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Home   Folkestone   News   Article

Ex-diplomat Robert Alston cleared by Judge Van Der Bijl after driving over Lydd crossing seconds before train

18 February 2014
by Paul Hooper

A former High Commissioner to New Zealand drove over an unmanned rail crossing in Lydd just seconds ahead of an oncoming train.

Retired diplomat Robert Alston drove his Chrysler car over the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch line in Taylors Road after warning lights were flashing.

Train driver Andy Hunt - who was in charge of No12 engine - was forced to slam on the brakes after spotting the vehicle.

Robert Alston was an ambassador to Oman

Robert Alston was an ambassador to Oman

Mr Alston, 76, of Coast Drive, Lydd On Sea, who denied the offence - had later telephoned the authorities to report what he had done.

But now a judge has ruled the Oxford-educated Mr Alston's driving wasn't dangerous..and ordered the jury to return a verdict of not guilty.

Judge Nigel Van Der Bijl had earlier taken the unusual step of inviting Mr Alston - a former ambassador to Oman and Governor to the Pitcairn Islands - to sit behind his barrister rather than in the dock at Canterbury Crown Court.

Prosecutor Ian Foinette had told the jury: "Very often allegations of dangerous driving involve somebody being in a car, tearing around country lanes or residential areas at high a lunatic.

"But that is not one of these cases here. It wasn't a case of him playing 'chicken'.

Steam engine on the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway

Steam engine on the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway

"The Crown alleges this defendant drove dangerously in that he drove across a level crossing on the Romney, Hythe, Dymchurch railway when the red warning lights were flashing and was very nearly involved in a collision."

CCTV footage of the incident - taken from a local Spar shop next to the crossing - showed Mr Alston's car reversing slowly from the parking area before going over the crossing.

Five seconds later, Mr Hunt's train is seen passing as the rear of the car is clearly in sight.

Mr Foinette said that Mr Alston "is a local man" and "inevitably would have known the potential dangers of going across the level crossing".

Robert Alston was cleared of driving dangerously

Robert Alston was cleared of driving dangerously

He added: "It is not suggested by the Crown that he deliberately drove across and deliberately ignored the red flashing lights.

"But with his local knowledge he took a conscious decision to cross over.

"The Crown say that he didn't deliberately drive dangerously but that was the effect and a collision would have been almost inevitable, " said Mr Foinette.

A police community support officer who went to the area a short time later to investigate the near miss said that because of the low sun it would have been difficult to see the flashing lights.

But Mr Alston told the police that after reversing he wasn't in a position to see the lights.

Mr Foinette said: "The Crown say that even if you were unable to see one set of lights you would have been able to have seen the other set flashing."

A few minutes after the incident and after he returned home, Mr Alston telephoned the authorities to say he had been involved in the near miss.

He told them that he knew the rail timetable and he had not expected a train until after 10am - an hour after the incident.

Judge Nigel Van Der Bijl

Judge Nigel Van Der Bijl

At the end of the prosecution case, Mr Alston's barrister Crispian Cartwright successfully argued that his client's driving had not "fallen far below the standards of a careful and competent driver."

He added: "In my submission there was nothing wrong with this defendant's driving when he manoeuvered his car out of the car park.

"The Crown say that he didn't deliberately drive dangerously but that was the effect and a collision would have been almost inevitable " - prosecutor Ian Foinette

"His fault was, for whatever reason, to see the lights but there was nothing wrong with the manner of the driving.

"And if one looks at the CCTV there is a margin of some five seconds between the car clearing the railway line and the train coming along. That, I know, sounds very short.

 "At worst this defendant was guilty of careless driving although he may not be even guilty of that."

Judge Van Der Bijl ruled that Mr Alston had no case to answer and took the decision to order the jury to return a not guilty verdict.

He then agreed that Mr Alston's privately-funded defence costs be paid by taxpayers.

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