HC Deb 22 September 1948 vol 456 cc1047-56

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Joseph Henderson.]

11.47 p.m.

Mr. Champion (Derby, Southern)

If it were not for the fact that this is a matter in which I am deeply interested I should not be trespassing on the time of the House at this late hour. I want to raise tonight the question of safety on the railways. I do so because I believe it is possible for us in this country to reach a very much higher standard than we have yet reached. In saying that, I want to pay tribute to the railways for the comparative freedom from accidents which we have here and I believe that it is safe to compare this country with most of the other countries in the world. We have here a fatality rate which is one in 250 million miles. That is a very high rate of safety, but still I am of the opinion that it is not high enough. In saying that, I would pay tribute too, to the continuous care of railway employees, which is worthy of the highest praise.

Our railwaymen have shown standards of honest work and a tradition of service which are of the highest character. I think, too, we have to recognise that there is a task falling on the Railway Executive, on the railway trade unions, and upon the older railwaymen at this time, to ensure that the tradition of honest work and care is maintained and handed on to the younger generation of railwaymen. I do not, however, believe that the standards of safety already reached are high enough. They can be improved upon if we use to the maximum the safety

devices which, at this time, are known to exist.

Railway safety is too wide a subject to deal with in all its aspects in an Adjournment speech, and therefore it is my intention to raise only the subject of train accidents and not the movement or non-movement accidents, all of which find their way into the report of the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways. There are three main tried safety devices available. The first is the automatic train control—a device which ensures that the driver shall have repeated in the cab of his engine something which will indicate to him his position in relation to certain signals, enabling him to be warned in his cab of the aspect of the signals that are being shown, and will in certain circumstances apply brakes to the engine and bring the train to a standstill.

The second well-known device is track circuiting. It is a device which enables the position of a train to be electrically repeated in signal boxes at both ends, and also it will control the block instruments in those signal boxes and the signals which permit entry into the section. This really means that if you have a train standing on a piece of track which is circuited, it is impossible for the signalman to permit another train to enter behind it.

There is the third device of locking the signals by the block instrument position. I realise that this is all rather technical, but these are part of the safety devices which could be used at this time. The last I have mentioned is a comparatively simple device which prevents a signalman pulling off a signal controlling entrance to a section if he has not got the "line clear" showing on his block instrument from the signal box in advance. The first of the three devices is to aid the driver; the other two are intended as a safeguard against signalmen's errors.

The necessity for automatic train control comes out very clearly in Sir Alan Mount's report for 1947. He gives figures for fatalitles in train accidents which might have been prevented had this been installed on all the railways. The percentages for the period 1930–37 is 39 per cent., and for the period 1938–47 it is 31 per cent. His report on five of the 12 accidents which he inquired into in 1947 shows the following results—and the 12 are the biggest accidents involving the greatest number of passengers and railway servants killed or injured.

GIDEA PARK—7 killed, 45 injured. Automatic train control would have prevented this. LAMBRIGG CROSSING-37 suffered shock and minor injuries. A collision took place on a high viaduct, and if the train had not kept alongside the track but had had the misfortune to plunge through the wall into the valley the number of deaths would have been tremendous. It was a miracle that that did not happen. Automatic train control would have prevented that accident. GOSWIK—28 people killed, 66 seriously injured, and 28 received minor injuries. Automatic train control would have prevented that. MOTSPUR PARK-4 killed, 100 suffered shock or injury. Automatic train control would have prevented that. HERNE HILL—one killed, 23 suffered shock or injury. Automatic train control would have prevented that accident. These five serious accidents which would have been averted by a well tried and tested safety device.

These are some of the figures extracted from the report, but what is missing is the number who would have been killed and injured if we had not had automatic train control established on the G.W.R. No one can guess at the figure, but there is no doubt that but for the fact that automatic train control is established on that system the numbers of accidents and deaths would have been very much higher.

What I am going to suggest to the Minister is that there is urgent necessity for an immediate programme of extension of the automatic train control to the remainder of the main lines not at present covered by that system. It was recommended by a committee which reported in 1922; and the report of that year made it quite clear that this would be a system which, if installed, would bring about a greater measure of safety on the railways. That was repeated in 1930, when a committee sat to examine this matter again, and came to the same conclusion.

