HC Deb 27 April 1984 vol 58 cc1018-22

11 am

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (by private notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement about the incident involving a train carrying nuclear waste which was in collision yesterday with a car at a level crossing near Brookland.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

At 3 o'clock yesterday afternoon, a train consisting of a locomotive, one vehicle carrying a nuclear flask, and a brake van, struck a private car at Boarmans open level crossing, which is where a public road crosses the single goods line connecting Dungeness power station with the Hastings-Ashford line at Appledore. Trains on the line are restricted to 5 mph The crossing is not gated, but there are clear road warning signs for road users to give way. British Rail, as it is required to do by statute, will make a report of the accident to the Department as soon as its inquiries are complete. However, I am already able to tell the House that the Central Electricity Generating Board staff checked the nuclear flask, and declared it safe and undamaged, at 4.30 yesterday afternoon. I am glad to be able to tell the House that none of the occupants of the car sustained serious injury. The locomotive had some damage which prevented in from continuing. There was no damage to the flask, and no risk of contamination whatever.

Mr. Howard

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he consider whether the precautions which are taken at level crossings used by trains carrying nuclear waste are sufficient? Will he also ensure that the Central Electricity Generating Board's study of the incident, including, as no doubt it would include, an analysis of the impact on the nuclear flask, is made public so that independent judgments may be formed as to whether the behaviour of the flask in the circumstances which occurred yesterday conformed to the behaviour that would have been predicted for it?

Mr. Mitchell

Whether the precautions are sufficient at the level crossing concerned, and whether extra precautions should be taken, will of course become clear during the inquiry. However, there are clear warning indicators for road users. The train was moving very slowly. In fact, it was moving more slowly than might normally have been the case, since the driver had spotted some sheep on the line, and was sounding his horn in an endeavour to get the sheep to move off the track. In these circumstances, I am sure that my hon. Friend will realise that this was a minor incident at low speed.

As to publication of the report, it would not be the normal practice to the publish a report unless the inspector of railways decided that there should be a formal inquiry.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

Would the Minister confirm that the speed of trains over open level crossings is invariably low, and that while all hon. Members—at least, all Opposition Members—regret the necessity for the transport of nuclear waste at all, as long as it exists the safest mode of transport is the one used—that is, rail? Would the Minister accept that, every day, dangerous substances are conveyed by road vehicles? Those vehicles are frequently involved in far more serious accidents than this one, often involving loss of life, yet such accidents are rarely the subject of private notice questions.

Mr. Mitchell

I can confirm that the speed at such level crossings is restricted to 5 mph. For the reasons that I have explained to the House, the speed was lower on this occasion. It is correct, as the hon. Gentleman says, that this is the safest possible mode of moving spent fuel. The flask is made of 14-in thick steel. Indeed, in a recent test, a flask was dropped 30 ft on to a solid platform, and there was no risk to the contents. I can reassure the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), whose constituency is involved, that there was no risk whatever to any member of the public from contamination as a result of this minor accident.

Mr. Tim Brinton (Gravesham)

Does my hon. Friend not agree that, in spite of the statements that he has made, which are most reassuring, the local people in this area, in which I was a county councillor, have been aware that these trains have been travelling through this area for a long time? Will he not accept that there is an anxiety, but that, at the same time, there has been a trouble-free period of many years? Would he not agree that what was mentioned on the radio this morning—a public example of a simulated crash of such a vehicle—would reassure the public much more than any statements that he can make?

Mr. Mitchell

I accept, and I understand, my hon. Friend's anxiety, as a former county councillor representing the area, and knowing, as he will know, the natural feelings of anxiety of people living in the area. However, I do not think that there is anything in what has occurred on this occasion to give cause for anxiety. I hope that my hon. Friend will take the opportunity of reassuring any of his old friends in the area concerned that there is no cause for alarm.

As to the reassurance that my hon. Friend seeks about the effect of impact, I should simply repeat to the House that a test has recently been carried out in which a test flask was dropped 30 ft on to a solid platform. That gave a far greater impact than could conceivably have happened between a motor car and a train moving at 5 mph. In the circumstances, I hope that my hon. Friend and the House will feel reassured.

Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

The hitting of a motorist by a train that is moving at less than 5 mph, impeded by sheep, seems to be some sort of art form. Will the Minister not accept that any movement of nuclear waste has certain dangers? Is it not unnecessary to move such small quantities as one wagon with a locomotive and a brake van? Would the Minister tell the House what stopped the people involved from waiting until there was a sizeable load, which could have been properly policed?

