HC Deb 22 July 1991 vol 195 cc779-86

5 pm

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the railway accident that occurred at Newton, near Glasgow, yesterday evening, Sunday 21 July.

At about 22.00 yesterday evening the 20.55 Balbach to Motherwell electric multiple unit train collided head on with the 21.55 Newton to Glasgow Central train near Newton station, between Glasgow and Motherwell. I understand that four people were killed, including both train drivers, and more than 30 people were injured.

The House will, I know, want to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the bereaved and injured; and our thanks to the emergency services.

British Rail is carrying out its own full technical investigation into the circumstances and cause of the accident, including the signalling, track and trains. British Rail will be holding a formal inquiry, starting tomorrow. The results will be made available to the Health and Safety Executive. The railway inspectorate, now part of the HSE, has already started its investigations. An inspecting officer has been on site overnight and a second inspector with specialist knowledge of signalling electronics has travelled to the scene to assist with the investigations.

After consultation with the Health and Safety Commission, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has today appointed Mr. Robin Seymour, Her Majesty's chief inspecting officer of railways, to carry out an inquiry under the Regulations of Railways Act 1871. His inquiry will be wholly independent. It will be held in public. The report will be published and we have asked him to report to us as quickly as possible. British Rail will, of course, act immediately should the need for any urgent measures emerge during the various investigations.

The cause of the accident is not yet clear. The House will agree that it would be wholly wrong to speculate on any conclusions that the inquiry may reach as to the cause of the accident.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

On behalf of the Opposition, I offer our deepest sympathy to the relatives and friends of the four people who died. Two of them were the drivers of the trains, who are inevitably in the front line when these terrible tragedies occur. I offer also our deepest sympathy to the relatives of those who were injured in yesterday's terrible accident.

Once again, we who speak about our transport industries express our unfailing admiration of the emergency services, which responded so swiftly and with such skill and courage. We pay tribute to their professionalism and dedication.

I express regret that the Secretary of State for Transport, who was here but a few minutes ago, was not here to make an announcement, which is the normal course of events. We recognise that he has many calls upon his time, but it was an error of judgment not to stay to make a statement.

Is the Minister aware that, according to the railway inspectorate's safety reports, significant collisions between passenger trains have increased by over 60 per cent. when comparing the first part of this decade and the last part of the 1980s, and that in 1989 there was a 100 per cent. increase on the average for the previous four years? That is a grave and growing area of concern which has caused me and others concern during the past four years. The increase in these collisions is alarming and I ask the Minister to tell us whether he is aware of it.

Has the Minister read the report of the inquiry into the Bellgrove accident, which took place in March 1989? There are certain similarities between that accident and the one that we are now considering. It involved new track alignment, converting double track to single-track crossovers, which in the event of failure, either human or in the signalling system, put trains on to a head-on collision. Will he recognise the acceptance by those carrying out the inquiry that replacing double crossover points with single ones is a cheaper option and that the justification for doing so relied solely on everyone observing the signal procedures? The Minister must be aware, however, that over 60 per cent. of railway accidents are due to human error. Therefore, the judgment to use the cheaper option is, to my mind, faulty.

Did the Minister note the recommendation in the Bellgrove report that any such changes should be allowed only on the condition that an automatic train protection system should be implemented of the sort that was fitted to some trains in the 1970s? I ask the Minister to tell the House whether the recommendation that the Secretary of State's permission must be granted before any further schemes are implemented will be put into effect. It is clear that the scheme to which I have referred had to be considered. Did the Secretary of State agree that it should be implemented? Was he satisfied with it on safety grounds? Was he concerned to see whether any automatic protection systems were built into it to avoid the inevitable head-on collisions that arise from the changes that I have described?

The Minister has told the House that an inquiry will be undertaken after consultation with the Health and Safety Commission. The inquiry will be headed by the chief inspecting officer of railways. Will the Government now launch an independent investigation into whether British Rail is pursuing cheaper options that are reducing safety standards, which have led to an alarming increase in significant collisions between passenger trains? We should not have to ask the same question after another 12 months have passed. What are the Government prepared to do about it?

