HC Deb 14 January 1991 vol 183 cc622-34 3.52 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the railway accident that occurred at Cannon Street station on Tuesday 8 January.

At about 8.44 last Tuesday morning, the 7.58 Sevenoaks to Cannon Street train collided with the buffer stops at Cannon Street station. The effect of the impact was most severe in the fifth and sixth coaches of the 10-coach train. One passenger died and more than 200 were injured.

The House will want to join me in expressing our sympathy to the bereaved and our hopes for the speedy recovery of the injured. I also pay tribute to the professionalism of the emergency services. The response by all involved was magnificent.

British Rail has accepted responsibility for the accident and is carrying out its own internal inquiry. The British Transport police are also conducting an investigation.

Officers from the Health and Safety Executive, including Her Majesty's railway inspectorate, attended the scene of the accident immediately. After consultation with the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, I have appointed the deputy chief inspecting officer of railways to carry out this inquiry under the Regulation of Railways Act 1871. His inquiry will be wholly independent and will be held in public. The report will be published. I have asked him to report to me as quickly as possible. British Rail will, of course, act immediately should the need for any urgent measures emerge during the various investigations.

Her Majesty's railway inspectorate's investigation began on the day of the accident. The train was examined and some testing took place before it was removed from the station. The train has now been moved to a British Rail depot where British Rail engineers have been conducting further examinations and tests under the inspectorate's supervision. The forensic capabilities of the Health and Safety Executive will be at the disposal of the inspectorate, if they are needed. The House will appreciate that these examinations and tests are being undertaken extremely thoroughly. The cause of the accident is not yet clear and it is unwise to speculate on the conclusions of the inquiry until all the evidence is available.

There has, however, been widespread speculation about the age of this rolling stock, which is some of the oldest on BR, and about the number of passengers on the train. The inquiry will of course be considering these aspects, but there appear to be no grounds for concluding at this stage that the age of the rolling stock was a material factor in causing the accident.

There has also been comment about the consequences of the train being heavily loaded, with many passengers standing. In his report on the Clapham accident, Sir Anthony Hidden accepted the view of safety experts that, in that accident, standing passengers were at no greater risk of death or injury than those who were seated and that if the trains had been overloaded, those passengers having to stand as a result would not have been placed at any greater risk. Nevertheless, he recommended that BR should ensure that overall train loading criteria were achieved and that the criteria should be kept under review. In response to this recommendation, BR made it clear that strong demand growth has created a problem of overcrowding on some routes, and that it is committed to tackling this through investment in new rolling stock. I understand the very natural concern about overcrowding. I can assure the House that the inquiry will consider the number of passengers that were on the train and any implications that this may have had.

These commuter services have some of the oldest trains, but neither the Government nor BR is complacent about this. We have approved both the replacement of the present trains with new rolling stock which has higher capacity and the lengthening of the platforms on the stations they will use, in order to give passengers a better quality of service. The first tranche of the order was approved by the Government in 1989 and is now being manufactured. Further orders are among the highest priorities within BR's corporate plan.

More generally, overcrowding is being addressed through the investment programme, which is running at about £1 million a day on Network SouthEast alone and is due to continue at this level. Much of the expenditure is already authorised by the Government and much of the investment is already under way. Timing of achievement of the train loading standards will depend on factors such as the capacity of the manufacturing industry, the size of the investment programme that can be managed effectively, and changes in demand for rail services and patterns of demand growth.

British Rail's top priority is safety. Railways are already one of the safest means of transport, and British Rail is working to develop an even stronger safety culture throughout the organisation. The board has undertaken a comprehensive review of all safety procedures and training.

Finally, I should like to assure the House that there is no financial constraint on necessary and cost-effective safety expenditure. Last July, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson) announced a further increase in British Rail's external financing limit for 1990–91, which allows the board to spend £70 million on safety expenditure in this year alone. This year's PSO grant was also increased, largely to take account of additional safety expenditure. In our public expenditure plans for the next three years, we have endorsed in full British Rail's planned expenditure of some £330 million on additional safety measures. There is no question of improving efficiency at the expense of safety. Nor is there any lack of investment, with railway investment now at its highest level for 30 years and a further increase planned for the next three years.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. On behalf of the Opposition, I offer the deepest sympathy to the relatives and friends of the man who was killed and to all those who were injured in the terrible tragedy at Cannon Street station last Tuesday morning.

