HC Deb 20 November 1969 vol 791 cc1584-98

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

6.48 p.m.

Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)

The early Adjournment enables me to raise this subject—which has been raised on several occasions before—at somewhat greater length than is usual, though I hope not at unreasonable length.

This is not the first time I have raised with Ministers the nature of the inquiries into derailments and other incidents on British Railways. In February, 1966, a series of derailments occurred on the Western Region, some of them in my constituency on the line between Didcot and Swindon. I saw the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, who was then Minister of Transport, and discussed with her the whole question of the procedures involved in regard to derailment inquiries.

I thought that, in regard to some of these derailments, all of which occurred fairly rapidly within the first two months of 1966, formal inquiries were needed in each case. The right hon. Lady refused this request, in some cases because some of the derailments did not come within the categories in which such inquiries are usually held. I do not dispute that this was within the rules, but what I do dispute is whether those rules are always wisely upheld.

That brings me to the two sorts of inquiry I wish to discuss so far as they affect accidents on British Railways. First, there are those to which the Minister of Transport, as she was then, referred as domestic inquiries by British Railways. Second, I shall refer to inquiries ordered by the Minister to be held in public or private by the inspecting officer, which are generally known as formal inquiries.

The whole question of domestic inquiries—if that is the correct term—by British Railways should be reviewed. This was made glaringly obvious at Didcot, in my constituency, in the first week of September, when the 9.45 passenger train from Weston-super-Mare to Paddington and the 8.25 Weymouth to Liverpool passenger train almost collided, engine to engine, on the same line very close to Didcot Junction. Both were on the same track, and I believe that it is correct to say that they stopped about 150 yards apart.

Fortunately, they were going quite slowly. No announcement was made then by British Railways Western Region, but, as one would expect, the local Press came to hear of the incident and as a result British Railways had to make a statement. I was informed, and got in touch with the Ministry of Transport.

The incident is important for many reasons. First, it was declared to be technically impossible in view of the modern signalling system. Despite the fact that there has been a two-day routine inquiry, as British Railways describe it, we still do not know why two express trains should have been confronting each other on the same road.

It automatically follows that there should be an inquiry into a near-miss by airliners over the Atlantic. Whilst I am not suggesting for a moment that aviation inquiry procedures are the same problem as on the railways, this was an exceptionally serious matter. Since there was no collision and there were no injuries in that case, there was no obligation on the Minister to hold a formal inquiry, though the Western Region has reported the result of its two-day private inquiry to him.

I am indebted to several newspapers, including local newspapers, for information about this incident, and for their support. The movements manager of Western Region said revealingly to the Oxford Mail, which circulates in my constituency: Because the railways do not publish the outcome of their routine inquiries, this does not mean that they have anything to hide. That statement demonstrates how important it is for British Railways public relations that the Minister should tell the House tonight that he will review the problem. What could be more damaging to British Railways than to have a private inquiry into two express trains halting a few hundred yards apart, with the leakages and so on to the Press which occurred, and a good deal of speculation about the cause of the accident?

I do not advocate that every incident should be the subject of an inquiry, but

all incidents of the Didcot type should be inquired into in public. My main argument for this is that the Minister clearly has a statutory responsibility for rail safety, and an incident like that at Didcot, involving two express passenger trains, comes within that responsibility.

The right hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh), who was Minister of Transport when I went to the Ministry in September, made a big mistake in not ordering a public inquiry into the case, although it apparently does not come within the category where it is usual to do so. I have no doubt that much of the problem here is very strict adherence to rules which have existed for a long time. I am not questioning in this debate the principal Act or the Orders, and there is no need for me to do so. A general direction to British Railways could be given on the matter.

As I hope the Minister will agree, the point is that where there is an incident on British Railways that does not involve passenger casualties, but involves a passenger train and passengers being put at serious risk, as in that case, the matter should not be left in British Railways' hands. There should be a formal inquiry, and it should not be regarded as a routine or domestic inquiry. The words "routine" and "domestic" inquiry into such a case appear absurd in the modern context, and should not be used.

That is my first point about the first type of inquiry conducted by British Railways—that where there is potential risk of that character the Minister should order a formal and public inquiry.

I now come to cases where a formal inquiry is ordered by the Minister. The particular cases I have in mind are the derailment at Lichfield in Staffordshire on 10th June, at Somerton in Somerset on 13th June, and Sandy in Bedfordshire on 23rd July. I have taken an interest in these matters since at least 1966, owing to the considerable crop of derailments that occurred on the Western Region in or near my constituency. The derailment at Somerton and Sandy involved passenger trains, that at Sandy occurring at 90 miles an hour. Happily, none of the 400 passengers was injured in that accident, but there were casualties a t Somerton.

