HC Deb 04 December 1984 vol 69 cc296-301 11.54 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about today's railway accident.

The accident occurred at 10.45 this morning. The 10.5 am Liverpool to Scarborough passenger train, which consisted of a diesel locomotive and seven coaches, ran into the back of a stationary oil tank train about half a mile on the Manchester side of Eccles station, Salford. The locomotive and the first two coaches of the passenger train were derailed, as were a number of the oil tank wagons. Spilt gas oil from the tank wagons caught fire.

The local signalman was able to stop other trains from approaching. The emergency services were quickly on the scene. Traffic on the M602 motorway, which runs immediately adjacent to the railway, was stopped and, as a precaution, residents were evacuated from about 30 of the surrounding houses.

An inspecting officer of railways has reported from the site. Our latest information is that the driver of the passenger train died in the crash and that one passenger has since died in hospital. A total of 67 passengers and railway staff were taken to hospital, of whom five are detained with serious injuries. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing condolences to the relatives and friends of those who were so tragically killed, and our good wishes for a speedy recovery to the injured.

There will be a formal inquiry into the accident and the report will be published. Meanwhile, it would be wrong to speculate on the cause of the accident.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

On behalf of the official Opposition, I join the right hon. Gentleman in expressing our condolences to the relatives and friends of those injured.

Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on British Rail's safety record in 1984? If my calculations are correct, there have so far this year been no fewer than six fairly serious accidents involving passenger trains, and a total of 18 passengers have been killed in moving traffic accidents. Has he any information about the signalling system on this stretch of line? Was it signalled by modern colour light signals, and was British Rail's automatic warning system in force? Does he know whether British Rail plans to amend its automatic warning system so that the driver of any train using such a system will have some aid in differentiating between a signal showing caution and a signal showing failure?

Mr. Ridley

It would be better to judge the accident record of British Rail in relation to the details of each accident that has occurred, when the results of the inquiries have been published. To draw conclusions from global figures might be misleading, and the House would be wise to await the answers about the details of the accident, the signalling and what happened on this occasion, about which the hon. Gentleman asked, until the inquiry has been completed and published.

Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme)

I join my right hon. Friend in his expressions of sympathy to the bereaved and to those who have sustained injury in this tragic accident. I also congratulate the emergency services on their prompt action, and the hospital services, particularly Park hospital in my constituency.

Would it be possible, even outside the scope of the inquiry, for my right hon. Friend to undertake to ensure that consideration is given to the possibility, whenever volatile chemicals are being carried on the railways, of having two empty buffer cars at the end of each train, and one interposed between the engine and the first of the chemical tankers? In this case, if the train had been made up in that way, there might not have been an explosion of flammable liquid.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree with him about the splendid work that the emergency services and hospitals have done today. I am sure that the House would like to pay tribute to their response to this tragic accident.

Before the accident, the Health and Safety Commission was setting up an inquiry into the transport of dangerous goods by rail, which would include the question of the fuel oil involved in this accident. I think that in making its recommendations the inquiry will see what lessons can be learnt from this accident.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)

As the Member of Parliament in whose constituency this tragic accident took place, I express my deep regret at the loss of life and injury involved.

The hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) asked about barrier wagons. Can the Secretary of State say whether such wagons are still in use on trains carrying dangerous cargo? If a change in practice has taken place, when did it start?

The inspecting officer, in his report for 1981, raised the question of restraints on public expenditure which may have an effect on rail safety. Will the inquiry consider that important aspect?

Mr. Ridley

I am not able to say when any change in the regulations concerning barrier wagons came into force, but I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman with the information that he seeks.

I do not think that anything can be deduced from the inspector's report to suggest that the safety of the railway system has been impaired. I am certain that British Rail would not accept financial targets which involved any impairment. I recommend the right hon. Gentleman to study the inquiry reports, when they are published, into each of the recent regrettable and sad accidents on the railway before coming to any conclusions about the causes.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

In echoing the words of sympathy from hon. Members, may I say that I hope it will not be inappropriate to mention the signalman, who appears to have done a great deal to prevent a serious accident in this instance.

I hope it will not be inappropriate to ask my right hon. Friend to point out to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape)—who I am sure did not intend to imply that British Rail had a bad safety record—that, if there have been 18 fatalities on British Rail this year, it roughly equates to the number of people killed every day on our roads.