Mr. Freeman

The hon. Gentleman asked me four questions. The first one related to the number of significant collisions between passenger trains. He was doubtless referring to the recent report from the railway inspectorate. The table in that report sets out the average number of collisions between passenger trains. For the years 1984 to 1988, the average is six per annum. In 1989, there were 12 collisions. That figure includes six railway trains—the rest of the collisions involved trams. I do not believe, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman or the House can draw any conclusion that there is a deteriorating trend in accidents—

Mr. Prescott

I spoke of a 60 per cent. increase over the 1980s.

Mr. Freeman

The plain fact is that in 1989 there were six accidents involving collisions between passenger trains, and that equalled the average for 1984 to 1988.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the Bellgrove inquiry. He is right to say that there are clear similarities between the tragic accident at Bellgrove and the accident at Newton. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to paragraph 129 of the inspector's report on the Bellgrove accident. The inspector said: We consider that single lead junctions"— the single-lead junction was the delineation of the track at Bellgrove and at Newton— are acceptable in principle of safety grounds and we do not accept that improvements in the efficiency of operation and maintenance are intrinsically at variance with the maintenance of an adequate standard of safety. So the Bellgrove report did not state that single-lead junctions are inherently unsafe. Clearly their safety depends on proper operation, including the drivers of trains and signalling equipment at single-lead junctions. The Bellgrove inspector's report did not state that such junctions were inherently unsafe.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether permission had been given for the conversion of the line at Newton to a single-lead junction. Provisional agreement for British Rail to operate that single-lead junction had been given by the railway inspectorate. Of course, it said that its final judgment on the operation of the single-lead junction would depend on its subsequent examination, and that has not yet taken place. However, I can confirm that the railway inspectorate specifically gave permission for Brritish Rail to operate a single-lead junction service at that station.

The hon. Gentleman asked about safety, the implication being that in some way BR or the Government did not place safety at the top of their list of priorities. The hon. Gentleman will know that in the year 1990–91, BR spent £140 million on safety measures. For this year, 1991–92, we anticipate that BR will spend about £200 million on safety measures. That clearly shows that BR believes that safety is a top priority of passengers, and the Government support BR appropriately with funds.

Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

As the constituency Member affected, I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to ask an early question. I wish to place on record my strong objection to and resentment of the absence of the Secretary of State for Transport. He was in the Chamber only a few minutes ago, and I regard his departure as an insult not only to those casualties of the tragic accident, but to the front-line services that were involved.

I mean no disrespect to the Minister; I accept his sincerity in expressing sympathy to the relatives of those who died in the accident. I endorse all that he said about the emergency services. I would include the ScotRail staff, who played a significant role. I managed to go to the scene of the accident for an hour in the early hours of the morning, and the emergency workers were doing a first-class job. I also commend the local residents living adjacent to the scene of the accident who, despite risk to themselves, were the first over the fence to try to help those trapped in the carriage. As the local Member of Parliament, I am proud of them.

The newspapers this morning quoted the Secretary of State for Transport as saying that the Newton collision was a tragic accident. How could he say that when he does not have the results of the inquiry? What is he afraid of? His comments are the pathetic hallmark of a Cabinet Minister trying to shuffle away from his responsibilities. The fact is that single tracking is being pushed as a way to reduce costs and a route to privatisation. Can the Minister confirm that, if single tracking had not been introduced, those two trains would have been on separate lines and the collision would not have occurred?

Mr. Freeman

I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the emergency services. Anyone who has attended a railway accident, as I have, will have found it traumatic. We all appreciate the suffering of the 30 injured passengers. We also appreciate the fact that passers-by, third parties and those living nearby did all that they could to help. I pay tribute to the emergency services and to all who rendered assistance last night.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that if there had been a double lead, the trains would not have run into each other. That is obvious. However, a single-lead junction—which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, should not be confused with a single track—is a feature of British Rail's operations at very many junctions. The inspector, Mr. Robin Seymour, is the same inspector who produced the Bellgrove report. In preparing his report on the Newton accident, I am sure that, yet again, he will examine the use of single-lead junctions. I shall not speculate on the cause of the accident, but I am sure that in investigating the possible cause, and in the light of his Bellgrove report, Mr. Seymour will look afresh at any lessons that can be learned from this tragic accident.

Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow, Govan)

Is the Minister aware that we have not yet been given an answer to the reasonable question of why the Secretary of State is not here to reply to our questions? It is a reasonable question, and we are entitled to an answer.

Will the Minister specifically ask Mr. Seymour whether he was correct, at the Bellgrove inquiry, to say that single-lead junctions were inherently safe? In view of the number of dead and injured, the empirical evidence points to the opposite being the case.

Mr. Freeman

On the hon. Gentleman's latter point, I hope that he has not been misled. I did not say that in the Bellgrove report Mr. Seymour had said that single-lead junctions were inherently safe; what I said was that they were not inherently unsafe—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] There is an important difference. I quoted paragraph 129 in full, and I shall repeat it. It stated: We consider that single lead junctions are acceptable in principle on safety grounds and we do not accept that improvements in the efficiency of operation and maintenance are intrinsically at variance with the maintenance of an adequate standard of safety.

Mr. Norman Hogg (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

Does the Minister appreciate that many hon. Members represent towns and communities on the fringe of the great city of Glasgow, and that many of our constituents commute daily to that city? Does he accept that the accident, following so quickly after the accident at Bellgrove—and given the incidence of railway accidents to which he referred—perhaps makes the case for a wider inquiry into safety on the railways and the condition of the tracks, the signalling equipment and the rolling stock? Would not that reassure the travelling public that everything humanly possible was being done to ensure safety on the railways?

Mr. Freeman

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the railways, compared with almost any other mode of transport, are relatively safe. They can never be completely safe because of the possibility of human frailty. The statistics show that in 1989—the last full year for which we have figures—total fatalities, excluding those who were trespassing or who had committed suicide on the railways, were 69. That figure is close to the average for the previous 15 years, which is the period for which I have figures.

I know that the aim of Sir Bob Reid, the chairman of British Rail, is for total safety on the railways. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman also wants that. Indeed, Sir Bob Reid recently confirmed that aim in a document entitled "Rail Safety". which I commend to the House. The aim might be impossible to achieve, but it is laudable.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

I wish to offer my deep sympathies and those of my colleagues to the bereaved relatives of those who were killed, and also to the injured. I, too, pay tribute to the rescue services, which I understand worked swiftly, with a calm and determined air, throughout the night.

I welcome the public inquiry. Will it consider the matter of training? With all the new, sophisticated signalling equipment, is it not essential that everyone involved with trains should have proper training? We should know the type of training, its length, and how often it is available. Will the Minister or, indeed, the inquiry tell us whether the signalling system was installed to try to reduce the time of the Glasgow-London trains by four and a half or five minutes?

Mr. Freeman

On the first point, the hon. Lady may know that British Rail commissioned a study, carried out by the Royal Holloway and Bedford new college and by British Rail research staff, of incidents of signals passed at danger and seeking to draw common threads and to make recommendations. British Rail has accepted the report's findings. One of its principal recommendations was on the provision of better driver training. The report recommended that, rather than having a driver afraid of committing the offence of passing a signal at danger, possibly losing his job and being disciplined, there should be a much more positive culture among British Rail staff about signalling and awareness of the dangers in dealing with modern signalling systems faced not only by drivers but by their passengers. I welcome British Rail's response to the report. If the hon. Lady is interested, I shall send her a copy.

Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

Does not the Minister understand the worry of some Opposition Members at the fact that the person who conducted the Bellgrove inquiry is to conduct this inquiry? If that person made mistakes in the report, he might duplicate them and he might not feel that it was appropriate to recognise any mistakes that were made. It has been said that the present system is not inherently unsafe. That may be all right as a matter of principle, but, although I do not wish to prejudge the inquiry, twice that has proved to be totally unacceptable.

Mr. Freeman

The officer who has been appointed to conduct this inquiry is the chief inspecting officer of British Rail, Mr. Robin Seymour. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I have total confidence in Mr. Seymour. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not casting any aspersions on him. He is independent, and the railway inspectorate is now part of the Health and Safety Executive.

As for the wisdom of appointing the same man to conduct an investigation into a similar accident, I should have thought that the House would believe that there were certain advantages in enabling Mr. Seymour to reflect on conclusions that were drawn from the Bellgrove incident. I believe that uppermost in hon. Members' minds is the question: is this a pattern that can be avoided? It is important, and appropriate that the same officer who completed the Bellgrove report should report on this incident. That will allow any lessons learned from the first incident to come much more quickly to the fore.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

I again ask the Minister this question, because the House has still not had an answer: what important business persuaded the Secretary of State for Transport, who represents a Scottish constituency, to be absent from the Chamber during this important statement about a serious, fatal rail accident in Scotland?

