HC Deb 17 January 1968 vol 756 cc1782-5

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper :

66. Mr. COE

To ask the Minister of Transport if she will review the operation of safety regulations on main line railways, including those at unmanned automatic crossings, in the light of the increased speeds at which main line expresses now operate.


To ask the Minister of Transport whether she will make a statement on the railway accident at Hixon on Saturday, 6th January.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

With permission I will now answer Questions No. 66 and 67.

As hon. Members will know my right hon. Friend has ordered a formal public investigation by Mr. E. Brian Gibbens, Q.C., into the accident at Hixon, which will also cover the general safety of automatic half-barrier protection at level crossings. Mr. Gibbens will be assisted by two expert assessors, Mr. Granvil Berry and Brigadier Richard Gardiner.

It would be wrong for me to make any statement until the inquiry has been held and Mr. Gibbens has made his report, but I know that the House will wish to join with me in expressing the deepest sympathy with the relatives of those who died and with those injured in this accident.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Coe

While welcoming the setting up of an inquiry into this accident, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he will accept that some of us believe that unmanned automatic crossings ought not to be constructed on main lines, in view of the high speeds of trains upon them? Will he examine all safety aspects on main lines, in view of the safety which is required at these speeds?

Mr. Swingler

My hon. Friend will have noted that in the terms of reference given to Mr. Gibbens and his colleagues they are to hold an inquiry into the general safety aspects of these barriers. I think that it would be very wrong of me to say anything which might be thought to prejudge the issue.

Mr. Fraser

I am sure that the whole House will echo the words of sympathy and commiseration which the Minister of State has expressed to the bereaved and the injured resulting from this appalling accident, and will welcome the fact that an independent inquiry is to be held, which is the first, I believe, since the Tay Bridge disaster. I am sure that it is absolutely right. I am sure, too, that the whole House applauds the work done by those on the spot in rescuing the injured.

Without prejudice to the inquiry, I hope that the Department will give serious consideration to what should be done on these crossings, and come before the House at an appropriate date to make a full statement about the safety, timing and other factors which are wider than those raised in the specific inquiry which is to be held.

Mr. Swingler

I want to associate myself with the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the work done by those involved in the rescue operations. The right hon. Gentleman and I both know the area very well.

As regards the latter part of his supplementary question, the terms of reference given to Mr. Gibbens and his assessors are to make a general investigation into the safety of these types of crossings. In the past, a great deal of study has been made of them, including studies by our own inspecting officers. Since these terms of reference have been given to Mr. Gibbens, therefore, I would prefer to say nothing until we have his report. The hearing will be held in public and, as a result, the public will be fully informed about the results of the investigation.

Mr. Alfred Morris

While I appreciate that my hon. Friend cannot make a full statement pending the outcome of the Gibbens Inquiry, may I ask whether he is aware that, on the day before the preliminary inquiry began, the chairman of the inquiry said that he was perfectly satisfied about the safety of these crossings? Would my hon. Friend agree that it seems wrong that the onus for using barrier-type crossings should be on the road user?

Mr. Swingler

There are certain responsibilities on road users and, since the Hixon accident, their attention has been drawn to those responsibilities by the Director-General of Highways in my Department. In so far as opinions are expressed by anyone about the safety of this type of crossing, I have said already that, as we have set up an investigation and given these terms of reference to Mr. Gibbens, it would be wrong on the part of anyone holding responsibility in my Department to say anything further on the issue.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Would the Minister assure the House that the chairman of this inquiry is not the same person as the chairman of the Court Lees inquiry, if there is any intention to reassure public opinion by holding an inquiry?

Mr. Swingler

My right hon. Friend has selected the best person, together with assessors, qualified to carry out this investigation. It is really rather shocking to make slanted remarks of that kind in the House. I hope that all hon. Members will now give Mr. Gibbens and his assessors an opportunity to carry on their investigation with the maximum of objectivity so that we can have the benefit of their advice as soon as possible.

Dr. Dunwoody

Can my hon. Friend assure the House that no more of these crossings will be made operational until the inquiry has been completed and its report fully considered by his Department?

Mr. Swingler

When my right hon. Friend issued her statement after the tragic accident at Hixon she stated publicly that no further authorisations would be given for these types of crossings until we were in possession of the advice from Mr. Gibbens and his assessors.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker