HC Deb 13 May 1991 vol 191 cc70-109

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Standing Order No. 27(1)(a) in the Standing Orders dealing with private business lists the criteria for the depositing of maps and plans for works to be carried out under a private Bill. The Bill before us does not list any works to be carried out, but a series of works is implicit in it. Ten level crossings are all authorised by previous Acts, and Standing Order No. 27 requires plans to be submitted where works to be carried out have been so authorised.

The promoters' statement makes it clear that the board intends to carry out works. For a start, to close up a foot crossing requires some alteration to the authority given by previous Acts for public access. Even a fence or the securing of a gate constitutes a work. More than that, paragraph 5 of the promoters' statement makes it clear that the board is discussing or endeavouring to discuss with the highway authority for each crossing—and 10 are listed—the possibility of diversionary or alternative routes for the ways in question. That could mean the building of a bridge which would involve considerable works; some of them would be on land owned by the board.

It seems that the Bill does not conform with Standing Order No. 27, because, although the Bill does not specifically list the works, the fact that it lists crossings that are proposed to be stopped up implies the carrying out of works, and therefore some plans and maps should have been deposited. I am sorry to say that no such plans or maps have been deposited, because British Rail has chosen to take a narrow view of a diversion which implies the carrying out in some places of extensive works.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

I have instigated inquiries into the matter, and I am assured that the examiner of petitions has examined the Bill and reported that Standing Orders have been complied with.

Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House will recall that, some time ago, a Bill that had gone through all its stages here went to the other place, where it was found to be defective and amended. The Clerks are excellent, but they are human and sometimes make errors of judgment, as they erred in a technical part of that Bill. Will you consider a short adjournment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to enable you and your officers to examine the matter in depth to make sure that no error of judgment has been made in the Private Bill Office?

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have told my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) that the examiners looked at the point that he raised. Will you confirm that they did examine that point, rather than simply satisfying themselves that, in their view, the procedures were being carried out? My hon. Friend made an extremely valid point. Did the examiners determine whether plans and maps should have been submitted with the Bill?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The House will have noticed that, during the points of order, I have been seeking advice. I should be unwise if I did not fully accept, and show full confidence in those who have assured me, that there is nothing in the Bill that does not comply with the requirements of the Standing Orders.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am bothered by the fact that the short title of the Bill refers to the stopping up of certain level crossings on the east coast mainline railway and contains no general additional item about related matters or other purposes. Part II of the schedule refers to the stopping up of a level crossing whereby the same footpath is crossed by the Leamside Branch railway. How can that be proper when the Bill's title refers specifically and exclusively to the east coast main line railway?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The technical point on which the hon. Gentleman seeks assistance is probably a matter for the debate. I assure him and the House that the examiners have been through the Bill and are satisfied that it complies with the requirements of Standing Orders.

7.6 pm

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The tragic accidents in recent years at Clapham, Purley and Lockington have helped to heighten public interest in and the critical importance of rail safety. Our railways are extremely safe and have a good record. The challenge to British Rail and to other rail operators is to continue to build on that hitherto excellent safety record and to meet the new challenges presented by a 21st-century rail system. High-speed lines on which trains will travel at up to 125 mph with projected speeds of 140 mph are one such challenge.

British Rail is certainly not resting on its laurels, and positive action is being taken to promote safety. For example, new signalling systems and automatic train protection are two innovations being developed by British Rail in tandem with its new high-speed route proposals to help build a better, safer railway.

The tragic accident at Carr lane, Doncaster, which I do not think is in your constituency, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in which a young woman and two children of four and seven were killed on a crossing which is also a footpath and a bridleway, revealed the need to examine the risks of open public access to high-speed lines. People may be surprised to learn, as I was, that there are well over 100 pedestrian level crossings on the east coast main line.

British Rail firmly believes that it must do everything feasible to improve safety for customers, staff and the public in general. Some people have said that because pedestrians do not endanger trains and their passengers, they should be allowed to take their own risks. The public also count. British Rail is concerned about the safety of people, particularly children, who may be on the line for one reason or another.

Mr. Cryer

When British Rail management were considering all the safety aspects was it moved to consider, for example, providing warning bells activated by an approaching train or warning lights at foot crossings? Or did the high-quality decision makers of British Rail come to the startling conclusion that the only way in which they could tackle the right of people to gain access to the other side of the line—a right enshrined in the original legislation granting authorisation for the railways—was to stop up the whole thing?

Mr. Waller

I note the hon. Gentleman's important point about warning lights, but I hope that he will forgive me if I deal with it later.

Mr. Redmond

The hon. Gentleman has referred to British Rail's passion for safety, and he said that it would bend over backwards to ensure that safety was paramount. That is not the picture of British Rail that I and many other people get. If it is so concerned about safety, why has it delayed dealing with the problem of carriage doors that open, causing people to fall out? That is one example of British Rail's lack of concern about the safety of passengers on its trains. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will slightly temper his comments about British Rail's concern for safety.

Mr. Waller

I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would have little patience, and rightly so, if I dealt with the issue of carriage doors now. This Bill has quite different objectives. I accept that that problem is important, but it is being dealt with elsewhere.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett


Mr. Waller

I shall give way again, but I hope that hon. Members will accept that I must then get on with my speech.

Mr. Bennett

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain why high-speed trains have been running on the east coast line for the past 10 years. Until the accident on that line, British Rail had done nothing to make such crossings safer.

Mr. Waller

That is an inaccurate statement. I have visited a number of crossings during my work on the Bill, and I have seen some of the measures taken by British Rail. In the past, it has attempted to use existing legislation to achieve the objectives of the Bill, but without success. It is that failure which promoted the introduction of the Bill.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Can the hon. Gentleman give me one example to illustrate his claim? I do not believe that there is a single bit of evidence to prove that British Rail has done anything in the past 10 years to close or divert any of the footpaths.

Mr. Waller

That is untrue.

Mr. Bennett

Give me one example.

Mr. Waller

British Rail has sought to use section 119 of the Highways Act 1980 to close or divert crossings, but it has been held——

Mr. Bennett


Mr. Waller

British Rail attempted to do so at a crossing in Hertfordshire, but it was held that, because section 119 did not cover safety specifically, British Rail was exceeding its powers by seeking to close or divert a crossing. The Ramblers Association has suggested that British Rail is going to unnecessary lengths by using the private Bill procedure to change the law when it could use the existing statute. That is untrue. If that were possible British Rail would have adopted that course. It has attempted to use existing law, but, because the law does not require that safety factors should be taken into account, that attempt was unsuccessful.

The former chairman of British Rail, Sir Robert Reid, publicly claimed that "no accident is acceptable". British Rail's safety policy document also states that the board is aiming for a reduction in the number of accidents to zero. I am sure that we all applaud that objective. In that context, British Rail believes that many of the 146 crossings on the east coast main line are incompatible with train speeds of 125 mph or more.

For the purposes of the Bill, British Rail has sought to close 10 crossings only—those that are lightly used or offer the public using such crossings a poor sighting of oncoming trains. Those 10 crossings may represent a small proportion of the total, but their closure represents an important step in improving safety and has the major benefit of reducing the stress of drivers who travel the route each day.

Mr. Redmond

The Bill deals with 10 crossings, but there are many more than that on the line. If this compassionate British Rail is so concerned about safety, why have we not got a Bill that seeks to block up the lot of them? I do not believe that British Rail is being consistent. Why has it chosen to close 10 crossings? Why not more?

Mr. Waller

The hon. Gentleman's argument is a curious one. If the Bill had incorporated all the crossings on the line, he would probably complain that we were using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The board believes that the Bill is an important step towards achieving greater safety. British Rail has singled out those crossings for which the case for closure is strong, either because they are relatively infrequently used or because there are specific dangers—ones that I hope even the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) would recognise were he to travel in the cab of a class 91 locomotive.

When British Rail asked me to speak on its behalf when the Bill reached the House, I asked whether it would be possible for me to travel in the cab of a train on the east coast main line. I did so a few weeks ago. It was a revelation to me just how busy a driver is on such a train for the entire journey. I was also struck by the fact that, if a pedestrian was sighted on the side of the track, the train reached that pedestrian in no time at all. Drivers have extremely nerve-wracking moments every day because they are not absolutely certain of the intentions of pedestrians at the side of the track. It is important to note that ASLEF and the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union are sympathetic to the Bill's objectives.

It takes one and a quarter miles to stop a train when it is travelling at full speed. Bearing in mind the curves in the track as it approaches some crossings, a driver may have just a few hundred yards in which to stop before a person on the line is reached.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

If this Bill is passed, will it be British Rail's intention to introduce a further Bill to work slowly through all the 146 crossings on the east coast main line? Does it intend stop with just 10?

Mr. Waller

It is fair to say that British Rail wants to see the House's response to this Bill. It believes that it is an important step to achieving greater safety. I have already said that it is British Rail's intention to eliminate pedestrian level crossings on high-speed lines. That does not mean that all pedestrian crossings on British Rail's network should be eliminated. Trains travelling at 70 mph are common on other lines, and British Rail has no objection to the continuation of pedestrian crossings on such lines. We are talking about high-speed lines.

Whether further legislative measures have to be taken may depend on any changes that are made by Parliament to the private Bill procedure. However, an illustration of the responsible attitude adopted by British Rail is that it is not prepared to wait for such changes to take place at an unknown date in the future. It is anxious to get on with the job as soon as possible. That is why it is taking this step.

It has been suggested that British Rail is oblivious to the concerns of the users of pedestrian crossings. The reality, I suggest, is far from that. British Rail is currently working with the highways authorities responsible for the 10 locations, where they are willing to co-operate, to try to find suitable diversions for users, where there is evidence of use. Some of these crossings appear to be little used. Indeed, one or two of them appear not to be used at all. It is regrettable that some people object to closure on principle without taking into account the fact that some of these crossings are generally not used at all.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Waller

I shall give way in a moment.

British Rail is confident that in nine out of 10 cases there is a reasonable alternative. I shall give way once more to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure, however, that if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will have the opportunity to make his own speech. I hope that he will restrain himself now, because, with the leave of the House, I hope to be able to respond to some of the points that are raised in the debate.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

If the hon. Gentleman could have answered the points that we put to him, he might have curtailed the debate. If he can establish that people do not use these paths, there are perfectly good procedures under the Highways Act. There is no problem about closing paths if they are not used. It puzzles me, therefore, that British Rail should use this massive parliamentary procedure when it is unnecessary if no one is using the paths. Can the hon. Gentleman therefore tell us which paths are not being used and why British Rail did not ask for their closure on that basis?

Mr. Waller

Under the Highways Act, it is normally a requirement that the highways authority should make the application for closure. Although British Rail has endeavoured to persuade some authorities to move in the direction of either closure or diversion, the difficulties implicit in the relevant sections of the Act have discouraged those authorities from taking such steps. Where there have been any objections, the authorities have generally said that they do not see it as their responsibility to act—that, essentially, the responsibility lies with British Rail. I believe that, in concert with the changes that are to be made to the private Bill procedure, the Highways Act will be altered both to allow British Rail to make applications and to allow safety factors to be taken into account. At present, I am afraid that that is not permitted.

As for the 10 crossings, I have not the slightest doubt that, if the Bill goes into Committee, each of them will be dealt with in the minutest detail and that the petitioners against the Bill will produce witnesses to speak about their personal knowledge of usage and of the need for each crossing. I suggest, therefore, that this is not the time to go into detail about the crossings. That can be much better dealt with in Committee.

Mr. Redmond

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for the number of times that the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) has given way. However, hon. Members who are here for the debate have a right to be given the details of the Bill. It is not good enough for the hon. Gentleman to say that some Committee elsewhere will go into the Bill in depth and minute detail. Is it not right and proper for the hon. Gentleman to give way if hon. Members wish to raise points now in order to seek clarification of the Bill? Is not that the sensible way forward? I ask for your guidance.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly aware of the convention regarding interventions during speeches: it is entirely a matter for the hon. Member who has the Floor. In any case, the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) has not yet completed his speech. He still has things to say to us. He has already offered to seek the permission of the House to reply to the debate, if that becomes necessary. I understand that both the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are waiting for an opportunity to contribute to the debate. On that basis, perhaps we ought to get on.

Mr. Cryer

On a different point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have been to the Private Bill Office, as you know, to look for a further deposit of information by British Rail. Can you confirm that the only information British Rail has provided is through the promoters—in the seventh paragraph of a piece of photocopied paper running to about 150 words? So far as I know, no other printed information has been provided by British Rail. I shall be grateful if you will confirm that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Over a long period I have learnt that my advisers are very reliable and very competent in their professional duties. I have told the House twice already, and I say it for the third time, that I was assured by them that the Bill satisfies all our Standing Order requirements.

Mr. Waller

If the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) chooses to deal with one or more of the individual crossings in depth, that is his right. I shall seek, so far as I am able, to allay his concern. However, I say again that I think that the private Bill procedure provides an opportunity in Committee for these matters to be dealt with in a great deal more detail than can be done on the Floor of the House. If hon. Members are concerned about particular crossings—I recognise that, with some justification, they may have such concerns—I hope that their view would be that the Bill should be allowed a Second Reading so that it exists in principle. If, however, they wish to argue that some of those crossings should be removed from the Bill, in due course the House may decide to move in that direction.

Concern has been expressed tonight that the use of parliamentary powers to close footpath crossings is in some way unusual and undemocratic. I readily accept that the process that we are undertaking is not the ideal solution. The fact that the Government are seeking to amend the Highways Act's references to level crossings reflects that fact. However, hon. Members must take into account the fact that, under the Highways Act 1980, a level crossing may be closed by a local authority order where a more convenient route exists. Regrettably, many local authorities do not regard this as one of their priorities. I suppose that some hon. Members may say that they have many other priorities and limited resources to deal with those priorities. Therefore, closure on the grounds of safety is not provided for, whatever the Ramblers Association may think. Above all, it is for reasons of safety that British Rail is promoting the Bill. Safety appears in its short title. There is no reason to promote the Bill other than on the ground of safety.

I know that many hon. Members agree with the necessity to protect the public, but they would like to see other measures—whether they be footbridges, underpasses or warning lights at crossings—to allow the exact footpath route to be maintained. British Rail would always consider such innovations, where appropriate, but in almost every example in the Bill, the crossings have such a small amount of use that such a formidable investment—we are talking about £200,000 for a footbridge and double that for a subway—cannot be justified. It would be possible to purchase better safety improvements for that money than by providing bridges or subways that inevitably would be little used.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) referred to warning lights. There are great difficulties with respect to such lights. It has been argued that there is a deterioration in safety if warning lights are used on pedestrian crossings. The time that different kinds of trains take to travel certain distances varies enormously. The five lines at the Carr lane crossing at Doncaster are used by trains which travel at very different speeds. Pedestrians may have seen goods trains passing regularly on the lines. Those pedestrians may not anticipate, when a light is flashing, that an express train travelling at 125 mph is on the line. Pedestrians have often tried to cross lines when lights have begun to flash. At the very least, it would be necessary to incorporate costly equipment that took into account the speed of the train when the lights started to flash. Even then, there would be difficulties and we could argue for some time whether we were building in greater or less safety.

Mr. Cryer

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Surely BR could use modern techniques to provide that information. As the hon. Gentleman referred to cost, will he give us some idea of the cost of installing flashing lights at the most used crossings listed in the Bill? I suspect that the cost would not be much greater than the cost of promoting this private Bill. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the promotion of private Bills is very expensive.

Mr. Waller

I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a reliable figure about the cost of lights. I can only say that I am sure that we are talking in terms of five figures for some of the most sophisticated lighting systems that he might like to see. The costs cannot be minimised. As I have already said, we could argue whether we would get value for money in terms of greater safety, and no doubt the Committee will address that subject. To some extent, subjective judgments must prevail and perhaps other hon. Members may want to raise the issue later. I shall be happy to respond.

Where crossings are closed, BR is anxious to pay for necessary improvements to minimise the risk of trespass. There has been some concern about the fact that in one or two cases the stamps of footpaths may remain and people may be encouraged to trespass. British Rail is anxious to prevent that and to talk to local authorities about ways to avoid such occurrences. British Rail will also invest in signing and fencing where diversions have taken place and in some cases it will pay to improve adjacent level crossings.

In the great majority of cases, we are talking about diversions of a few hundred metres at most. In many cases, there are footpaths not far away which would enable the line to be crossed safely via a bridge or subway. With regard to Carr lane in Doncaster, British Rail is anxious to talk to the local authority about a diversion that would provide for an alternative recreational footpath which did not necessitate the crossing of the line. I am sorry to say that, as yet, I understand that Doncaster district council has not been willing to negotiate with BR about that.

Mr. Redmond

May I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as you well know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Doncaster district council is a most reasonable authority and it will, of course, give due consideration to any proposals put forward by BR. However, it will not sell short the residents it represents. The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong to say that Doncaster will not discuss meaningfully any solutions to the problem.

Mr. Waller

I will seek advice, but as I understand it Doncaster district council has not responded favourably to an invitation from BR to discuss an alternative recreational footpath that does not require a level crossing of the line.

Some people would like to picture the Bill as a struggle for and against the freedom of individuals to follow ancient rights of way. The Bill is not about that. I have often spoken in the House in favour of libertarian arguments and I made my maiden speech on such an issue. I am a strong supporter of the Ramblers Association and I enjoy recreational walking. Other things being equal, I would certainly resist the closure of a footpath for anything other than a very important safety reason.

British Rail is not trying to create a precedent; nor is it seeking carte blanche to close every crossing in the country. We are talking essentially about high-speed lines. British Rail is trying to take a meaningful step towards improving public safety on and around high speed rail lines and to prevent a repetition of the tragedy at Carr lane. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading and that the concerns that have reasonably been expressed can be examined in more detail in Committee.

7.35 pm
Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)

We should not give the Bill a Second Reading this evening. However, first of all, we should offer sympathy to the families of the young lady and the two children who were killed on the crossing at Can lane. No matter what we do, we cannot bring those people back to life. There are lessons to be learned from the tragedy, but regrettably BR always seeks to redress problems after the event and not before.

It is no secret that crossings throughout the country have been a source of embarrassment to British Rail for some years, but BR appears to have taken no action. The young lady and the two children who were killed on that crossing were your constituents, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the crossing is in my constituency. The young lady and the two children were killed as they crossed the line to visit Potteric Carr, a well-known nature reserve which has been a source of enjoyment for many people in Doncaster and the surrounding area. That nature reserve is well managed, well used and much appreciated by the public. The crossing's closure will end a source of enjoyment for people who live on the east side of the crossing.

There is a large housing development on the east side of the railway, and there are obviously lots of children as well as adults on that new housing estate. It should therefore be appropriate for BR to ensure that the crossing is safe for the general public to use to cross from the east side of the line to the west side to enjoy Potteric Carr.