As in recent and terrible tragedies—King's Cross, Clapham and Purley—we record yet again our greatest admiration for our emergency services, which appear always to exceed what we can expect from them. There is no doubt that the work of the emergency services in responding so swiftly and acting so promptly with such skill and courage in the most difficult circumstances saved lives. Once again, the House and the entire nation will admire their sheer professionalism and dedication. We are eternally indebted to them.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, although historically rail safety has been at a high level and an increasing one, in recent years safety standards have been falling? In comparing the first half of the 1980s with the second half, we see that general train accidents—this is according to the railway inspectorate's report—have increased by more than 20 per cent. Collisions with buffers —this is relevant to the Cannon Street tragedy—have increased by 30 per cent. I recognise that the inspectorate's report states that there has been a fall in significant railway accidents, but that information is incorrectly presented. That was confirmed by the inspectorate this morning. I hope that the Secretary of State will discuss with the Health and Safety Executive an accurate method of presenting railway safety statistics so that there is no disagreement between us about the facts.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that the excessive number of injuries at Cannon Street last week was influenced by overcrowding? The Hidden report stated that those standing in railway carriages were at no greater risk than those seated, but the reality is that the greater the number of passengers on a train the greater is the possibility of serious injury. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that Mr. Hidden was concerned about the safety of standing passengers and that his report contained the recommendation that in carriages of the sort that were involved in the Cannon Street tragedy no more than 10 per cent. of passengers should be standing? With that sort of rolling stock, that means that no more than 16 passengers should be standing in each coach .

I conducted a survey last Wednesday and another one this morning between 7.30 and 9 am. The results of this morning's survey showed that on six separate journeys between Cannon Street and London Bridge this morning there were over 120 passengers standing in each carriage and not the 16 as recommended in the Hidden report. Does the Secretary of State accept that the British Railways Board assured the House and the Department of Transport on 20 August 1990 in a written statement that the recommendation concerning overcrowding had already been implemented? That misled the House, and that has been demonstrated by my surveys and by the daily experience of thousands of people. I drew that to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's attention when we met last Wednesday. Will he inform the House of the explanation that British Rail has given for the deception?

Is the Secretary of State aware that the rolling stock that was involved in the crash at Cannon Street was over 40 years old and that some of the stock that continues to come into Cannon Street on the route in question is over 65 years old? Indeed, the age profile of Network SouthEast's stock is the oldest of any regional network in the United Kingdom or, indeed, in the world. That is the direct result of an inadequate Networker replacement investment programme. There can be no other explanation.

Does the Secretary of State realise that the average age of Network SouthEast's rolling stock is twice that of the stock of the northern region? That is primarily because the financial arrangements affecting British Rail allow the northern regions, through their passenger transport authorities, a subsidy of nearly £100 million a year to replace their rolling stock. That subsidy is denied to the south-east region. I believe that, if we want safer stock, it is better to replace it as quickly as possible and change the silly rule that subsidies can be given to replace stock in the north but not in the south-east region, which is the most congested network in the United Kingdom. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will reconsider the rule.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that British Rail proposed in 1986, during the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's inquiry into Network SouthEast, that overcrowding could be reduced—the Department was aware of this in 1986—by lengthening platforms to enable 12-coach Networker trains to be introduced? That would have required extra investment of £200 million, which is equivalent to the amount that the right hon. and learned Gentleman intends to take from the public service obligation tranche for Network SouthEast. Is not this the time for the Secretary of State to reverse that policy so that an emergency programme can be introduced to replace stock and to provide more comfort and safety?

The Secretary of State will have the full support of the House and of the public—particularly as he is new to the job—if he will review the crazy financial framework within which British Rail operates, which forces it to decide projects on the basis of the rate of financial return that they will offer, rather than the quality of safety and service that they will provide. In the past few years, British Rail management has become obsessed with meeting the Government's priority of producing a privatised railway rather than a safe, good-quality railway of the kind that the travelling public want.