As Parliament, quite properly, has for generations laid safety requirements upon the railways, is it not therefore also incumbent on us to will the financial means to enable British Rail to employ the most up-to-date and modern safety equipment that man can devise?

Mr. Ridley

I agree with my hon. Friend that the local signalman did a great job this morning, as I mentioned in my original statement. I should like to pay tribute to him.

I would counsel my hon. Friend against drawing conclusions from tragic accidents without knowing the cause. One of the regrettable factors is that it takes a very long time before the inquiries can be properly conducted and their reports published. I have asked whether the reports can be printed and published a little earlier so that hon. Members may know the full facts. I strongly urge my hon. Friend to wait and see what were the causes of the accidents before jumping to conclusions.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

Tribute has rightly been paid to the emergency services and their role after this grievous accident. By all accounts they were superb. Can we be assured that none of the impending further cuts in local public spending will affect the efficiency of those services?

Mr. Ridley

I feel that that is intruding a wrong note into this tragic occasion, particularly when the emergency services have behaved so remarkably well. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not give that impression or make that slightly unworthy suggestion on an occasion of some solemnity and sadness.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

I join with those hon. Members who have expressed sympathy. Is my right hon. Friend aware that more than 300 people have been killed and injured in railway accidents this year — the worst year for fatal accidents since 1975? Will my right hon. Friend ask British Rail to carry out an urgent review of safety procedures?

Mr. Ridley

I would not entirely accept my hon. Friend's figures without checking exactly what period he took, but I do not believe that there is anything statistically unusual about the record of accidents so far this year compared with the record in past years. I think that there have been statistically worse years than this year. Careful inquiries are made of each accident by careful, professional and impartial railway inspectorate staff and a report is published. We must collate the information that is published in those reports before ascribing the accidents to one cause or another. That would be the wise course for the House to follow on this occasion.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

I should like to associate myself with the remarks by the Secretary of State about extending sympathy to the bereaved and wishing the injured a speedy recovery. Because I know the site at the edge of my constituency, I believe that, had the emergency services not worked efficiently, this could have been a major horrific tragedy. It would have involved damage to the railway line, the roadway, the urban area and the population within that area. For that reason, and because the hospitals worked quickly, I should like the Secretary of State to insist that the inquiry takes great care to consider the effect of moving dangerous loads through urban areas.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. There will be an inquiry into the causes of this accident. At the same time, a committee is being set up by the Health and Safety Commission to inquire into the general question of the safety of the transport of dangerous goods by rail. That inquiry will surely include consideration of this accident in its studies.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

As the Member in whose constituency the driver of the passenger train resided, I associate myself with the condolences extended by the Secretary of State. I should especially like to mention my sorrow for the family of the driver, Edward Croxford, who lived in Mab lane, west Derby. On such occasions, the real responsibility of so many working men, including train drivers, is brought home to us. I understand that 300 passengers were on the train, and that imposes a huge responsibility. When talking about the pay of such people, we should always think of their responsibilities and the occupational hazards that they undergo.

I do not want to be party political on such an occasion. This is not the time or the place for that. I hope that there will be a full inquiry into not only this case but the many other tragic cases this year. If the cut in financial assistance to British Rail is found to be one of the possible causes of the accident, I should like an assurance that action will be taken to ensure that resources are available to British Rail and that proper precautions are taken.

A suggestion has been made that the facility of drivers to override signals should be examined. I should like an assurance that there will be sonic separation of dangerous fuels transported on railway lines from passenger trains.

Mr. Ridley

I join with the hon. Gentleman in mourning the death of the driver and in extending my condolences to his family, relations and friends.

Implicit in the hon. Gentleman's question is the suggestion that cuts in investment in the railways could be a cause of this accident. I make it clear that I do not wish to prejudge the cause of this accident. If the hon. Gentleman studies the details—I am sure that he will see the point of this—of the last few serious railway accidents and comes to the conclusion that they were nothing to do with cuts or safety records, I ask him to join with me in assuring passengers that those aspects are not a factor in these matters. I think that we can give the undertakings mutually, and I believe that that would clear up any attempt to make party political capital out of this sad matter.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

May I first and foremost thank the Minister for making the statement urgently today? May I also be identified with his expression of deepest sympathy for the deceased and the casualties? One of the deceased was, sadly, a constituent of mine and I add my deepest sympathy to his relatives.