Having read British Rail's proposals, the House should consider fetching British Rail representatives—Bob Reid in particular—to the Bar of the House and finding them guilty of bringing the House into disrepute. According to documentation in support of the Bill, there does not appear to be a problem, because a number of authorities have expressed their willingness to adopt British Rail's proposals. British Rail has said that Doncaster is quite willing to discuss the matter and find a solution. If British Rail is not bloody-minded, discussions can take place and agreement can be reached.

Why is British Rail wasting the time of the House and wasting public money? After all, the public provide British Rail with the money to pay the promoters fat fees to pilot the Bill through the House. That is why British Rail should be charged with bringing the House into disrepute.

Mr. Cryer

In view of British Rail's new-found concern with safety after the Clapham junction accident, one wonders why it did not take into account the provision of bridges at level crossings, such as the one that provides access to Potteric Carr, when it sought investment for the electrification of the line. If, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) suggested, it is a bridleway and therefore exists for greater usage than a footpath, that should have been taken into account in estimating the cost of the construction of an appropriate bridge. British Rail surely must have known—it was not a secret—that, after electrification, trains would be travelling at 125 mph or faster.

Mr. Redmond

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. One can sum it up—British Rail does not give a damn about the general public's attitude. It is quite willing to forgo anything to save money.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

I should hate my hon. Friend to think that I shall stand here tonight as a defender of British Rail and all its works—I have fallen out with British Rail probably more than he has over the years. However, my hon. Friend will recollect that the investment case for the east coast main line electrification spent considerable time on Tory Ministers' desks. The case was gone through with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. My hon. Friend will know that, when it was approved, like other investment schemes it had to generate a 7 per cent. return—it is now 8 per cent.—on the money invested. Given the draconian rules that the Government themselves have laid down, to add another £0.25 million to provide a bridleway over the five newly electrified tracks in my hon. Friend's constituency may have led to civil servants either delaying approval even longer or rejecting the scheme altogether.

Mr. Redmond

I am most grateful for that enlightenment. Regrettably, it does not change my attitude to British Rail. I accept that the Government have placed many restrictions on British Rail. However, if they were sufficient men, British Rail executives could have said to the Government, "We require X amount to cover not only the electrification but the additional safety measures." The Government continue to say that safety is paramount and that money is no object.

If the board members of British Rail had said, "We intend to resign to highlight the problem of safety and Government money," they might have received that extra money. I am certain that the Government would not have wanted to be exposed for their appalling track record in dishing out money and, in effect, saying, "Do as we say, not as we do." The Government appear not to react until there is a disaster and lives are lost. We then see crocodile tears and some poor track signalman being blamed for failing to carry out his job, when the equipment may leave a lot to be desired.

Mr. Cryer

I entirely agree with the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) that the responsibility rests heavily on the Government's shoulders in controlling investment by British Rail so rigidly and tightly, to the detriment of the travelling public. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if an amount had been included for safety features, British Rail management would have had an important and bold advantage in propaganda terms if the Government had said, "That is a superfluous luxury; we are not prepared to invest in safety"? One of the difficulties is that BR top management always seems a little too supinely to accept the dictates of the Government.

Mr. Redmond

My hon. Friend makes his point well. Regrettably, British Rail management will not stand up and be counted until an accident occurs. British Rail then blames all and sundry bar its own neglect. The Government would not be inclined to refuse to give British Rail money for safety improvements; they would not take that risk. British Rail is refusing to demand money to guarantee the safety not only of passengers and crews but of people who need to cross railways for a variety of reasons, as they have done over the centuries.

I entirely accept what was said about having more knowledge about British Rail and an understanding of finances. However, I am still entitled to my opinion that British Rail does not appear to seek to avoid accidents, because it will not demand money to guarantee safe public transport until after an accident such as the one at Carr. It has come up with a blanket proposal not to consider what the public require but deliberately to say, "We are not interested in a solution." If it was interested in a solution, it would allow ample time for discussions and would be prepared to ensure that money was spent to continue access to the other side of the railway. It appears that it is not interested in that, and I cannot understand why.

Everyone is aware of the environment and green issues. Surely children on the east side of the line can learn better to appreciate the environment if they go to a nature reserve such as Potteric Carr on the other side of the line. Children can develop an appreciation of nature and the wilderness, which will stay with them throughout their lives.

Mr. George J. Buckley (Hemsworth)

My hon. Friend made a point about the Government and British Rail seeking to rectify safety aspects after a tragedy. Peculiarly, in this case British Rail has taken a different tack. In respect of Clapham junction and King's Cross, the relevant Minister said, "We have a bottomless purse for safety." In this case, it is promoting a private Bill to minimise the cost of protecting the general public from high-speed trains.

Why, in this case, are British Rail and the Government not taking the line that there is no limitation on expenditure on safety? Why the change? I suggest that the change is that British Rail is not too worried about protecting the general public. It may rightly be more worried about protecting its passengers. Only when the Minister of State, Department of Transport goes to the scene of a disaster, with all the attendant publicity, are millions of pounds spent on rectifying what ought to have been right in the first place.

Mr. Redmond

I know that the Minister was listening intently to what my hon. Friend said. I feel sure that, when he tells us the Government's stance on the Bill, he will give in great detail the clarification that my hon. Friend wants. I have every confidence, in view of the Government's track record, that my hon. Friend will receive no clarification, but nevertheless it is better to ask.

British Rail appears to be seeking to mislead the House. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) said that he had had the opportunity to travel on one of the high-speed trains. He forgot to mention, or I did not hear, what section of the line he had travelled on. He may have travelled from Leeds to King's Cross to get the whole picture. All that he needs to do is to nod his head. Would he like to say——

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Get on with it.

Mr. Redmond

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, I am happy to give way.

Mr. Bottomley

I was hoping to make a speech, but at this rate there may not be time.

Mr. Redmond

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being in the House, but I am seeking to make my objections, as I think that they ought to be made, although that may not please the hon. Gentleman. He should have persuaded his Government to cough up some money in the past. The hon. Gentleman is a previous Transport Minister. It is no wonder that he is feeling irritable about the criticism of Government spending.

Mr. Bottomley

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman invited me to say what I wanted to say, which was that I hoped to make a speech. The only reason why I was muttering, perhaps more loudly that I should have been, was that the hon. Gentleman seemed to be inviting other hon. Members to intervene in his speech. Would it not be a good idea if he returned to his point, which may be a fair one, and then allowed others to speak?

Mr. Redmond

It pleases me no end that the hon. Gentleman is feeling irritable.

The hon. Member for Keighley said that he had had the opportunity to ride with the driver on a high-speed train. It could have been for a short or a long distance. The more experience one has as a passenger in the cab of a 125 train, the better one can judge. The hon. Gentleman said that he had driven once in the cab. Many drivers do the journey from Doncaster to King's Cross in one hour 40 minutes. There is every possibility that that time will be reduced to one hour 30 minutes. The trains will be travelling faster, so there is more need for safety.

I take second place to no one in the Chamber on safety. If anyone wants to check my track record, I sat on the Doncaster coal board area safety committee. When I was on the committee, the number of accidents declined year in and year out. I was proud of that track record. I am interested in safety, and I want safety for not only the cab drivers and passengers but the people who need to cross the lines. It appears that the penny-pinching attitude of British Rail will deprive many of your constituents, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and certainly many of my constituents, of access to Potteric Carr.

I hope that, even at this late stage, the hon. Member for Keighley will seek leave to withdraw the Bill, to enable us to have fruitful discussions and arrive at a sensible solution. British Rail's proposals are not sensible.

Mr. Waller

The hon. Gentleman asked me a direct question about the routes on which I travelled. I travelled from London to Doncaster and visited the site of the crossing at Cantley where the lady and two children were killed. There is no doubt that the drivers in the cab, who have great experience, would be pleased to see the measures in the Bill enacted.

As the hon. Gentleman asked me a question, perhaps I could put one to him. Is he aware of the short time that is available to a driver travelling at 125 mph before the train reaches the Carr lane crossing in his constituency? If he is not aware, perhaps I could enlighten him when I respond to the debate, if I am able to do so.

Mr. Redmond

I do not know the exact time, but we are talking about seconds, not minutes.

Mr. Waller

It is about six or seven seconds.

Mr. Redmond

I accept that the driver has little opportunity to brake in time to avoid anyone on the lines. It is for that reason that I would support any sensible measures that would bring about a safety improvement at that crossing.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

Does my hon. Friend accept that the essence of the Bill, according to the sponsor and to British Rail, is safety aspects of British Rail's operations on the east coast line? May I give my hon. Friend an example from my constituency? An accident took place some considerable time ago—by which I mean about 15 months ago. A young girl, one of my constituents, was killed on a level crossing on the Newcastle-Sunderland line at Newton Garths.

I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport and I contacted British Rail and the local authority. Everyone, including the residents who live adjacent to the crossing, wants the crossing to be closed. British Rail could close that crossing without coming to the House with a private Bill. It could close it tomorrow if it wanted to do so. All that I am getting from British Rail is procrastination.

I want to avoid another accident at Newton Garths level crossing. Children cross the line to go from Biddick hall estate to Boldon comprehensive school. In the not-too-distant future, there could be another fatal accident. In the meantime, British Rail is doing nothing. It cannot be very worried about safety.

Mr. Redmond

Could my hon. Friend clarify which crossing in the Bill he is referring to?

Mr. Dixon

My point is that the Bill deals with 10 crossings on the high-speed line. British Rail is introducing a Bill under the private procedure to close 10 crossings. I am giving my hon. Friend an instance of where British Rail could close a crossing with the support of the residents and the local authority, without the need to introduce a private Bill. If it is worried about safety, British Rail could close the crossing tomorrow.

