The detective who led the criminal investigation into the tragedy has given an exclusive insight into how he helped bring two men - Mark Connolly and Roy Kennett - to justice over the four victims’ deaths.
As the senior officer still works undercover, British Transport Police have asked us not to identify him, but he agreed to speak about his involvement in the £1 million inquiry, which saw both men jailed for manslaughter.
And it all started with a phone call ten years ago about a serious incident on the morning on February 15, 2004.
The detective said: “We went up to Tebay at around 8 o’clock in the morning - it was a cold, fresh but bright day.
“We realised that if there was a crime to be investigated, it would have been at Scout Green (the depot from which the wagon rolled away).
“Myself and three other detectives went to Scout Green to speak to a number of people. They included Mark Connolly and Roy Kennett.
“We took statements off them at the time. We probably thought there would be times we would be speaking to them again but at that time we were establishing the facts.”
The trailer which had ploughed into the men was recovered from the track and taken to Buxton, Derbyshire, to be examined by Health and Safety Executive officials. A second road-rail vehicle was also recovered from where its twin had shot down the track.
“It was fully established that there was a problem with the brakes on the two trailers,” the officer explained.
“In fact, the brakes on the trailer which didn’t run away were probably in a worse state. The brakes were disabled at several points.”
The detective described the condition of the brakes as an “accident waiting to happen.” Mark Connolly, he said, had adapted the trailers himself instead of paying what would have been a few hundred pounds to have their brakes repaired when they first became faulty some nine months prior to Tebay.
He went to great lengths to make it appear that the vehicles were legally compliant, using ball bearings instead of hydraulic fluid to give a false sense of correct pressure in brake cables.
The officer said: “Mark Connolly made several hundred thousand pounds and he could have spent a couple of hundred pounds on the brakes. His greed caused those deaths.”
Knowing what Connolly had done and proving it were two very different things. The complex piecing together of evidence spanned several months before four manslaughter charges were brought and, two years later, a jury convicted both men. Connolly was sentenced to nine years in jail and Kennett to two.
The detective explained: “It was extremely difficult and complicated. We were investigating manslaughter by gross negligence. It had never been proved in the transport police prior to this.
“It was a huge achievement because you have to prove that Mark Connolly and Roy Kennett had a duty of care to the workers on the track, that they breached that duty of care, that the men’s deaths were caused by their actions over that nine months and, lastly, that the level of neglect shown was criminal neglect. It was way beyond anything I had been involved in before.”
The detective revealed that Mark Connolly’s nine-year prison sentence was reduced as a result of the jail term given to Lin Liang Ren - the gangmaster jailed for 14 years for the deaths of 23 cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay. Both tragedies happened less than two weeks apart - and so to did the resulting court cases.
Appeal court judges allowed a two-year reduction in Connolly’s sentence on the basis that Ren was given just five years more than the rail boss for causing 19 more deaths. Connolly did not serve the full seven-year sentence.
Asked for his overriding memory from Tebay, the officer added: “The dignity shown by the families through the process, outside court and afterwards, is something that has stuck with me.”