Blundering tree surgeon caused train crash while operating without qualifications

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A TRAIN ploughed into a tree after a Washington arborist who was not qualified to chop it down let it fall on to a busy rail line.

Magistrates heard that Mark Connelly had been hired by Gateshead Council to fell two poplar trees close to the Newcastle-Carlisle line in January 2012.

Peter Wood, a fellow tree surgeon who was working for Connelly, suffered a broken ankle and was knocked unconscious, while the train suffered damage costing almost £100,000.

Connelly, 41, of Calders Crescent, Fatfield, and the council both admitted breaching health and safety legislation at Gateshead Magistrates’ Court yesterday.

Jonathan Wills, prosecuting, said the tree had slipped down a steep bank and on to the railway.

Connelly and Mr Wood had been working to clear the line when the accident happened.

He said: “Mr Connelly and Mr Wood were using chainsaws and hearing protection, so were not aware that the train was a matter of seconds away from their position.

“The train hit the obstruction, travelling at almost 40mph. Mr Wood was hit by the train, or by the material that had been hit by the train.”

The court heard Connelly was not qualified to work on a tree the size of the one involved, and the council had not carried out sufficient checks to ensure he was.

“Network Rail had also not been informed the work was being carried out.

Connelly had produced a risk assessment, dated three days before the accident, but inspectors believed it might have been produced afterwards.

Either way, it was “neither suitable nor sufficient”, said Mr Wills.

“This incident could have been prevented by ensuring those carrying out the work were qualified to do so, that those carrying out the work planned it so it was carried out safely, and by putting simple measures in place to avoid a serious incident,” he told the court.

Mark Brookes, defending Connelly, said he was an experienced tree surgeon and had genuinely believed he was qualified to work on trees of the size of the one involved, and there had been no intention to break the law for profit.

Connelly had used a winch to prevent the first tree from falling down the bank, but didn’t think he needed to do so for the second.

The tree had not reacted the way Connelly had predicted it would because the inside had rotted away.

Mr Brookes said: “Mr Connelly accepts there were steps he could have taken, the most simple of which would have been to use the winch,” said Mr Brookes.

Joan Smith, defending Gateshead Council, said the authority accepted not enough had been done to establish whether Connelly was qualified for the work and has since overhauled its working systems to ensure such a situation did not happen again.

Connelly had been a trusted contractor. “It was not simply grabbing someone off the street to do the work,” she said.

“It was somebody who had worked for the council since 2008.”

Magistrates adjourned the case to Newcastle Crown Court on May 13 for sentence.