Despite what I said about the comparative safety of British railways, I believe that it is disgraceful that after all this time we still have a large part of the main line system which is not covered by the automatic train control. In this connection, the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways, in his concluding paragraph, makes it quite clear that he thinks, too, that at this time we ought to have the whole of the railway system covered by automatic train control. I shall not read the whole of it. It is available to the Minister and the public. But he makes it quite clear that he thinks that the Railway Executive should embark upon a big extension of this system of control. I do hope that the Minister, in his reply, will assure the House that the cost, which is not enormous, and the materials will be made available for the purpose of installing in the rest of the railway system this automatic train control.

The next point is that of the track circuiting. No figure is given in the report of the Chief Inspecting Officer of how many of these accidents would have been prevented if there had been devices installed to prevent signalman's errors. Some indication was given in the 1930 report, but nothing in that for 1947. However, I think it fair to assume, from figures given in previous reports, that if we had the signalman's possible errors covered by safety devices the number of fatalities would have been reduced by 50 per cent. That is a big figure. The signalman's errors could be reduced as. a result of greater extension of track circuiting to the part of the system not now covered by it. It is a safeguard against signalman's errors. It is one which prevents the making of mistakes which the signalman is liable to make. It is one which, despite the heavy cost, ought to be considered by the Minister and by the Railway Executive.

There would be, at any rate, justification for the extension of this system of track circuiting to much of our main lines. It would certainly be justifiable to have it installed in the immediate vicinity of the home signal, far enough away for the home signal to ensure that any train coming to a stand at that signal would be on a track circuit signal and the train's position would be indicated both in the box at the end of the section in front of the train and at the signal box in the rear of it, would lock the block instruments and ensure that the signal controlling entry in the section at the rear of the train was kept at danger.

This is, I think, something which railway engineers ought to be looking into at this time. I believe there is necessity for very much research in this connection. I want to ask whether research is going on into all this all the time? Is it continuous? Are the railway scientists devoting their minds to these aspects of railway engineering? Are inventors encouraged in this connection or discouraged by railway engineers? I have heard of cases of a certain amount of discouragment of inventors by the railway engineers, but I am not in a position to substantiate that.

I believe that the Railway Executive at this time should be considering or rather deciding on a big expansion of the system of locking starting signals by the block position. This, to my certain knowledge, is an excellent safety device. As one who has worked in a signal box, I can testify to its value, and there happens to be one other in this Chamber now who can do the same thing. Looking through the report to the Minister for 1947, I read the details of the Doncaster disaster in which 18 were killed and 120 injured, and it seemed to me that this simple device of locking the signal by the block instrument might have prevented that disaster. As a practical signalman, I have no doubt of the practicability of this apparatus or, indeed, of its efficiency.

There are other things which should be mentioned in connection with safety devices and have been mentioned in this House more than once. There is the possibility of short-wave communcation between trainmen and signalman. I have doubts about the immediate practicability of this, but I do think research may reveal possible uses of this device. Cer- tainly I do not think we have yet reached the stage where it would be useful, but nevertheless research upon it is something which ought not to be neglected. There are, too, possibilities of great improvements in signalling methods—for instance, greater penetration of light. All these things are worthy of consideration, and I sincerely hope that the Minister and the Railway Executive will look into all of them and, what is more important, take decisions now which will cause a big extension and expansion of these safety devices on the railways.

I said I spoke as a practical signalman. I know that every driver, however careful. at some time after he has passed a signal in the dark looks back hoping he is going to get some indication that the signal he has passed is in the clear position. He is not always sure. Of course, he is not. There is always that liability of the human being to err. When this was raised in the House previously, I said that every railwayman, engaged in train movement, when he reads these reports, says to himself, "There but for the grace of God go I." Every signalman, when he reads such a report, feels that. I have never yet met, in all my experience, a signalman who did not make a mistake, who did not make a mistake which, if it had not been for the fact that he was lucky, might have involved many being killed and more injured. I hope that will not frighten people from using the railways. They must remember the figure I gave earlier. Nevertheless it is an important aspect of the question. Every signalman has made a mistake, or thought he made it, and has gone into a cold sweat, watching the rear light of the train moving away in the darkness, hoping that he will not hear a crash; and has sunk back on the locker, feeling enormously relieved, when the signal comes indicating that the train has passed through without anything untoward taking place and that, after all, he has not committed the mistake which it is always possible for the human being to make.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will not rely too much on human skill and care nor leave too much to the good luck which prevents some disasters, and will insist upon an expansion of the installation of safety devices. I would urge on him particularly at this time those which are not too costly in men and materials, the A.T.C.—automatic train control—and the locking signal by the lock instrument. I hope he will assure the House that the Railway Executive is going to embark on a very considerable programme of extension.