Those three accidents—one an accident to a freight train, at Lichfield, and the other two passenger trains at Somerton and Sandy—were due to buckled rails, and particularly the buckling of lengths of continuous welded rail. Investigation has been going on into those two accidents and their causes, the possible effect of hot weather temperatures on continuous welded rail, and other relevant matters. There has been a great deal of patient research by British Railways, especially into de-stressing processes with continuous welded rail.

I pay tribute to the research work, which is of a very high standard compared with that in many other countries. Men are being trained in de-stressing on a special course, which is very welcome and very important in view of the possible use of continuous welded rail in the future.

I make no technical criticism—I am not in a position to do so—of continuous welded rail. But what I have just said makes it all the more preposterous that for reasons for convenience—the only reason I can find after discussion with the right hon. Member for Greenwich, and after reading the letter he wrote to me on 2nd September—the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways and his assistants should hold the technical part of the inquiry in private. This is entirely wrong. It has been made clear in the Press and statements from the British Railways Research Centre at Derby that British Railways have nothing to hide about continuous welded rail. If so, there is no reason why the results of the research into the buckling of rail should not be made public.

I shall propose a new procedure for the inquiries. If there are no secrets involved, there can be no reason for the present out-dated method of inquiry. If matters of defence or security, or in certain cases discipline, were involved. I could understand the Minister exercising discretion and having the inquiry in private.

The bare facts of the derailment or collision are inquired into in public in most cases, as happened at Somerton. What happened at the end of July was very unusual in some respects. I dare say that it has occurred once or twice before, but it was extremely wrong because the then Minister said that the inquiries into what happened at Lichfield and Sandy should be lumped together with the inquiry at Somerton which by that time had reached its second phase in private in discussing technical evidence.

The result of this procedure, which I protested against most strongly at the time, is that there has been no formal inquiry into the derailments at Lichfield and Sandy. As I pointed out, the derailment at Sandy occurred at 90 miles an hour and involved 400 passengers.

The right hon. Member for Greenwich, when he was Minister of Transport, told me in his letter of 2nd September that he could not agree to the examination in public or in private of witnesses to the Lichfield and Sandy derailments—he was referring not to the technical witnesses, but to the witnesses of the derailments—because they could add nothing to the knowledge of the inspecting officer. I was flabbergasted by that statement as one of the derailments involved 400 passengers and the train was travelling at 90 miles an hour.

Lumping these three derailment inquiries together was very unwise because the facts of the three cases are not on all fours. The argument of the Minister and of the senior officials against me was that the buckling of the rail was known to the inspecting officer and that that was all that he needed to know. The result is that, even when passengers are injured, the technical evidence is heard in private. I do not believe that that is right.

I am well aware that detailed and long investigations into design and laying techniques of continuous welded rail are required and into other factors which have a bearing on these derailments. But I do not like the present system. It has grown up over a long period. It is freely admitted that the inspectors, who are all men of high repute, gather experts round the table and then publish their report and the evidence which they think supports their conclusions. One has only to look at the inspector's report into two recent derailments to realise this.

This is no reflection on the inspectors conduct. I am talking about the system. I am not attacking the continuous welded rail or trying to be alarmist. Many derailments have been due to outdated rolling stock rather than the condition of the rail. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary would say something about that.

In an age when there are many people with a certain degree of scientific and engineering education there is no reason why the results of the research into derailments should not be given in public and recorded. I do not suggest that the research itself should be carried out in public—it may take a substantial time —but the conclusions of the research teams should be given in public before the inspector and not just discussed with him round the table.

There should be absolutely no objection to the Press, especially the technical Press and papers interested in railway matters, being present during the inspector's hearing of the technical evidence because, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows—I certainly know from correspondence—there are many engineers and technologists who are not employed by British Railways but who take a great interest in research into railway tracks and methods and who may have some contribution to make. I do not see why the expert evidence should not be exposed to a degree of cross-examination or why, by adopting a more open procedure, other people should not be able to contribute to the information put before the inspector. It is not sufficient to say that the inspector already has a certain amount of information and that he can collect the rest privately.

It has been said against me that I want something in the nature of a planning inquiry such as is conducted by an inspector of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I am not suggesting a procedure like that. I am suggesting that the technical conclusions following from the research conducted by British Railways or other people should be given in public and that the technical Press should be able to report it. It is of considerable importance to railway staff that this should be done because there is a considerable delay before an inspector's report is published.