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the safety recommendations made by the inquiry into the Clapham rail disaster in 1988 included the recommendation to install automatic train protection systems, which would have introduced fail-safe braking for trains? Has that recommendation been implemented; if not, why not? It might have reduced the casualties and deaths that occurred in this terrible accident.

Mr. Freeman

The recommendation to introduce automatic train protection—ATP—followed the Clapham accident. British Rail is trialling automatic train protection on Chiltern lines and on the Great Western railway. When lessons from those two trials have been learnt, British Rail will be able to draw up a standard for the introduction of ATP throughout the British Rail network.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

The Minister seems to be avoiding a question. He should know that it is deeply offensive at least to many Opposition Members, that the Secretary of State for Transport, who was here a short time ago mouthing his ritual "Hear, hears" in statements on other matters, is not here for a statement on deaths in a railway accident in Scotland. In the light of of the Minister's answers, the decision by the Secretary of State becomes all the more regrettable, because there is confusion to be cleared up.

Mr. Seymour's report on the Bellgrove collision recommended: British Railways should submit all proposals for the conversion of double line junctions to single line junctions for approval by the Secretary of State irrespective of whether they are stages of major works. Is it correct that the Secretary of State did not accept that recommendation? Is it correct that the inspector was told to go away and that it was his responsibility to deal with such transfers? Following a further fatal tragedy, has the same inspector been asked to report on what appear to be similar circumstances and to come back to the Minister with precisely the same recommendations that the Secretary of State has already turned down? If that inspector comes back with the same recommendations, will the Secretary of State accept them? What a pity that the Secretary of State is not here to give us the answers.

Mr. Freeman

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied with responses from me. I have direct responsibility for the railways—I am the Minister responsible for the railways.

To answer the hon. Gentleman's two specific points, while the Bellgrove inquiry was under way, there was a moratorium on conversions to single-lead junctions. Once the Bellgrove inquiry had reported, that moratorium was lifted. Provisional agreement was given for the operation of a single-lead junction at Newton, and the railway inspectorate did not withdraw that agreement—[HON. MEMBERS: "By whom?"] By the railway inspectorate.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

If I ask the Minister courteously whether he can tell the House what business keeps the Secretary of State away from the House and makes him unable to make this important statement, will he have the courtesy to tell the House? That is the sixth time that that question has been asked.

Is the Minister aware that £5 million has been spent on this portion of the line and that the line could not be used for some time after completion of the work? Was that due to twisted or damaged rails, as was reported, or to some other cause? What was the cause? If the problem was rectified, when did that happen and who certified that the line was safe to use?

Mr. Freeman

I am not aware of any report of twisted rail on this section of the track before the incident. It is true that there is a report that the train passed the signal and damaged the junction. Clearly, details will come out in the report.

The hon. Gentleman is right about recent investment in the line. This section of the track has been extensively resignalled, and the resignalling has only just come into operation. The railway inspectorate, an independent body, is responsible for safety on the railways. All the necessary approvals, provisional in the case of the single-lead junction, had been given for the running of the trains.

Mr. Foulkes

What about the Secretary of State?

Hon. Members

Sit down.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Does my hon. Friend agree that most people recognise him in his position as Minister for Public Transport as not only competent in his job but extremely courteous? He has taken more trouble than any other Minister in my recollection to understand the problems involved in railway operations, and he is accompanied on the Government Front Bench by a Scottish Office Minister.

There has been much discussion about single-lead junctions. Does my hon. Friend agree that reversible track may reduce costs, but it cannot increase safety? I thank my hon. Friend for his comments on British Rail's safety record and for confirming that, over the past 15 years, the annual number of fatalities has been less than the three-day average toll of carnage and death on our roads.

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments.

Mrs. Irene Adams (Paisley, North)

As the Minister seems to have great difficulty answering two-pronged questions, I shall put one simple question to him. Will he do the House the courtesy of telling us what urgent business has taken the Secretary of State for Transport away this afternoon?

Mr. Freeman

This is urgent business. I am the responsible Minister and I hope that I am giving the House clear answers.