HC Deb 24 February 1970 vol 796 cc1164-70

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

12.2 a.m.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Mr. Speaker, I apologise for keeping you awake at this late hour, but thank you for giving me the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment this matter which is of such great importance to my constituents.

Mr. Speaker

It is courteous of the hon. Gentleman to apologise, but he is well within his rights to raise a matter on the Adjournment at any time.

Mr. Ashton

The railway line from Retford to Cottam, in my constituency, was disused for a number of years, but was reopened two or three years ago when a new power station was built at Cottam. At present, eight trains a day run on this former disused line; they carry 30,000 tons of coal. This number will build up to 25 trains a day carrying 100,000 tons. What happens at the level crossing is that the train stops; the driver gets down, opens the gates at the unmanned crossing, drives the train through, then closes the crossing gates, and then drives the train on to the power station.

Unfortunately, five times during the last 12 months trains have not stopped in time, but have smashed through the barriers at the level crossing. These accidents are causing great concern to my constituents. In January of this year a train crashed through the crossing and narrowly missed the school bus. There is a school not 100 yards from the crossing.

British Railways admit that these accidents are caused through human error, that it is natural for train drivers to wish not to have to walk far to open the gates and thus then tend to try to stop their trains too close to the gates. Sometimes on a wet day, or when the train is carrying an extra heavy load, it goes through the gates instead of stopping in time. After an initial protest was made to the railways, a 600-yard warning sign was illuminated and they promised that trains would stop at least 600 yards before the gates. Obviously, this is only a temporary measure.

In May, 1966, all interested parties proposed that in 1968 the crossing should be turned into a half-barrier automatic Continental type crossing which would not necessitate the train stopping: the barrier would come down automatically to hold up traffic. It was agreed that Nottingham County Council would illuminate the S-bend on the approach to the crossing. The road access is up a hill and around a short bend, so that motorists are virtually on the crossing before they even see it or know that a train is approaching.

In 1968, the project was held up due to the Hixon Report. This report, as my hon. Friend knows, followed a crash at Hixon, in Staffordshire, when a long low loader carrying a heavy load was struck by an express train, probably because of the Continental type crossing not having a proper timing sequence. The Hixon Committee was set up to investigate the circumstances.

Following that report, it was recommended that the automatic half-barrier crossing should have a longer time cycle, that the approach road should have a carriageway 40 feet wide, that it should be a dual carriageway with a central reservation 40 yards on either side, or, if that were not practicable, that solid white lines with "cats eyes" should be painted down the middle of the road.

It was also proposed that there should he yellow box markings each side of the Continental type of crossing so as to avoid backing up due to engine failure, or slow moving loads not being able to clear the way. It was proposed that the approach to the crossings should be straight for 100 feet on either side and that the curvature of the road should be not less than 1,250 feet radius. Finally, the Hixon Report said that special arrangements should be made for children living nearby by British Railways and the local police.

Because their parents are afraid, the children in this area have to make a long detour so that they do not use the crossing. This has added to the cost of travelling to school. Because the children live within the three-mile limit and there is no alternative local bus service, the parents have clubbed together to provide a small bus to take the children to and from school. This causes extra cost and inconvenience.

I should like my hon. Friend to give one or two guarantees. I should like him again to urge Nottinghamshire County Council and British Railways to give priority to this crossing. He assured me that it was in the programme for 1970–71, but there is still much local anxiety that we should not go through another winter with the crossing as it is and with children having to go to school in the mornings in the dark. Can he assure me that he will press British Railways and Nottinghamshire County Council to get the work done this summer?

Will my hon. Friend urge the county council to consider the possibility of an underpass? The road approaching the crossing is uphill and an underpass might be constructed. I understand that there is a problem of the drainage of surface water, but an underpass would eliminate the need for the crossing which would then not have to be changed, thus saving British Railways that expense.

In the meantime, while something is being done, will my hon. Friend ask British Railways not to run trains through the crossing while children are going to or from school? The trains going through the crossing only carry coal to the stockpile for the power station, and I am certain that it would be possible for them to do so at times other than morning and evening when children are going to and from school.

Is it possible for the police to be on duty at the crossing during those times? I am satisfied with the replies which I have received from my hon. Friend about this matter, and I thank him for his generous co-operation and concern. This is a problem of co-ordination by the power station, the railways, the county council and the local police. I know that my hon. Friend does not have jurisdiction over all these bodies, but I shall be grateful if he will promise to urge them to do as much as possible during the summer.

12.10 a.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) has put his case very fairly. This is not the first time that he has raised it with me. He has been in constant correspondence with me on behalf of his constituents on the subject of the Leverton, South, level crossing.

May I make it quite clear that under the 1962 Transport Act statutory responsibility for the safety of operation of British Railways rests with the British Railways Board. The Government cannot, nor would they wish to if they could, directly interfere with or seek to dilute that responsibility.

The board's responsibilities for public level crossings such as that at the disused Leverton station are also laid down by statute, but the Minister has powers to authorise changes in the form of protection at public level crossings; thus, for example, he can direct the Railways Board to keep the gates normally closed across the railway and not against the road, and he can authorise the installation of automatic half-barriers or lifting barriers, but—and this I must emphasise—he can exercise these powers only on the application of the Railways Board.

