Train hit van on track after sat nav error in Wilsford

The level crossing in Wilsford which was mistaken for a side road at night.
The level crossing in Wilsford which was mistaken for a side road at night.

A 76-year-old who followed his sat nav on to a railway line, resulting in his van being hit by a train, has pleaded guilty to endangering safety.

However, John Brian Musson, of Old Station House, Bingham, was acquitted of dangerous driving, and instead found guilty of the lesser charge of driving without due care or attention.

At a trial before Grantham magistrates on Wednesday, Mark Fielding prosecuted on behalf of the British Transport Police (BTP). He outlined how on March 16 last year, the driver of a train travelling from Nottingham to Skegness at 6.44pm, was approaching the Kelby Lane level crossing at Wilsford, when he saw what he initially thought were the lights of an oncoming train about 50 metres away.

Fortunately, by slamming on the brakes the driver was able to quickly cut the train’s speed from 50mph to 15mph. The train collided with what he now saw was a white van, striking the driver’s side and pushing the vehicle off the tracks and into fencing.

The train came to a halt, and to the driver’s shock an elderly gentleman appeared from the roadside, waved to say he was OK, got into the van and drove off. “It is clear that the driver was shaken and miffed that the van driver didn’t hang around to see how he was,” added Mr Fielding. “It was only because of his quick-thinking that he was able to reduce the speed of the train.”

Giving evidence in court, self-employed delivery driver Musson said that on following his sat nav’s instruction to turn left, he turned early and found himself on the railway tracks. He said it was an unfamiliar road and he hadn’t seen any of the signs, barriers or warning lights. “I have never been down that road in my life and I don’t think I will ever go down it again,” he said, while also highlighting that he had passed the police’s eye test.

Soon realising his mistake, he attempted to put his white Vauxhall Corsa van into reverse, but a fault in the gear box meant he was unable to, and he resorted to putting his hazards on and jumping out. He called 999 but said he was redirected to a non-emergency number, and at this point the barriers came down and the alarm sounded to warn of the approaching train.

The subsequent collision caused a bulge in the front of the van, broke off some of its number plate, and damaged its rear where it hit and broke the fencing. White paint from the van was also scraped along the cow catcher at the front of the train. Having spotted the van’s number plate, the driver reported it to the BTP, who sent two officers round to Musson’s home address at about 10.45pm that evening.

Both of these BTP officers testified in court, and the majority of the trial centred on whether Musson knew his gear box was faulty prior to driving it on the day of the incident, with the prosecution arguing that if he did it would amount to driving a motor vehicle dangerously.

Representing Musson, Chris Pye-Smith said that although his client told the officers he had been having problems getting the car into reverse gear, he was only referring to when he attempted to leave a property about 15 minutes before arriving at the level crossing. Mr Pye-Smith added that as the officers’ notes weren’t ever shown to his client, he was unable to clarify this point.

The court also heard from retired mechanic Reuben Mayall, whose garage was across the road from Musson’s home, and had done work on the van for many years. Mr Mayall explained that he had seen the van in January, but when its timing chain subsequently broke the Bingham mechanic said they didn’t do such jobs and Musson went to a garage near Birmingham.

They rectified his engine, but advised him to get his oil changed after 1,000 miles. On taking the van to the Bingham garage on March 14 to do this, Musson also mentioned that the gear lever ‘was a bit stiff’. Mr Mayall checked the gear box and thought it was a different one to that he had seen in the van before.

“It looked like it had come out of a scrap yard,” said Mr Mayall, and he walked over the road to bring Musson to look at the gear box. He rang the West Midlands garage, but they denied there had been a switch.

A police vehicle investigator also examined the van after the crash, and was unable to select the correct gears, and get into reverse at all. Yet Musson argued that when the vehicle was returned to him, he took it to another Bingham garage whose mechanic said ‘it was a simple job’ of tightening up the gear linkages. Afterwards, Musson was able to drive the van for a further 30,000 miles, before selling it.

Furthermore, Mr Pye-Smith added: “There are vehicles on the road that do not have a reverse gear, such as three wheelers and some classic cars. It cannot be the case that simply not having a reverse gear in operation at all times means it is dangerous.”

Chair of the magistrates Susan Poxon said: “We have concluded that by blindly following the satellite navigation device it was careless driving, but not dangerous.” For the offence of endangering the safety of a person conveyed by railway, Musson must pay a £250 fine, £25 victim surcharge, £85 in prosecution costs and £100 in compensation to the train driver.

Taking into consideration that Musson cares for his 79-year-old wife, whose multiple health conditions means she relies on him to drive, for the careless driving they imposed five penalty points on his licence, one short of him losing it due to totting, and fined him a further £100.

“You were very lucky,” added Mrs Poxon, “The results could have been horrendous.”