we are closely following the work taking place.”
Several rail unions have urged Mr Shapps to ensure Network Rail has all the funding it needs to boost safety on the tracks
When asked if he could give such a guarantee, Mr Shapps did not give a straight answer.
He said: “I fully understand the concerns they (the unions) have raised.
“The safety of passengers and staff is an absolute priority – and clearly we will want to act on the findings of this investigation.
“Network Rail have so far advised us there is sufficient funding within their current regulatory settlement to implement the immediate measures.
“When we are assessing the future funding needs of the railway, we will take advice from Network Rail and the independent Office of Rail and Road on the level of funding required for climate change adaptation and severe weather resilience.”