Mr. Redmond

My hon. Friend has helped to clarify the point that I made earlier. British Rail is not consistent on safety aspects. It is an absolute scandal. The crossing to which my hon. Friend refers is still there, apparently in spite of everyone agreeing that it should be closed.

The hon. Member for Keighley said that British Rail already had sufficient power to close a crossing. Obviously, it means holding consultations and, again, British Rail appears not to be interested in discussing the best ways of finding a solution. Instead, it is using the draconian measure of this private Bill as a sledgehammer to ensure that it gets its way and to hell with anything else.

Mr. Cryer

Does my hon. Friend agree that, for the crossing in his constituency which concerns him and which gives access to Potteric Carr, it is within the jurisdiction of British Rail to put a permanent speed limit on the section to reduce any possible hazard? It may add on an extra minute's journey time, but as most trains wait at stations because they move so briskly between stations, it would not increase the overall journey time. If there is anxiety, a permanent way speed restriction could operate. That would demonstrate British Rail's concern about safety and underpin this application to the House.

Mr. Redmond

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Last night, I got on a train at Doncaster which was stuck in the station for 15 minutes waiting to leave. Regrettably, it did not leave until it had stood for 16 minutes waiting for an Edinburgh train which for some reason had been delayed up north. If British Rail is so concerned about safety, to shut it down altogether is the ultimate safety measure, but that is not a practicable solution. The solution could be backed up by the expenditure of a little money.

While we are talking about safety and avoiding the cul-de-sacs that the letter from the promoters of the Bill mentions, it occurs to me that I do not know how we would stop kids crossing the line. As a little boy, I used to cross from our village to the other side of the line because there was more of an adventure playground on the other side. The same is probably true in this case. Most kids are averse to bath water, but they are certainly not averse to playing in water for recreational purposes. I can visualise a whole host of children trying to cross the line, certainly not accompanied by an adult because an adult would not allow a trespass. Given our high-speed trains and the fact that they will get speedier in future, there is a great danger to children.

We spend millions of pounds promoting pelican crossings. Children are advised to go to a pelican crossing, press the button and wait for the lights to change before crossing the road. Ladies assist children to cross roads. From nursery school onwards, children are taught to go to the appropriate crossing point. If British Rail is seriously interested in safety, it would be beneficial to provide some sort of crossing, with the necessary lights and all the signal equipment alongside the line.

I certainly do not accept British Rail's figure of £25,000 for the installation of a lights warning system. I do not know what price British Rail puts on the life of a child or an adult, but human life is priceless. In future, there will certainly be accidents at this spot unless a sensible safety measure is taken.

It is in the hands of British Rail to ensure that there is a crossing that children can use safely. As I have said, when I was a youngster wanting to cross the line, although we knew that we were trespassing on British Rail land, first we made sure that the village constable was nowhere in sight and then that there were no trains on the line. In those days, the highest speed of steam engines was about 90 mph, so we had ample time to scamper across and get up to those things which lads get up to. That is bound to take place today.

I am asking British Rail to ensure that there is a suitable crossing for my constituents and, possibly, for those of the hon. Member for Keighley. He said that he had a loose association with the Ramblers Association. Obviously, many of his constituents also enjoy walks in the country and the environment of a nature reserve. It would be quite consistent for the two to marry, but they can do so only if costs are thrown out of the window. Obviously, £20,000 would provide an adequate crossing.

The alternatives that are cited include a conventional footpath costing £175,000, one suitable for cycles, prams and wheelchairs costing £220,000, or tunnels through an embankment from a main road costing £400,000. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain further how British Rail reaches those figures. Those high costs are certainly beyond me.

I know many lads who work at Rossington pit and a hell of a lot who used to do excellent tunnelling for British Coal. I feel sure that they could construct a tunnel for a damn sight less than the sum that British Rail is quoting, and do a damn good job. Of course, that would have one disadvantage for British Rail—it would maintain accessibility from one side of the line to the other. British Rail is willing to spend £2,500, or even £10,000, to block public access. The fact that British Rail will continue to push to get this Bill through the House, when it should be talking to the relevant local authorities about reaching agreement, leaves a little to be desired.

The hon. Member for Keighley said that agreement had been reached with some of the local authorities affected for access to be stopped or an alternative found. If such marvellous progress is being made, I cannot understand why British Rail is being so bloody-minded in seeking to deprive many of our constituents who live on the east side of the line from enjoying what is on the west side. I hope that the hon. Member for Keighley will seek to provide a suitable alternative this evening. Although that presents problems, I hope that a solution will be found.

Several petitions have been presented against the Bill. I hope that British Rail will take cognisance of the authorities that have petitioned, even if they do so only to find a sensible solution and because they are interested in safety. British Rail appears to be considering only the cost involved and not the enjoyment that people could have from such crossings.

As several other hon. Members wish to speak, I shall give them the opportunity to do so. Suffice it to say that local authorities already have the power to stop the Bill going through unless British Rail shows that it is interested in seeking a solution to the problem. That does not appear to be the case, and I shall listen intently to the hon. Member for Keighley when he winds up the debate to see whether he answers some of my questions. British Rail can avoid the use of this valuable time in the House by seeking more sensible solutions from local authorities.

8.12 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

The House will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that if you were not in the Chair you would be contributing to the debate and holding the attention of everyone here.

I wish to echo the comments of the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) that when people die unnecessarily on the railways, the House should be concerned and the relevant Members should be present at debates such as this. The House understands why the hon. Member for Don Valley feels so strongly about safety and retaining access from one side of the railway line to the other.

The hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon)—[Interruption.]—who is trying to interrupt me, should allow me to respond to the point that he made in an intervention. He argued for stopping up footpaths on another line. It was a fair and valuable point to make on Second Reading, and I am sure that the promoters of the Bill will see what can be done to solve the problem in his constituency. An advantage of single-Member constituencies is that Members of Parliament are aware of every transport and housing problem in their constituencies. For example, I have been campaigning for many years for a replacement footbridge above the New Eltham line at Middle Park. Although I can take up the matter directly with British Rail, it is justified and in order to mention that within the context of the Bill, without going into detail.

The problem that the House is presenting to British Rail might be described as being presented with extravagant language. To argue that British Rail—its staff, its board and everyone who works in it—is not interested in safety is to contradict the facts. People are not perfect, and neither is British Rail, but it is worth noting that, if all the distance travelled on the roads was travelled on the railways, there would not be 5,500 killed but 150. The railway is much safer than aeroplanes, and aeroplanes are much safer than roads. If we paid as much attention to saving the lives of pedestrians away from the railway lines as we are rightly paying to protect the lives of those who wish to use the footpaths and bridleways across railway lines, we should have a potential 1,700 lives a year to save.

Naturally, British Rail and the Government must decide how much money to make available. British Rail must make safety decisions. Although its safety record has been improving in the past few years, there are many other ways in which it can spend money. When I was a junior Minister and in contact with British Rail, it was spending money on the problem of bridge bashing. An open report published on the problem considered the chances of a serious loss of life and injury if a bridge were carried away by a heavy goods vehicle. People sometimes drive loads that are too high, or tipper trucks with the forks up, under a low bridge, risking a train falling down on a road. Conversely, a vehicle could go through a guard rail and land on a railway line when an express train was passing.

British Rail must decide how to reduce risks and achieve the greatest benefit in terms of safety and improving the service. Indirectly, there are many lives to be saved if people switched from travelling by road to travelling by rail. The hon. Member for Don Valley referred to the time that it takes for British Rail to go from Doncaster to London and vice versa. He spoke of the possibility of saving an extra 10 minutes, which is one of the answers to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who suggested that trains should slow down to give them enough time to stop, where at present there is a six second interval between seeing and crossing level crossings. If British Rail were to slow down their trains at each of the 140 footpaths on the east coast main line, everybody would travel by car or even walk, which might be faster.

We must have not the best compromise but the quickest gain in safety. I hope that those who will take the opportunity to object to and speak on the Bill will not prevent it from receiving a Second Reading. If that happens, it will be difficult for those in British Rail who want urgently to reduce avoidable risks to say, "Let's go to Parliament as soon as possible to get all the improvements that we can, whether or not we face pressures to improve the safety of crossings of unused or unnecessary footpaths in Jarrow, Eltham or elsewhere".

They must take decisions and they have decided to come to the House for powers that, in the future, may be analagous to those of a highway authority, enabling BR to stop up footpaths or make diversions.

Mr. Redmond

No one is opposed to improving safety. Nor does anyone wish to restrict safety measures that will, in theory, save lives, pain and suffering. The Bill seeks to empower British Railways to stop up 10 level crossings and, given that there are many more on the east coast line, it will be better and quicker if British Rail met the local authorities concerned with an open mind on how to find a solution. That has not happened in any of the cases mentioned in the Bill.

