§ The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the accident that occurred on ScotRail at Bellgrove in Glasgow yesterday. I understand that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) received his copy of the statement late, for which I apologise.
At about 12.50 yesterday the 12.20 Milngavie to Springburn train collided with the 12.39 Springburn to Milngavie train. A passenger and the driver of one of the trains were killed, and five people with serious injuries were detained in hospital overnight. The two trains collided head-on on the branch line to Springburn near to Bellgrove station. British Rail has not yet completed all its tests of equipment, but stated this morning that all the indications are that the accident, like that at Purley, was caused by human error rather than technical defects.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has visited the scene, as have both my hon. Friend the Minister of State and my hon. Friend the Minister for Home Affairs and the Environment at the Scottish Office. They have already expressed their deepest sympathy to the injured and the bereaved, and our thanks to the local rescue and hospital services who responded so well to the emergency. The House will, I know, want to join me in expressing sympathy to the people of Glasgow.
British Rail is carrying out its own internal inquiry into the circumstances and causes of the accident. An officer from the railway inspectorate attended the scene, and the inspectorate has already started its investigations. I have today appointed Major Anthony King, one of my inspecting officers, to carry out an inquiry into the accident. His inquiry will of course be wholly independent. It will be held in public in Glasgow and the report will be published. I have asked him to report to me as quickly as possible.
I discussed with Sir Robert Reid this morning the problem of trains passing signals at red, to which British Rail and the railway inspectorate have been seeking solutions for some time. BR has had research carried out into the psychology of driver reaction to the automatic warning system and has been looking into technical improvements to make the system more effective. The chairman told me that BR has now authorised a pilot scheme to develop and test a system of automatic train protection which will work with United Kingdom signalling systems.
Meanwhile, the immediate priority must be for the inquiries into each of the three recent accidents to be completed quickly so that prompt action may be taken.
§ Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston)
I also wish to express my deepest sympathy to those injured in this tragic disaster and to the families, friends and relatives of those who have been killed. I thank the Secretary of State for the statement, and I add my thanks to the emergency services and those local people who assisted in this very difficult rescue operation.
However, I ask the Secretary of State to confirm the report in the Daily Telegraph today that this accident happened on a single track of line which had been coverted from a dual track as an economy measure a few years ago. 758 If that is the case, will he take immediate action to restore all section of single track line to dual track immediately as being in the best interests of public safety?
§ Mr. Channon
I am grateful for what the hon. Member says. As it happens, this accident occurred on the double line, not the single line. [Interruption.] My hon. Friends must not be unfair to the hon. Member; he made a very relevant point. Of course, single track lines, when properly operated, and when the signals work properly—as I hope they did in this case—and are properly obeyed, should be no more dangerous than double track, and they are widely used on British Rail.
§ Mr. Michael Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)
I. too, convey my sympathies to the bereaved relatives of the driver and passenger; indeed my sympathies go to a near neighbour of mine who was trapped in the wreckage for more than four hours.
No hon. Member wants a tragedy in his constituency, but it is our job to try to highlight problems which can be avoided. The Minister should take on board the fact that only a few miles further up the track are the railway workshops where his Government took away 3,000 workers, reducing the work force to 300. Also, a depot has been asking for voluntary redundancies. The Government are seeking to get safety on the cheap on the railways, and. it is time that the Minister considered doing more about safety. That means getting a work force that is capable of doing the work, not seeking voluntary redundancies and shedding labour.
§ Mr. Channon
I can well understand the hon. Members's feelings, this appalling disaster having occurred near his constituency and that of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall), and his concern for those injured and killed in the accident. The House understands that he feels strongly about the matter.
What the hon.Gentleman says about the Springburn works, although an important point, must be irrelevant to the cause of this accident. However, I must refute very strongly what he said about our trying to get safety on the cheap. Safety remains a top priority for British Rail. I have discussed the matter with Sir Robert Reid on many occasions, and he has confirmecl to me that it remains a top priority. I have told him that it must remain a top priority.
We are determined to get to the bottom of these accidents so that we can learn the lessons from them and take the appropriate measures.
§ Mr. Allan Stewart (Eastwood)
My right hon. Friend has spoken for the whole House, indeed the whole country, in expressing our sympathies for the injured and bereaved and in congratulating the emergency services. As he knows, I represent a large number of commuters on the south side of Glasgow. He also knows that the Glasgow commuter network has an excellent safety record. However, can he reassure all those using that network that urgent checks are being carried out on the safety and signalling systems throughout the network?
