HC Deb 25 June 1984 vol 62 cc688-91 3.34 pm
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement to the House about Saturday's railway accident at Morpeth, Northumberland.

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

The accident involving Saturday's 19.50 hours sleeping car train from Aberdeen to London occurred on the tight curve on the east coast main line to the south of Morpeth station in Northumberland at about 20 minutes to 1 o'clock on Sunday 24 June. There were 76 passengers and a number of railway staff on the train. Initially 38 people were taken to hospital, but by Sunday evening only three men, all railway staff, were still detained. None of them is seriously injured.

The train left the rails near the start of the curve, which has a permanent speed restriction of 50 mph. It continued across the other line and down the embankment, turning on its side in the process. It struck two dwellings. The cause of the accident seems likely to have been excessive speed on entering the curve. The reason for this has not yet been established.

I have already appointed one of the Department of Transport's senior inspecting officers of railways to conduct an inquiry. The House will appreciate that it would be improper for me to say anything further on the reasons for the accident at this time. I naturally want to express our sympathy for those who were involved in the accident. I praise the way in which the situation was dealt with by the emergency services and local people, who immediately offered help.

Mr. Snape

The House will be grateful to the Minister for that reply. I ask him to reflect on his statement that the cause of the crash appears to be excessive speed. As his Department has appointed one of its inspectors to investigate the cause of the accident, are we not in danger of prejudging the issue by appearing to come to such a conclusion? Is it true that the site of the accident was the site of a similar and, regrettably, even more dangerous accident in 1969? Does the Minister know of any plans by British Rail to ease the curvature and increase the speed limit on the curve?

Bearing in mind the history of this stretch of line, may we have an assurance that the inquiry will be held in public?

Will there be compensation for householders whose property has been damaged as a result of the accident?

Finally, I ask the Minister to comment on the strength of modern British Rail rolling stock. Despite the apparent severity of the accident, every passenger has been released from hospital. Is that not a credit to British Rail Engineering Ltd., which built the rolling stock?

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman is correct. A derailment took place on this stretch of line on 7 May 1969. It was inquired into by the then chief inspecting officer of railways, Colonel Robertson, who concluded that the accident was caused by a lapse of concentration on the part of the driver. It would be wrong for me to speculate further on the cause of the latest accident.

As to proposals for altering the line, we should await the result of the inquiry, which I assure the hon. Gentleman will be held in public.

Claims for compensation of this nature are met by British Rail, which has a good record for doing so responsibly.

The rolling stock involved was some of the new sleeping car rolling stock. I agree that it has been shown to have great strength. That is a matter on which those at British Rail Engineering Ltd. who built it should be congratulated, although it is a pity the strength of its construction has been demonstrated in such unfortunate circumstances.

Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

I am sure that the whole House will share the deep sympathy that has been expressed for those involved in the accident.

As British Rail's safety record in 1982 was the best that it had ever had, I ask my hon. Friend to see that no pressure is put on the management of BR, as a result of this investigation, to tell staff to make up time. If it is found on any occasion that someone is falling behind time, the time should not be made up at the expense of safety. Safety should always be paramount.

Mr. Mitchell

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's expression of sympathy to those injured and inconvenienced by what occurred. British Rail, the whole House and I share his sentiments.

The safety record of British Rail is outstanding. Both management and staff have reason to be proud of it. Whether BR's disciplinary procedures in relation to late trains may or may not be a contributory factor is a question for the inquiry, and it would not be right for me to comment on it today.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

As the disaster occurred only a few miles from my constituency, may I endorse the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State's tribute to the ambulance and fire services and to the local people who gave their help?

Will the Minister clarify his statement on two points? In the 1969 disaster involving the Aberdonian, six people were killed and 120 injured on the same notorious Morpeth curve. Have any steps been taken by British Rail to make the curve less dangerous?

Secondly, why is it that the Minister, who is appointing a board of inquiry to investigate the disaster, has expressed an opinion about the possible cause of the disaster? He alluded to excess speed. There are many other causes that could have contributed to the disaster.

