HC Deb 20 October 1972 vol 843 cc744-54

3.50 p.m.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter which is of considerable concern to a large number of my constituents, and that is the proposal by British Rail to alter the barrier arrangements at two level crossings, one at Hampton and the other at Strawberry Hill stations.

Each level crossing lies close to the heart of a local community, and deep anxieties have been expressed to me as to the safety of children. Those anxieties have been expressed by numbers of local people through, for example, Hampton Junior School Parent-Teachers Association, Strawberry Hill Residents Association, The Mall Preparatory School and Mrs. Baeppler, of Strawberry Hill, who presented a petition with 492 signatures. I shall come shortly to the nature of the fears which have been expressed.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, in anticipation of this visit, yesterday visited both Hampton and Strawberry Hill and had a look at the conditions for himself, and I should like to say how much I appreciate his having found time to do that because it shows that he is taking seriously the fears expressed in my constituency.

I would add that this was not the first site visit. A few months ago Mr. L. Edwards, the Divisional Manager of British Rail South-Western Division, came, at my invitation, to Strawberry Hill and to Hampton, and met local parents and explained the proposals. I was grateful to him on that occasion, and I have been grateful both to him and to Mr. David Binnie, General Manager of British Rail's Southern Region, throughout for the consideration and courtesy they have shown. However, on the occasion which I have just mentioned Mr. Edwards was not able to allay the fears of my constituents, and that is why we are here today.

The Secretary of State has power to decide on this matter, and I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that, whatever other factors he has to take into account, the safety of young children must be paramount.

I understand that British Rail's motive is to reduce the signalling staff to save costs. One can see this as part of its struggle to hold down costs and railways fares, which affect a very large number of my constituents who are railway commuters, but, speaking for those commuters, many of whom are themselves parents of young children, I can say that safety must come first. I hope that my hon. Friend will take the fullest account of all the fears which have been expressed, and which I have already put to him in writing, and that he will ask British Rail to attempt to modify the designs of the level crossing barriers to meet those fears.

At present the level crossings consist of the familiar pairs of gates which swing horizontally and are operated from a nearby signal box. British Rail proposes two changes. The first is to introduce a lifting barrier which, when the road is open to vehicular traffic, would go vertically up in the air. The second change, to come about later, would be to remove control from the local signal box and to replace it by remote control from a centralised point, with the system aided by television scanners.

I would first like to comment on the lifting barrier proposal. The worry which people have is that when the lifting barrier is upright so that the road is open there will be no gate across at right angles to the railway line, and this means that adventurous or daredevil children could get access to the live electric rail. It is true that the live rail would be set some way back from the level crossing and that British Railways would plan to install a ground level grid which might be difficult for children to scramble over. For all that, there would still be nothing to stop a child, perhaps one who was skylarking about or who was acting in response to a dare from another child, walking along the steel railway track and so getting close to the live rail.

It may be said that nothing would stop a determined and agile teenager from getting on to any railway line, fence or no fence, gate or no gate. That is a fair point to make. There is, however, a need to protect younger children from the consequences of spontaneous ragging and to avoid putting any unnecessary dangers in their way.

I am not convinced that it is impossible for British Railways, perhaps at a cost of a few hundred pounds in each case, to modify the design and make it safer. Before today's debate I indicated to my hon. Friend three ways in which this might be possible. No doubt the technicians can think of other ways.

I turn to the question of remote control. Of this there is very little practical experience. I am told that remote control is in operation for signal boxes at only one other place, and that is at Canterbury where the system is not identical.

I request my hon. Friend to give a clear assurance that he will have any proposals for remote control most critically examined by some experts who are entirely independent of British Railways and that he will not allow any such arrangement for remote control to proceed unless he is personally satisfied beyond all doubt that there would be no added risk to persons of any age group who might be using the level crossings.

3.57 p.m.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham)

I speak this afternoon, not with my Feltham cap on—as Member for the adjoining constituency—but rather as a constituent of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) who at least on this issue, if not on all issues, is in substantial agreement with the hon. Member, who has been assiduous in pointing out in terms of local publicity the very serious danger represented by this proposal.

I wholly support the hon. Gentleman's efforts. I will give him whatever help he needs, for what that is worth. There is a real danger. Anybody who might doubt that has only to spend one and a half minutes in this locality and see for himself. The hon. Gentleman's predictions as to a likely and early fatality are very well based. I hope that the House and the Miniser will pay due heed to the warnings uttered by my Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Twickenham.

3.58 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I appreciate the concern which my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) has shown for the safety of young children in his constituency. I also appreciate the nature of the speech just delivered by the hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Russell Kerr).

I am told that the British Railways Board wishes to replace the old-fashioned gates at these two level crossings at Strawberry Hill and Hampton Stations with manually controlled barriers, road traffic light signals, and pedestrian warning bells, in connection with the re-signalling of the railway in the Feltham area. These measures must conform to the requirements of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for this type of crossing which have been drawn up with the safety of all users in mind, including, of course, children. We all share the concern which both hon. Members have expressed.

