HC Deb 31 January 1957 vol 563 cc1313-22

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

10.51 p.m.

Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)

I wish tonight to call attention to the unsatisfactory nature of the lift service at Hampstead tube station, where automatic lifts which have been installed have given constant trouble ever since they were installed. Following a rather frightening episode about a month ago, I wrote to the London Transport Executive, but beyond an acknowledgment I received no reply until after I had put down my name for this Adjournment debate.

Normally, of course, I should have written to my Member of Parliament about this and asked him to raise the matter if he considered that the best way of tackling it, but, unfortunately or fortunately, my Member of Parliament happens to be a distinguished member of the Government and I could hardly ask him to undertake the task. I am delighted, however, to see him here this evening. For one moment I thought that he might be answering this debate. If he had been, of course, I should have expected from him a very satisfactory reply to every request that I might have to make. However, I am not raising this matter in any party political spirit. I am raising it simply as a resident in Hampstead on behalf of residents generally in that neighbourhood.

The lift shaft at Hampstead tube station is a very deep one. I suppose it is the deepest in London. It is 181 feet deep, which is over 60 yards. Nearly three years ago, new swift-moving automatic lifts were installed that rise and descend in about one-third of the time of the older and larger lifts and save, I should imagine, half a minute for passengers on every journey they make. Unfortunately, as I have said, they have continually given trouble. I understand from references I have seen in the Press that at times the failures have been as many as 12 a month, which is an average of about three a week or, not counting Sunday, one every other day. That is a big average.

I am not blaming London Transport Executive for this. It is quite obvious to me, as one who constantly travels on this line, that the breakdowns are not due to inefficiency or bad management. I should imagine the trouble to be due to the depth of the shaft and to the fact that the tunnels running south towards Belsize Park and north towards Golders Green are rather long causing, at times, a terrific uprush of air up the shaft.

What I do blame the Executive for is that knowing all this, it appears to take its duties so lightly that it does not trouble to have an engineer or other competent person on duty even during the rush hours. I was startled to find that there is not even a station-master attached to Hampstead tube station. The nearest stationmaster, I think, is at Belsize Park, where troubles of this kind do not arise.

This almost casual attitude was demonstrated earlier this year when one of the lifts stuck during the rush hour, with 21 passengers jammed together in a space of 7 ft. to 7½ ft. square. They were there for 30 minutes before they were released by the doors being forced with a crowbar. During the whole of that time nobody came near them to let them know what was happening. Afterwards, they learned that the two Jamaicans on duty had been somewhere above trying to lower the cage to ground level.

I do not know what safety devices these lifts carry, but I should have thought that the first essential was to liberate the passengers before tinkering with the mechanism over a sheer drop of 60 yards or more. I have learned since that when the stoppage occurred the foreman ticket collector should have switched off the air pressure to enable the doors to be opened by hand. That sounds all right and a simple enough operation. It would have been all right if the ticket collector had been fully trained and was competent to follow those instructions.

I should like to ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport whether the ticket collector who was on duty was really fully instructed as to what he should do? How long had this Jamaican—and, therefore, I imagine not a resident in this country for a very long period—been in charge of these lifts? Had he ever switched off the air pressure under instructions, with an engineer standing over him to see that he understood what he ought to do? If steps of this kind were not taken, what steps were taken to make absolutely certain that he understood his instructions and really knew what to do if an accident occurred?

Is this sort of work really the work of a ticket collector? Is it not more the work that an engineer should be employed to do, an engineer who, certainly during the rush hours, should be on the spot and able to act when difficulties arise, as they have arisen over and over again since the lifts were installed? I also see from a reference in the local Press that this man has been disciplined. What does that mean? What penalty was actually imposed upon him? In any case, would a penalty be fair?

I understand that one of the chief engineers who came along after the accident told local reporters that this man was new to his job. If he was new to the job, it is difficult to imagine why he should be penalised for not knowing what he was supposed to do when that accident occurred. It seems to me that somebody higher up should be disciplined, if disciplining is necessary. Surely the real fault for what went wrong does not lie with this man but lies elsewhere. I should, therefore, like to be told what happened to this man and why he was punished, if, in fact, he was punished.