§ Mr. Channon
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Every step will be taken to maintain the high level of safety to which my hon. Friend has referred, and I can give him the assurances for which he asks.
The important thing with this accident, as indeed with all the others, is to get at the truth as quickly as possible.
759 Then it will be clear what lessons can be learned from it. I hope that it will not be long before the facts of this accident are established beyond dispute.
§ Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)
On behalf of the Opposition, I offer our deepest sympathy to the relatives and friends of the two people who died and all those who were injured in yesterday's terrible accident. This is the third fatal crash in three months and it has left us all shocked and dismayed.
Once again, we express our unfailing admiration of the emergency services who responded so swiftly and with such skill and courage. We pay tribute to their professionalism and dedication. We also pay tribute to the way in which ordinary people living nearby once again played their full part in the rescue operation and wanted to do what they could to help.
We welcome the fact that British Rail, as at Clapham and Purley, has already accepted full responsibility for the latest tragic accident. But it is not enough to go on blaming individual human errors, which will always be a feature of such accidents, especially at a time when British Rail has received a report showing that last year alone there were over 700 incidents of trains going through red lights and has apparently failed to do anything about it. I welcome the Secretary of State's statement today that he has had discussions with British Rail about that problem.
Many of the questions that I asked yesterday are relevant today. For example, would it be easier to determine the circumstances that lead to such accidents if trains were fitted with black boxes? Will a study be made of the nature of the injuries sustained at Bellgrove, Purley and Clapham so that we can learn the appropriate lessons about the design of coaches, their seating and internal layout? The Secretary of State failed to respond yesterday. No doubt he was affected by the appalling tragedies with which it has been his misfortune to deal. However, I hope that he will read yesterday's Hansard and give a more detailed written response to the questions that I posed.
Again, I ask the Secretary of State whether he will order an independent inquiry into all aspects of safety on British Rail. Such an inquiry would take full account of investment, design, staffing and other factors that contribute to British Rail's safety. It would not replace the other separate and necessary investigations into the individual accidents. Indeed, it would complement them. Why will not the Secretary of State sanction a public inquiry with the broad remit that we have requested so that public confidence can be restored? Yesterday's accident illustrates why such an inquiry is needed.
Today I shall concentrate on one specific aspect arising directly out of the terrible accident and, indeed, arising out of the Secretary of State's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall), who asked whether the collision took place on single or double tracks. Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify the position because that is a most important point?
Is the Secretary of State aware that until recently there was a twin rail track for trains entering and leaving Bellgrove station which made a head-on collision impossible? Is he also aware that when British Rail announced that it intended to replace the twin tracks—which I believe are known as a diamond crossing—with a single track, it was warned that safety would be 760 compromised. it was warned that in the event of a human error or signal failure two trains on the same track could collide head-on. Can he tell me exactly why two trains were in the same position on one line?
Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether, if the extra leg of crossing had been there today, the accident would have been prevented? That is the question to which we are asking the Secretary of State to address himself. British Rail's justification for the removal of that extra link, which I believe played a contributory part in the accident, was that the maintenance of the diamond crossing was expensive in terms of costs and manpower. That is an essential point. Yesterday's terrible accident could have been avoided if British Rail had not had in mind the need to meet the Secretary of State's financial targets by reducing costs, thus affecting the level of safety.
§ Mr. Channon
I strongly refute what the hon. Gentleman said in the last part of his question, but I will try to deal with the serious points that he has made. [HON. MEMBERS: "They are all serious."] Yes, they are all serious. That is what I said. If I fail to deal with any of them, I shall write to the hon. Member, as he has asked.
The hon. Member asked me yesterday about the black box. Black boxes might make it easier in certain cases to get information after an accident but would not tend to make trains safer. We will see what happens at the inquiries, but I doubt at this stage whether black boxes would have made any difference. Let us wait and see what happens. Indeed, my answer to a great deal of what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said is that it is a great mistake for hon. Members on either side of the House to prejudge these inquiries until we know exactly what happened.
§ Mr. Channon
Human error, but whose error is for the inquiry to determine, and that is what British Rail says. I do not prejudge the inquiries.