The barriers, which are fitted with light metal skirts, fully fence the railway from the carriageway and footpaths when in the lowered position. They are operated by a signalman from a signal box adjacent to the crossing. They should not, however, be confused with the continental type automatic half-barrier level crossing which is not manned but is automatically worked by an approaching train.

Mr. Russell Kerr

If the hon. Gentleman and I are confused, it is because in the handouts these barriers have been described as Continental type barriers.

Mr. Eyre

I did not mean to imply that the hon. Gentleman or my hon. Friend were confused. I understand that there has been some misunderstanding about the matter in the locality.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Eyre

I was explaining that these level crossings are manned and that distinguishes them from the Continental system. The signalman who operates the barriers together with the road signals and bells must have a good view of the crossing area from the signal box. He can therefore make sure that the crossing is clear of both vehicles and pedestrians before lowering the barriers. Until they are lowered, it is impossible for him to clear the railway signals to allow a train to run over the crossing. There is no question of trains being allowed to run over the crossing when the barriers are up and people are crossing.

Manually controlled barriers are the standard type of replacement for gates at public level crossings on British Railways. They are already operating perfectly satisfactorily at some 180 crossings at all types of sites including busy level crossings in towns and in residential areas. It is important to realise that since barriers were first installed, in 1952, there has not been one accident involving children at any of these crossings.

I am aware that my hon. Friend has seen the manned barrier installation at West Barnes Lane in operation and that he considers that this crossing cannot be compared with those at Hampton Station and Strawberry Hill because the presence of the junctions close to West Barnes Lane would mean that children would always be taught to be particularly careful there. Nevertheless, there are a number of manned barrier installations in Southern Region in residential areas, either in towns or in the centre of villages, where the users have found them thoroughly satisfactory.

My hon. Friend's chief concern is that children, both toddlers and school children, can get on to the railway while the barriers are raised. Trespass guards will, however, be provided right across the railway on both sides of the crossing to make this difficult. The guards consist of timber arris rails 8 ft. 6 ins. long placed at right angles to the footpaths. I have examined them myself. They are difficult to walk over due to their sharp upper edges and steeply sloping sides, though I must admit that nothing will prevent the determined and agile teenager from getting on to the line in the same way that he can always get over or through a railway fence, and my hon. Friend mentioned the adventurous child. But these guards have proved to be an effective deterrent at the many crossings where they have been installed including more than 60 barrier crossings in Southern Region where the railway is electrified on the third rail system.

This accident-free record in respect of crossings should be considered in the light of the tragically large number of children who have been killed or injured when trespassing on the railway, having gained access to it over or through railway fences. During the past three years, it is sad to note, 43 child trespassers under the age of 16 have been killed and 32 injured by being struck by trains, 12 have been killed and 32 injured in other ways though not through electrification, while no fewer than 23 have been killed and 43 injured by coming into contact with the electrified conductor rail. None of these accidents occurred through the child trespasser gaining access to the railway from a level crossing with barriers.

I turn to Strawberry Hill and Hampton Station level crossings, which, at the request of my hon. Friend, I visited yesterday. I disagree with the hon. Member for Feltham about this crossing. It is my considered view that pedestrians of all ages will be safer as a result of the changes, because there will be an additional path on both sides of the roadway and there will be guards stretching out 8 ft. 6 ins. on either side to deter the agile child who might be tempted to try to gain access to the railway.

Mr. Jessel

While I accept that the guard to which my hon. Friend referred might go across most of the width of the railway, is there not a risk that a child might tiptoe or tread along the steel rail itself and thereby obtain access to the live rail? The guard to which he refers would consist of a grid across the ground which would not do away with the presence of the track along which the child could walk.

Mr. Eyre

I have to admit that it is not possible to have a form of guard which could not be penetrated by an agile child determined to be a trespasser, and to that extent my hon. Friend is correct. But children can at present quite easily get on to the line since there are wicket gates at both corners which are usually unlocked and therefore can be opened except when a train is closely approaching the crossing. It is much easier for a child to gain access to the railway line now than it will be when and if the proposed changes have been carried out.

There are no anti-trespass guards there now and it is therefore possible for children to walk off the footway and along the railway. I saw yesterday afternoon how easy it is for them to do it now, and that situation has existed for about 40 years. Should children walk off the footway they could come into contact with the electrified third rail. The signalman is not necessarily watching the crossing continuously when the wicket gates are open since he has many other duties to perform and children may walk up the line unobserved.

If manned barriers are installed at these crossings, however, not only will anti-trespass guards be provided, but also proper footpaths on each side of the road. Therefore pedestrians will never need to walk in the carriageway.

Yesterday afternoon I watched a young mother with two children in a most dangerous situation alongside the barrier with traffic passing on the side on which she was walking. She had to squeeze the children against the barrier to keep them away from the motor cars. This is an unsatisfactory situation and it will be improved as a result of these proposals. The installation of footpaths will appreciably lessen the risk of pedestrians and particularly children stepping into the path of a car or lorry, which is a danger at present.