Mr. Mitchell

Of course, one understands the anxieties to which the hon. Gentleman gives voice about any movement of nuclear waste. It is an unpleasant material. One does not like to have quantities of it moving round the country. However, this is a normal, practical management decision of the power station as to the amount of spent fuel which it has to get rid of, and which has to go for processing at Sellafield. It would not be right to ask for larger quantities to be moved. I am not at all sure that the public would be reassured by the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that larger, rather than smaller, quantities should be transported.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

My hon. Friend may be aware that similar trains move through my constituency carrying waste from another power station. It would, therefore, be helpful if he would interpret the experiment—when a flask was dropped from a height of 30 ft—in impact terms relating to miles per hour of a train. Many people are hypersensitive on this point and concerned lest there should be danger resulting from an accident of this kind.

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend asks me to convert a fall of 30 ft into an impact speed of a railway locomotive. I am not technically qualified to make such a calculation standing on my feet, but I will write giving him the details for which he asks.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

If a train going at less than 5 mph, the driver of which is on the lookout for sheep, can be stopped in an accident with a car, may I ask the Minister to say what precautions exist to prevent the deliberate stopping of a train under those circumstances, perhaps even as an act of terrorism?

Mr. Mitchell

The normal movement of trains occurs throughout the country all the time. In this case the train was carrying some nuclear waste material. Such material is encased in a 14-inch steel cylinder and, as such, is proof against any potential attack.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

If the main difficulty was the fact that there was no gate, may I ask my hon. Friend to agree that the problem could be overcome, as it is on the continent, by having a gate arm operated by lights, which I gathered my hon. Friend to say were there and which were clearly on view to oncoming motorists and others?

Mr. Mitchell

This is one of those level crossings which has no gate and no signals operated by trains. This was a very slow-moving train. There are sight lines but we shall, as a result of the inquiry, be checking whether those sight lines were unobscured. There are road indicators telling drivers to stop and give way to trains. It will be a matter for the inquiry as to what happened in this case.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I am comforted by the Minister's assurance that there was no hazard in this instance. I am also comforted by the news that the train driver was sufficiently concerned about the sheep that he warned, by tooting his horn, of the passage of radioactive material. I wish that were done for people, too.

I am somewhat disturbed by the fact that the dropping of a container from 30 ft assumes that any bridge, cliff or precipice is limited to that height. There are a number in this country which are considerably higher than that.

The Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) that he considered that such flasks were proof against any kind of attack. Is he aware that, when a flask of this nature was stored in east London, members of Friends of the Earth walked on to a passenger platform with a rocket launcher, that they pointed the launcher at the container of radioactive material and that they shot a photograph of the container from behind, showing the rocket launcher in the foreground with the flask clearly in its sights? British Rail's answer to the problem posed was that anyone could do that so long as they bought a platform ticket. Is the——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must relate his question directly to the private notice question and not conduct a debate on the matter generally.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to you for that guidance, Mr. Speaker.

If the Minister is aware of that incident, he must be aware of the possibility of a repetition, which could be real rather than enacted. What does he intend to do to ensure that a real incident of that type does not take place?

Mr. Mitchell

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that does not arise in the case of this impact in this part of Kent. If he wants to ask a question about the carriage of nuclear waste by British Rail in various parts of the country and about the safety aspects, I shall be happy to give him a full reply if he will table a question or write to me.

Mr. Cecil Franks (Barrow and Furness)

Is my hon. Friend aware that in my constituency, at Ramsden dock, irradiated nuclear fuel is imported from Japan and transported by rail to Windscale and Sellafield? Will he make inquiries, as I have, and look at the containers, which are huge in relation to the miniscule amounts of fuel that are carried? For a quantity of fuel the size of this copy of the Official Report, a flask several metres square weighing about 50 tonnes is used. In other words, will my hon. Friend make inquiries of British Nuclear Fuels Limited, the main operators, to assure himself, as I have been assured, that the transportation of such material by these flasks makes for the utmost safety and that the concern of hon. Members, which is legitimate, is perhaps unfounded?

Mr. Mitchell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having given the House the benefit of the investigations which he has made. That confirms what has been said in the House previously, that the utmost precautions are taken in the movement of spent fuel by British Rail or by any other means within the United Kingdom.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

While recognising that this was a minor incident, one that probably only marginally justifies detaining the House this morning for this time, may I ask the Minister to accept that one lesson that may be learned is that when nuclear fuel is transported there should always be a barrier, that it should be down when fuel passes and that trains should be scheduled at times when there is the least passenger traffic and therefore the least risk to traffic on roads which cross railway lines?

Mr. Mitchell

I am sure that the inspector will have such matters in mind when considering his report.

Mr. Tom Sackville (Bolton, West)

Will my hon. Friend agree that, if the facts of the present case are as reported—that the train was travelling at less than 5 mph and hooting its horn — the driver of the car concerned should be encouraged to re-examine his driving abilities, including his sight and hearing?

Mr. Mitchell

I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend makes. I understand that a senior citizen was driving the car at the time. It would be improper for me to make any comment in view of the fact that a police investigation of the accident is taking place.