As to single and double lines, I give the House the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall). The accident took place on the double line. Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East and his hon. Friends are on to a perfectly fair and pertinent point; there is a piece of single line. There are many places both in the United Kingdom and abroad where there are single tracks just like this one. When they are operated properly, when the signalling works—and that will be established by the inquiry—they are safe. I hope that the hon. Member will not suggest that single track, wherever it is, is dangerous. A higher level of signalling is required on single track than on the diamond crossing. The inquiry will, no doubt, determine whether this was a relevant factor. We must wait and see what happens, why this accident took place and what was the relevance of single or double track. Single track is operated extremely successfully and safely in many parts of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
Will my right hon. Friend accept that all of us in Scotland wish to be associated with the words spoken about the bereaved and those who were injured? We welcome the fact that a public inquiry will be held and that all the evidence will become public.
761 I caution my right hon. Friend against the overtures that he is getting about single-track operations. ScotRail operates single track in many parts of Scotland. In my constituency, the line between Perth and Inverness is single-track and it works most efficiently. We would be very distressed if any changes were made there to the detriment of the service. In recent years ScotRail has improved its services between Perth and Glasgow and there is no question whatever but that the services are better and that times are better. There has been a great improvement. Anyone who uses that line regularly, as I do, will vouch for that.
I also find it distressing and disturbing that every time the Prime Minister visits Scotland she is chastised by Opposition Members, yet on the one occasion when she cannot do so because of her other engagements she is again chastised. It seems that regardless of what one does one cannot be right. Hon. Members forget that there is no Secretary of State for England, but there is a Secretary of State for Scotland, who has visited the site.
§ Mr. Channon
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland visited the infirmary this morning.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend also on the important point, which I hope hon. Members on both sides of the House will take in, about single rail and the way in which it operates successfully in many parts of the United Kingdom, particularly the line that he mentioned. I am grateful to him for what he has said.
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
May I associate myself with the earlier remarks and pass on our condolences and sympathies to the victims and their families? As someone whose father and grandfather were committed railway workers, I more than anyone else know of the awareness of British Rail and ScotRail staff about safety north of the border.
It puzzles me that the Secretary of State says that he does not wish to prejudge the inquiry, and then says that British Rail has stated that this accident is attributable to human error. Will he tell the House who said that this morning? The lesson that we should have learned from the M I air disaster is that such rumours can fly round very easily. We should wait until a full inquiry has been carried out before we start attributing the accident to human error.
It also strikes me as odd that the railways have to produce a strict 7 per cent. economic return on developments, whereas road funding, when new roads are being developed, can take into account social and safety factors.
Will the Government give us a clear undertaking that any future capital investment in rolling stock will allow British Rail and ScotRail to take safety factors into consideration when replacing rolling stock? It is quite clear that the House is concerned about investment in the railway system. The river Ness rail bridge disaster was another example of lack of investment. Will the Secretary of State respond to the demands for a full general inquiry into British Rail's safety?
§ Mr. Channon
As I have told the House on a number of occasions, we must get to the bottom of the recent accidents to discover the causes and take immediate action when we know what is required. There has been considerable investment in ScotRail and there have been 762 all sorts of improvements at stations such as Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley and by Strathclyde PTE in electrification and rolling stock. [Interruption.] I shall answer all the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. He will be interested to know that new rolling stock is due on that line.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about what British Rail has said. It was not said by me. I believe that it was said by counsel to British Rail to the Hidden inquiry this morning, but I shall have to check that. I am merely quoting what counsel for British Rail said.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we do not want to prejudge the result of the inquiry. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has asked me a question and I am doing my best to answer it.
I shall not go into the question of funding for roads. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, although there are superficial differences, no worthwhile investment proposal by British Rail in the past 10 years has been turned down by my predecessors or me. I see no reason why that should not continue to be the case.
§ Mr. Conal Gregory (York)
I am sure that the whole House joins my right hon. Friend in expressing sympathy to the families of the bereaved. As there has been a series of railway accidents, while my right hon. Friend is correct in setting up independent inquiries, will he consider initiating a separate signals inspectorate which would be a completely independent body, to approve British Rail when it undertakes important signalling matters? Not only would that be a major step towards public safety and confidence in our great British railway industry, but it would be one step towards denationalisation and an appropriate division, as we have in the airlines between the Civil Aviation Authority and the airways. We have had such a spate of accidents that nothing less will restore confidence.