Mr. Rifkind

I endorse the hon. Gentleman's initial remarks about the quality of the emergency services and the superb contribution that they made on the occasion in question, as one would have expected.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that British Rail safety standards have fallen in recent years. I cannot support that interpretation. In fact, the total number of fatalities has been falling and last year the number was the lowest since 1983. We naturally hope that that trend will continue.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to review the way in which railway safety statistics are prepared and provided. I shall be happy to consider any specific points that he wishes to make in that respect and see what improvements can be made.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the injuries inflicted on passengers in the Cannon Street incident might have been influenced by the number travelling on the train. There is no evidence as yet that the accident was caused by the number of passengers on the train. However, no doubt the inquiry will consider whether the severity of the injuries and the number of people injured were influenced by that factor. Many of the passengers who were standing in carriages at the time of the impact had been sitting throughout the journey but chose to stand as the train arrived in the station. That often happens on rail journeys, and it is something on which the inquiry may want to comment.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the progress report published by British Rail some time ago which suggested that Hidden's recommendation on overcrowding had been implemented. He was right to draw attention to the inaccuracy of that claim, for it contained at least an ambiguity. British Rail intended to say that it had accepted the need to implement that recommendation, but I agree that the way in which the progress report was written implied that it had already been implemented. That point needs to be corrected.

As to the age of rolling stock and the lack of investment, many take the view that, during the 1970s and in the early 1980s, there was less investment in British Rail under successive Governments than might have been appropriate, but that has changed considerably over the past five or six years. At present, Network SouthEast intends to invest more than £1,300 million over the next three years, which represents a 28 per cent. increase over the past three years. That indicates the priority being given to improvements not just by British Rail as a whole but particularly within Network SouthEast—including modernisation of the rolling stock, which is relevant to the Cannon Street incident.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the way in which proposed investment is appraised has a damaging effect on safety. He ought to be aware that proposed safety expenditure is not subject to the same investment criteria as other investment. When expenditure on safety has been required, British Rail and the Government have an excellent record, which I am happy to defend.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that the statement relates to the distressing accident at Cannon Street, and that right hon. and hon. Members should not ask questions on wider issues.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

My constituents will be reassured by the Secretary of State's confirmation today that the new Networker rolling stock is still on target for introduction in September 1991.

To put matters in perspective, can my right hon. and learned Friend say what proportion of recent collisions was caused by the use of old rolling stock, how many collisions involved new rolling stock and in how many cases the cause was not clear?

Mr. Rifkind

I can certainly confirm that the Networker programme for Kent inner suburban services, including Sevenoaks, is on schedule. The first 400 vehicles are on order, with delivery due to start in September 1991.

With regard to the latter part of my hon. Friend's question—buffer accidents and the relevance of the age of the stock—it is difficult to draw general conclusions. For example, the House might be interested to know that the provisional details for 1990 for passenger train incidents involving buffer stop collisions suggest that, of the 23 collisions that took place, seven involved old stock that was comparable in age to that in the Cannon Street incident and as many as 10 involved new rolling stock. Details are not yet available for the remaining six collisions. Clearly there can be a number of reasons for accidents of this kind. Sadly, even new rolling stock is not exempted from the risk of incidents of the kind that we have experienced in the past year.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy and thanks. Given the apparent figures every day—I looked down from the signal box at London Bridge station three weeks ago—for the number of people standing on trains and for loading the front part of the train with standing passengers, not merely in the last few minutes of the journey, it is not sufficient to wait for technical changes. It is necessary for instructions and a change of practice to be implemented soon if injuries are to be minimised. That is a matter of common sense, apart from Sir Anthony Hidden's recommendations.

Also, the Secretary of State could usefully assure the House and the travelling public, first, that the recommendations about the rolling stock being appropriate to reduce the amount of impact damage have been implemented and, secondly, that trains coming into termini have back-up procedures for slowing them down and stopping them, because that was clearly one of the features of this incident.

Mr. Rifkind

I listened with interest to what the hon. Gentleman said. Certainly a significant number of the passengers on the train joined at London Bridge, thereby swelling the numbers for the last, albeit short, stage of the journey. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw our attention to that factor. The design of the rolling stock and its reaction on impact is a technical matter about which the inquiry may wish to make recommendations, and British Rail will clearly be anxious to identify whether improvements can be made. New rolling stock is being introduced on this service, as on all the other services in Network SouthEast, and it will have the benefit of the latest design technology information.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

A number of my constituents are still in hospital recovering from this tragic accident and I wish to extend my sympathy to them, to their relatives and to all others involved in this unhappy situation.