As far as I can see, what he did was to think first of his employers, and, only secondly of the passengers in the lift—because after the passengers were liberated he was there with his hands filthy, evidently from tinkering with the mechanism and doing his best to bring the lift back to ground level. Obviously, he thought first of his duty to the company and only secondly of his duty to the passengers who were trapped.

I also gather that, following the accident, a number of London Transport officials visited the station, according to the local Press, wearing bowler hats and carrying brief cases. I am not sure whether they carried umbrellas. They, I understand, before they left, collectively committed themselves to the assertion that from then on the lifts would work properly. It occurred to me when I read this that if this could be said then with such assurance why could it not have been said earlier—when the lifts were failing to work properly? This was, I think, about 10th January, and, unfortunately, the lifts, in spite of the assurance, have been out of order, several times since.

It is quite plain that these lifts are not yet reliable. That being so, I think we are entitled to receive from the Government on behalf of the London Transport Executive certain assurances in order that the residents who live in this area may have some feeling of security when they travel in these lifts.

I notice that the hon. Member For Abingdon (Mr. Neave) is to reply to the debate for the Government and I should like, first, to congratulate him on his promotion. I trust that if this is the first time that he has replied to a debate of this kind he may make it a red letter day for himself and give me a satisfactory answer to two requests I now wish to put to him.

My first request is for an assurance that if a similar accident occurs again the liberation of the passengers shall and must be the first priority. My second is that someone competent should always be on duly at this station when the lifts are being used, to see that if an accident happens first-aid can be given by someone who really knows his job.

As I said earlier, these lifts are the deepest lifts in the London area. They are obviously going through lengthy teething troubles. I think that the London Transport Executive owes it to the public who use the line and travel from this station to make sure that every possible safeguard is taken to see that they travel in safety and comfort, and that episodes such as that to which I have referred shall never happen again.

11.4 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Airey Neave)

I should like, first, to thank the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) for his good wishes on this, my first, appearance at this Box and to say that I will certainly endeavour to give him certain assurances about these lifts.

As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, he is not the only distinguished resident of Hampstead here tonight. On the bench beside me is my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs. He, also, has had the sensational experience, he tells me, as the local Member for Hampstead of travelling in these lifts. He has never, in fact, stuck in them, but he and his wife have had the unusual experience of travelling up and down, standing on top of one of them, with an engineer, to examine it as closely as he could.

I went to the tube station this afternoon to examine the lifts. Therefore, I have had experience of them, and the opportunity of talking to the engineers. I thought, as a matter of personal interest, that I would do so, though, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, the respon- sibility for the operation and maintenance of the lifts falls, of course, upon the London Transport Executive. However, my Department has been in touch with the Executive about the matter, and I would like to say one or two words in answer to the right hon. Gentleman's questions, of which he was kind enough to give me notice.

I believe that it is fair to say—and I think that the right hon. Gentleman would say so—that London Transport Executive has written to him apologising for the inconvenience that occurred in the incident on 1st January and for the trouble that was caused to the passengers on that occasion. I should like to say that I am sorry for that inconvenience and that it has occurred on a number of occasions. There is nothing more exasperating than being stuck in a lift.

As a result of the conversation I had with the engineers, may I say that the Executive is making every effort to cure the defects in the lift machinery which have given rise to these stoppages? It is not taking a casual attitude towards these matters; it is curing the faults in co-operation with the manufacturers of the lifts. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there were originally five lifts of an older pattern. These are two modern, high-speed, automatic lifts which were installed in April, 1954.

The Executive took a great pride in this modern equipment. It had to be of rather a special character, because, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, this is the deepest underground railway shaft in London, as he said, 181 feet deep, and the lifts are specially fast. Escalators, for example, would be no alternative there. They would be much too expensive and much too slow.

After all that, as has been said, the reliability of these lifts has been a great disappointment to the Executive and has been due to various faults since their installation. For that reason they have received special attention from the engineers. May I deal with the defects in the machinery, which have been discovered, which it is thought have given rise to these stoppages? The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that air might be blown along the tunnel and up the lift shaft. That is right. The current of air, of course, also blows dust up the lift shaft and the passage of the trains through the tunnels has a kind of piston effect which pushes this dust up the lift shaft and into the control gear. It is a very difficult thing with which to deal and, of course, requires having the control gear in dust-tight cabins.

