A train driver who crashed into the buffers of a station sent a message about the death of commentator Murray Walker moments before the collision, a court has heard.

Former Merseyrail driver Phillip Hollis, 59, was given a 12-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, at Liverpool Crown Court on Tuesday after pleading guilty to endangering the safety of people conveyed by railway at an earlier hearing.

David Polglase, prosecuting, said £450,000 worth of damage was caused when the six-car train crashed into the buffers at Kirkby in Knowsley, Merseyside, on March 13 last year.

Twelve passengers and a train guard were on board at the time but there were no injuries, the court heard.

Train crash
Hollis was told it was more by luck than judgment that no-one was hurt (British Transport Police/PA)

The service had been due to arrive at Kirkby, from Liverpool Central, at 6.52pm.

Mr Polglase said a review of Hollis’s phone showed a WhatsApp message received at 6.28pm said: “RIP Murray.”

At 6.51pm, when the train was between the penultimate station of Fazakerley and Kirkby, Hollis sent a message in reply which said: “A great commentator.”

Mr Polglase said the message was a reference to motor racing commentator Murray Walker, whose death had been reported that day.

Sentencing, Judge David Potter said the train had been going too fast because Hollis was distracted by a combination of receiving and sending WhatsApp messages and leaning out of his cab to retrieve a bag which had fallen onto the floor.

He said: “It’s through sheer luck rather than judgment on your part that serious injury was not caused.

Crash scene
No-one was hurt in the crash (British Transport Police/PA)

“You accept that you were distracted by trying to retrieve your bag. You do not dispute that you received and sent a WhatsApp message while driving on the approach to Kirkby station.

“In doing so you disregarded basic safety.”

Mr Polglase said the emergency brakes of the train were applied 18 metres from the start of the platform.

He said: “The train went into the buffers at the end of the line and through what is referred to as a block, which is a metal frame at the end of the line, causing significant damage and disruption to the platform area.”

The court heard Hollis, of Spellow Lane, Liverpool, had been a train driver since 1985 and was regarded as a competent driver by his employers.

Records showed the train was travelling at just over 40mph when it travelled into Kirkby, but the Network Rail speed limit for the approach was 15mph.

Patrick Williamson, defending, said Hollis had been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following the incident.

Mr Williamson said: “He, by virtue of this incident, was understandably and properly dismissed, bringing to an end a career of significant credit to him.

“It has been his life, in effect.”

He said Hollis was primary carer for his wife and told the court references had been given by a number of former colleagues and his sister.

Hollis was also ordered to carry out 180 hours of unpaid work, was made subject to an electronically monitored curfew for three months and ordered to pay £340 costs and a surcharge.

Detective Chief Inspector Steve May from British Transport Police said: “This was a complex investigation, but we could be confident from our analysis that Hollis was using his phone in the seconds before crashing the train into Kirkby station at high speed.

“I have no doubt this will have caused him to become distracted while driving, endangering the safety of the passengers and staff on board.

“It was only through sheer luck that they weren’t seriously injured or worse, killed, as a result of this incredibly dangerous incident.”