The two companies fined over the Hatfield rail crash have been handed ?21 million of taxpayers' money to pay for their defence costs - ?7 million more than their record penalties last year.

The revelation last night prompted anger and disbelief from the families of the crash victims and from rail safety groups who have always felt those responsible for the disaster got off lightly. Four people died and 102 were injured in the crash in October 2000 when a King's Cross to Leeds express derailed at 115mph.

Hatfield: The result of 'sustained industrial negligence'

The money has been given to Balfour Beatty, the engineering company, and Network Rail [formerly Railtrack] to pay for defending themselves against manslaughter and health and safety charges - accusations on which they were cleared.

The two companies, which applied for their costs to be reimbursed, were handed record fines totalling ?13.5 million in October 2005 after being convicted of other health and safety offences.

Mr Justice Mackay, sitting at the Old Bailey, described Balfour Beatty's failings as "the worst examples of sustained industrial negligence in a high-risk industry" that he had seen.

The disclosure of the payments was made by the Government following a request under the Freedom of Information Act. The Department for Constitutional Affairs said: "The cost paid from Central Funds (taxpayers' money) for the defence of the accused was ?20.9 million.

"None of the defendants were legally aided, and the judge ordered their costs to be paid from central funds. This was, however, only in relation to the manslaughter and health and safety charges that they were found not guilty on.

"The two companies were not refunded their costs on the charges for which they were found guilty. Therefore, they bore that cost in addition to the total fines of ?13.5 million and costs of ?600,000 that the court imposed."

Balfour Beatty was fined ?10 million plus ?300,000 costs and Network Rail ?3.5 million plus ?300,000 costs.

In July 2005, a corporate manslaughter charge against Balfour Beatty was thrown out on the directions of the judge. Later, five of its directors were cleared of manslaughter by a jury.

The fines against Balfour Beatty and Network Rail related to charges under the Health and Safety Act. Balfour Beatty admitted the offence, but Network Rail denied acting illegally.

The latest disclosure comes just three days after it was revealed that Network Rail's four top executives shared bonuses of more than ?1.1 million - even though the firm's debts have soared and one in eight trains runs late.

John Pickering, the solicitor representing the four victims of Hatfield and some of the survivors, said: "There seems to be a disconnection between the level of the penalties and the level of the costs they are recovering. It's hard to understand the logicality or the morality of this award." Carol Bell, who was injured in the 1997 Southall rail crash and who is now the vice-chairman of the Safe Trains Action Group, said: "It's an absolute disgrace. The state seems to be taking away with one hand and giving back even more with the other. It is time the law was on the side of the victims and the wronged."

A spokesman for Balfour Beatty said: "The costs were very substantial. Quite reasonably, since the two companies and five individuals received a resounding 'not guilty' on the principle charges of manslaughter, the state has to pick up the vast majority of the costs, including our defence costs."

A Network Rail spokesman said: "The Hatfield rail crash was a tragedy for all involved, and we continue to offer our greatest sympathy to those who were injured and bereaved.

"All Network Rail employees were found innocent of all charges and the case of manslaughter against Network Rail was dismissed by the judge. This was a lengthy and costly trial which resulted in Central Funds being ordered to pay the costs of those acquitted in the usual way."

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