I have learned this afternoon that additional shielding is to be installed round the vulnerable parts of the machinery. I mention this because the effect of dust is to foul the commutators in the electrical machinery of the lifts and it may be that once that matter has been put right these faults will be greatly reduced and, I hope, stopped altogether. That was the most important defect. the appearance of dust in the machinery itself.

The second cause was an electrical defect. The incident of 1st January was caused by an electrical defect which I shall describe in a minute. The Executive thinks it has now eliminated electrical defects which have been a cause of the trouble already experienced. That deals with the two main causes.

The incident of 1st January caused great inconvenience to passengers. What happened was that the lift over-ran the top landing by a few feet and the foreman ticket collector—I shall describe his duties and experience—tried to move the lift down by going into the control room. No doubt that is how he got his hands dirty.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

I was one of the passengers.

Mr. Neave

The right hon. Gentleman was one of the passengers and no doubt saw what happened.

Of course, the foreman ticket collector should have switched off the air pressure and would then have been able to open the doors with the special tool provided. That was the cause of what would otherwise have been prevented had he carried out his instructions—and I shall deal with that point. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the station-master at Belsize Park, but he did not describe the correct position.

The station-master at Hampstead is the Hampstead station-master. He controls Chalk Farm and Belsize Park and is responsible for all three stations. When he is away, and on this occasion he was at Belsize Park, the foreman ticket collector, to whom I have referred, takes charge at each of these stations. Unfortunately, the station-master was at Belsize Park when the stoppage of the lift occurred. He was summoned back to Hampstead, but I understand that on his arrival the passengers had been released, including, no doubt, the right hon. Gentleman. I have heard various estimates of the time, between 21 and 30 minutes, but obviously it was a long time and a very serious stoppage so far as the passengers were concerned.

The foreman ticket collector who was acting as supervisor of the lift had had special instruction in the handling of the automatic lifts. He had been on these duties since October, 1956, that is to say, about two or three months. Unfortunately, on 1st January, for reasons which I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman about now, he failed to comply with his instructions. Instead of shutting off the air passage he tried to go to the control room. He was reprimanded for what he did in not carrying out his instructions. The Executive took the view that there was no occasion for disciplinary action against the operating and administrative staff of the station or of the line.

We must all hope that the measures being taken will put these matters right and reduce the possibility of such stoppages. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that there should be a competent engineer on duty at the time of the operation of the lift. There is now an electrical fitter on duty at Hampstead during the hours of operation. I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the Executive is taking the matter seriously, and that it is providing against any incidents of this kind in the future by having someone available who is knowledgable about the working of this lifting gear.

In fairness to the Executive, I should say that there are lift engineers on call at strategic stations along the line so that it should be possible to get at them quickly. In this case the ticket collector did not summon them, but tried to put the matter right himself, and, as we know, it took a considerable time to do. It need not have taken very long, because the fault was one which could have been rectified in the way I have already described. The Executive is making every effort to see that qualified engineers and fitters are available within call.

It has always been the view of the Executive that when an accident of this kind occurs the liberation of the passengers must come first. In fairness, I should say that the ticket collector did try to liberate the passengers, but he went about it in the wrong way; but that, clearly, is the duty of the staff and they fully understand that. The Executive is fully aware that when such accidents occur that must come first, and that it is the most important matter.

I have endeavoured to give an assurance to the right hon. Gentleman, and, indeed, to my right hon. Friend, in respect of what the Executive says that it is able to do to prevent these matters. From conversations with the staff I found them very keen indeed to put these matters right. Now that attention has been called to the trouble and to what is probably the cause, that is, dust being pushed up the lift shaft by trains, it may be that a substantial improvement will occur.

The electrical faults have now been cured, in the belief of the London Transport Executive. In the last fortnight there was only one stoppage in 25,000 trips, a very considerable improvement. There is still the dust trouble. My attention was drawn to the fact today that the doorway into the tunnel has been blocked out at the bottom of the lift shaft; no doubt this will be a help.

The right hon. Gentleman can accept the assurance that every thing possible is being done. I hope that in future he and other distinguished residents of Hampstead will not find themselves in the unhappy situation that some of them were in on 1st January.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen Minutes past Eleven o'clock.