HC Deb 12 December 1988 vol 143 cc647-55 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon)

At about 8.15 this morning a serious train accident occurred some 300 yards west of Clapham junction station when the 06.14 Poole-Waterloo passenger train ran into the rear of the 07.18 Basingstoke-Waterloo train. An empty train from Waterloo then ran into the wreckage. At least 30 persons are known to be dead and it is feared that the number will be higher; there are 113 injured, 31 very seriously.

I am sure that the House will join with me in expressing our deep sympathy with the families and relatives of the dead and with those who have been injured. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

British Rail has already started its investigations into the accident and will immediately take any steps that may be required.

Both my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have visited the site this morning, accompanied by the deputy chief inspecting officer of railways. Another inspecting officer from the railway inspectorate was already on the scene. I intend to appoint an inspector to conduct a full independent inquiry into the accident, in public, under the provisions of the Regulation of Railways Act 1871. A further announcement will be made as soon as possible about the timing of the inquiry. It is, of course, too soon to know the cause of the accident.

The line is unlikely to be cleared for at least 24 hours. British Rail has announced some alternative arrangements for passengers returning home tonight. An emergency telephone number for casualty inquiries has also been announced.

The emergency services responded to the disaster magnificently and I pay tribute to their dedicated work in rescuing the survivors and dealing with this appalling tragedy.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

On behalf of the Opposition, I begin by offering our deepest sympathies to the relatives and friends of all those who were killed or injured in today's terrible tragedy. The work of the emergency services in responding so swiftly and with such skill and courage in the most difficult circumstances will no doubt have saved lives. Once again this House and the whole nation will admire their sheer professionalism and dedication.

I should like to add a personal note of thanks to the Secretary of State and the Minister of State for the way in which they have kept me informed, despite the many calls on their time, since news of the terrible disaster unfolded.

This terrible tragedy—the worst rail disaster for many years—comes only a matter of weeks after the publication of the Fennell report into the King's Cross fire in which 31 people lost their lives and follows the Manchester air disaster and the P and O ferry tragedy, all of which have naturally heightened public concern about passenger safety.

May I assure the Secretary of State that we welcome the fact that, just as I called for in relation to the Piper Alpha tragedy, there will be a twin-track approach to investigating this terrible tragedy, thus ensuring that under the agency agreement with the Health and Safety Executive there is an immediate inquiry into the specific technical reasons for the accident and that any immediate lessons can be acted on straight away, as well as the fact that there will be a fuller, independent public inquiry?

However, I am concerned about the nature and terms of reference of the public inquiry. Is the Secretary of State aware that the latest report of his chief railway inspector reveals that deaths and major injuries on British Rail have increased by 62 per cent. over five years, collisions by 18 per cent., and derailments by 6 per cent.? In those circumstances, will the Secretary of State consider a public inquiry that is independent of the Department of Transport?

Will he ensure that the terms of reference of such an inquiry are wider than those for the Fennell report and that the inquiry will be able to investigate all aspects of passenger safety on British Rail? Could the inquiry investigate the effects that financial considerations have had on passenger safety on British Rail and the fears for safety that have arisen from increased congestion? Will the inquiry consider, too, whether it is time to transfer the responsibility for health and safety on our railways from the Department of Transport to the independent Health and Safety Executive?

This is the second tragic accident involving major loss of life that has hit London's passenger transport system in little more than a year. There is a growing crisis of confidence in safety, among both the hundreds and thousands who commute each day into London and passengers throughout the country. Will the Secretary of State ensure that he acts swiftly to resolve the crisis of confidence and also to reverse his earlier judgment not to provide immediate Government time to debate the King's Cross report?

I assure the Secretary of State that he will have our full co-operation in helping to maintain the traditional reputation of British Rail as one of the safest railway operators in the world.

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for a great deal of what he has said in his supplementary questions. I am grateful, too, for what he said about me, and especially for what he said about the emergency services, which on this occasion, as so often, did an outstanding job. Indeed, I believe that the fire brigade arrived on the scene within five minutes or less of this appalling disaster. It certainly deserves the thanks of the House.

Naturally, I have not had time to consider in detail the terms of reference of the inquiry, but I shall bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said.