I wish to raise three points with my right hon. and learned Friend. First, are the buffers at Cannon Street station of the same high quality, with the same ability to withstand impact, as those at other London termini? If not, can action be taken to improve them? Secondly, will my right hon. and learned Friend hold urgent talks with the chairman of British Rail on whether the programme to renew rolling stock, which is in hand, can be accelerated? I accept that this accident may not have been directly related to old rolling stock, but there is no doubt that new rolling stock is, as one would expect, safer for passengers in impacts of this kind. Quite apart from the safety factors, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend, in his new job, is fully aware of the low standards of accommodation provided for constituents travelling from this part of south-east England. We are at the end of the programme for renewing rolling stock and I can assure him that if the programme could be accelerated it would have a welcome effect on millions of people.

Finally, can my right hon. and learned Friend give us any idea of how rapidly the initial findings of the inquiry will be made public? I consider it most important that the ritual of inquiry be carried out rapidly and that the public are given information with expediency.

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. I understand that the buffers have virtually been removed by the railway inspectorate so that they can be properly examined, as their design may be significant with regard to the inquiries.

My hon. Friend also asked whether the replacement of rolling stock could be accelerated. Apart from the question of resources, there is the question of the manufacturing capacity of those replacing the stock, but I believe that good progress is being made. At present, over 80 per cent. of the Network SouthEast fleet is either less than 15 years old or refurbished to modern standards. Having said that, however, I agree with my hon. Friend that in some parts of Network SouthEast the quality of rolling stock is less impressive than that in many other parts of the country. That must be addressed, seriously and constructively, within the framework of British Rail's overall requirements.

The hon. Gentleman asked when the findings of the inquiry would be made public. The most important requirement will be for any interim recommendations to be made available to British Rail so that the necessary steps can be taken. The report will be made public in due course, and, as soon as it is available, it will be made public to my hon. Friend and to others interested in these matters.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Has the Secretary of State's attention been drawn to my written question and the answer given, on 15 March 1988, by the then Minister for Public Transport, the hon. Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell)? My question, which can be found in column 495 of the Official Report, concerned brake failures on multiple unit trains. Is the Secretary of State aware that, in his reply, his hon. Friend said that the matter would be dealt with in the forthcoming report on the Walton-on-Naze accident, which happened on 12 August 1987?

Is not it a fact that that accident occurred when a modern sliding-door multiple unit electric train came into that one-end station at about 50 mph—fortunately with only 12 passengers? Is not it also a fact that the report on the accident has not yet been published, although the accident took place three and a half years ago? If that is not suppression, does not the delay illustrate the fact that the Government are less concerned with safety first than they pretend?

Mr. Rifkind

I am concerned about the fact that the report has not yet been published, but its non-publication is not for the reasons suggested by the hon. Gentleman. The person responsible for drafting it was seconded as an assessor to the Clapham inquiry, and has therefore not finished the drafting.

Mr. Spearing

That is not good enough.

Mr. Rifkind

I am not suggesting that it is good enough; I am explaining the background. I can assure the hon. Gentleman of two things: first, that any lessons to be learnt from that inquiry have already been passed on to British Rail; and, secondly, that the brake that failed in the incident that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned involved an entirely different design from that at Cannon Street. Having said that, let me add that I share his desire to see the report published as soon as possible. I hope that the inspector in question will be able to finish drafting it so that it can be published in the next few weeks or months. As soon as that is done, it will be published.

Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway)

My right hon. and learned Friend has accepted the truth of comments made about rolling stock in the south-east. Does he realise that commuters from the Medway towns stand throughout their journey every morning? There is no question of their standing merely from London Bridge to Cannon Street.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend himself investigate the claim that manufacturers would not he able to accelerate the provision of rolling stock? Surely, during a period of recession, we can expect manufacturers to expedite its provision.

Mr. Rifkind

A number of factors have to be taken into account, but my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that, in addition to the 400 vehicles already on order, with delivery due to start in September next, the project also includes £120 million of fixed works programmes, with platform lengthening at 63 stations out of Cannon Street and Charing Cross. That implies the approval of over 400 additional vehicles to complete the replacement of the current fleet and to cater for growth in demand.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

Is the Secretary of State aware that during the last 15 years hon. Members have been given assurances by successive chairmen of British Rail that all the outdated rolling stock on Network SouthEast would be replaced? However, Kent suburban routes are still operating with single compartment, non-corridor coaches that date back to before world war two. In view of our past disappointments, is the Secretary of State able to say clearly whether he has a target date for the replacement of all outdated rolling stock on Network SouthEast? If he has, what, please, is it?