Mr. Mitchell

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for concurring with my view about the help provided by the emergency services and by local people. I endorse his remarks.

As he says, a previous accident occurred on this curve. In this case the train was travelling south and before reaching the site of the accident would have passed speed limit indications saying "Reduce to 80 miles an hour", "Reduce to 70 miles an hour", and "Reduce to 50 miles an hour". The operating instructions should therefore be adequate to prevent an accident involving excessive speed. However, as the hon. Gentleman says, it may be better that I should leave these matters to the inquiry than that I should speculate on them now or follow other hon. Members in doing so.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Everyone feels sympathy for those involved in an accident such as this. Is it not an unspoken compliment to British Rail's safety record that accidents such as this are occasions for a private notice question, at a time when 16 people are killed and 900 maimed every day on our roads? When will we impose the same safety standards on road users as British Rail is forced to impose on its trains?

Mr. Mitchell

I do not think that may hon. Friend would expect me to give him a detailed answer, but I take his point. It is a sign of how safe rail travel is compared with other options.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

I wish to associate myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)—who is at the scene of the accident—with the congratulations and thanks expressed to the local people and emergency services.

The Minister referred to apparent excessive speed. Is any automatic train control device available that could give audible warning of excessive speed? In view of the security and amazing stability of the coaches made by BREL, will there be any impact on other services from the lack of availability of those vehicles? No doubt that has a deleterious effect elsewhere.

Will the Minister ensure that the report is published in good time, and that it will not take at as long as some reports? That is especially important because of the number of accidents at Morpeth. I understand that some reports have taken up to three years to publish.

Mr. Mitchell

On the hon. Gentleman's question about automatic devices relating to the speed of trains, we must wait for the inquiry. The non-availability of rolling stock is a matter for the management of BR. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's concern to its attention. The inquiry will take place in July and we shall ensure that its results are published as soon as they are available.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

I wish to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) about the regrettable accident and the quality of the carriages that prevented an even greater disaster.

Will the Minister withdraw his outrageous and scandalous remark about the accident appearing to be due to excessive speed, and then saying that there will be an inquiry? The Opposition would be a great deal happier if he would withdraw his remark.

Mr. Mitchell

I cannot unsay what I have said. I am advised that I have given the correct information to the House. The inquiry will examine all aspects of the accident. However, we already know that there was no track failure, because we have had time to examine the track and assure ourselves on that point.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As a regular user of that line, I should like to know when it is expected that repairs will be completed. I realise that that may be difficult.

The Minister has handsomely congratulated BREL on its excellent workmanship. Should we not, therefore, think again about putting work to some of the outside contractors when that work has been traditionally carried out and could still be carried out by BREL with its expertise?

Mr. Mitchell

BR expects to open the line to traffic by early tomorrow morning. It should be congratulated on that. In the meantime, trains are being diverted to a route usually used only for freight trains, the Blythe Tyne line, which is adding about one hour to the journey——

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

It is a good thing that the line is still there.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have given British Rail objectives which set out quite clearly that there is to be no programme of major route closures. Therefore, he should not be surprised that the line is still there.

It does not matter whether the purchase of rolling stock comes from one firm or another. The specifications on the strength and general requirements are those of BR's own designs.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

In view of BR's excellent safety record, can the Minister assure us that any new rolling stock for British Rail will be built to the same design, specification and strength as the carriages that crashed in this unfortunate accident?

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot conceivably give him that assurance, because what is required for an express sleeper train is very different from that required for a rail bus on a provincial line, travelling at relatively low speed. I should mislead the House if I were to give the assurance that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Does my hon. Friend accept that people in my constituency in north-east England are worried about the disposal of nuclear waste? After the accident that could not happen at Abbeystead, and now this accident, will my hon. Friend do all in his power to persuade our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to seek an early decision in Cabinet on this vexed question, which is affecting every one of my constituents in north-east England?

Mr. Mitchell

That is a completely different question. I shall write to my hon. Friend about it.