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Bethan Roper inquest: Penarth woman hit by tree branch

A WOMAN was killed when she was struck by an overhanging tree branch as she leant out of a train window, an inquest has heard.

Bethan Roper, 28, suffered fatal head injuries while a passenger on the Great Western Railway (GWR) travelling at around 75mph.

The inquest at Ashton Court, near Bristol, heard Miss Roper, from Penarth, died on the evening of December 1, 2018, while returning home with friends from a day out Christmas shopping in Bath.

The London Paddington to Exeter service had just left Bath Spa station heading for Bristol Temple Meads when Miss Roper was fatally injured as the train passed through the Twerton area.

Avon Coroner’s Court heard she was leaning out of the window of a door when her head was struck by an ash tree branch growing on land adjacent to the line.

Despite receiving first aid from fellow passengers, Miss Roper was declared dead by ambulance staff at Bristol Temple Meads station.

Mark Hamilton, an inspector with the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, told the inquest: “We established that one of the group of friends opened the window of the door and at least one other friend leant out of the window.

“But 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.

“The simple conclusion we have drawn from the evidence presented was that Bethan’s head came into contact with a lineside tree and that tree was growing on Network Rail infrastructure.”

Mr 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,” Mr Hamilton said.

He said Mk 3 coaches – first introduced in the 1970s – are being phased out across the network and being replaced by doors that open and close with the use of an electronic button.

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’.

“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,” Mr Hamilton said.

“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 maybe 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.

“We also observed the sign is much smaller than the other signs.”

He added: “It is not possible for us to understand or conclude exactly what influence that signage had on the decisions Bethan made.”

The inquest heard that after the death of a passenger leaning out a window on a train in south London in August 2016, GWR completed a risk assessment of its droplight windows.

This resulted in a plan to install enhanced warning signs with a red background by May 2018, but this had not happened by the time Miss Roper was killed seven months later.

Two staff members involved in the task had left the company and a system that tracks pieces of work failed. The signs were updated following the death of Miss Roper.

Mr Hamilton said Network Rail, which is responsible for managing lineside vegetation, had carried out inspections of the section of line when the incident happened but the tree was “not deemed to be a hazard”.

A post-mortem examination gave the cause of Miss Roper’s death as head injuries.

Toxicology tests found she had a blood alcohol level of 142mg in 100ml of blood – meaning she was nearly twice the drink drive limit.

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

The inquest continues.

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