The announcement yesterday that Merlin Entertainments had been fined £5m for the crash at Alton Towers last year in which 16 people were injured came as little surprise. What has been startling though is Merlin’s dramatic fall from grace over the last 12 months. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the operator was being praised for the openness of their communications and for the compassion which they showed for the victims. However, five months later, when they issued a press release announcing the findings of an internal investigation; they bizarrely argued that “human error” was to blame for the accident.
We remarked at the time that this assertion ignores 40 years of research into accidents: whilst a human error may have been the immediate trigger for an event, there is almost always a trail of organisational lapses and errors leading up to that point. And so it has emerged in the course of Merlin’s prosecution by the HSE. Amongst other factors leading to the accident we now know that: engineers had not read the operating instructions for the Smiler; there was no documented system or process to follow to deal with a stranded carriage; staff were financially incentivised to keep the ride running; and the automated system that should have warned of dangerously high winds failed to operate on 2nd June.