HC Deb 31 July 1984 vol 65 cc223-6 3.40 pm
Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East) (by private notice)


Mr. McKay


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must ask the hon. Member to resume his seat. There is no injury time for such matters.

Mr. Ewing

the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the rail disaster at Polmont yesterday evening.

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

It is with great regret that I have to inform the House that yesterday evening 13 passengers were killed when the 17.30 Edinburgh-to-Glasgow train became derailed about one mile to the west of Polmont station. A further 41 passengers and three railway staff were taken to hospital. Twenty-eight people were still detained this morning and some of them are seriusly injured, including the train driver.

The 17.30 Glasgow-to-Edinburgh train was approaching on the opposite line at the time, but its driver saw the derailed train ahead and managed to bring his train to a stop, short of the wreckage. An inspecting officer of railways travelled overnight to the site of the accident and has reported from there this morning. He confirms that the remains of a cow are close to the point of the initial derailment. Neither he nor the BR engineers have found any fault with the track or the train which might have caused, or contributed to the accident. It is too early to give the House any further advice on the cause of the accident.

The emergency services were quickly on the scene and I put on record appreciation for the efficiency with which they coped with the situation.

I have ordered a formal inquiry by an inspecting officer of railways. It will open as soon as possible—within two to three weeks. Evidence will be heard in public and there will be a published Report.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join in sending deep sympathy to the families of all those who lost their lives or were injured in this tragic accident.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Ewing

I thank the Minister for that statement. I want to express my own deep personal sympathy and that of all my constituents, particularly those who live in Polmont and the immediate area, to the relatives of those who lost their lives in yesterday's disaster, two of whom —Jane Hogg and her nine-year-old daughter Alison—were visitors to this country from Kenya.

I also wish those who are injured my very best wishes and those of my constituents for a full recovery. I thank the Minister for his tribute to the emergency services. I want to add my tribute and those of my constituents to the central Scotland police, the central region fire brigade, the Scottish ambulance service, British Rail staff — and particularly the officers and staff of the young offenders institution at Polmont, who were quickly on the scene with blankets and other aids that were desperately needed at the time. I also pay tribute on behalf of myself and my constituents to the doctors, nurses and all the staff at Falkirk and Stirling royal infirmaries who worked through the night and who will continue to work today and in the days ahead to try to relieve the pain and suffering of the injured.

May I ask the Minister three brief questions? First, I am grateful to him for the speed with which he is establishing the inquiry, and I am even more grateful that it will be held in public and that its report will be published. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the inquiry will look closely at the principle of pushing these trains at very high speeds, when the front coach of the train is merely a coach and has no engine unit attached to it? Is the Minister aware that that principle was introduced in the days of steam engines for slow-running trains on branch lines, but that it has now been extended to diesel electric units running at high speeds on inter-city lines? Will he give us an assurance that this matter will be closely examined by the public inquiry?

Secondly, may I ask that any recommendations that emerge from the public inquiry be implemented as quickly as possible, so that every possible step is taken to ensure that this terrible tragedy is not repeated in another part of the country?

Finally, is it the Lord Advocate's intention to set up a fatal accident inquiry, as is normal practice under the law of Scotland?

Mr. Mitchell

I am sure that the whole house joins the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) in his comments about the accident and the people who helped in the vicinity. He asked me three questions. First, he asked whether the inquiry would look closely into the push-type locomotion that was in use. I can give him the assurance for which he asked. Secondly, he asked whether the inquiry's recommendations, if any, would be implemented as soon as possible. Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. Lastly, the peculiarities of Scottish law are not a matter for me, but I shall ensure that the hon. Member's views are made known.

Mr. Michael Hirst (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

Sadly, constituents of mine were among those who were killed and injured in yesterday's disaster, and I should like to associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) and with those of my hon. Friend the Minister, in expressing sympathy to the families of the victims. I share the hon. Gentleman's admiration for the work of the emergency services at the scene of the accident. I accept that we must await the outcome of the official inquiry into the cause of the accident, but will my hon. Friend ask British Rail as a matter of urgency to undertake a survey of trackside fencing so that stray animals do not come on to the track in future, possibly causing accidents such as the one yesterday?

Mr. Mitchell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his initial comments. He asked about the fencing of British Rail's lines. Whether it was a contributory cause in this case is a matter for the inquiry. We shall, of course, take full note of the inquiry's findings in this respect, as in others.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

May I, too, on my own behalf and on behalf of my colleagues, associate myself with the remarks of the Minister and those of the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) about this tragic rail accident, which has shocked us all. I am particularly grateful to the Minister for his assurance that he will take account of the implications of using push locomotives, and also for his assurance about fencing.

Another matter which has caused some concern is the report that a train passing along the line shortly before the crash saw a panic-stricken cow on the line but, for reasons that are not clear, was not able to communicate that fact to the other train to enable it to take action. Will the Minister ensure that that aspect of the matter is also investigated and also ascertain whether there is a way of improving communication between trains in such circumstances?

Mr. Mitchell

The inquiry will examine all such aspects. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion about communication between trains.

Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)

As this is the second and certainly the most serious incident on that stretch of line in a comparatively short time, can we take it that, until the results of the inquiry and the cause of the incident are known, fairly serious speed restrictions will be imposed on continuing traffic?

Mr. Mitchell

The tragedy which occurred last year involved men working on the line who were killed by a train. There is no similarity between the two incidents.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Perhaps I may associate myself with other hon. Members in expressing sympathy to the bereaved families and the injured. I also pay tribute to all the emergency services, especially those at Falkirk royal infirmary where the injured are being cared for. Does the Minister agree that at such times we really appreciate the essential nature, value and capability of the National Health Service and the magnificent dedication of its workers?

Mr. Mitchell

Yes, Sir.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I, too, wish to associate myself with the sentiments expressed in respect of the victims of the tragedy.

As a former commuter on that line, I know it well. Indeed, two years ago I was on a Glasgow-Edinburgh train which was in collision with a goods train near Linlithgow. Fortunately, the injuries then were but a few bumps and bruises and three cases of slight shock.

My question relates to British Rail's claim to transport passengers from one city centre to another in a very short time. Perhaps such strict timetabling places heavy demands not only on employees but on what might prove to be aging locomotives and rolling stock. I sincerely hope therefore, that those conducting the inquiry will examine those fears, if only to allay them.

Mr. Mitchell

Those are matters for the inquiry and will be covered. Meanwhile, I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that rail is still the safest method of travel in this country.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Everybody will wish to echo the views expressed so movingly by the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing). Does the Minister realise that the same form of motive power is in operation on the Waterloo-Weymouth line? Urgent investigation is required into whether the matter raised by the hon. Gentleman is the cause of any problems. Finally, I thank the Minister for what he said. We should never forget that British Rail has a magnificent safety record and that, although the loss of life is tragic, more people are killed daily on the roads than were killed yesterday in Falkirk.

Mr. Mitchell

That type of propulsion is used on several lines and there have been no reports of accidents associated with it before.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

I am sure that the whole House wishes to be associated with expressions of sympathy towards the relatives of the dead and injured, as voiced by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing).

I appreciate what the Minister said and also the constraints which he is under because of the inquiry. However, I invite him to comment further, albeit briefly, on the safety aspects of high-speed, push-pull train operation — especially in the light of the carnage at yesterday's uniquely horrific accident compared with the lack of injuries and virtually no damage to rolling stock at Morpeth recently when, of course, a locomotive was pulling rather than pushing a train.

If the animal that caused the accident was on the line because of vandalism, will the Minister—along with his Scottish counterparts—undertake a nationwide campaign against vandalism and trespass on British Rail property. That is, as he will no doubt agree, a nationwide problem.

Once more, I associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East about the promptness and dedication of the emergency services when attending the accident yesterday.

Mr. Mitchell

Of course, the safety element in push-pull rolling stock will be fully considered by the inquiry. I have given that assurance already.

As to comparison with other accidents and the tragic loss of life in this case, the rolling stock is totally different from that in the Morpeth incident. Therefore, I do not think that any direct comparison can be drawn. I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the dangers that flow from vandalism and trespass on railway property. lf lessons arise from that in this case, they will be followed up.