The hearing, twice delayed by Covid, opened this morning at Croydon town hall, four-and-a-half years since the early-morning tram came off the rails in darkness as it rounded a bend at more than three times the maximum speed.
Of the 70 people on board on November 9, 2016, seven died and 62 were injured, 19 seriously, as the two-carriage Wimbledon-bound tram left the rails at 46mph on a 13mph bend after emerging from Sandilands tunnel.
The victims were Dane Chinnery, 19, Philip Logan, 52, Philip Seary, 57, Dorota Rynkiewicz, 35, and Robert Huxley, 63, all from New Addington, and Mark Smith, 35 and Donald Collett, 62, of Croydon.
After 11 jurors were sworn in this morning to hear the inquest, Senior Coroner Sarah Ormond-Walshe called for a minute’s silence to “pause and remember the seven people killed in this tragic tram incident”.
Their families are dismayed that neither the tram driver, Alfred Dorris, nor John Rymer, the managing director of tram operator TOL (Tram Operations Ltd) at the time of the crash, is due to give evidence in person.
Mr Dorris, who was told in 2019 that he would not face criminal charges, is said to have PTSD. Mr Rymer is said to be suffering from an incurable neurological condition.
Andrew Ritchie QC, acting on behalf of the families of five of the deceased, told a pre-inquest hearing in January that both had “produced sick notes” to avoid having to “face the music”.
Speaking ahead of today’s inquest opening, Mr Ritchie said: “All parties owe it to the families to expose the truth about how and in what circumstances the crash was allowed to occur.
“It is very disappointing to the families that the driver of the tram has been diagnosed unfit to attend the inquest, but they still hope that they will hear an apology from him.”
Ben Posford, of Osbornes Law, the lead solicitor for five of the seven families, said: “This has been a long and agonising wait for all the families.
“Their hope for the inquest is that it will give them a better understanding, and some long overdue answers, as to why their loved ones are no longer here.
“Importantly, they also want to make sure that lessons are learned, and changes made in relation to the systemic failures and poor management culture that led to the crash, so that nothing like this can happen again.”
Opening the inquest, which is expected to last up to 13 weeks, Ms Ormond-Walshe outlined the brief facts of the crash.
She said the train left the Lloyd Park stop and headed towards the Sandilands junction, passing through a tunnel around 500m in length.
“After exiting the tunnel, the tram approach the Sandilands junction which is a sharp left-hand curve”, she said.
“As the tram entered the curve at 6.07am, it derailed and overturned to the right-hand side of the track.
“All but one of the passengers on the tram were injured. Seven people at the centre of this hearing were killed.”
From Tuesday the families will pay tribute to their relatives who died in the crash, which happened on the same day that Donald Trump was elected US president.
TFL proactively pays out to victims
A report by Rail Accident Investigation Branch in 2017 said the crash was probably caused by Mr Dorris suffering a “temporary loss of awareness” after a “microsleep”, and being confused about his direction of travel.
Transport for London, which is in overall control of the tram network, has pro-actively paid out more than £8.8 million for counselling, rehabilitation and compensation.
It said it had received 96 claims and had so far settled all 84 where the claimants had been ready to finalise their claims.
Andy Byford, TfL commissioner, said: “We will never forget those who lost their lives or were injured in the tragedy at Sandilands. The grief the families have suffered is unimaginable and I want to reiterate my support to everyone affected.
“We have made a number of improvements to the tram network and will take into account any further learnings that may come out of these inquests.”
Sarah Jones, Labour MP for Croydon Central, said: “The families of the victims have waited more than four years to get to this point.
“With no criminal charges or sense of culpability for the loss of their loved ones, It has been an incredibly painful journey for them. I hope that the inquest will give the families some answers that they have waited so long for.
“Very significant changes have been made to the tram and its infrastructure since the crash - like automatic breaking systems - which would mean a crash like this could not happen again.
“The Government needs to work harder to ensure all tram systems across the country make the same changes. The lessons must be learned to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.”
The Coroner issued a stern warning to the panel of jurors about not researching the case themselves, saying: “Everyone in this case, especially the families, have waited a very long time to get to this point.
“So please understand the importance of following my directions.”
The inquest has been adjourned today, and is due to resume at 10am tomorrow.