Having made the statutory position quite clear, I must add that the Minister and all of us in the House are, of course, naturally very concerned with the safety of the public, whether in vehicles or afoot, using level crossings, and it is for this reason that he requires all accidents at level crossings, whether they be over passenger lines or over goods lines, to be reported to him. It was, therefore, with considerable concern that he noted that during the last six months there have been no less than five occasions on which a train has collided with the gates of Leverton station public level crossing when they were closed across the railway and the road was thus open to road traffic.

I may say, however, that two of these incidents were so slight that the crossing gates were still able to be used after the train had backed clear, and, fortunately, nobody has suffered injury from any of these incidents. I am glad to have the opportunity of explaining the steps that the board has already taken, and is proposing to take, to ensure that such incidents will not happen again.

Leverton station level crossing carries an unclassified road between South and North Leverton over what was originally a branch line, and in 1952 British Railways obtained a direction from the Minister that the level crossing gates, which open alternately across the road and the railway, were to be kept closed across the railway from 6 a.m. to midnight. This meant that they need not be manned, but could be operated by the trainmen. This was extended too be effective throughout the 24 hours by a further direction in May, 1958. The branch line was closed in November, 1959, and the gates of this level crossing and others on the line were fixed open to road traffic. Until the closure of the line, the signalman at Leverton station signal box opened and closed the gates of the crossing.

In 1964, British Railways sought permission from the Ministry to reopen the line, in connection with the Central Electricity Generating Board's proposals to build a power station at Cottam, and Leverton station level crossing gates, which, by direction, were still to be kept normally closed across the railway, were to be operated by the trainmen. The Ministry agreed, and in 1965 one or two trains a day, supplying materials for the construction of the power station, began to use the line.

Regular coal traffic did not start until 1967, and British Railways had by then submitted proposals to the Ministry for the installation of automatic half-barriers at Leverton. A site meeting had been held when the accident at Hixon level crossing to which my hon. Friend referred made it necessary to postpone any further action.

At the time when British Railways first proposed to install automatic half-barriers, they thought that up to 24 trains would run over the line each way each day at a line speed of 35 m.p.h. I understand, however, and my hon. Friend confirmed, that at present the average rail user is only eight trains each way each day but that, starting in June this year and continuing for the next two years, there will be phased increases in rail traffic until a maximum of 20 to 25 trains each way each day is reached. By mid-1971, the figure might be 15.

Working the gates by trainmen means that the train has to be brought to a stand clear of the crossing; the guard or other trainman then alights and operates the gates before signalling the train over, and then opens the gates again to road traffic after it has passed.

There are illuminated distance marker boards alongside the railway at 600 and 500 yards from the crossing to warn a driver that he is closely approaching it. Each of the recent incidents in which drivers have failed to stop their trains short of the gates have, I understand, been the result of errors of judgment on the part of the locomotive drivers, and suitable disciplinary measures have been taken. I understand that these failures have been due mainly to drivers attempting to bring their trains to a stand at the closest possible position to the crossing gates to avoid unnecessary walking for the second man, but they have not left sufficient margin for possible misjudgment.

For this reason, and, I understand, as an interim extra safeguard only pending the consideration of further safeguards, additional illuminated "Stop" boards have now been put up alongside the railway at a distance of 100 yards from the crossing on each side of it. These display the words, Level crossing 100 yards ahead. STOP. No movement past the board unless authorised in white on a red background. They are mandatory and must not be passed until the trainman has walked forward to the crossing, has operated the gates, and then signals the train to cross.

British Railways have notified the Ministry of their intention to apply for an Order for the installation of automatic half-barriers at Leverton station level crossing, and a site meeting is being arranged within the next month or two. I understand, however, that all the appropriate signalling resources in the Eastern Region will be fully occupied for some time to come with work associated with essential automatic half-barrier modifications following the Hixon Report and that, unless the programme for these is delayed, they will be unable to cope with a new installation at Leverton before mid-1971.

The Nottinghamshire County Council is the highway authority for Southgore Lane, the road connecting North Leverton and South Leverton over the railway line. I understand that the council do not think an under-pass for road vehicles, as was suggested by my hon. Friend, would be a practical proposition, and we agree. The crossing is in the Trent Valley, and excavation below the water table, with a permanent need to pump to the nearest watercourse, would be required. The cost of even a sub-standard headroom scheme would be about £100,000.

This does not, however, mean that nothing can be done until mid-1971. The Nottinghamshire County Council already has a road improvement scheme for this crossing. I understand that money has now been allotted for this, and that the council is prepared to straighten the bends immediately north and south of the crossing over a total distance of some 200 yards, starting this summer, even though an automatic half-barrier installation cannot be made concurrently.

This would enable the board, which would provide ducts on the new alignment, to install automatic half-barriers later with a minimum of difficulty. This matter was discussed at a meeting at the crossing on 26th January, 1970, between the county surveyor and representatives of British Railways; and this shows, I think, that the board and the county council are in close touch.

As regards altering the timings of the trains, I understand from British Railways that this would be impracticable. The trains come and go from and to varying points and over varying distances. They are hauled by certain specialised engines that are equipped with air brakes and a slow speed device for special running within the power station. The availability of these engines largely dictates the present train timings.

The situation that has arisen recently is obviously unsatisfactory. Some of the incidents that have happened might have caused injuries to crossing users. But I believe that the steps already taken by British Railways should be sufficient to ensure safety until automatic half-barriers can be installed next year. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to watch the position.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Twelve o'clock.