Mr. Bottomley

I am not trying to take up all the measures mentioned in the Bill but to do what hon. Members should do—push for safety and improvement as soon as possible. It appears that British Rail could have included other lines and other footpaths in the Bill and there have been interventions to that effect. It also appears that, of the 10 put forward, nine are not controversial. Regarding the tenth, the promoters' statement says: The board are … endeavouring to discuss with the highway authority concerned and endeavouring to find a proposal to put to the highway authority". It would be sad if it happened, but if the House did not give the Bill a Second Reading, we would not only lose the nine cases on which there appears to be agreement—or, at least, a willingness to let the Bill proceed to Committee—but we might find that the pressure normally pressing a Bill towards Committee was removed.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

We all agree that we should legislate to improve public safety, but there are other considerations contained in the Bill. One is the wholesale way in which British Rail wishes to deal with the problem that has up to now been dealt with piecemeal. Another consideration involves access to the countryside. The Bill creates huge no-go areas up and down the country and has the potential to apply them to other districts. That would deny access to the countryside to many people who currently enjoy it. There is a risk involved, but the measure should include British Rail improving the system with audible warnings of the approach of trains, even those travelling at 125 mph—that must be technically possible. We cannot legislate for 100 per cent. safety for the public, but must let them use their own judgment on the risk. Therefore, we should consider that objection to the Bill as well as the issue of public safety.

Mr. Bottomley

I think that my hon. Friend will enjoy his time in Committee. I think that he has just made a point that could well be made in Committee.

We could make the same argument about a footpath across an airport runway, where aeroplanes may be approaching at 125 mph on landing or take off. When put that way, the argument seems laughable. If we were talking about trains going at 55 mph or some comparable speed, where there has been no significant change over the years, either in the frequency of trains—which, on the east coast line, is limited—or in the increase of their speed—which has been pretty dramatic—and if there were no prospect of a further increase in speed, we could perhaps tell people to accept the risk that they had accepted in the past. However, when speed is increased, the risk and danger are increased. As we increase the number of trains using a line, we increase the danger. That was tragically shown even on lines that are not on the east coast main line, where there were deaths that could have been avoided.

I do not want to delay the House——

Mr. Redmond

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bottomley

No, I am sorry I shall not. I listened to the hon. Gentleman for 35 minutes and, if he will forgive me, I should like to wind up.

Mr. Redmond

The hon. Gentleman is misleading the House.

Mr. Bottomley

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman if I have misled the House, because I shall want to withdraw what I said.

Mr. Redmond

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman said that agreement had been reached on nine out of the 10 cases. According to the document, it appears that British Rail has reached some sort of agreement or found some solution. It states that there will be no objections to some of the footpaths across railway lines being closed. I gather that everyone present this evening is interested in safety, and if British Rail is interested in safety, it should realise that provisions already exist within local authorities. It would speed things up if British Rail were to come to an agreement with the local authorities. We would not even have to wait for a Bill to go through the House. If British Rail is interested in safety, it should approach local authorities and use existing powers.

Mr. Bottomley

There is always a different way of doing things, and there is nearly always a Member of Parliament who will argue for a different way. We should be asking whether we can act today to let the Bill progress to Committee. I shall vote for that if it comes to it. I am not suggesting that there are not problems with any of the other cases, but the problem with the one to which the hon. Member for Don Valley referred is not as major as he makes out.

I was pleased that, during my time at the Department of Transport, capital investment in railways was increasing. We should be careful about dragging too many party political comparisons into the debate. I checked the figures for London Underground recently and discovered that, in the year following the Labour party's "Fares Fair" policy, capital investment fell when everyone thought that it should go up. I am pleased that investment in London Underground has doubled and doubled again since then.

Most of the public support for British Rail has been running at a higher level than that for the national roads programme. When people start considering whether cars should, by law, be allowed to travel faster than 70 mph, one of the reasonable arguments against a 90 mph speed limit is that roads are too crowded and the risk of more crashes would be too great. We should hold the speed limit for cars and allow faster and faster trains to be developed, so that the relative advantages of the railways become more obvious to more people. I hope that we shall not lift the 70 mph speed limit on roads and I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading. We should look for higher standards of safety, not accept those that were acceptable in the past.

8.26 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I agree with the case against raising the 70 mph speed limit and the case for chanelling high-speed traffic and a great deal of freight by rail.

As I listened to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) I thought that the Bill should be called the "Wrong Side of the Tracks Bill"—closing off the delights of the east to those living on the west. His descriptions were so alluring that I thought that I should pay a rapid visit to his constituency. I have often admired Potteric Carr as the train goes through—not always at high speed because there are often delays there.

It was intriguing to discover how we have come to have a separate East Coast Main Line (Safety) Bill. The British Railways (No. 2) Bill already before the House contains similar measures in respect of two level crossings in Kent and Cumbria. There was an intriguing article in the most recent issue of Modern Railways on the review of current railway legislation. It stated that the British Railways board had sought powers in respect of the east coast main line by means of a separate Bill in the hope that the less emotive general powers Bill would not be delayed by petitions against this Bill.

We are spending an evening discussing a Bill that one hon. Member believes should be pressed ahead with separately because we have been shunted into a siding. The operation is being considered separately in the hope that it will not delay other British Railways legislation before the House. The article mentions that the Ramblers Association, the British Horse Society and the Open Spaces Society have lodged a joint petition opposing the principle of footpath closures by a private Bill. It referred to objections received from Durham and Nottingham county councils and Doncaster borough council.

We set the legislation in context when we reflect that its subject matter could have been dealt with by other legislation already before the House. Those of us who represent different parts of the east coast main line were surprised when the Bill appeared, in light of the spate of other British Railways Bills before the House.

The Bill specifically refers to a series of crossings on the east coast main line, one of which was the scene of a tragic, but rare, accident. As the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) said, the accident record of pedestrians involved with moving vehicles on the roads is infinitely worse than anything we can imagine on railways. That does not remove the case for trying to do something about circumstances such as those that led to the Potteric Carr tragedy, but there are many options to consider when dealing with the safety problems of pedestrian crossings on fast railway lines. Those options include footbridges, underpasses, warning lights, gates or barriers that are automatically controlled using the same principles applied to the modernisation of road level crossings up and down the line, where modern technology is used to ensure that a barrier falls and lights flash in ample time to deal with the rapid speed of trains.

All the arguments that we have heard about how little time the train crew has to see what is happening and how quickly the train will reach the crossing, apply equally to road crossings up and down the east coast main line that are currently being modernised.

Another option is to close the footpath where the crossing is not used. It is alleged that some footpaths fall within that category. However, that could be done under existing procedure.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

If paths are not used, they cannot present a safety problem.

Mr. Beith

I suppose the safety problem is a theoretical one. People might look at a route on a map and decide to try to follow it, not realising the danger that they were putting themselves in. I accept that, if a footpath clearly were not used, that theoretical danger could be removed by following existing procedures.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

One of the problems about this closure is that one cannot erase the public right of way from all the ordnance survey maps that are likely to be in use for many years.

Mr. Beith

That is one of the problems about closing any footpath. I do not like to see footpaths closed, but I am at least prepared to consider a case. What I do not want is the development of a new practice whereby footpaths are closed by way of private Bills. Every so often, British Rail might come along and close several more footpaths outside the normal procedures available under the highways authority, which I should prefer to see used. I hope that those procedures will continue to lead to very few closures. Indeed, it is the fact that they have led to very few closures that has brought British Rail before the House with this Bill.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that footpaths should not be stopped up and pedestrians made to go unnecessarily on long detours. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not saying that footpaths across high-speed lines should be allowed to continue. The whole House should say very clearly that we must find ways of getting rid of these private paths across high-speed lines—in some cases by the construction of a bridge or tunnel, and in others by diversion. We must give strong support to British Rail—management, staff and unions—in the elimination of unnecessary risks as soon as that is reasonably practicable.

Mr. Beith

I have listed a series of options for dealing with this problem. Some involve separating pedestrians from high-speed trains by means of footbridges or underpasses, and some involve the same technology as has to be used to enable cars to pass over a line. We are not talking about a line that can be isolated from all crossing traffic. That is accepted. There are vehicle level crossings, which in most cases are used more frequently and pose a greater risk of accident. The technology has to be developed to make those crossings safe. That is what is being done up and down the east coast main line.

Mr. Snape


Mr. Beith

I must give up the habit of allowing regular interventions, but I cannot deny the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) his opportunity.

Mr. Snape

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for my opportunity. He has—in typically artful and typically Liberal fashion, if I may say so—managed to sketch out all the options that are open to British Rail. With reference in particular to the controversial crossing about which we have heard so much tonight, can the hon. Gentleman tell the House which option he would plump for? Does he think that the bill—and, according to British Rail, a bridleway, rather than a footpath, would cost£250,000—could be met by British Rail under the existing investment rules?

Mr. Beith

I am not qualified to say which is the best option. That is very much a decision for the local people. It is particularly Liberal to say that local people should make the decision. Indeed, that is a very strong Liberal principle. It is obvious to all concerned that one of the things involved is access to a much-valued nature reserve, which has become increasingly popular and which, incidentally, was created by the structure of the railway system, which gave that piece of undisturbed land its special quality.

The notion that we should have a Bill before Parliament to deal with one crossing becomes even more absurd if, simply because British Rail has not so far managed to reach agreement with Doncaster borough council on the best option for this crossing, we must have not just a clause in another Bill but a clause in this Bill, so that the argument about Doncaster borough council will not delay the British Rail (No. 1) Bill. We seem to be entering an "Alice in Wonderland" world, where decisions are taken for the most extraordinary reasons.

But the Bill has other odd features, to which I referred earlier when the Chairman of Ways and Means was in the Chair. At that point I asked him about the Leamside branch railway. All the crossings referred to in this Bill, except one, are on the east coast main line, as the title suggests. In one case there is a reference to a loop off that line. There is a footpath that crosses both the Leamside branch railway and the main line. I still do not understand how that can be within the ambit of the Bill. One of the most obvious things about the Leamside branch railway is that it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a high-speed line on which trains can travel at 125 or 140 mph. Most hon. Members who travel from and to the north-east know that. From time to time, we travel on the Leamside branch railway. But one travels on that railway only if a train has been diverted off the east coast main line because of breakdown or for purposes of signalling work. Indeed, we are experiencing a lot of that sort of thing now—especially signalling work.

