HC Deb 16 April 1980 vol 982 cc1430-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

1.50 am
Sir Timothy Kitson (Richmond, Yorks)

I apologise to you Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House and to my hon. Friend who has to answer this debate for raising yet another problem at this very late hour. But the problem of the Springwell Lane level crossing at Northallerton is difficult and tiresome for many of the inhabitants who regularly have to cross this railway line.

The problem arises because in recent months British Railways have changed their policy with regard to the use of this railway line. Until May of last year, the line running from Northallerton to Teesside was used only at night, but, with the introduction of the HS-125 intercity services last May, additional traffic was put on the line. Indeed, it is now used regularly day and night, carrying more than 40 trains a day.

The crossing is close to the centre of Northallerton—probably less than half a mile out of the centre of the town—and it serves 26 houses, some farm land and 74 people who live just across the railway line from the centre of the town. All the residents leaving their homes for work, children going to school and tradesmen serving those houses have to cross the railway line.

The Springwell Lane crossing is unsatisfactory in this modern age. Last Saturday I went there again to refresh my memory of the situation. As usual, I discovered that the gates had again been left open. That is how the gates are left for most of the time nowadays, although they are supposed to be closed. Because the gates swing outwards, anybody going into Springwell Lane drives up to the gates and, if they are closed—which, as I said, is a rare occasion—has to cross the line five times before he gets his car over the level crossing and to his house. He opens the gate, walks across and opens the other gate, which opens outwards on the far side, walks back and gets into his car, drives across the line, gets out of his car and walks back and closes the far gate, closes the near gate behind him, gets into his car and drives to his house. As the line is 22 yards wide, it is not a happy prospect on a cold, wintry or snowy night. It is hardly surprising that the 74 inhabitants of Springwell Lane do not bother to shut the gates.

British Railways employees, who have for some months been working on the far side of the railway line from the centre of the town, cross the line regularly. I am assured by people who live in Springwell Lane that those employees rarely close the gates.

I should add that the gates are 9 ft. 9 in. wide. That does not allow for the modern farm machinery that has to cross the line in this day and age. It is impossible to get a combine harvester across the line without taking it to pieces.

Some time ago British Railways put in an audible warning alarm, which most people in the area state is totally inadequate and unsatisfactory. I am assured that it makes the most appalling row, which affects the houses adjacent to the crossing. At a recent public meeting one householder, who lives close to the crossing, said that he is woken up as each train passes because of the row made by the machine. He always gets up and has a cup of tea. That happens 10 times every night. He assures me that if it goes on for much longer he will need to consult his doctor.

This may seem a small point, but it is true to say that this is an unsatisfactory position. The Act covering the status and the provisions of the crossing is outdated and does not take into account the modern-day user—soundproof cars, invalid carriages, farm machinery. All of these use the crossing regularly. The Act which operates here is the Leeds and Hartlepool Act 1846, which incorporates the provisions of the Railway Clauses Consolidation Act 1845. The road over the crossing was referenced as an occupation road and bridle road. Under section 61 of the Act, British Railways' obligation was only to provide and maintain convenient Ascents and Descents and other convenient Approaches together with good and sufficient Gates…on each side". I stress again that 74 people living in 26 houses are affected. Whenever they go out they have to use the crossing and handle the heavy duty gates, which have to be manually opened and closed. Not only are there 74 residents but there are the milkman, the postman, the paper boys food delivery people and farm machinery and British Railways employees, all of whom are using the crossing regularly. A census was carried out in 1971 which showed that 231 vehicles used the crossing every day. I believe that the House would agree that it is likely that that figure has risen considerably in the last nine years.

We also have the problem of an increased number of trains arising from the introduction of the HS-125 locomotive on the main line. This has meant the diversion of, on average, 40 trains a day, on to this line. The rules applying to the opening and closing of the gates are continually ignored. This creates a danger for the innocent user who is not experienced in the workings of the line.

Recently I attended a public meeting, which included representatives of the residents, British Railways, the county council and the district council. It was clear from that discussion that British Railways recognised the need to improve the crossing. They argue, however, that at the moment they are fulfilling their legal responsibilities. Nevertheless the present situation, most people would agree, is unacceptable. As is so often the case, the question here is: who is to pay for the new crossing? British Railways suggest that it would cost something in the region of £30,000 for flashing lights and a modern barrier, and they would probably install it in the middle of 1981. They also said at this meeting that they would accept at least 50 per cent. of the cost of the reorganisation. Then they look to the district and county council to make a contribution. As in so many of these cases, it seems that we are really arguing about from which pocket we take the money. British Railways suggest that a new, modern, crossing with automatic barriers should be installed, and everyone accepts that this is necessary.

I think that my hon. Friend will be aware of the case of Herrington v. British Rail in 1972. British Railways were found to have other responsibilities for the safety of the public which are not normally found in their terms of reference. They did not accept this parallel at the time. A complaint was laid before the Health and Safety Executive some years ago drawing a comparison between the responsibility of industry and a public body.