I have noted what the hon. Gentleman said about financial considerations. We must see what the inquiry reports, but the House will be well aware of the large investment being made at present in British Rail.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about British Rail's general safety record. However, I must tell him that, in general, the rate of significant accidents per train mile has been steadily reducing for 20 years. Of course, as the House knows well, the level of safety of trains is very much higher than that of road vehicles. However, I shall consider the serious points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

As one of those many hon. Members whose constituents were on the train involved, may I add to those already offered by my right hon. Friend, and my hon. Friends' sympathy to the families? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the proper and necessary public inquiry will have wide enough terms of reference to embrace the total operations of Clapham junction? I believe that the House knows that that railway station probably has more trains passing through it than any other in the world and hence has more complex control systems than any other station. That should be a major factor for the consideration of the inquiry.

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I shall consider carefully what he has said about the terms of reference, and I shall hope to arrive at terms of reference that will be acceptable to all sides of the House.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

In joining my colleagues from other Dorset and Hampshire constituencies in thanking the emergency services in London for what they have done, I ask my right hon. Friend two questions. Will he ask British Rail to investigate the effect of such a high-velocity crash on passengers in very crowded trains of open-plan stock compared with what might have happened in the more old-fashioned corridor stock? Will my right hon. Friend ask British Rail to supply immediately a list of how many signal and track improvement schemes are presently delayed pending the availability of funds under the public service obligation grant?

Mr. Channon

What my hon. Friend has raised in his supplementary questions are clearly matters that must be investigated, and I shall ensure that they are.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

My right hon. Friend will know that many of my constituents were involved in this morning's tragedy. On behalf of the people of Basingstoke, will he convey their profound gratitude to the emergency services for their compassion and dedication when they responded so promptly to the emergency?

Will my right hon. Friend take note that, whereas today the dominant emotions are grief, sorrow and distress, some of today's anguish may become tomorrow's anger? Will he ensure that answers to the questions "Why did this happen?" and "What can be done to ensure that it never happens again?" are relentlessly pursued?

Mr. Channon

Yes, Sir. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says, and that is what I shall do.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

May I, as the Member who represents Wandsworth, fully support the statement that the Secretary of State has made, especially with regard to the tragic loss of life and the appalling suffering that the injured will face for many months?

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) asked about the terms of reference of the inquiry. When those terms of reference are decided upon, will the right hon. Gentleman please take note of the repeated questions that London Members have put to him and to his predecessors about the services coming into London and the gross overcrowding?

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House and those people who have been sadly bereaved or seriously injured that the Government will do everything they can to be as generous as possible to those people? I make that point because, sadly, we have heard many times in this House of the Government's concern, only to read, a few weeks later, of the restrictions and the problems that people have experienced. Can we be assured that that will not happen in this case?

Mr. Channon

I entirely endorse what the hon. Gentleman said in the first part of his question, and I am grateful to him.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that present investment in British Rail, both in cash and in real terms, is now running at, probably, its highest ever level and is certainly much higher than it has been for 20 years in real terms. I am sure that he will welcome the amount of investment that is taking place, but all such matters must be considered carefully.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

I know that my constituents of Poole and Bournemouth would wish to be associated with the thanks that has been given to members of the rescue services. When my right hon. Friend conducts the inquiry, will he expand it to include the design of the railway carriages and their ability to withstand the type of impact that they faced today? From the pictures that I have seen of today's accident, the carriages had collapsed considerably; that must have added to the loss of life.

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and of course I shall consider the points that he makes. The particular sort of rolling stock that was involved in today's accident has been on the railways for some time. It is not a new design, nor is it the very oldest; it is the perfectly ordinary type of rolling stock that has been in operation for some years. However, I shall certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

Rather than bearing it in mind, will the Secretary of State, here and now, assure the House that, contrary to what happened at King's Cross inquiry, evidence will be admissible about the level of subsidy and the effects of the so-called Government efficiency savings? Will he also assure the House that the problems of overcrowding and safety, as referred to in paragraph 6 of the foreword and summary of the chief railway inspector's report, entitled "Railway Safety", will be addressed at that inquiry?

Mr. Channon

I take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I am sure, as I have said a number of times this afternoon, that he will welcome the fact that a record amount of investment is presently taking place in British Rail. Investment is projected to be even higher in real terms than it is at present. All relevant matters must be considered by the inquiry because we want to get at the truth, to discover why the accident occurred and what can be done to make sure that it does not happen again.

Mr. John Ward (Poole)

My right hon. Friend will expect me to associate my constituents with the remarks that he has already made. May I also thank him and my hon. Friend the Minister of State for their prompt attendance and for making the information available quickly?

It would be wrong to jump to conclusions this afternoon. The whole purpose of having the type of inquiry that my right hon. Friend has outlined is to find the facts. We should wait for those facts before making a judgment. Would it be possible to increase the number of lines on the emergency number? That would be a help, because a number of people from Poole and Bournemouth have been trying to get throught, but have found the number continuously engaged.