On Saturday, I had a very pleasant tour round Eaglescliff for exactly that reason. In Northumberland, it is not possible to divert in that way once a train passes the Blyth and Tyne diversion, as there is only one main line. Signalling work there seems to be very protracted. Every time it is completed, someone comes along and takes away several miles of cable. This has become an extremely regular occurrence. It is time British Rail developed some new security procedures for its cabling. Certainly, a great deal of disruption is being caused on that line. So we have become used to travelling on lines like the Leamside. Invariably, a journey on that line drastically reduces the speed of the train and adds greatly to the time of the journey—pleasant though it is, now and then, to look at the less disturbed part of the Durham countryside.

However, it is pretty difficult to advance the same argument in respect of the crossing over that branch line as is advanced in respect of the east coast main line. That is quite apart from the procedural puzzle of the inclusion of this in a Bill that does not apply to any other line, and it is not possible to make it the subject of the same arguments.

At the heart of the objection to this Bill—most of us will have received correspondence from organisations representing ramblers and riders—is the feeling that this is only the beginning and that this legislation will lead to the closing up of crossings by other private legislation. It is felt that, if British Rail is allowed to do this once, it will want to do it again. It is felt that it will come before us with another Bill, or that it will want to have something included in a general Bill. Some would say that British Rail will try to get a more general power to treat crossings in this way, or that frequent Bills listing crossings for closure will come before us. That is why some of the objections to the Bill go far beyond the objections to some of these crossings and refer to lines travelling through entirely different areas. It is felt that this would be a dangerous and damaging precedent, as well as a procedure that would lead to the closure, without any redress, of some crossings that are currently in use.

British Rail is not always very conscious of or careful about footpaths. Before coming into the House for this debate, I was going through the day's correspondence. I read a whole series of reports from footpaths officers in my constituency. The southern end of a footpath about which I have had to complain on behalf of a constituent in the parish of Adderstone-with-Lucker has been obstructed by British Rail. The footpaths officer has taken up the matter with the area engineer at York. The obstruction seems to have been caused not by the line but in the course of some other British Rail activity. It is a common feeling among ramblers and others who love to walk on our great network of footpaths that British Rail and all sorts of other organisations think last about footpaths. Footpaths are not high on its list of priorities.

We all know that the enforcement activities of local authorities in their attempts to keep footpaths open are stretched far beyond the limits. I discovered a difficulty in my constituency. The principal footpaths officer had been off for more than a year, and his one assistant was struggling to keep up with a deluge of complaints of this sort. Ramblers understandably feel that everybody is against them. They have to fight every inch of the way to keep footpaths open. Then they find that legislation going through Parliament bypasses all the normal procedures, closes a whole series of crossings, and opens up the possibility that the same technique will be used in the future.

It has been said several times in this debate that pedestrian crossings over high-speed lines should be eliminated. If that is the objective, the number of footpaths around the country likely to be closed is very large. The high-speed trunk lines that run through the country—the east coast main line, the west coast main line, the lines down to the west country and south Wales—intersect a great many footpaths. If this is to be the principle, our footpath network will be drastically carved up—hence the anxiety of many of those who have raised objections to the Bill.

I move on to another curious factor which I had not appreciated until some recent correspondence with British Rail. As the House will know, I have been involved in extensive arguments with British Rail about sleeper services to the north-east of England and the borders, in the course of which it emerged that British Rail has a new policy on the maintenance of the east coast main line. British Rail has, according to the chairman, taken delivery of new maintenance equipment and are now planning to carry out much of the work on weekday nights rather than disrupting journeys at weekends. Overnight closure of one route offers substantial benefits of lower staffing costs and more efficient management of engineering work. He is referring to the east coast main line, which it appears will be closed down completely at night.

There are some mysteries about this. I do not understand how regular freight traffic will continue to operate or how the planned Edinburgh-Newcastle-Paris-Brussels sleeper will make its way to the channel tunnel overnight as intended. But the chairman of British Rail says that instead of closing the east coast main line for periods during the day at weekends—or rather of delaying trains on it—the line will be completely closed, allowing maintenance crews to take possession and get on with their work. If so, there will be times of daylight in the late summer nights and early mornings when the line is closed, and there will be no reason why people should not use the footpaths if warning lights and so on are provided.

During the early stages of the argument this idea of overnight closure was advanced and then dismissed, but it has clearly emerged again as a major factor in British Rail's thinking about the future of the east coast main line, and in a debate such as this we should be told whether there will be periods during the 24 hours, when the line is not operating regularly or at intervals and is closed to all traffic, when it will be reasonably safe and when properly arranged pedestrian crossings could be used.

Mr. Snape

Does the hon. Gentleman anticipate many ramblers wandering across the line between midnight and 6 am, whether or not it is closed?

Mr. Beith

People cross the lines in the early morning when they want to look at, for instance, a nature reserve. The best time to do that is at 5 or 6 o'clock on a summer morning, when they can hear the dawn chorus and see the birds. Keen enthusiasts go to places such as Potteric Carr at that time of day.

There is another reason why such issues must be raised in the context of this Bill and it concerns the basis on which its promoters ask us to allow the Bill to proceed to Second Reading. The promoters in their statement mention the discussions that they have had with the highway authorities: The board are discussing or endeavouring to discuss with the highway authorities concerned with each crossing the possibility of diversionary or alternative routes for the ways in question … in all other cases"— except the Potteric Carr case— possible diversionary or alternative routes have been devised and are being discussed with the highway authority. On that basis, the board says that we should let the Bill go ahead—all these matters can be settled out of court, as it were.

I have some experience of trying to "settle out of court" with British Rail on the basis of understandings which should mean that we let the Bill proceed. When a previous British Rail Bill was under discussion at a similar stage, British Rail gave an undertaking that it would restore overnight services on the east coast line in 1991, if the results of a study that it was going to carry out were satisfactory. That undertaking has not been kept. British Rail is still refusing to restore sleeper services to the east coast main line, thus depriving Newcastle, Tyneside, Teesside and the borders of sleeper services or any overnight services to London.

British Rail has done this on the basis of information that has not changed anything to the advantage of its case in the meantime. But when the undertaking was given and reported to the House, Members thought it reasonable to allow the legislation then under discussion to proceed. British Rail is asking us to do the same tonight on the grounds that it is likely to be possible to arrive at alternative arrangements for many of these footpaths. Hon. Members are asked to take account of such arrangements and of the possibility that they will be fully honoured, and to allow the Bill to proceed.

My advice to Hon. Members is not to believe British Rail's assurances in circumstances such as these. My experience is that it does not keep them. It will give assurances designed to assist the Bill's passage, but it will ensure that they are not so precise as to be absolutely enforceable; and if it suits British Rail, it will seek a means of backing out of their implications later. If we allow the Bill to go ahead tonight, some of the agreements with local authorities may not work out or may break down, and the procedure under this Bill may be used to the full to close these footpaths.

Experience of the east coast main line sleeper services should teach Members—I include myself in this—to view British Rail's assurances with the greatest circumspection. If parliamentary procedures allow us to tie British Rail down more tightly, we should do that. If the procedures that British Rail seeks to put through Parliament reduce the rights of the public to get their point of view across and to object, we should be very suspicious of those procedures. If we allow the Bill through, a whole new way of closing footpaths will exist and the arrangements with other authorities may not work out. That is an insufficient basis on which to proceed.

8.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

It may be helpful at this point if I give the House the Government's view on the Bill.

At present the promotion of a private Bill is the only means available to British Rail to secure the stopping up or diversion of rights of way across a railway on grounds of public safety. In view of British Rail's statutory duty to operate its railways safely, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State decided, when asked for his consent to deposit the Bill, that it was reasonable for him to give it so that British Rail could have its proposals tested before Parliament. It must be right that there should be a method of considering whether it is in the public interest that footpaths should be stopped up.

The Government remain neutral on the merits or otherwise of the detailed proposals; that must be a matter for the Select Committee if the Bill is given a Second Reading. It will be for British Rail to demonstrate to Parliament that it has looked carefully at the amount of public use made of these level crossings, at the scope for establishing alternative routes across the railway, and at the possibility of using safety devices to keep the existing crossings open.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I am sure that the Minister does not want to mislead the House. The Ramblers Association states that British Rail applied for a closure in Taunton Deane on the grounds of safety—and got it under present legislation. How was it possible to obtain the closure of a footpath across a railway on the grounds of safety when the Minister has just said that that is impossible? I also wonder whether he can tell us the outcome of the railway inspectorate's inquiry into safety at level crossings, especially pedestrian crossings.

Mr. McLoughlin

I can say only that the information that I have just given is correct—this is currently the only way for British Rail to proceed. As for the inspectorate's reports, those documents are published when available and it is open to members of the Select Committee and to petitioners to make the relevant case.

Mr. Cryer

Is the Minister saying that the railway inspectorate is conducting an investigation into the safety of level crossings and that the document is in the course of preparation, but not yet available to hon. Members during consideration of the Bill?

Mr. McLoughlin

No, I was responding to a question asked by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). If the inspectorate publishes a report it will be available in due course. That was what the hon. Gentleman asked.

Mr. Bennett

Will the Minister confirm that last summer the Secretary of State specifically asked for the railway inspectorate to consider safety on pedestrian crossings over railways and to prepare a report? Surely he can tell us how far that report has got.