Mr. Rifkind

I said earlier that it could be argued that there was insufficient investment in the railways in the 1970s and the early 1980s. I am happy to say that during the last five or six years there has been a significant change and that there will continue to be change in the right direction. Since 1985, the average age of the Network SouthEast fleet has been reduced from 24 to 19 years. We expect the age of the fleet to continue to be reduced and we hope that all the older stock will be replaced within a reasonable period. Substantial progress is being made. The investment resources available to Network SouthEast alone are of a very high order—£1.3 billion over the next three years. That is not a small sum of money by any standards.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

Unhappily, a number of my constituents were involved in the crash. I know that both they and their families wish to endorse the comments that have been made about the prompt and efficient reaction of the emergency services. Thousands of my constituents use the services to London Bridge, Charing Cross and Cannon Street every day, as do both I and members of my family.

There was considerable concern when my right hon. and learned Friend's predecessor announced the phasing out of the public service obligation grant. It was felt that it would lead to substantial fare increases and to economies that might affect safety standards. My right hon. and learned Friend will understand if last week both of those fears appeared to have been realised. Will he reconsider the phasing out of the public service obligation grant?

I endorse the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) about the inquiry. Most of us were under the impression that the purpose of a buffer was to do precisely what its name implies: to absorb the impact if a train fails to come to a complete stop. In this case, that does not seem to have happened. One therefore has to question whether the buffers were up to the job.

Mr. Rifkind

With regard to the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, he is right to draw attention to the apparent failure of the buffers to do the job for which they were designed. The inquiry will wish to consider that point.

The point that I wish to emphasise most regarding the public service obligation grant is that whether it goes up or down is not relevant to the question of safety. That is determined by quite different considerations. My hon. Friend may have noticed that, in yesterday's edition of the Observer, British Rail's safety director, Mr. Maurice Holmes, was quoted as saying: We have not been refused money for any essential safety scheme. Where we are not progressing as fast as we would like, the obstacles have been practical ones. My hon. Friend can therefore rest assured that the Government have always given the greatest priority to safety expenditure, on both Network SouthEast and other sectors of the rail network.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

Will the Secretary of State accept from me that this accident has increased the widespread unease among our constituents about the decrepit, antiquated and often squalid state of the railways in London and the south-east? That unease was exacerbated when they heard of the impossible hours being worked by engineers, as revealed at the Clapham inquiry. Does he accept that the policy of eliminating public subsidy to the railways is crazily mistaken and that until it is altered the public will not believe that profit is not being put before service and safety?

Mr. Rifkind

We are conscious of the need to ensure that those who carry out tasks on the rail network are not put under strain or are expected to work unnecessary hours. Overtime has been reduced and British Rail hopes to make further progress on that matter. The hon. Gentleman's point is well understood.

Mr. James Coachman (Gillingham)

My right hon. and learned Friend was right to highlight the number of people who changed trains at London Bridge for the last half mile into Cannon Street. A number of those who did so would have been my constituents who travel from Rainham, which is one of the busiest commuter stations in south-east England. The people of Rainham, who pay about £1,500 a year for the privilege of standing all the way into London every day, are dismayed by the deferment to 1995 of the Networker trains for the outer suburban lines to my constituency and beyond. Will my right hon. and learned Friend give an assurance that the original programme will be reinstated as soon as possible so that they can expect the Networker trains at the same time as other commuters in Kent?

Mr. Rifkind

I shall refer my hon. Friend's point to British Rail when I am next in contact with it to ascertain its view on the matter. There are a number of demands on British Rail's investment programme. The Government have initiated the largest investment programme in British Rail for no less than 30 years, which should ensure substantial improvements to the benefit of my hon. Friend's constituents and to those of hon. Members from other parts of the country.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

As a Scot, is not the right hon. and learned Gentleman impressed by the amount of all-party anger in the south-east about the way in which our commuters are treated when they travel on British Rail? Although we understand that we must await the outcome of the inquiry, does he seriously expect us to believe that there is no connection between the age of the rolling stock and the amount of carnage and injury that appears to have resulted from a train hitting the buffers at 5 mph? Will he give us an assurance that all rolling stock of that vintage will be taken out of service while immediate investigations and examinations are made to ensure that nothing similar occurs? Although that might result in some dislocation, it is far better to be temporarily dislocated than long-term impaired.