§ Mr. Channon
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know of the great importance of British Rail to his constituency, and his deep interest in the industry. His suggestion of a. signals inspectorate must be relevant to Mr. Hidden's Clapham inquiry. I suspend judgment until we know the result of that inquiry, but my hon. Friend has raised an important point which needs to be considered.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
The Minister mentioned the pilot study. When will it begin? What will it cost? How long will it last? How quickly can he get the results? Will he give a guarantee that if the pilot study is successful there will be no question of sufficient money being withheld from British Rail to apply it to the entire track?
§ Mr. Channon
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the answer to all those questions. Given his experience, he will understand that it is a very complicated matter and no system can be installed quickly. In many ways, United Kingdom signalling systems are more advanced than many continental systems, and no systems are available which could be applied to British Rail immediately. They have to be tailored to our signalling system. There has been. preliminary work for some time and now we have to move to a pilot scheme, as British Rail wishes, and as I think is a very good idea.
§ Mr. Channon
The work is going on now, but I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an answer this afternoon as to when the scheme will begin. I do not want to mislead the House as it is an extremely complex matter.
§ Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)
Although the three recent accidents were tragic and regrettable, and we must learn from the results of the inquiries, does my right hon. Friend agree that 15 people are killed on the roads every day, and that he should reassure the public that travelling by rail is one of the safest modes of transport?
§ Mr. Channon
I agree with my hon. Friend about the tragic losses in road accidents every day. His figure is approximately right. In spite of the tragedies in recent weeks, rail travel remains a very much safer form of transport than practically any other.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)
On behalf of my hon. Friends in the nationalist parties, I extend sympathy and best wishes to the families and friends of the injured, and in particular, our sympathies to the families of the bereaved.
Reverting to the question raised by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), is there not an element of a public relations exercise about this when the Secretary of State gives a throwaway line in a statement of great importance but cannot give the House accurate details of the pilot scheme? That is surely to hold out false hopes that there can be early action to improve the signalling system. May we have from the Secretary of State a commitment that when evidence of the need to upgrade equipment and rolling stock is brought forward from the public inquiries, he, like the Secretary of State for Energy after the Piper Alpha inquiry, will be prepared to say that, when safety recommendations are made, no expense will be spared in implementing them?
§ Mr. Channon
I assure the hon. Lady that, as I have said on many occasions, safety is our top priority. We shall study the reports of the inquiries and take appropriate action. I see no reason why the House should doubt me on that. If it does, it will have a chance of finding out very shortly.
As to the hon. Lady's question concerning automatic train protection, and whether, as she says, it is a so-called PR exercise, it would only be a PR exercise if I tried to mislead the House and to pretend that there was a quick and easy solution. I am giving the House the best information that I have at present. It is an extremely complicated matter. It is very difficult to install protection systems, which are not exactly comparable to systems used in other parts of Europe. Work is urgently progressing, and a pilot scheme will come forward as quickly as possible. If the hon. Lady will write to me or put down questions, I shall make sure that she is kept in touch.
§ Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)
I add my condolences and sympathy for the relatives of those who were killed or injured, and offer my congratulations to the emergency services.
How many times will the Secretary of State have to come to the Dispatch Box, how many accidents will have to occur, and how many lives must be lost before the right hon. Gentleman will admit that we are experiencing not a series of specific incidents but a growing general pattern of accidents? How can the right hon. Gentleman properly 764 investigate that pattern of accidents unless he establishes a general inquiry into the safety of British Rail, including aspects such as investment, schedules, rosters, the drive for productivity, and cost reductions? In the absence of such a general inquiry, how can the right hon. Gentleman be so sure that the rundown in cash, increases in productivity, cutbacks and cost reductions have not affected British Rail's safety standards? How many times must human error be a factor before the Secretary of State accepts that pressures may be causing that human error? Will the present inquiries include an examination of schedules and of the pressures that are placed on drivers?
I ask the Secretary of State to clarify what appeared to be a contradiction between his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) and a later answer? Will he tell the House straight whether the accident occurred on a two-way track that was previously a one-way track? If so, was that change made for reasons of economy and cost saving?
§ Mr. Channon
On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I do not think that I misled the House—certainly I did not mean to do so. The accident occurred on a two-way track, beyond a one-way track.
§ Mr. Channon
I do not want to mislead the House. I am doing my best to clarify the situation, and I do not want to make matters worse. I have given the hon. Gentleman an exact and accurate answer. If he does not think that I have, no doubt he will write to me, and I shall try to clarify the matter further.