Mr. McLoughlin

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson), the former Secretary of State, issued various instructions when an accident which was referred to earlier occurred. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any information about the progress of the report.

As I said, Parliament will need to be assured that the interests of users of footpaths have been adequately covered. I note that there are four petitions against the Bill. The petitioners will have the opportunity to present their objections to the Select Committee. The Committee will be in a much better position than we are tonight to examine in detail the issues involved and it will have the added advantage of hearing expert evidence. The House will know— —

Mr. Redmond

Does the Minister agree that any safety improvements should be at British Rail's expense and should not be borne by the local authorities?

Mr. McLoughlin

I do not want to get into that issue now. Local authorities may want something and British Rail may want something else. Discussions may have to take place about costing and if the authorities want something to be provided, they might have to contribute. It is abundantly clear from the debate that the Government are continually pressured to increase investment in British Rail to make it a more attractive venture for the travelling public to use. That usually means increasing the speed of trains to get from A to B.

If we are persistently asked to slow down trains, one must question the supposition that such investment should be made. I remember the arguments about the electrification of the east coast line and the tremendous pressure for that to be done. In the end, the Government decided that it met the criteria and the investment was made. Now we are being told to slow down trains or not to take account of serious accidents that have happened. The accident that occurred in the constituency of the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) was horrendous and affected all hon. Members who dealt with the incident and read the report on it. It was a tragedy.

The House will know that the Government have proposed that consideration of these matters should be taken out of Parliament, as the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure recommended. We hope to be in a position very shortly to announce our conclusions about that.

I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading so that it can proceed to Committee for detailed consideration.

8.54 pm
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

Like many hon. Members, I was intrigued by the fact that the Bill which seeks authority to close 10 level crossings has not been incorporated in a general powers Bill, but has come to the House in splendid isolation, if that is not too mixed a metaphor. The Minister referred to the accident at Carr lane crossing and we were all appalled by that accident and the tragic circumstances surrounding it. That accident perhaps provided a catalyst for British Rail to act to prevent similar tragedies.

As I said in an intervention, it is by no means unusual for me to stand here or on the Back Benches to criticise British Rail, and especially its management, who all too often appear unresponsive to pressure from passengers —or customers, as they are called these days—or from hon. Members. Having read the Bill, I appreciate the fears that have been expressed, especially on behalf of organisations such as the Ramblers Association, but I have some sympathy with British Rail in this case. In my experience as a former railway signalman, farm trucks, horses, pedestrians and high-speed trains do not make an especially safe mixture. The more non-rail users can be segregated from the railway, the better for safety purposes.

There is some concern about the nature of our proceedings in this place. On other occasions, I have referred to the unsatisfactory nature of the private Bill procedure, and I hope that the authorities in this place will find a better way to deal with such matters. I understand from British Rail that the unsatisfactory nature, in its view, of the Highways Act 1980 is the main reason we are discussing this measure tonight. BR tells me that the grounds for closure or diversion of footpaths are limited to disuse or the creation of an easier route, but do not include safety. BR states in a note that any changes in existing rights of way are actively contentious and that local authorities are "frequently unwilling" to undertake them.

I shall reply to some of the points raised tonight. BR believes that seeking an order by this route—the Highways Act 1980—can take up to 10 years, even if the highway authority does not drop the matter as soon as it attracts any opposition. Therefore, any alternatives to the admittedly unsatisfactory nature of our proceedings are, to say the least, time-consuming.

The crossings that BR proposes to close, provided that the House gives the Bill a Second Reading and that the Committee—which, from what I have heard tonight will be fairly protracted—agrees to the measure, are a mixture of crossings. BR says that eight out of the 10 have little or no use. It is said that there is some use of the crossing at North Mymms in Hertfordshire. The crossing at Cantley in Doncaster to the Potteric Carr nature reserve is, in British Rail parlance, marked as "used". Presumably it is, as a bridleway, the busiest crossing of the 10 crossings proposed for closure in the Bill.

Mr. Redmond

Does my hon. Friend agree that, because there is a facility on the other side of the track, kids will invariably want to cross the line? Short of putting up a 10-foot high wall along several miles of that section, there could be no guarantee that kids would not cross the line at that point—tragically, without adult supervision. As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the railway inspectorate is in the process of preparing some guidelines on footpath and bridle-way crossings. Would not it be better to wait for that report so that we can cure not only the problem of the Potteric Carr crossing, but the problem of the other bridlepaths and footpaths throughout the country?

Mr. Snape

I do not know what will be in the report or whether it will be as detailed as my hon. Friend claims. It is pretty unlikely that the railway inspectorate or anyone else will propose the construction of a bridge or a tunnel under five railway tracks. If the railway inspectorate—or anyone else—looked at the crossing in my hon. Friend's constituency, it is unlikely—I put it no higher than that —that it would recommend the expenditure of anything from £250,000 to enable users of the bridleway to cross five tracks of main line.

I cannot, of course, prejudge the report. Until reminded of its preparation by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) a few moments ago, I was not going to make a point about it, because I had forgotten about it. I am sure that we are grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of it. Any such report is likely to recommend the segregation of walkers or horse-riders from the railway track, especially as railway speeds are increasing generally and as the speeds on these tracks will be as high or higher than the speeds on any other railway track in the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) said that it would be necessary to build a 10-foot fence to prevent children from crossing the line. Regrettably, if one put up a 50-foot high chain metal fence along the railway line, people would find a way in which to get over or under it. A considerable proportion of British Rail's expenditure is used in repairing fences alongside railway tracks. The fences are regularly broken down, usually by adults seeking a short cut, within days or weeks of their repair or installation. I have listened with interest to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, but I do not believe that his point about people finding ways across railway lines is very valid.

Despite—I am not talking about the crossings in the Bill—the apparent belief of the great British public that a fenced-off railway line merely presents a challenge in their quest to get from A to B in the shortest possible time, it is right that British Rail should do its best to ensure that safety remains paramount, especially in the light of the accident to which other hon. Members have referred.

It has been said that some agreement has been reached with the local authorities about nine of the 10 proposals, and that only one crossing, to which I have referred, is controversial. Agreement on it has not been reached, and British Rail told me as recently as last Friday that it has not been possible even to hold a meeting with the metropolitan borough of Doncaster. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley will use his undoubted influence with his local authority—I do not blame the authority, because I am only repeating what British Rail told me last Friday—to ensure that a meeting takes place sooner rather than later about the possible diversion of the footpath and about the closure of the crossing.

During my time as a British Rail employee, I met two or three operating staff members and two or three engine drivers—as they used to be called—who had been involved in fatal accidents, some at crossings such as this and some on lengths of plain track. For signalmen, platelayers and especially drivers, the horror of that moment never leaves them.

This tragedy involved one driver for whom the accident was even worse than it was for his colleague. It was the second such incident in which he had been involved, and he has been unable to resume his duties as a driver ever since. That pales into significance compared with the tragedy experienced by the bereaved, but it shows the views of railwaymen and women who regularly face such problems. The sooner such pedestrian crossings are diverted and the sooner people, whether ramblers, bird watchers or courting couples—to whom the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) delicately referred; or perhaps he delicately chose not to refer to them—cease to cross the tracks in front of high-speed trains, the better.

I hope that my hon. Friend will use his best offices to bring about such a meeting.

Mr. Redmond

We cannot diminish the horror faced by the victims and their families, and by the drivers involved in fatalities on British Rail. I appreciate the drivers' views about being involved in such a horrible accident.

I was involved for many years in negotiations with management. One could always negotiate when there was a willingness for people to talk, but we used to hit a stumbling block when management sought to dictate the terms. They would ask us to agree to their proposals and sort out a solution afterwards. Experience has taught me to be a little concerned about "jam tomorrow". Had British Rail adopted a more reasonable approach, it might have received a suitable response from Doncaster council.

If British Rail is willing to find a solution, that will be in everyone's interest. Kids will cross that line even if the footpath is stopped. If we are concerned about safety, we should provide reasonable access across that line, either by a bridge or by a tunnel—which I do not think is practicable. When a new housing estate is built, many footpaths may be provided, but people will find the natural footpath—the shortest path from A to B. I shall check with the authority tomorrow, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the matter to my attention.

Mr. Snape

If a meeting takes place, proposals and alternatives can be explored. British Rail's representatives are not here officially, but they are present and will have heard that exchange. Perhaps they will react accordingly.

What about the alternatives, some of which were mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, South and for Don Valley? I am informed that every road crossing on the east coast main line is a proper barrier type crossing under the supervision of a signalman, not necessarily at the crossing but through closed-circuit television. I understand that there are 146 footpath crossings on the east coast main line, and the cost of providing such facilities at every one of them would be enormous.

Railway expenditure is scrutinised far more closely than expenditure on any other mode of transport, and the prospects are minimal of getting a system of automatic half-barriers covered by closed-circuit television past the eagle eyes of the civil servants at the Department of Transport.

My hon. Friend 'the Member for Bradford, South suggested a speed restriction. However, one of the attractions of a high-speed railway is, of course, its speed. Electrification not only saves energy but enables travelling times between our major cities to be decreased.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed suggested warning lights or an audible warning at crossings. At a speed of 125 mph and a future speed of 140 mph, it is difficult to see how warning lights without a physical barrier to prevent people crossing will be anything other than an additional hazard rather than an additional safety precaution. The crossing at Carr lane has five railway tracks, and warning lights would be flashing almost all day —in deference to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, I shall not say, all night.

