Penarth woman’s rail death was foreseeable, tree expert tells inquest

More regular inspections of trees along a stretch of railway line where a woman died after being struck by an overhanging branch as she stuck her head out of a train window may have prevented the tragedy, an inquest heard.

Bethan Roper, 28, suffered fatal head injuries after being struck by a branch of an ash tree while a passenger on a Great Western Railway (GWR) service travelling at around 75mph.

Miss Roper, from Penarth, South Wales, died on the evening of December 1 2018 while returning home with friends from a day out Christmas shopping in Bath.

Bethan Roper
An inquest heard Bethan Roper, 28, died from head injuries when she was struck by a tree branch (British Transport Police/PA).

Avon Coroner’s Court heard the tree had undergone inspections in 2009 and 2012 as part of a five-year cycle by Network Rail, which was responsible for the management of trackside vegetation.

The tree had been growing on the embankment five metres from the track and was later colonised by two types of wood decay fungi, which led to the failure of some of its stems.

The branch which killed Miss Roper had by February 2017 fallen towards the railway line and was resting on a chain link fence at the top of the embankment.

After the accident Network Rail had commissioned Julian Forbes-Laird, an arboricultural consultant, to compile a report into the history of the tree.

His report stated that had an expert inspected the tree at any time since 2014 they would have identified its poor condition.

Mr Forbes-Laird told the inquest that in his opinion the accident was “foreseeable” because other stems from the tree had needed to be cut because of disease.

“Network Rail standard is to have a five-year cycle of specialist inspection and that happened in 2009 and 2012,” he said.

“Unfortunately, that cycle was not carried out and that tree was not professionally inspected for really quite a number of years and longer than the standard.”

The inquest heard that in addition to expert inspections, Network Rail also carried out train cab inspections and non-expert inspections.

Mr Forbes-Laird said in his view the only way the decay on the tree would have been identified was if the stump had been inspected.

“I am very concerned this derogation leaves gaps in the tree management system which could potentially give rise to far greater cost of life than the single person who lost their life in this case,” he added.

Miss Roper was passenger on the London Paddington to Exeter service which used coaches fitted with droplight windows to enable passengers to use the handle on the outside when they needed to leave the train.

The inquest has heard the opinion of rail accident investigators that the warning sign above the coach door was insufficient to deter Miss Roper’s actions.

She worked for the Welsh Refugee Council charity and was chairwoman of Young Socialists Cardiff.

The inquest continues.