On 2nd September, the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Greenwich, said—and he was referring to an investigation under the conditions which I am suggesting now—that it "would be much more difficult and complicated and would produce less comprehensive and valuable results". My view is exactly the opposite. As I have said, it is absurd that there should be no formal inquiry into derail ments like that which occurred at Sandy. There is a danger—and I do not want to stress it too much—that if this procedure continues in the present rather untidy and unintelligible way from the public's point of view people will say that there is something suspicious about the causes of these derailments. They are far too serious for such an arbitrary system to be adopted and the Minister must look at the rules again.

If a Minister can order a public inquiry into the facts because there have been passenger casualties, is there any reason why he should not order a public inquiry into the causes of the derailment? It seems to be entirely a matter of convenience from the Minister's point of view that the inspectors do not want to be exposed to having witnesses before them in public who can be cross-examined.

My argument is strongly supported by the fact that an inspector's report often is not published for over a year and sometimes a good deal longer. Therefore, the technical aspects of the causes of accidents are not available to the public or sometimes, I suppose, to railway staff. I have here one of the recent reports by a railway inspector into a derailment which occurred on 12th June, 1968, at Berkhamsted, published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office. It deals with freight liner accidents. Another one which is dealt with occurred at Auchencastle, in Scotland, on 14th June, 1968. The inspector completed the report on 25th July, 1969, and the Stationery Office published it on 7th October, 1969. This is far too long a delay in publishing such a report. This is a manifestly inefficient and old-fashioned system and it is not in the general interest that a delay like that should occur.

The inspector's report draws out strongly the desirability of a public hearing. He refers to evidence in 1968 on track laying and hot weather temperatures affecting continuous welded rail. Both the derailments in 1968 referred to were caused by buckled rails, and, therefore, this information was extremely relevant to what happened in the summer of this year. Had the inspector's report been available, it would greatly have facilitated the knowledge of many people outside the inspector's immediate entourage and the managers of the regions. It is true that track tests and wagon tests take some time, but this evidence could have been published in 1968. The inspector looking at Berkhamsted and Auchencastle should have heard the technical evidence in public so that the evidence would have been known to the public in 1968 instead of in 1969.

The points I have made are especially for the benefit of railway staff, of whom there are many in my constituency. The report of the inspector into the Berkhamsted accident goes into the whole question of destressing, and temperatures in the United Kingdom, and make comparisons with other countries. All this information was highly relevant and, even if it might have been difficult for the inspector to produce the report as rapidly as some people would have wished, one would have thought that he might have been able to do so by the end of 1968. If the technical evidence on destressing had been heard in public people would have greatly benefited from knowing 12 months before what were thought to be the technical causes of the derailments.

The Ministry of Transport and the railways must break away from their rather Victorian rules and organise inquiries so that they give the most benefit to the railwaymen and to passengers.

7.12 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Albert Murray)

I am very grateful for the opportunity to clarify the position about inquiries into railway accidents, and I thank the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) for giving the Ministry that opportunity. I think the whole House is aware of the hon. Member's persistence in this and other matters, with which he has had great success.

The hon. Member is mostly concerned about inquiries into accidents to trains, and into failures of rolling stock and permanent way that might have led to such accidents—the kind of accidents and failures that are inquired into by the inspecting officers of railways in the Ministry of Transport. I will, therefore, confine my reply as closely as I can to this kind of accident.

I think, however, that it is worth reminding the House that the Railway Inspectorate, through its railway employ ment inspectors, holds a large number of inquiries into accidents to railway staff, in most of which trains are involved, though the accident is to the man and not to the train, but some of which are not connected with trains. I should also distinguish, right at the start, between domestic inquiries held by British Railways, over which my right hon. Friend has, of course, no control, and formal inquiries into accidents ordered by the Minister.

Mr. Neave

Before the Parliamentary Secretary leaves domestic inquiries, will he comment on the near-miss at Didcot and my argument that that should have been the subject of a formal inquiry?

Mr. Murray

I promise the hon. Member that I will come to that later.

The Statute that empowers the Minister of Transport to order an inquiry into a railway accident is the Regulation of Railways Act, 1871, as very slightly amended, as regards railway staff, by two later Acts.

Under Section 6 of the 1871 Act any railway company, and that of course includes the regional managements of British Railways and London Transport railways, is required to report to the Ministry certain specified accidents—these are any accident attended with loss of life or personal injury, any collision where one of the trains is a passenger train, and any derailment of a passenger train. Section 6 also empowers the Minister to make from time to time an Order specifying what other accidents of such a kind as to have caused or to be likely to cause loss of life or personal injury must be reported to the Ministry.

