HC Deb 05 December 1957 vol 579 cc612-5
Mr. MacDermot

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation whether he has any statement to make concerning the rail crash last night at Lewisham.

The Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Harold Watkinson)

Yes, Sir. At about 6.20 p.m. last night at the country end of St. Johns Station on the South-Eastern down main line, the 4.56 p.m. 11-coach steam passenger train from Cannon Street to Ramsgate collided heavily with the rear of the 5.18 p.m. 10-coach electric passenger train from Charing Cross to Hayes, which was standing at a signal with the brakes on. Both trains were running late because of fog, and they were crowded with passengers.

The collision occurred underneath the bridge which carries the railway from Nunhead to Lewisham over the main line. The leading coach of the steam train left the line of the track and knocked away a supporting column, dropping two of the steel girders of the bridge on to the first two coaches of the steam train, which was still moving.

The engine of the steam train was not derailed and there was not much damage to the rear coach of the electric train, but the two coaches ahead of it were telescoped together and the body of one of them was swept away. The three leading coaches of the steam train were practically demolished by the fallen bridge. An electric train which was moving slowly on to the bridge was stopped by its driver when he saw the trouble below, and it was neither derailed nor damaged.

I deeply regret to say that the casualty roll in the crowded trains was very heavy. So far as it is known at present, 76 people have been killed, including the guard of the electric train, and 193 injured, I am sorry to say, 116 of them seriously.

I have appointed the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways to hold an inquiry into this accident, and I visited the site with him this morning. I am sure that the House will understand that I cannot make any further statement on this matter at present.

I should like to take this opportunity of paying a tribute to the outstanding work done not only by the emergency services and the voluntary organisations, but also by those living near the scene who so unselfishly put their houses and their belongings at the disposal of the rescuers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] The conditions in the dense fog and darkness were appallingly difficult and distressing, and there can be nothing but praise for all concerned who worked with such efficiency and determination throughout.

The House will, I know, wish to express its deep sympathy with the relatives and friends of those who lost their lives in this accident and with those who were injured.

Sir Brian Robertson has also asked me to express his sympathy and that of the British Transport Commission, and to say that the Commission will accept full legal liability for compensation in connection with the accident and that all such claims will receive full and early consideration.

Mr. MacDermot

I am sure that I speak for all my right hon. and hon. Friends in saying that we would wish to be associated with the expression of sympathy for the relatives of the bereaved and injured in this terrible disaster. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Equally, we would wish to be associated with the tributes paid to the heroism and devotion of the rescue workers and all those who live nearby who helped so tremendously. I know that the place where this accident occurred was, in fact, one of the poorer quarters of Lewisham, and there was, no doubt, great sacrifice on the part of many of the local inhabitants. Will the Minister give an assurance that the inquiry which is to be held will be a public inquiry?

Mr. Watkinson

Oh, yes, certainly.

Mr. G. R. Strauss

Obviously, one cannot address questions about the general causes of this accident, but it was suggested quite definitely in one of the newspapers this morning that the fog alarm system was not in operation in this area when it should have been. In view of the fact that the fog conditions may continue, will the right hon. Gentleman consider making a statement, or will he ask the British Transport Commission to issue a statement, quite shortly on that aspect of the problem so as to reassure the public who travel in foggy weather?

Mr. Watkinson

That is entirely a matter which is absolutely relevant to the inquiry. The inquiry, I hope, will be held soon. It will certainly be held as quickly as humanly possible, and that is exactly the kind of consideration that my Chief Inspecting Officer will have to investigate.

Mr. Strauss

The Minister has not quite appreciated my point, which is that it is desirable for those who are travelling now and during the next few days to have some assurance—which I am sure will be forthcoming, but I think I should ask that it should be given—that the fog alarm system, or whatever it is called, is properly in operation in all areas where there is dense fog.

Mr. Watkinson

Perhaps I did misunderstand the right hon. Gentleman. The specific instance of this accident must, of course, be left entirely to the inquiry. I did discuss the point which the right hon. Gentleman has raised, with Sir Brian Robertson this morning, and he assured me that all the proper drill and arrangements for fog services will be properly carried out.

Mr. Deedes

Speaking for some of those who had a very large number of constituents in the train involved in the crash, may we be associated with the Minister's expression of gratitude to the heroism of the rescue workers?

Mr. H. Morrison

As one who has lost quite a number of constituents as well as having others injured, as have some other hon. Members, I should like to join with the Minister, as well as with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) and the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), in expressing sympathy to the relative's of the bereaved and injured, and admiration of the initiative and pluck of the people who came forward in a spirit of public service to help in the situation.

I presume that the report of the inquiry will be published in as adequate a form as possible in due course, together with any recommendations that may be made.

There is one other point; whether it bears on the matter raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. G. R. Strauss) I do not know. It has been reported by a constituent to my office in the constituency that there was a notice at Charing Cross at about the relevant time saying, "Fog service suspended", it being understood by my constituent that that meant that things were better and that normal service would be resumed. I do not know whether this is accurate or not, nor whether the notice may possibly have been misread, but I would like the Minister's assurance that that point, among others, will be considered, to see whether there is anything in it.

Mr. Watkinson

Yes, Sir. I will certainly see that that is drawn to the attention of my Chief Inspecting Officer. As I think the House knows, there is not only a public and searching inquiry by my Chief Inspecting Officer, but that is preceded by a full technical inquiry by the railways themselves, so this matter will undoubtedly be searched to the bottom.