A woman died after she was struck by an overhanging tree branch when she leant out of a train window as she travelled home after a Christmas shopping trip, an inquest has heard.
Bethan Roper, 28, who worked for the Welsh Refugee Council, sustained fatal head injuries while a passenger on a Great Western Railway (GWR) train travelling at about 75mph.
The inquest was told that GWR had planned to install enhanced signs warning against leaning out of windows while trains were moving after a previous incident. It had set a date of May 2018 for the new signs to be in place but by the time of Roper’s death seven months later this had not happened.
The inquest at Ashton Court, near Bristol, heard Roper, from Penarth in south Wales, died while returning home with friends from a day out in Bath. The London Paddington to Exeter service had just left Bath Spa station when Roper, who was the chair of Young Socialists Cardiff, was fatally injured.
Mark Hamilton, an inspector with the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), told Avon coroner’s court: “Around two and a half minutes after the train departed Bath Spa station Bethan leant out of the window and a few seconds later she fell backwards having sustained a serious head injury.”
Hamilton said the carriage was a Mk 3 type coach and fitted with an opening window to enable passengers to use the handle on the outside when they needed to leave the train.
“There is no physical feature fitted to the train to prevent a passenger opening the window when the train is away from the station,” Hamilton said. He added that Mk 3 coaches were first introduced in the 1970s and were being phased out.
The inquest heard that above the door window was a yellow sticker with the words: “Caution: do not lean out of window when train is moving.”
Hamilton said: “One of the causal factors was in relation to the warning signs and we concluded Bethan, as a passenger, was not deterred by these warning signs. Our report has concluded the warning sign on display complied with the railway group standard that was in force at the time.
“However, the RAIB considers that wording, particularly the use of the word ‘caution’, suggests that perhaps leaning out is something that may be done with a degree of care. The yellow background is traditionally recognised as a characteristic of a warning sign, whereas red backgrounds may convey danger.”
The inquest heard that after the death of a passenger leaning out of a window on a train in south London in August 2016, GWR completed a risk assessment resulting in a plan to install enhanced warning signs with a red background by May 2018, but this had not happened by the time Roper died.
Two staff members involved in the task had left the company and a system that tracks pieces of work failed. The signs were updated after Roper’s death.
Hamilton said Network Rail, which is responsible for managing line-side vegetation, had carried out inspections of the section of line when the incident happened but the tree was “not deemed to be a hazard”.
Toxicology tests found Roper had a blood alcohol level of 142mg in 100ml of blood – meaning she was nearly twice the drink-drive limit.
The inquest continues.