The current Order made under Section 6 is the Railways (Notice of Accidents) Order, 1965, and it specifies in great detail what accidents and failures are to be reported, in addition to those specified in the Act. For example, it lays down that a goods train derailment, as well as passenger train derailments, must be reported, though it makes the proviso that it must have occurred on or affected a passenger line. It also lays down that collisions between goods trains must be reported, as must mishaps at level crossings, aircraft running on to the permanent way, and so on. It also makes the railways report such incidents as fires, which are a potential danger to people.

and a wide variety of failures of rolling stock and permanent way, such as broken rails and tyres, slips in cuttings, failures of bridges and culverts, buckling of a running track, and so on, any one of which might have caused an accident even though it did not do so.

The hon. Member mentioned the Didcot "near-miss", and I must emphasise that the Order does not require a report on a "near-miss"—an accident that nearly happened but was averted. I feel strongly that it would not be practicable to make "near-misses" reportable, because of difficulties of definition if for no other reason. I can, however, assure the House that when there is a serious "near-miss" the general manager of the region concerned would always send details of it informally to the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways to keep him in the picture. The near-collision at Didcot on 6th September was a good example of this. No formal report was made to the Ministry, but the Chief Inspecting Officer was informally kept fully in the picture of what had happened.

As a result of these provisions a very large number of accidents and failures are reported to the Ministry. For example, in 1968, the number of train accidents reported totalled just over 1,400, while nearly 1,600 failures of rolling stock and permanent way were reported. Many of the train accidents were of course of a very minor nature. There were, for example, 243 accidents involving open doors. I think I should remind all hon. Members of the dangers of this when we are commuting. When I have been travelling by train from Gravesend I have often seen people jump out and leave the door open, trusting that a porter will shut it.

Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)

The Minister is looking at me; I assure him that I always close the door when I get out of the train.

Mr. Murray

I am just looking at the hon. Member because he is irresistible: for no other reason.

As I was saying there were 243 accidents involving open doors, usually an open door on one train being struck by another train, and 87 cases of trains running into animals on the line. Much more seriously, there were seven collisions be- tween passenger trains, eight collisions between passenger trains and goods trains, light engines, or other moving vehicles, and 31 passenger and 336 goods train derailments. Only 22 of the failures actually caused accidents. Of the 161 failures of engines or multiple unit trains reported none caused an accident and of the 641 broken rails reported only two caused derailments.

In view of these figures, I am sure that the hon. Member would agree that it would be neither desirable nor practicable to make formal inquiries into all the accidents and failures that are reported to the Ministry, or even into all the collisions and derailments. I should emphasise that the 1871 Act gives the Minister a permissive power to order an inquiry into a railway accident; it is not mandatory.

Section 4 of the Act gives the inspector the necessary powers of entry and inspection, of summoning witnesses, and of demanding documents, etc., to enable him to probe into the circumstances of the accident, to examine it in depth, and to elucidate its cause. Furthermore, Section 7 of the Act requires the inspector to report to the Minister stating the causes of the accident and all its circumstances, and requires the Minister to make that report public. Such a procedure ensures that all the facts, when they have been established as facts, and all the theories when they have been properly argued out, are in due course made public.

The details of all serious accidents are reported as quickly as possible to the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways. If necessary, he is contacted at all hours of the day and night, whether he is in his office or his department or wherever he may be, if the matter is of a serious nature. He advises my right hon. Friend whether in his view an inquiry should be ordered.

In reaching a decision a number of factors have to be taken into account. These include the seriousness, potential as well as actual, of the accident; the casualties—an inquiry is almost always ordered when passengers have been killed and usually when train crew have been killed; the extent of probable public concern; the technical features involved, whether for example the integrity of the signalling system or other safety feature seems to be in question; whether the accident is one of an isolated type or one that fits into an accident pattern or trend and warrants investigation for that reason; whether a particular lesson needs to be made public; and whether the facts might best be elucidated in some other way. The inquiry when ordered is held by one of the inspecting officers of railways.

A point I must stress is that when an inquiry is ordered it is in no way a court for the determination of legal responsibility of any kind. It is made into the technical aspects of the accident and its aim is to enable the inspecting officer to advise the Minister about the cause of the accident and of any measures that should be adopted to prevent a recurrence. The recommendations made by the inspecting officer cannot be imposed on the Railways Board, but they are always carefully considered by it and they are usually adopted. They have indeed led to the adoption of many safeguards that have benefited both the travelling public and railwaymen. The House is well aware that the hon. Member has a great many railwaymen in his constituency.

