On 24 August 2011, 82-year old former film and TV actress Olive MacFarland was struck down by a train travelling at nearly 100mph, as she attempted to pass a level crossing at Gipsy Lane near Needham Market, Suffolk.
Ms McFarland had been staying in a care home but made a daily trip to feed her chickens at her nearby home when she was killed.
Ipswich Crown Court heard that a risk assessment of the Gipsy Lane crossing in July 2011, recommended reducing the speed limit to 80mph. However, a subsequent risk assessment the following month recommended a further reduction to 55mph. This was three weeks before the accident occurred.
There was poor visibility due to vegetation obscuring a pedestrian’s view, a whistle warning was too close to the crossing, which would have given people time to avoid an oncoming train, and a dog leg between the two foot crossing gates increased the crossing time. Another failing by Network Rail was that although pedestrians had a five-second visual warning of the approaching Norwich-bound train, the crossing time could take double that for vulnerable users and children.
Network Rail said that although individual mistakes were made they had not ignored warnings or been guilty of systemic failings. When the suggestion of reducing the temporary speed limit was made, no action was taken due to a senior manager wanting to consider the idea in more detail, once he returned from leave. However, the court held that the decision should have been made there and then, with the speed limit being imposed immediately after Ms MacFarland’s death.
Network Rail pleaded guilty to Section 3 of HSWA 1974 and was fined £4M. Judge Martyn Levett said the fine would have been £6m but for Network Rail pleading at the first opportunity. Network Rail stated that, after Ms MacFarland’s death, the executive directors turned down bonuses so that more funds could be invested in rail safety improvements generally. Network Rail also stated that it was working on plans to replace the crossing with a footbridge.