Developer’s error causes huge gas leak and rail chaos


It is not that uncommon for building safety issues to cause road closures, either planned or unplanned: but it is thankfully quite rare for a construction site to create problems that cripple a railway service. This is an exception.

The nationally famous house developer Barratt Homes was involved (here under the company name of BDW Trading Ltd). They had a project at the Old Cider Works, at Station Road, Norton Fitzwarren, near Taunton. It may have been significant in what occurred that they were not sole developers: others were also involved in a building consortium, which can of course can create the potential for lapses in communication.

The recession was also a factor in this case. Work had gone on before the 2008 crash, involving a number of sub-contractors: but the development had been paralysed and restarted some 4 years later. Vital data known to previous teams was not available to those who resumed the project in 2012.

Gas main relocated

 The crucial issue was that in 2009, a gas main, one of two that crossed the dormant site, was replaced and the new pipe took a different route to the old. Just to complicate matters, there was a separate gas company operating another pipe across the site. It seems that Barratt did not know, or forgot, that there had been a change to the infrastructure – in any event, they did not get in touch with either gas supplier to check whether there had been any changes, and obtain new plans

The result was that:

  • Groundwork contractors were supplied with outdated site maps
  • These were incomplete, failing to show the whole site
  • Subcontractors did not know about the new gas main alignment

Unsurprisingly, when work got under way in earnest in October 2012, a gas pipe was broken by an ill-briefed driver’s excavator as it dug a trench. The man was not taking any special precautions because he had not been briefed to do so. The consequent gas escape of over 11,000 cubic metres was described as “one of the largest releases of gas in the South West in recent years”. Fortunately there were no explosions or injuries.

Main line rail closure

As the name ‘Station Road’ suggests, the site was adjacent to the closed Norton Fitzwarren station on the main line between London and the South West. The line was closed by the emergency until the leaking gas main could be repaired and made safe, causing commuter chaos for two hours.

The HSE Inspectors were critical of Barratt for its failure to take precautions, especially in the light of the time lapse since work had stopped. The company should have made a point of approaching the two gas supply operators to get current, correct plans rather than assuming that the old ones were correct. They were therefore found guilty at Taunton Magistrates’ Court of failing to plan their project properly. Their fine of £16,000 and costs of £2,500 for breaching the CDM Regulations 2007 are of course small change for such a huge Group: but such incidents can cause reputational damage and can lead to disastrous consequences, even loss of life.

Contractors who wish to refresh their knowledge on work with underground utilities can visit this part of the HSE site. And for actual assistance on the ground the best solution is to take advantage of the trained and experienced construction safety consultants of McCormack Benson Health & Safety.