Mr. Rifkind

I assure the hon. Gentleman that if any rolling stock is considered to be unsafe, whatever its age and however modern or old, it is immediately withdrawn from service. That is the criterion that should be applied. The design of the rolling stock may be relevant to the nature of the injuries that were caused, but we have no reason to believe that its age was a contributory cause of the accident. Those matters will be examined by the inspectorate in its inquiry. Its views will be made public and if there is any contrary evidence it will have to be fully considered and presented, not just to the inspectorate but to the public as a whole.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Thousands of my constituents stand on the trains every day. They find it almost incomprehensible that they should be charged the same as for sitting. At various airports, the buses that meet aircraft are designed to enable people to stand in safety and comfort. Is it beyond the wit of British Rail to ensure a system whereby there is a difference in the fare charged for those who sit and those who stand, and that some of the rolling stock is designed for people to be able to stand in comfort? As that is what they will always have to do, why cannot they do it in safety and comfort?

Mr. Rifkind

I note my hon. Friend's suggestion, but normally an airline knows in advance how many passengers it will carry. It knows that from the moment that the journey begins, whereas there is some unpredictability for railway services. I shall draw my hon. Friend's point to British Rail's attention.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Although the Secretary of State makes great play of the permission to borrow money to deal with safety, he ignores the fact that safety is made up of many different factors, such as the pressure caused by the closure of maintenance depots, the pressure on men to work long hours and the pressure on people who are crushed into wholly inadequate rolling stock. All those factors contribute to accidents. Will he guarantee that the position will change within the next two years? Companies are capable of building whatever rolling stock is necessary; and until the Government sold them off they were highly efficient.

Mr. Rifkind

I have already informed the House that we have the highest investment programme for over 30 years. The fact that I am able to say that indicates that the performance of the Labour Government in investing in the railways was not impressive.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I represent a constituency in which up to half of the working population commutes to London every day? A crash such as last week's increases people's apprehensions considerably and those apprehensions have been played upon. Will my right hon. and learned Friend accentuate the fact that a reduction in operating subsidies does not have an impact on capital investment or on safety? He has told the House that capital investment is the highest on record and that the safety recommendations in the Hidden report have been met in full.

My right hon. and learned Friend is new to his job and therefore may not be fully aware of the resentment felt in Kent that we are the last in the queue for the introduction of the Networkers. Will he take seriously the recommendation of my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) and get a move on so that we can have the Networkers even earlier than September?

Mr. Rifkind

I note the point that my hon. Friend fairly makes. Any reduction in the operating subsidy releases resources for investment. Therefore, the investment programme is positively helped when fewer resources are required for operating purposes.

Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)

The obsolescence of the rolling stock may not have contributed to the accident, but it certainly contributed to the injuries. Those of us who regularly travel on the Kent suburban lines know from reports of earlier accidents that the rolling stock simply splinters on impact. It is grossly unsafe. Is not it true that the Government have done nothing in the past decade to improve safety on those lines, tackle overcrowding or invest in new rolling stock?

Mr. Rifkind

That is simply untrue. I accept the hon. Gentleman's remark that the design of the train might have contributed to the nature of the injuries. Clearly the inquiry will comment on that, and we shall consider with great interest what it says. However, the suggestion that nothing has been done about safety flies in the face of the evidence. We have endorsed £330 million of additional expenditure on safety over the next three years. During the past decade the Government have not refused permission for expenditure on any safety proposal by British Rail. The hon. Gentleman must be a little more objective in such matters.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

My right hon. and learned Friend is aware of and sympathises with the anxieties of travellers on, for example, the north Kent line about the conditions in which they travel. He will be aware that events such as last week's accident heighten the anxieties not only of travellers but of their families, the apprehension with which people travel every day and fears for their safety. When my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Public Transport makes his most welcome visit to Margate in the spring to launch the exhibition of the new rolling stock, will he be in a position to assure my constituents that neither they nor the Government will have to tolerate any delay in the introduction of the new rolling stock to the further regions of the north Kent line?

Mr. Rifkind

I note carefully what my hon. Friend says. Of course, we shall do what we can to ensure that progress in replacing the rolling stock will continue so that the more acceptable situation which my hon. Friend desires will come about as soon as possible.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the rolling stock on the further reaches of the north Kent line previously consisted of four-abreast seating in open compartments with plenty of leg room and that the new rolling stock will be five abreast with space for the knees available only by slotting the knees into a hole in the back of the seat in front? Does he consider that the new configuration is more or less comfortable? Does he believe that such a sardine-like arrangement is safe?

