On the 9th of November 2016 there was a tram crash in Croydon, South London.
Sixty-nine people were on board when it over-turned and crashed near Sandilands tram stop. Seven people were killed.
My old landlord’s husband was said to have been the first police officer on the scene. I don’t know if that is true but his face went white when he mentioned it to me a few days later.
Now almost five years on I live a short walk from the crash site. Most days I walk past the memorial and see if anyone has put some new flowers there.
On the 22nd of July 2021 the verdict of the inquest into the deaths of the seven people who were killed was announced.
The jury returned a narrative verdict, saying that contributing factors were that the driver had become disoriented and not braked in time, while Tram Operations Ltd (TOL), the tram operator, had failed to adequately account for the risk of a high-speed derailment, or ensure a “just culture” where drivers felt able to report health and safety concerns.
Ultimately they said the deaths of the seven people – Dane Chinnery, 19, Philip Logan, 52, Philip Seary, 57, Dorota Rynkiewicz, 35, and Robert Huxley, 63, all from New Addington, and Mark Smith, 35, and Donald Collett, 62, from Croydon – were an accident.
Like much of Croydon, and especially the families of those who died, I am still in shock about this verdict.
The families were hoping for the verdict to be one of unlawful killing.
For me the shock isn’t around the verdict as such, because I didn’t attend the inquest so do not want to speculate on why the jury reached the conclusion it did.
For me the shock is more in the coroner’s decision to not call anyone from Transport for London, TOL or the driver Alfred Dorris to give evidence at the inquest.
Sarah Ormond-Walshe is a very experienced coroner who has presided over cases I was very close to in my time as a journalist such as Daniel Spargo-Mabbs and Sally Hodkin.
But it is reported that in the inquest for the Croydon tram crash she did not want to duplicate the evidence about safety failings already outlined in the report of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, so did not call several people the victims’ families wanted to hear from.
And as a former journalist who attended many inquests at Croydon Coroner’s Court I’m still struggling to understand why the driver was not called to give evidence.
I can recall an inquest from years ago and the look on a train driver’s face as he gave evidence about how he could not stop his train as it hit a girl at a station in Bromley.
There was nothing he could have done and you could see he was emotionally distraught. He gave evidence because he wanted to help her family understand what had happened.
In the case of the Croydon tram crash the driver has been declared to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and was medically unfit to give evidence.
But I wonder if there is a way that it could have happened – any way the court could have made it happen so the families got answers while his mental health remained protected.
Croydon Town Hall is equipped with video conferencing facilities so surely the driver could have sat in one room and answered questions by video link.
This would have been traumatising for him, and newspaper reports today say he has been living a nightmare, but it would be a way round his inability to give evidence directly.
And surely this trauma would be nothing compared to what the families of those who died on the tram have been going through since that November day.
I think both the jury and the victims families deserved to hear the driver’s account of events from the driver himself.
Not least because to have returned a verdict of unlawful killing the coroner told the jury they would have had to find gross negligence by the driver.
Did they feel they couldn’t have done this on the strength of the evidence they heard? Would a barrister questioning him over video link have changed the minds of the jury?
We will never know but we might find out one day soon.
The victims families are said to be going to call on the attorney general, Michael Ellis, to apply to the High Court to order a new inquest.
Hopefully they will succeed and another inquest will be called without the families having to fight a lengthy legal battle.
Hopefully it will be one where all relevant witnesses are called and the families get the answers they seek.
After everything they have gone through it’s the least they deserve.