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I agree that it is wrong for us to prejudge the inquiry's outcome only a few hours after this terrible disaster. The Metropolitan police informed me that there would be extra emergency lines, and I hope that, by now, that has been achieved. I shall certainly convey my hon. Friend's suggestion to the police at the earliest moment.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

On behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, may I extend our sincere sympathy to the bereaved, those who have been injured and those hon. Members representing the constituencies most affected?

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I remember his generous remarks on the occasion of the tragic King's Cross incident as well.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

I fully share the sentiments that my right hon. Friend has expressed to the House, especially as many of my constituents use that line every weekday. We send our deepest sympathy to the bereaved. Is my right hon. Friend aware that this section of line is undergoing extensive signalling modernisation and re-equipment? Will he ensure that the inquiry will focus on the transitional difficulties that result from heavy capital expenditure, because, as we know, this line is one of the most intensively used in the world?

Mr. Channon

My right hon. Friend, with his experience, has put his finger on an important point which is obviously directly relevant to the inquiry. Although it is a matter for the inquiry to decide, I am sure that it will be an important factor in its consideration.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

May I, on behalf of my hon. Friends, join the House in extending our sympathy and condolences to the bereaved, the injured and all those who have suffered from the accident. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement. Will he respond a little more to calls from the House that he consider the investment strategy of British Rail and the Government, especially corporate priorities? In view of the previous understaffing and staff vacancy problems with the railway inspectorate, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether the inspectorate is up to its full staffing complement?

Mr. Channon

As I told the House on another occasion, I hope that the railway inspectorate will be up to its full complement shortly after Christmas. I have told the House a number of times about the enormous investment programme for British Rail, especially Network SouthEast. My right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) drew attention to the heavy re-investment on that line. Of course, this is a matter that the House will wish to consider for itself. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind expressions of sympathy to the bereaved and the injured, many of whom are my constituents. Can he assure the House that the bereaved families will receive support from local social services and voluntary supporting services, both now and during the forthcoming Christmas period?

Mr. Channon

I am sure that that is happening, but my hon. Friend is right to raise that matter. I shall discuss it immediately with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. I assure my hon. Friend that urgent action was taken. The injured were taken to hospital with remarkable speed, considering the extreme difficulties caused by the accident and the fact that few people could work in the site at any particular moment. In my judgment, this appalling disaster has been handled in a first-class way.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Is the Minister aware that yesterday afternoon I travelled on a train past this very spot and later had conversations with railway personnel about a long-standing safety matter concerning Network SouthEast—a matter which, as far as I know, was not involved in this tragedy? Will the right hon. Gentleman look into the changes in procedure in the signal department of London Underground Ltd which were introduced recently?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, whatever may be the effect of time and motion efficiency studies in retail sales, production and distribution, application of such methods to organisations such as the Civil Service, schools, hospitals, maternity services and the operation of railways, may not always be efficacious and can sometimes affect safety? Will he ask his Cabinet colleagues to reflect on this matter?

Mr. Channon

I am sure that the hon. Member would expect me to say, and it is very much the case, that safety must be the paramount consideration of any rail operator. British Rail recognises that and recognises its responsibilities and has always done so. As the hon. Gentleman said, over the years British Rail's general safety record has been very good. The hon. Gentleman raised a safety point about the London underground. That is a different matter, but if he cares to write to me about it I shall immediately take it up with the chairman of London Regional Transport.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and I thank him and his hon. Friend the Minister of State for coming down to my constituency this morning to see this scene of horror and tragedy. He is right to send the sympathy of the House to those who have been bereaved and to those who have been injured. I and my constituents would like to join in that message. He is also right to praise the emergency services from our area and beyond who came to the rescue as best they could. Many of them said that today they saw sights that they had never seen before.

I hope that we can also thank the people working behind the scenes from Wandsworth council, in the Salvation Army and people in the community. The Salvation Army told me how impressed it had been by the way the boys from Emanuel school come out to give succour and refreshment to those who had been injured and to people who had been working through the day.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, although this is one of the busiest rail junctions in the country, it also has one of the safest records? That makes today's events doubly tragic for the people who use the line. I am grateful for the inquiry, and I am glad that it is to be public. I hope that it will be swift and will take into account all possible causes, incuding, of course, signalling now that we have computer signals. I hope that it will also take account of speed, the frequency of trains and how closely they follow each other. It should also consider the wider issue of the overcrowding of trains. That could not have caused the accident, but it may have made it far worse.