As to pressures and all the other factors the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and which may occur in such situations, the inspector can take all relevant matters into account. I assure the hon. Gentleman that if there is a link between all the accidents, that will become clear as a result of the inquiries and we can then take appropriate steps. As to investment, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the fact that, this year alone, investment in our railways is 30 per cent. higher in real terms than it was in 1978.
§ Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)
In view of recent claims and allegations, and in view of the last question, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is very wrong to reach conclusions about patterns in accidents whose causes may prove to be very different? Also, is it not a fact that, despite recent tragic accidents, rail is, by and large, one of the safest surface modes of transport—perhaps 15 times safer than travelling by road?
In view of the many questions that have been asked about expenditure, will my right hon. Friend confirm that not only is spending at a very high level—and, incidentally, unrelated to the size of the PSO grant—but that, in the next four years, British Rail's expenditure, including that on safety, will rise very considerably?
§ Mr. Channon
I can give my hon. Friend all the assurances for which he asks. I agree with him that we should wait for the result of the inquiry so that the House 765 will be in an informed position rather than that hon. Members should draw conclusions long before there is evidence to support them.
My hon. Friend is right in saying that rail remains one of the safest forms of transport.
On the question of capital investment, my hon. Friend will be interested to know that it is £560 million a year, and will increase to about £755 million a year. It is already 30 per cent. higher in real terms than it was in 1978.
§ Mr. Bob McTaggart (Glasgow, Central)
May I join other hon. Members and express my sincere thanks to the emergency services and indeed the volunteers who were involved after this accident? I extend my sympathy to all those who were involved in it.
I agree with the Secretary of State that there is a pressing need for the inquiry's findings to be reported as soon as possible. But surely the Secretary of State must be aware that the public have the right to expect the highest possible level of service and safety in the public transport system, although at the moment in their mind's eye the safety requirements are seen to be damaged or expendable in the case of obtaining the cheapest possible public transport system. Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that the safety of the public is uppermost in any plans for an integrated public transport system?
§ Mr. Channon
I can well understand the hon. Gentleman's feelings and that he and his constituents are deeply concerned about this accident and rail transport safety in Glasgow. I cannot accept, however, what he says about safety; nor can I accept what he says about economies being made in this way. The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that basic costs of these lines, including those provided by Strathclyde, have risen in real terms between 1984 and 1989 from £195 million to about £205 million. So far from going down, they are increasing.
§ Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)
Does the Secretary of State accept that his understandable pleas for the suspension of any attempts to attribute responsibility for these terrible tragedies would be convincing if he stopped doing exactly that himself? He said that all the indications are that this accident, as with that at Purley, was caused by human error rather than technical defects. May I suggest—although I hope that the right hon. 766 Gentleman makes no more of these excursions—that he should impose upon himself the same self-denying ordinance that he asks of others?
Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the simple reality that, where there was previously a diamond crossing with two cross-over points to prevent collisions, there is now a single crossing? When the Secretary of State met Sir Robert Reid this morning and while he was talking about the problems of drivers going through signals at red, did he also ask what part diamond crossings play in railway safety? Did he ask why this particular diamond crossing was removed? If the answer proves to be that it was removed solely on grounds of economy, will he accept that there is something very wrong with our priorities in the way that we run our railways? Will the right hon. Gentleman at least have the humility to consider the possibility that cuts kill?
Will the Secretary of State please talk to railway workers as well as management to get an authentic grass roots view of what is being done to our railway system? I believe that he will find widespread concern that in the run-up to privatisation, which he currently regards as his personal responsibility, corners are being cut, and especially safety corners.
§ Mr. Channon
The hon. Gentleman grossly exaggerates the situation. Although he says that cuts kill, I have already told the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McTaggart) that basic expenditure has risen in this area. It has not been reduced.
The question of single lines and diamond crossings is very important. Diamond crossings have their own problems of maintenance and safety. Indeed, every part of the railway has its own particular problems. It is a mistake for any hon. Member to say a t this stage that single-line systems are unsafe. It is well known that large parts of the railway network have single lines. When they are operated properly, there is no reason to assume that they are in any way unsafe.
On the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about not imputing blame, I have not imputed blame to anyone, I have merely quoted what British Rail said. It is extremely important for the general public to realise that there are no technical defects on this line. Otherwise they would have every right to be worried about that and deserve reassurance. The Opposition have failed to make that important point.