The Minister says that there will be an urgent inquiry, but time is not on our side because of the great importance of such accidents. There is increasing concern at the growing number of accidents and I am given to understand that the shadow spokesman on transport wrote to the Minsiter on 1 August 1984 asking for an urgent inquiry into the growing number of accidents.

I do not want to pre-empt any of the judgments of the inquiry, but there is a strong feeling nowadays that there is a reduction in track maintenance and that line maintenance, once on a four or five-week cycle, has now been extended to seven or eight weeks. If that is the case, it is most serious and must be urgently reconsidered, even though we may have to pay a lot more for such maintenance.

Mr. Ridley

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It was because of the serious nature of the accident that I sought earlier to inform the House of it and I am delighted to respond subsequently with an oral statement which can be questioned.

The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the accident might have something to do with track maintenance is, indeed, to prejudge the inquiry. I do not intend to do that. It is wrong for any hon. Member to seek to prejudge the inquiry in case a misleading impression is given to the public.

I beg the House to await the results of the inquiry before trying to infer what the causes of the accident might have been.

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of sympathy and good wishes to those who are in hospital, and, indeed, the congratulations to the emergency services on the part that they played?

Will the Minister accept that, while in no way wishing to prejudge the inquiry, some hon. Members find it reassuring to hear him say tonight that the result of this investigation and others into accidents on the railways this year will be collated? Many hon. Members would be extremely interested to learn whether there is a common factor among the number of accidents that have occurred on the railways this year.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The chief inspector of railways has recently published his annual report giving a summary and collation of the accidents. I merely urge that the House would be wise to reserve judgment as to the cause of those that have not yet been reported upon.

Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

May I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy? I learned with shock the news of this tragic accident in my neighbouring constituency. I offer the deepest sympathy to the families who have suffered bereavement and join hon. Members in wishing the injured a speedy recovery.

But, as has been said, train crashes appear to be occurring with frightening frequency. In this case a freight train was on the same rail as a main service passenger train. I hope that no expense and effort will be spared to find the cause and that steps will be taken to make sure that this type of accident does not occur again.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I can assure him that the inquiry will be independent and full. In my opinion, the reports that I have seen hitherto have been comprehensive and convincing. I pay tribute to the inspectorate for the painstaking, thorough and convincing task that it undertakes on these inquiries.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

As the third Salford Member, I wish to associate myself with the expressions of sympathy for the bereaved and the good wishes to those who unfortunately remain in hospital.

Will the Minister speak to the Secretary of State for Social Services about the emergency services, especially the ambulance service, which reacted superbly? My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) recently had meetings with the health authorities. They expressed the worry of many of us in the locality that there is the possibility of a major disaster that could not be coped with by the emergency services.

It seems that the most recent disaster could have been much worse. I want to make it clear that I am not criticising anyone. However, I should like an appraisal to be made of the reaction of the emergency services, especially the ambulance service. I hope that it will be carried out by the Department and that the findings will be communicated to the House.

I emphasise that I am not criticising any of the emergency services on the ground. I am certain from telephone conversations that everybody reacted remarkably well. However, some of us are worried by cuts in the emergency services. This is not a political point. I hope that the appraisal will be carried out and the findings communicated to the House.

Mr. Ridley

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I pay tribute again to the work of the ambulance service on this occasion. The evidence is that it was able to cope magnificently.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

I associate myself with the condolences which have been expressed and ask the Secretary of State whether he is sincere in his statement that any cuts in British Rail have not been cuts in safety standards. Can he give us an unequivocal guarantee that he repudiates the assertion in the Serpell report that safety standards are too high and that there is a case for lowering them? Will he urge British Rail henceforth to examine its safety standards and to make them as high as they were in previous years?

Mr. Ridley

No conscientious railway board would accept safety standards other than of the highest and no railway inspectorate would allow safety standards other than of an equal level of excellence. British Rail's safety record has been improving steadily. To suggest that the unfortunate few accidents which have happened recently in some way represent an unsafe railway or deteriorating position is to misread the situation. I pay tribute to the railways for their good record. No message should go out this evening that there is a deterioration in railway safety just because of one accident.