Mr. Channon

I think that I would endorse everything that my hon. Friend says. I confirm what he says about the safety record until today. I was glad to have his commendation for the emergency services, because he was on the spot with my hon. Friend and me and was able to see at first hand some of the appalling conditions under which the emergency services had to work, and the outstanding work that is being done.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

May I endorse the Minister's praise for the emergency services and also mention those in the nursing services who will be devoting care and attention to the recovery of those who are injured? I endorse the Minister's view that railways are still the safest form of travel, compared, for example, to road transport. Can he assure the House that, if there are any pointers during the inquiry about deficiencies in maintenance workers or maintenance investment in either permanent way or signalling, he will not wait for the report to be published, which will take many months, but will take immediate action to provide grant aid to British Rail to make sure that any deficiencies of that sort are remedied immediately?

Mr. Channon

If, either during the inquiry or before it, evidence comes to light that requires immediate action that is for the Government to take, I shall not hesitate to take it. If it is for British Rail, it has assured me that it will take immediate action. It has launched its own internal inquiry and will take necessary steps as quickly as possible.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

Will my right hon. Friend guarantee that the inquiry that he has announced will keep its doors as wide as possible, so that anyone who wishes to give evidence either orally or in writing will be able to do so? Many of my constituents have useful anecdotal evidence about the way in which the line has been operating, particularly around Clapham junction, and like me they count themselves fortunate that they were not among those who were killed or maimed today. They feel that they have a duty to give evidence, perhaps in memory of friends, loved ones or relations who lost their lives or were injured in this tragic accident.

Mr. Channon

I shall certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend says. He makes a fair point and I shall try to see that the inquiry's terms of reference are appropriately drawn.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I extend my constituents's and my personal condolences and sympathy to the bereaved and injured. Is the Secretary of State sitting on a report which says that new lines need to be built from suburban areas into London to alleviate the overcrowding? If he is, should that report not be published right away, so that hon. Members can see it and see where the investment needs to go? The Secretary of State will recall that, in an industrial dispute when the Government beat down the train drivers, they were warned about the problems of flexible rostering and were told that it could cause safety problems? Does the Minister realise that, if that is a contributory factor, the Government stand besmirched?

Mr. Channon

I do not want to prejudge the result of the inquiry, but the hon. Gentleman is entitled to his view. I do not agree with him, but let us see what happens. All relevant matters are for the inquiry to determine, and we shall see whether that had any effect on the accident. I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the central London rail study. I have not yet seen the final report on that, but the sooner that it can be published the better.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

On behalf of my constituents, many of whom were involved in this shocking accident, I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his statement, and I endorse the remarks that he made about the emergency services. May I press him on one point that has already been raised? It is that the highest priority is the best possible communication so that our constituents, many of whom have loved ones who might have been on one of the trains —although they probably were not—can be informed as quickly as possible?

Mr. Channon

Yes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As to communications, I said earlier that the Metropolitan police would increase the available numbers. I hope that that has been done. It may be that the numbers will have to be increased again, and we may have to use the Surrey police as well as the Metropolitan police. In view of the feeling of the House, although that is not my responsibility, I shall make sure that those views are conveyed to the Metropolitan police at once.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent London constituencies are proud of our emergency services, and we hope that Ministers will think on that when they come to allocate resources to those emergency services.

Is the Secretary of State aware that overcrowding is now a matter of great concern to the travelling public in London, and many observers of the transport system? Perhaps the time has now come to limit the number of people who can use British Rail and London Regional Transport trains. After all, we put limits on the number of passengers that can be carried on other forms of public transport.

If it had not been for the quick thinking of the guard on the third train, it is likely that a fourth train would have piled into the wreckage. Therefore, will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an undertaking that he will tell British Rail that, at least for the moment, it should halt any further progress towards one-person-operated trains?

Mr. Channon

I agree about the emergency services. The inquiry will have to consider what the hon. Gentleman says about trains and whether the number of people getting on them should be limited. We have to establish first that the train was overcrowded. It was full, but there is some conflict of evidence about whether it was overcrowded. As we all know, one of the trains was empty —of the three, only two were carrying passengers. I make it clear to the House that I want to make sure that the inquiry covers all relevant points, so that public and Parliament are reassured about the future. I do not want hide anything, and I am sure that the inquiry will not want to dodge getting to the bottom of what occurred on this occasion, so that the appropriate lessons can be learned.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that I have called all hon. Members whose constituencies are directly involved in this tragic accident. I do not think that this is the moment for wider discussion of the matter. We shall move on to the next statement.