Published: 00:00, 23 September 2015 |
Updated: 14:17, 24 September 2015
A schoolgirl killed instantly when she was hit by a train at a 'high risk' pedestrian crossing was probably wearing her headphones at the time.
Sacha Wheeler was knocked down by a London-bound commuter train travelling at almost 50mph, an inquest heard today.
The headphone plug was still in her iPhone and the torn cord found on the track when her body was recovered and a verdict of accidental death was recorded.
The tragedy heaps pressure on Network Rail to overhaul safety measures at the notorious crossing in Glebe Way, Whitstable – or close it altogether.
Sacha’s death is the fourth fatality at the site in five years, and the crossing has twice been rated “high risk” by the rail operator.
Coroner Alan Blunsdon said he was "disturbed" by Network Rail not having already acted on its own findings, adding: "How many more people have to be killed before improvements are made?
He said he intended to write to the company detailing his concerns.
Sacha, who lived in nearby West Cliff and was a pupil at Simon Langton School in Canterbury, was hit on February 8 and died from multiple injuries.
Mr Blunsdon was told that Sacha had no apparent worries and was a happy girl who had gone out for a walk on the fateful afternoon.
Tearfully recounting the day, her mother Heather Wheeler said: "It was perfectly normal for Sacha to go out for a walk and listen to her music, which she was passionate about.
“I gave her a wave and she blew a kiss as she went off up the road and we expected her back for tea."
A dog walker saw her shortly before her death sat on a bench with her hood up and her earphones in.
Mrs Wheeler said Sacha also knew the crossing well, and her father Jim had gone out to search for her when she did not return, and saw emergency vehicles at the scene.
In a statement read to the inquest, the train driver said he didn't see Sacha but felt a bump as he passed through the crossing.
He stopped the train and discovered the teenager's body.
The family quizzed Network Rail level crossing manager Robert Lamoon about the crossing's poor safety record and lack of action.
He also admitted the sight line to the crossing for trains heading London bound from Whitstable was "close to the minimum limit".
He said it had last been rated high risk in August 2014 but admitted there had been no improvements.
Asked why, he said: "It's a very long, drawn out process."
But he said a public consultation would be held shortly in the town on possible improvements including warning lights and a horn at the crossing, a footbridge and even closing it altogether.
Recording the accidental verdict, Mr Blunsdon said there was "overwhelming evidence" that Sacha was a popular girl who had nothing in her personal life that would have led her to take her own life.
"My judgement is that she attempted to cross as she had done many times before and failed to appreciate the oncoming train..." - Assistant coroner Alan Blunsdon
He said: “She was in a happy frame of mind, had everything to live for and intended to go on living.
"We know that she wore her earphones in many different situations, including walking down the street and was seen wearing them while sitting on the bench shortly before.
"So it’s no great leap of imagination to make the finding that she was wearing them the moment she entered the crossing at Glebe Way.
"My judgement is that she attempted to cross as she had done many times before and failed to appreciate the oncoming train. But I can’t leave it at that.”
He then turned his attention to Network Rail, who it was said were looking at different safety options for the crossing.
He said: "What disturbs me, and is why I intend to write to Network Rail, is that there have been four fatalities and despite two risk assessments nothing has been done in the meantime."
"They need to look carefully at what can be done as an interim measure to improve the safety of this crossing. It seems to me at the very least warning lights and an audible warning at the crossing itself could be installed.
"I can’t understand why public consultation is needed for the installation of lights and an audible sound.
"The fact is that people in this modern age are using this crossing wearing earphones."
In a statement read out by Sacha’s aunt Christine Reed on behalf of the family, they said significant new information had come to light from Network Rail evidence.
The Glebe Way crossing was considered high-risk after assessments carried out in June 2012 and August 2014.
Reading the statement after the inquest had concluded, Ms Reed said: "No recommendations or implementations of further safety measures were taken.
“During this period of time four years and six months there were four fatalities and one injury at Glebe Way Crossing, all taking place in the time frame of these risk assessments.
“Had safety measures been put in place following the August 2014 risk assessment lives may have been saved.
“The death of Sacha could therefore have been avoidable had Network Rail acted upon their own risk assessments.
“It has also come to light in court today that Network Rail have now embarked on preparations for public consultation that will consider measures to improve safety at the crossing.
“Sacha’s family and the coroner consider it is imperative that this now takes place in a timely fashion to avoid further deaths at the Glebe Way crossing and other families experiencing our tragic loss.”
A spokesman for Network Rail said: “We would like to express our sympathy to the family and friends of Sacha Wheeler.
"Any death on the railway is a tragedy and the impact is felt not only by those who knew the person but also by the train driver and station staff and those who are involved in the aftermath.
"We want to do everything we can to stop this from happening.
“We remain committed to working with the community to find a solution to closing Glebe Way level crossing.
"The constraints of the site mean that this will not be a simple exercise and we are currently exploring a number of options to replace the crossing.
"At the end of September we are meeting with Canterbury City Council to discuss those options, we will then be in a position to speak to the wider community to hear their views.”
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