It can be argued that the milkman and the postman who use this railway crossing are not covered because the gates are never shut. As the employees of British Rail use this crossing they must know about the risk to the public yet they appear not to take any action. In the past 10 years there have been possibly two prosecutions and everybody knows that the normal practice is to leave the gates open. It would be argued that the postman and the milkman have a right to look to British Railways and to ask whether their safety is covered.

I am sure that when my hon. Friend replies he will be sympathetic. We all know that there is difficulty in finding money. However, the present position must not be allowed to continue indefinitely. I repeat, British Railways accept that there is need for improvement. They recognise that adequate safety arrangements are not provided because for many years the need to close the gates during the day has not arisen. By habit they are left open day in and day out, week in and week out, and now year in and year out. With the substantial increase in traffic, we know that the safety requirements are not covered.

The Secretary of State has powers under section 124 of the Transport Act 1968 to require the British Railways Board to provide additional protection where a private crossing carries a significant public user. I dare say that he may feel that he should implement that part of the Act.

I have been helped by Councillor Bacon, who was recently elected to Northallerton council. He has done much research into this case and taken a great deal of trouble with it. I am grateful to him for the work that he has done. He, like so many others, believes that unless we do something with the railway crossing, we shall have a serious accident.

All the residents who live in Springwell Lane believe that some action should be taken, and the Minister could help us in one way. As British Railways have accepted the fact that improvement is required, have offered to pay a substantial part of the cost and have turned to the local authorities to provide some of the money, perhaps my hon. Friend's Department could find a way of co-ordinating discussions between British Rail and the local authorities which would result in a solution. I cannot believe that we should allow the present situation to continue.

I very much hope that when my hon. Friend replies he will assure us that the necessity for improvement is accepted and that a way of finding the necessary money will be discussed with all concerned.

2.3 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks. (Sir T. Kitson) on obtaining an Adjournment debate on the Springwell Lane level crossing. I listened with interest to what he said. I realise that the present situation at this level crossing is not in any way satisfactory. I think that everyone involved recognises that. Almost all the parties involved would like to see the arrangements at this level crossing improved.

As my hon. Friend rightly anticipated, we are mainly concerned about who pays for the necessary improvements and how we can best achieve some agreement to ensure that they are made. Indeed, I think that everyone concerned accepts that there should be some form of automatic level crossing at this point. The sort of crossing that could be provided would be the new type of automatic open crossing, which is remotely monitored from a signal box. That would involve "wig-wag" traffic signals at all four corners of the crossing. The crossing would be widened to enable vehicles to pass each other and audible warning devices could be turned down at night. The cost of the installation cannot at present be estimated exactly, but I am told that it would not be less than £50,000. We are concerned about the way in which the various authorities might contribute to produce the necessary money.

My hon. Friend has described the present road and rail layout, which is unusual. Part of the unusual background has given rise to the present situation. Springwell Lane crosses the Northallerton-Stockton goods line in Northallerton. The two lines divide and Springwell level passes below that part known as the high level by bridge crosses the low level by level crossing, passes beneath the East Coast main line and terminates at a farm.

The lines are operated under ancient legislation. I believe that it was the Leeds and Thirsk Railway Act 1846 which governed the present situation. Certainly it incorporates the relevant parts of the Railway Clauses Consolidation Act 1845. My hon. Friend has correctly described the legal obligations on the board, with which it complies. That legislation governs all the arrangements concerning the crossing, including the obligation upon those who use it to reshut and fasten the gates after use. However, as my hon. Friend says, with his knowledge of the crossing, in practice that system is by no means being followed as regularly as perhaps it ought.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century there has been further development in the locality in Springwell Lane as well as recent changes in railway traffic. Springwell serves some houses west of the East Coast main line. Some of them are terraced houses south of the road between the two lines that were built at the turn of the century. There are some bungalows north of the line that were built before and after the last war. There are 25 houses in all.

The level crossing is unmanned and it has always been unmanned. It has wide wooden gates about 10ft wide which open away from the railway and a sleeper surface adequate for carrying cars. It has wicket gates for the use of pedestrians. I have been given details of the visibility and speeds on the line. At line speed for the freight trains that use it—about 50 m.p.h.—down trains can be seen for about 300 yards, which is about 12 seconds' warning, and up trains for about 150 yards, which is about six seconds' warning. As that is not adequate, the railway has been provided with a warning bell, which sounds for about one minute. The bell has recently been altered to what is known as a yodel alarm, which is more reliable in icy conditions.

I have listened to what my hon. Friend said about the inadequacy of the alarm, although he has also said, somewhat inconsistently, that those who live near to the line have apparently been complaining about the noise that it makes at night. I can well understand that the noise is unpleasant, especially if it is experienced frequently as one is trying to sleep.

Unfortunately, this situation has been allowed to grow up over the years. I am sure that that is through no one's specific fault. All the surrounding houses must have received planning authority from the local land authority when they were built. The railway board tells me and my Department that it was never given any opportunity to comment on the adequacy or otherwise of the crossing. The use of the line and the housing development near it has built up over the years without anybody consulting anyone else, as far as one understands, about the adequacy of the crossing. It continues to be operated on the old basis.