12.5 a.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

The hon. Member for South Derby (Mr. Champion), in raising this subject tonight, speaks with very great knowledge and experience on the subject. He has quoted a good deal from reports of the Chief Inspector of Railways, and I would like at the beginning of my remarks to make it plain that the nationalisation of transport has in no way interfered with the duties and responsibilities of that department. It will, of course, function under the British Transport Commission, and the Railway Executive, in the same way as it previously functioned in regard to the four main line railway companies. I mention that because it is desirable that the public should know that the Ministry of Transport inspectorate is as independent as it has been in the past.

I further appreciate that my hon. Friend who is an old railway-man, took the precaution of making plain the standard of safety which prevails on our British railways. Being a practical man, he quoted passenger miles. I speak as a member of the public and as a layman, and in looking at problems of this kind the average man thinks more in terms of the individual journey upon which he embarks on the railways. I would like to present in another form what I consider to be rather impressive figures which demonstrate the safety of travelling on the railways. I quite agree that 1947, in comparison with previous years, was in a sense a had year; but even in 1947, which was rather above the average, the fatalities amounted to only one out of every 18 million passenger journeys embarked upon on British Railways.

I, of course, am deeply interested in the problem of safety on the railways, on the roads, and, as far as the Merchant Navy is concerned, on the high seas. I must emphasise that while it is always desirable to press for improvements, we should keep this subject in its proper perspective. If only we could get in every form of transport the same measure of safety as that which prevails on the railways, I and other Ministers of Transport would be very much happier. For instance, if one compares the fatalities in accidents in 1947, one finds that on the railways there were 121 killed and 1,327 injured; but in road accidents in 1947, 4,881 persons were killed and 161,318 were injured.

Having brought out that comparison. I would like to deal with the specific points which my hon. Friend raised. I can assure him, without any qualification whatever, that in the British Transport Commission and the Railway Executive and certainly in my own railway inspectorate, there is no difference of opinion in principle on the need for carrying out the reforms he has indicated. When I say "reforms," it really comes down to the extension to the whole of the main line routes of this country of instruments of safeguard which have already been fairly well tested in certain directions. But it must be borne in mind that the British Transport Commission and the Railway Executive today are not faced simply with the extension of automatic train control and track-circuiting on one particular railway system. Whatever they decide now, must be decided with the fact in view that it must apply over the whole of the main line routes of this country.

There is no difference of opinion on the need to expand and extend automatic train control, but there are certain applications which require further experimentation, and a section of line is already set aside by the Railway Executive, and experiments will be made extensively on that stretch. Drivers from all the systems will be given the opportunity to express their views. I mention that because the programme of extending automatic train control to all the main lines would represent an expenditure of from £6 to £8 million and in relation to the capital invested in the railways, that is not an excessive sum.

Regarding track - circuiting, that is already going on, but the programme so far sanctioned represents a further expenditure of £5 millions. But it is not this capital expenditure which represents the difficulty today. The limiting factor is shortage of equipment of the character which represents demands on light electrical equipment manufactured in this country, and represents demands on manpower and material at present already considerably over-strained by other parts of the railway system. It is not the de- sire of the Railway Executive which is limiting the rate of progress; it is these physical factors to which I have referred, and my hon. Friend can rest assured that the railway inspectorate, the Railway Executive, and the British Transport Commission will do everything they can to extend the system of track-circuiting and automatic train control so far as, and as quickly as, the circumstances of today permit.

With regard to radar and radio transmission and research into them, the research department of the British Transport Commission are aware of the need for investigation, but I am afraid I must tell the House that I cannot hold out a great deal of hope so far as the immediate programme is concerned. Taking into account the conditions of our railways, the density of traffic, the number of lines in this country and matters of that kind, while, of course, all those new devices and developments should be thoroughly examined, I do not consider one can look to radar and radio transmission for very substantial improvement.

I conclude by assuring the hon. Member that the issue he has raised tonight is fully accepted in principle by the three sections I referred to, and so far as manpower and material will allow. These measures will be pressed forward as expeditiously and as rapidly as possible.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a Quarter past Twelve o'Clock