Mr. Rifkind

I would have to try it out before it would be safe to venture an opinion on its relative merits compared with the older design. Clearly the comfort of the travelling public is an important consideration. I hope that, in designing new rolling stock, British Rail will seek to improve the comfort of passengers rather than reduce it. I will draw the hon. Gentleman's point to the attention of British Rail.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend take every opportunity to reassure the travelling public that, despite terrible incidents such as the one at Cannon Street and the one two years ago at Clapham Junction in my constituency, it is safe to travel by train and that they should continue to use the service with confidence? Will he ask the inquiry and/or British Rail to look into two aspects regarding standing on trains? First, what would the impact have been in this instance had the train been one of the many trains on Network SouthEast that travel with half the number of coaches which they should have, but with the same number of passengers packed into the reduced number of coaches? Secondly, should it be more of an enforceable offence to open train doors while the train is still in motion? That is a danger to the public on the platform and encourages more people to stand up as the train approaches the platform Mr. Rifkind: I hope that the inspectorate will consider each of my hon. Friend's points, which may be relevant to the safety of the travelling public. He is certainly right to emphasise that the railways continue to be one of the safest means of travel. Earlier I mentioned the number of fatalities on the railways—some 60 people killed during the year compared with more than 5,000 on the roads. Therefore, the railways remain one of the safest means of transport in the United Kingdom.

Mr. John P. Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to recognise the splendid work of our train drivers in difficult and, sometimes, dangerous conditions for little reward? As he seems to have ruled out the possibility of the age of the rolling stock having caused the accident at Cannon Street, will he assure us that the train driver will not be used as a scapegoat for British Rail's inadequacies, as has happened in the past?

Mr. Rifkind

I am happy to pay tribute to railway drivers as a whole who perform a valuable service for the travelling public. I will not speculate on the cause of the accident. Whether there were mechanical, human or other reasons will be for the inspectorate to draw to the attention of British Rail and the public in its conclusions.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

I trust that my right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that I wrote to him shortly after his appointment to express concern about the delays in implementing the new rolling stock in Kent generally, and that he will do all in his power to speed up the programme, which is wholly unsatisfactory. Many trains in Kent are cancelled because of the inadequacies of the rolling stock. Often there are failings, whether with brakes or other parts, and, as a result, trains must be withdrawn from service. Alternatively, trains are delayed or temporarily taken out of service while repairs are effected on the spot. In these circumstances, the inquiry must reassure our constituents and Kent commuters as soon as possible that the carriages in service are safe. To alleviate all the anxieties expressed today, can we speed up the programme for the replacement of these awful old carriages?

Mr. Rifkind

I am concerned by the great dissatisfaction among my hon. Friends, other hon. Members and their constituents who use these services. It is a source of encouragement that Network SouthEast has embarked on a massive reinvestment programme. Inevitably it takes a little time to see the results of reinvestment. The sums invested in the production of new rolling stock in Kent and elsewhere in the south-east are of an enormous and almost unprecedented order. Therefore, my hon. Friend's constituents can look forward to a more acceptable and satisfactory service in the years to come.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Can the Minister tell us by what factor the longitudinal crushing strength of the modern stock will be increased over the stock involved in the accident? Does he intend to introduce inter-city type energy-absorbing buffers at terminal stations throughout the InterCity region where they are needed instead of the lighter type, which are less effective and which were involved in the accident?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman should understand that, even though the accident occurred in London, it sent the message to all commuters throughout England, Scotland and Wales who suffer from overcrowding that there is potential for accidents when trains are massively overcrowded. All commuter services on British Rail are now overcrowded, but the Government have not taken sufficient action soon enough to remedy it. We need more trains—with more seats—that run more frequently to meet demand. We know that some of the figures on investment are economical with the truth, and I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman can present us with investment figures that ensure that coaches start appearing in London, the south-east and the rest of the nation.

Mr. Rifkind

Coaches are appearing. In recent years ever-increasing numbers of new rolling stock have appeared throughout the United Kingdom.

The early part of the hon. Gentleman's question referred to the design of buffers and the rolling stock, which are clearly matters for British Rail to consider. I hope that it will take into account any recommendations made by the inquiry and by previous inquiries when considering the future design of buffers and rolling stock.