Fortunately, there has so far been only one accident, although I do not place great reliance on that, since we should not wait for accidents to occur. I am told that during a night in January 1974 a local car driver was struck by a goods train on the crossing. Fortunately, little damage was sustained and there were no casualties. The gates had been left open on that occasion. Apparently the car driver did not open the car window to listen to the bell.

It was probably lucky that the consequence was not more serious. However, the fact remains that that is the only accident that has taken place.

The traffic on the line has recently changed. For many years goods trains were carried on the high-level lines by day—which involves going over the lane on a bridge—and the low-level lines by the level crossing were used only at night. High-speed trains were brought on to the main lines in May 1979. Since then, low-level lines have been in use for 24 hours to save the use of a cross-over on the main lines. I well understand my hon. Friend's representation that, since the line has seen a greatly increased use on the lower level, concern has increased.

At the time, the board reminded all those concerned in writing about the change in the pattern of rail traffic and they were reminded of their responsibilities towards reclosing the gates. There have been two prosecutions for failing to close the gates. In October 1979 two individuals were fined £25 each. I am sorry to say that my information corresponds with my hon. Friend's local knowledge, and in practice the gates are not always closed after use. Some attempt has been made to measure the present use of the crossing. I am told that householders keep about 50 cars. A census carried out in May 1979 showed that 230 vehicles used the crossing per day.

There is now pressure to use the legal powers available to try to get those involved to reach an agreement to modernise the crossing. I followed the argu- ments of Councillor Bacon, to whom my hon. Friend referred. He has written to the railways inspectorate suggesting that the board was not fulfilling its responsibility under section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. However, the Act cannot apply since the method of working the crossing is laid down in a specific nineteenth century statute. The board has no power of its own to change that statutory obligation.

My hon. Friend raised the question of section 124 of the Transport Act 1968. That has been looked at. It gives the Minister power to make an order to improve the protection of the crossing. That power can be used only if the crossing has developed significant public use, namely, when a former private road has become a public highway. An important problem is that the road clearly remains a private road. The local authority has looked at the problem but has declined to adopt the road as a public road. The crossing is, as it always has been, a private level crossing. The Minister's powers under section 124 of the Transport Act 1968 do not apply at the moment.

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me for being so technical, but this is of concern to his constituents. The legal position is that if the road were to be adopted as a public road, the powers under section 124 of the Transport Act 1968 could be used to authorise modern forms of protection at the crossing. It is also possible that a grant, under EEC regulation 1192, might be available.

The local council has declined to adopt the road and so it is not a public road. It therefore remains a private level crossing. I am glad to say that some discussions have taken place. My hon. Friend said that he attended the meeting on 21 March at the district council offices. I understand that the North Yorkshire county council, the Northallerton town council, Councillor Bacon and a number of householders were present. I am sorry that no agreement was reached at that meeting about how the cost of providing the improvements—which I think all would agree are needed—could be met. Once again, it was made clear that the county council—the highway authority—was not prepared at that stage to adopt Springwell Lane as a public road. There was an exchange between the board and the county council that did not reach a successful conclusion. Along with my hon. Friend, I hope that something can be done to enable the various local authorities and the board to reach some understanding and that the improvements will be financed.

On the general policy for improving level crossings, last autumn my right hon. Friend the Minister agreed with the recommendations of the level crossing working party and on the basis of its work the British Railways Board proposed automatic open crossings at the site, and design work for the necessary equipment is in hand. But the board is not prepared to bear the full cost on this private crossing, and that is not surprising when one looks at the considerable amount of level crossing improvement work that has to be done.

Nevertheless, the board has agreed to contribute towards the cost of the necessary improvements. It is open to the highway authority and the local authority to contribute to the cost. Section 123 of the Transport Act 1968 specifically empowers them to make a contribution. It is my hope and, I understand, the hope of the board that the understandable concern for safety at the crossing will be followed by some understanding that there should be local contributions to the cost of improving it. The board has limited funds available for level crossing improvement and modernisation and it must apply its priorities. The crossing needs improvement, but it cannot be regarded as having the highest priority in the list and it is not right to expect the board to pay the entire cost.

I have to repeat that the crossing is a private one, the use is of a private nature and, therefore, my right hon. Friend has no legal powers to require the board or anyone else to do anything. If the road were to be adopted by the county council as a public highway the situation would undoubtedly be changed, both in law and in fact. Whether that is necessary is something that the local authorities must decide.

I hope that agreement will be reached among those involved on how they share the cost. The Department has no specific legal powers to require anybody to do anything, but I understand my hon. Friend's concern and, like him, I hope that something can be done to meet the requirements of his constituents. If my Department, I or my hon. Friend can be of any assistance in facilitating contacts between the board and the various local authorities involved, who, I am sure, are anxious to help, we shall do anything that we can.

I conclude on that more encouraging note for my hon. Friend's constituents. I think that everybody wants to see something done to improve the crossing. We are somewhat bogged down in discussions about who produces what contribution to the cost and, although the Department and Ministers have no legal powers, we shall give whatever help we can in bringing the parties together to reach understanding and agreement on the division of the cost.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Two o'clock.