Furthermore, the provision of amber and flashing red light signals and warning bells specifically for pedestrians will give much better warning of the closure of the road. I should add that the bells will be turned off at night when there are few pedestrians around so that those living in the vicinity of the crossings will not be disturbed.

Because there is a school close to one of the crossings, the one at Hampton, the Board feels that it would be helpful if the school were to be visited and talks given to the children about the working of these crossings and also to stress the dangers of trespassing on the railway and coming into contact with the electrified third rail. Such campaigns in schools have proved effective elsewhere.

It is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to decide whether these proposals should proceed. He will certainly take into account all the views expressed here this afternoon. If he decides provisionally to allow the Board to install manually-controlled barriers at these crossings, he must first allow the local authorities concerned two months in which to make representations. It is only then, after consideration of all the issues involved and the representations made, that he can finally decide whether to make an order to authorise the conversions.

In deciding whether to make an order, my right hon. Friend must consider both the safety and the convenience of road traffic as well as pedestrian traffic. Gated level crossings of the kind that exist now are by no means free from accidents. In 1971 there were four accidents to trains caused by motorists. In three cases motorists hit the gates when they were across the road so that they swung into the path of a train. In the fourth case a motorist struck the gates and came to rest with his car fouling the railway, where it was hit by a train. Any of these accidents could have resulted in the derailment of a train.

In addition, there have been a number of cases of cars hitting the gates when they were across the railway. In fact an accident of this type occurred at Strawberry Hill in 1969. There is always the danger that a road accident can involve pedestrians, including children, who happen to be passing at the time. I am glad to be able to say that manned barrier crossings have had a remarkably good record, not only concerning pedestrian accidents but also concerning road accidents. It has been suggested that this may have been due to the provision of road traffic signals. Delay to road traffic is also likely to be less with manned barriers, and I understand that the police often support their provision on these grounds.

I should like to turn quickly to British Railways' proposals to control, at a later stage, both these level crossings by means of closed-circuit television operated by a signalman situated in Feltham signal box. There are at present three such crossings on British Railways. The first was installed at Funtham's Lane near Peterborough in 1970, the second at West Ealing in February, 1971, and the third at St. Dunstans, Canterbury, in July, 1971. With this method of control the barriers, the road traffic light signals, the footpaths, or the other facilities remain unchanged. Two cameras are erected on a high pole beside the crossing and special lighting is installed there by which the signalman working in a signal box some way away can have a good view of it.

The experience at the three crossings has shown that the view of the crossing and its immediate approaches through the television system is as good as if the crossing were situated beside the signal box. Indeed, signalmen have said that in foggy weather they have been able to see that their television monitored crossing was clear of traffic and pedestrians more easily than they could the crossing alongside their signal box.

The signalman controlling a crossing by television is provided with control buttons to raise and lower the barriers as well as lights which indicate the position of the barriers, and whether the road traffic signals are working correctly. He can switch on the special lighting at the crossing as required. He can also control windscreen wipers on the cameras or select a reserve camera or a reserve monitor in the signal box. Should any of these facilities fail, special and carefully thought out procedures are applied whereby trains are stopped at the protecting railway signals. The drivers are then cautioned to approach the crossing slowly and to cross only if it is safe to do so. Crossings will always be manned until any failed equipment has been repaired.

The people at Strawberry Hill and Hampton may be afraid that, with the barriers raised and with no signalman near the crossings, the trespass guards will not prevent trespass by children. These guards have however been used throughout the country at the 210 automatic half-barrier level crossings, which are completely unattended. They have also been used at two of the television crossings—the third is in a works yard—as well as at some open crossings and footpath crossings. They have been proved to be a successful deterrent to trespass, and no accident to any pedestrian, let alone a child, has been reported at any of them.

My hon. Friend and his constituents have grown accustomed to having gates at level crossings, and probably believe this form of protection to be completely safe. I hope I have shown that manned barrier crossings are equally safe and far more efficient.

With regard to the use of the television system that I have described, I should like to make one more important point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has insisted that, before any barrier crossing is to be converted to remote control with a television monitoring system, the full procedure shall be adhered to. Highway authorities and local authorities will have the proposals put to them in detail, and will have a full two months in which to make any representations to the Secretary of State before British Railways can alter the method of operation. I am sure that hon. Members will be reassured to know that this strict control will be imposed.

I hope I have shown that manned barrier crossings are equally safe and far more efficient, providing positive warning of the descent of the barriers to all road users. In addition, it is clear that it is more difficult to trespass on the railway from these crossings than from gated crossings such as Strawberry Hill and Hampton Station as they are now, with footpaths that are served by wicket gates.

I appreciate the concern of my hon. Friend. The points he has made will be carefully considered. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Feltham for what he said and I assure him that the point he made will be taken into account. I hope that hon. Members will carefully consider the major evidence which has been assembled to explain the great care that is being taken to improve the services in this locality.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Four o'clock.