Such an inquiry into a railway accident is necessarily held in two parts, The first aims to establish the facts of the accident and its immediate cause by the examination of those who actually witnessed it and those who were immediately involved. Where the cause of an accident lies in the actions or neglect of one or more of the persons immediately concerned, the public hearing of evidence is of vital importance. But I must stress the word "immediately". In some cases, such as some of those in which continuous welded rail track has buckled, the track may have been laid some years before it buckled and had not been disturbed since. This was indeed so at Sandy except for normal routine maintenance. And at Lichfield it has taken the region concerned a long time to dig back through the records and establish the history of the track. Ordinary inquiries into Sandy and Lichfield would only have established the immediate and vital fact that the track had already buckled before the train reached it, and that this was not the result of any action or omission by those immediately concerned with the track. This was already known to the Chief Inspecting Officer when he advised my right hon. Friend not to order separate inquiries into these two derailments.

The second part of an inquiry however —and this has proved true in the case of the inquiry into the Somerton derailment—very often involves extremely detailed and prolonged technical investigation into the possible causes of quite simple facts disclosed by the first part. Such investigations will involve conferences and discussions with a wide variety of technical and scientific experts. The procedure is informal and flexible and much of its value depends on the fact that the inspecting officer can rely on the willing co-operation of all grades of railwaymen. There is, I believe, complete trust in the absolute impartiality and professional integrity of the inspecting officers, and the hon. Member gave them their rightful credit.

At such discussions the various experts can speak their minds frankly and freely, in a way they might well not be prepared to do when subject to formal cross-examination. There is, of course, plenty of cross-examination by, and argument with, their fellow experts and, as a result of these close contacts between professionals, various theories and views are freely propounded and thoroughly discussed, and their values are assessed. Such discussions must necessarily be held in private: it would indeed be practically impossible to hold them in public, and if the attempt were to be made the investigation would be made much more difficult and complicated and would almost certainly produce less comprehensive and valuable results. We believe safety might well suffer.

The second part of the inquiry, particularly if technical matters are involved may also necessitate the testing of equipment, and of theories, and the tests may be complex and widespread—the making of trial runs, and the reconstruction of events may be involved. None of this can practicably be carried out "in public" and neither, in the current investigation into continuous welded rail track, can the consultations that are being carried out with foreign railway administrations facing similar problems. I need hardly say that the British Railways Board is sparing no effort to find the right solutions to this problem and, as always, it is giving the inspecting officer every help. The inspecting officer is responsible for ensuring that all necessary tests are carried out and for full discussions with the Board's officers. He then has to make a full report to the Minister and this is always published.

This method has been well tried and has been shown to work. The technical evidence, when complete, has been weighed and balanced—and the inspecting officer can call for advice at all stages from experts in the fields concerned—and that evidence and his conclusions from it are then made public. If, however, the discussions and tests which are spread over a period were to be held in public and a theory that is later proved wrong by test were to be given early publicity, much harm might be done and the public misled or even unnecessarily alarmed.

I recognise that the inspecting officer's final report can take a long time to produce, and then some time to print and publish. This is often inevitable because the investigations take a long time and the report must be very carefully prepared. My right hon. Friend has therefore given instructions that, as soon as the inspecting officer has reached any early conclusions in the continuous welded track investigation or can report any firm progress before the whole investigation is complete, he is to make an interim report. This, like the final report, will be published.

It may help the House to put some of these matters in perspective if I say that sometimes, when Questions are answered in thes House, the figures appear more alarming than they really are. The number of accidents has admittedly increased. However, taking an average over the last 10 years there has been one passenger fatality in a derailment in 145 million passenger journeys, and one passenger fatality in a significant collision in 186 million passenger journeys.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the number of reportable accidents caused by the derailment of passenger trains has remained fairly constant, although those involving goods trains have increased. One of the problems is caused by the use of short wheel-base wagons, and measures are being taken to deal with that. For instance, in 1968, my right hon. Friend approved the necessary investment for the construction of 250 four-wheeled, long wheel-base wagons on an experimental basis, and in August, he approved the Board's proposal to build 3,200 wagons at an estimated cost of £12,700,000. Measures are also being taken by the B.R.B. on C.W.R. track. The ballast shoulders outside sleeper ends are being widened, and steps are being taken to ensure that the ballast is well up to sleeper top level. Various other methods are also being used to improve stability in C.W.R. track.

I hope that what I have said has helped the hon. Gentleman in his quest for a solution to the problem and clarified it as we see it.

My right hon. Friend considers that the present procedure for holding inquiries into railway accidents is sound, sensible, and right. It gets results, and he does not consider that it should be altered.

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