Alton Towers fined record £5m over Smiler crash

The Smiler

Alton Towers operator Merlin Entertainments has been fined a record £5 million for the Smiler rollercoaster accident last year.

16 people were injured – five seriously – when a fully-laden ride train collided with an empty vehicle on 2 June.

Two teenagers required leg amputations following the crash, which was caused when the fully-laden train impacted a stationary vehicle which had failed to complete a track circuit.

The £5 million fine issued today at Stafford Crown Court is understood to be a record for the UK amusement and theme park industry, with Merlin also charged costs of almost £70,000.

The court heard that Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd, a subsidiary of the Merlin Entertainments group, would have been fined £7.5 million had it not entered an early guilty plea.

Judge Michael Chambers QC said there had been a “catastrophic failure” at the Staffordshire theme park, describing the collision as “needless and avoidable”.

He said that the injured were fortunate not to be killed in the impact, which was yesterday described as having the force of a 1.5-tonne family car crashing at 90mph.

‘High culpability’

Speaking of sentencing guidelines for fines, the judge said he had stayed within the £2m to £6m range for a ‘high culpability’ category offence.

Merlin’s representatives had argued for a lesser ‘medium culpability’ category offence, which the judge rejected, instead agreeing with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecutor.

The company said it made a mistake when it concluded in an earlier internal investigation that the accident had occurred due to the “human error” of its employees.

Mr Chambers said that an earlier conviction in 2012, for a death at Merlin’s Warwick Castle attraction, should have been “ringing in the ears” of the company when they opened the Smiler the following year.

Smiler crash rescue operation
The rescue operation under way

He added that the tightly compacted design of the ride had exacerbated the victims’ ordeal, with access difficulties leading to an emergency services rescue operation exceeding four hours.

The judge said the accident had “rightly been the focus of much public interest”, due to Merlin operating on a “high duty of public care”, to which they fell “far short”.

17-minute 999 call delay

The judge said the company was entitled to credit for pleading guilty and for co-operating with the investigation.

Yesterday, the Stafford Crown Court room was shown CCTV footage of the stationary empty vehicle resting at a low point between two track inversions, despite climbs of “blind spots” existing.

Alton Towers staff overrode the ride’s control systems, were not familiar with manufacturer’s instructions and operated the rollercoaster above maximum wind speed limits, the court heard.

Mr Chambers said that it took too long for the emergency services to be called, with contact not being made for some 17 minutes after the collision occurred.

The victims endured “physical and psychological injuries”, he said, with those on the front row of the ride suffering “life changing” injuries.

‘Failed to protect customers’

Outside court, HSE head of operations for the Midlands, Neil Craig, said: “When people visit theme parks they should be able to enjoy themselves safely.

“Merlin failed to protect their customers. They let them badly down. It is right they have been held to account for those failings in a criminal court.

“This avoidable incident happened because Merlin failed to put in place systems that would allow their engineers to work safely while the ride was running.”

The HSE investigation concluded that the root cause was a “lack of detailed, robust arrangements for making safety critical decisions”.

Smiler CCTV footage
CCTV footage was shown in court

“The whole system, from training through to fixing faults, was not strong enough to stop a series of errors by staff when working with people on the ride,” a statement read.

“Money will never replace limbs”

Paul Paxton, a solicitor representing eight of the 16 injured, also gave a statement outside court.

He said: “Symbolically and practically, today marks a closure of what has been a long and painful chapter for my clients, one of which they have been exposed to the horrors of that day.

“The court has imposed what we believe is a record fine for the industry, but of course money alone will never replace limbs nor heal the psychological scars.

“It’s worth remembering this hearing is the first time that my clients have heard the full extent of the criticisms against Merlin.

“They have been shocked and disappointed by the catalogue of errors.”

“Sincere and heartfelt apologies”

Merlin Entertainments chief executive Nick Varney said the company was “utterly determined” that the incident would never be repeated.

He said: “From the beginning the company has accepted full responsibility for the terrible accident at Alton Towers and has made sincere and heartfelt apologies to those who were injured.

“I repeat those sentiments here today as we did in court yesterday.

“In accepting responsibility and liability very early on we have tried to make the healing and compensation process as trouble free as possible for all of those involved.

“We have strived to fulfil our promise to support them in every way and I promise that this support will continue as long as they need it.

Merlin Entertainments chief executive Nick Varney
Merlin Entertainments chief executive Nick Varney

“We were always aware that we would end up here today facing a substantial penalty, as has been delivered by the court today.

“However, Alton Towers – and indeed the wider Merlin Group – are not emotionless corporate entities.

“They are made up of human beings who care passionately about what they do. In this context, the far greater punishment for all of us is knowing that on this occasion we let people down with devastating consequences.

“It is something we will never forget and it is something we are utterly determined will never be repeated.”