§ Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (by private notice)
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing this question. I wish to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will make a statement about a matter of which I have given prior notice — the rail crash at Westbury in Shropshire yesterday.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)
At about 8.55 yesterday evening, one of the new Sprinter class 150 diesel multiple unit trains ran round the passing loop in the down direction at Westbury on to the line from Shrewsbury to Aberyswyth and passed at danger the signal controlling the entry to the single line section to Welshpool. A similar train was waiting at the signal in the other direction before proceeding into the loop.
The down train collided head-on with the up train. The leading bogie of the latter was derailed and there was considerable damage to the front-end superstructure of both trains. The emergency services were quickly on the scene. I regret to inform the House that 37 people were taken to hospital suffering from minor injuries, but I am able to say that only four were detained overnight. One of those detained was the driver of the down train and it has not yet been possible to interview him formally. In these circumstances, I am sure that the House will understand that I am unable to give any reasons for the likely cause of the accident. British Railways is planning to hold its own internal inquiry on 10 March, but it is still too early to say whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will order a formal inquiry by an inspecting officer of railways.
I pay tribute to the emergency services and in particular to the ambulance crews, who appeared promptly. I am sure that the House will wish to express the hope that the injured will make a rapid recovery.
§ Mr. Conway
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. I wish to associate myself with his thanks to ambulance men and firemen who were efficient and prompt in dealing with the incident. When I talked to the Royal Shrewsbury hospital this morning I was given to understand that of the 37 patients admitted, five have been detained. I hope that, in view of that, my hon. Friend will think again about appointing a railways inspector for a formal inquiry. If that is not possible, will my hon. Friend ensure that the details of the British Rail internal inquiry be made public? Will my hon. Friend also ensure the expedition of claims for personal injury submitted by my constituents and the constituents of other hon. Members who were involved in this sad train crash?
§ Mr. Mitchell
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. It is important to say that British Rail's internal inquiry, colloquially known as the joint inquiry, is held by senior regional officers to establish not only the cause of the accident, but a basis for any disciplinary proceedings or a defence in any litigation. Therefore, at this early stage, we have to wait to see whether there is an open-and-shut case for the cause of the accident before we proceed to the greater arrangements involved in establishing a formal inquiry.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)
My constituency is served by this railway line and for a long time my constituents have been anxious about the use of single track along part of that line. If the inquiry recommends that there should be a double track along the line will the Minister undertake to ensure that that is installed without delay?
§ Mr. Mitchell
It would be prudent to wait to see what the inquiry finds as the cause of the accident. If the inquiry was to make the recommendation to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred it would be given serious consideration.
§ Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)
With all the restrictions placed on British Rail in recent years—the singling of railway lines, less checking of the permanent way by British Rail employees and the introduction of advanced automatic level crossings, will the Minister ensure, as a result of the inquiry, that he can reassure those of us who have single track railway lines in our constituencies that they are perfectly safe and that safety standards have not deteriorated? If the Minister cannot do so will he take immediate action to ensure that he can give us such reassurance?
§ Mr. Mitchell
I am not quite sure what restrictions, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, have been placed on British Rail—
§ Mr. Mitchell
There are no financial restrictions that in any way affect the safety of British Rail operations. I must say that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make bricks without straw. The signalling was checked after the accident and a full report will be made to the British Rail internal inquiry regarding that.
§ Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)
I hope, Mr. Speaker, you will not mind if I aim this question as much at you as at my hon. Friend the Minister of State. Is it not extraordinary that, as a result of this accident, albeit one in which few people suffered minor injuries and some superstructure damage occurred, a parliamentary question has been granted by this House—
§ Mr. Adley
In that case I withdraw that comment.
Does my hon. Friend agree that 15 people are killed each day on the roads but that we never have statements about that? Indeed, last week a coach fell off a bridge onto a motorway, yet no statement was made to the House. Will my hon. Friend use this opportunity to state that, were it not for the strength of these new Sprinter units, a more serious accident may have occurred? Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to British rail for doing everything it can to maintain an outstandingly good safety record?
§ Mr. Mitchell
My hon. Friend has rightly put his finger on the safety aspect. This is new rolling stock and it is the first time that there has been an accident of this nature involving such stock. I believe that it is a good indication of the strength of the design and of the build that there were not worse casualties on this occasion.
§ Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)
Will the Minister accept that we associate ourselves with his thanks to the emergency services for their prompt attention to the 731 accident? Does the Minister have any idea of the age of the signalling equipment used at Westbury at the time of the accident, and does he believe that the age of that equipment had any bearing on the accident? Following the comments of the hon. Member for Chirstchurch (Mr. Adley), is it not a tribute to the safety standards of British Rail that we have a private notice question after a comparatively minor accident—the sort of accident which, if it took place on our roads, would scarcely merit a paragraph in a local weekly newspaper?
§ Mr. Mitchell
The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct in the point that he has just made. On the signalling, it would be wrong for me to pre-empt in any way the British Rail inquiry. I can say that in any event British Rail is hoping to install the radio-electronic token block system in the middle of next year. It would be quite improper for me to influence opinion in anyway in advance of the inquiry.