Most people, including those who are up at 5 o'clock in the morning bird watching, and the others to whom I referred who have other things in mind at midnight or I am, normally demonstrate an aversion to waiting. If lights are flashing for a long time because of the approach of a number of trains, their message could be ignored. That has happened, often with fatal results.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed artfully raised the issue of the sleepers on the east coast main line, and mentioned British Rail's broken promises. I had expected the hon. Gentleman to raise those matters on earlier British Rail Bills. It was obvious that they might be raised by other hon. Members, and I decided to carry out some research. British Rail provided me with figures about sleeper usage north of Newcastle. I do not say that the figures are right because, as we know to our cost, British Rail's figures are not always 100 per cent. accurate. However, the figures show that the peak usage time for the sleeper train north of Newcastle is Thursday evening, when it is used by hon. Members. Apparently no one else uses them for much of the working week.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed may disagree with that, but I am only repeating the figures provided to me by BR. Although my admiration for the hon. Gentleman, if not his party, remains constant, I do not believe that the provision of a mobile mattress—much as he might need it—would pass the eagle eyes of those civil servants in the Department of Transport who are responsible for passing or rejecting, and always delaying, BR's investment proposals.

It looks as though BR is saying that the hon. Gentleman is on his own in the sleeper—at least no moral aspersions can be cast against the hon. Gentleman in such circumstances. I fear that his case is yet to be made, given BR's figures.

Mr. Beith

Some of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues, including the hon. Members for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) and for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) will not be very happy when they read what the hon. Gentleman has said. They have been active, along with many others, in campaigning for the restoration of sleeper services. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not complaining about those hon. Members who use the train as opposed to those who claim their car allowance by driving an enormous distance home when there is a perfectly good train service available.

Most of the traffic on sleepers is towards London rather than away from it. A considerable amount of such traffic was generated from Newcastle as well as from the borders. If it is possible to run a sleeper service from Carlisle and Preston, it should be possible to do so from Tyneside.

Mr. Snape

To say that I have raised a hornet's nest is the wrong metaphor, given that there is only one hornet in it. However, I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument and I hope that those responsible for providing the figures will reconsider the matter. They appear to believe that more people travel between Newcastle and London rather than from further north. I appreciate that BR does not even run a sleeper service to Newcastle, but its excuse is that it has other services that run late at night and early in the morning, so the demand is catered for. However, I am not seeking to defend BR's spurious figures.

It is a brave Member who dares to argue with people in the Ramblers Association, which packs enormous power and influence. That association has criticised BR for its use of the parliamentary procedures to introduce its Bill—that is not an unreasonable criticism, given what we have heard. I hope that the Minister will study BR's reasons for that, and will tell the Committee whether they are valid. It has argued that the Bill is the only way in which to tackle safety matters, as the Highways Act 1980 precludes such discussion.

The 13th point in the Ramblers Association's brief to hon. Members suggests the depths of its cynicism: The crossings in the Bill have existed for over a century. If they are now dangerous it is because BR has made them so by increasing the speeds of trains for commercial gain. Given the policies of the present Government, it is inevitable that commercial gain is considered whatever the supposed service. That argument is rather tendentious, given that most of us are in favour of getting from A to B as quickly as possible. It is unfair to criticise BR for that.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I suspect that that objection would come as a great surprise to most members of the Ramblers Association and to those who are on the side of the pedestrian and the rambler. Most of the pedestrians and ramblers I know want British Rail to carry more and more passengers to help to reduce the increasing number of cars on our roads.

Mr. Snape

I am sure that, as a rambler himself, the hon. Gentleman will seek to make that point to the Ramblers Association.

Point No. 14 does not have a great deal to say in favour of the Bill. The Ramblers Association refers to people being forced to walk or to ride a horse along the road, once the bridleway or pathway has been diverted. It says that, if there is no convenient grass verge, that is not most people's idea of improved safety. I venture to suggest that that is far safer, even though it may not be the most desirable or safe method, than cantering a horse across a railway line when trains are travelling between 100 and 140 mph.

Mr. Redmond


Mr. Snape

I promised that I would give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Redmond

I think that I ought to clear up the earlier point about Doncaster borough council. Doncaster was first made aware of the proposed Bill on 6 November 1990, when British Rail submitted the Bill to Parliament. There had been no consultations or discussions between British Rail and Doncaster borough council. British Rail had never asked for discussions with the council. It seems to me, therefore, that British Rail was at fault. Doncaster is the relevant authority for the area. British Rail ought to have asked for discussions with the council so as to find a way round the possibility of similar accidents in the future. It ought to have held those discussions with the council in the summer. British Rail ought not to have waited until it was ready to deposit the Bill.

Mr. Snape

I am grateful for that clarification, but it does not alter the fact that the Bill is before us. I understand that the letter sent to Doncaster borough council was couched in exactly the same form as the letters sent to the other nine local authorities. I understand that some discussion has taken place. I understand also that there has been a measure of agreement. I keep using that caveat, because my information came from British Rail only last Friday. All of us have to seek information wherever we can obtain it. However, British Rail's point is that a letter identical to that sent to Doncaster borough council has not resulted in a meeting.

I repeat the plea that I made earlier—that bruised and ruffled feelings are one thing, but when the future safety of people using crossings is at stake, discussions ought to take place sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, I accept my hon. Friend's view that this is a well used crossing and a treasured local amenity. Unusual though the measure may be in being presented in this form, I believe that the Bill is worthy of support.

Mr. Beith

The hon. Gentleman gave me the opportunity to check that he quoted British Rail's figures correctly. I discovered that he did not. On southbound journeys by sleeper, the average for over a year amounted to 21 passengers from Tyneside and Teesside, 2.5 passengers from the borders, with the remaining berths generally being filled by passengers from Edinburgh.

Mr. Snape

That was another pretty artful intervention. I have no wish to drag out the debate. I notice that the northbound journeys were not quoted by the hon. Gentleman, perhaps—I put it no higher than this—for the reasons that I outlined. The hon. Gentleman may feel that I should not have outlined them, but it seemed to me to be too good a debating point to overlook.

We are not making debating points about the Bill. I repeat that the segregation of non-railway users from high-speed trains is a desirable objective. I hope that the House will allow the Bill to go forward. If there is a Division, I shall vote for the Bill.

9.23 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), because he is in extremely good form. I know that he has had a pretty heavy weekend, since his football team has managed to gain promotion from the fourth to the third division. There is a great deal of excitement in Stockport at the prospect. I was pleased to hear that he is in favour of increasing train speeds. He is one of the better-known supporters of Stockport County, and people are dredging up all sorts of stories in the town.

I am sure my hon. Friend will want to deny one that is circulating—that, when he was working a signal box in Cheadle Heath one Saturday afternoon he slipped all the signals to red and nipped into Stockport County ground to watch a match for some time, only to discover when shouting with great enthusiasm for his team that one of his supervisors was not far behind him in the crowd. My hon. Friend had to make a hasty return to his signal box. I do not know whether that story is true, but it is circulating at the moment in Stockport.

Mr. Snape

With regard to my hon. Friend's point about celebrations over the weekend, although I support Stockport County and saw them gain promotion on Saturday, my constituency football team, West Bromwich Albion, was relegated from the second division to the third. As a result of that, any joy that I might have expressed publicly had to be muted.

The story that my hon. Friend recounted was broadly accurate. However, the signals were not turned to red, they were turned to green. I had switched the signal box out to go and watch the cup match.

Mr. Bennett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clearing that up. I wonder who he will be supporting next season in the third division.

My name stands against a motion that the Bill should be read a Second time in six months' time. Hon. Members often regard such motions as ridiculous, but I believe that such a delay would be appropriate for this Bill. In that time, perhaps British Rail could repair some of the damage that it has done as a result of the way in which it has introduced the Bill and I would hope that it could begin useful negotiations with the local authorities, the Ramblers Association and others involved in the issue.

Instead of wasting the time of the House on Second Reading and then taking up the time in Committee of four hon. Members, who presumably will have to visit all the sites and consider the details, and then perhaps having to take up the time of the House with amendments, the matter should be resolved with common sense and without involving parliamentary procedures.

I argue that the Bill has little to do with safety. British Rail is simply trying to shift liability for accidents from its shoulders to other people's shoulders. That is clear from the way in which British Rail has treated the House with contempt. As I understand it, following the tragic accident at Doncaster, the Secretary of State for Transport sensibly recognised that there was a substantial problem with crossings on the east coast line and elsewhere where British Rail was trying to speed up trains. The Secretary of State asked the railway inspectorate to carry out an inquiry into the problem, take evidence and discover what could be done to resolve the issue.

Although there may not have been any accidents on the east coast line in the 10 years that British Rail has speeded up trains on that line, we are all aware that on other crossings, in particular on vehicle crossings, there have been accidents. We must recognise the terrible distress caused to people who have lost members of their family in those accidents and we must also recognise the horror experienced by the train drivers involved.

As trains move at such high speeds, it is no longer possible for a driver to see someone on a crossing and take any sensible action to stop the train hitting that individual. We must also recognise that in many places it is not safe for someone to look up the track to see whether a train is coming. It is no longer possible for crossings to be manned simply by people looking and seeing. It is, therefore, odd that British Rail and the railway inspectorate have had powers for the past 10 years to suggest that safety measures should be taken including the installation of warning lights and barriers, but no such measures have been adopted on the east coast mainline or elsewhere.

It is therefore odd that British Rail should suddenly decide to rush the Bill through the House and pre-empt the railway inspectorate inquiry in such a way as to put up the backs of local authorities. All local authorities along the line first heard about proposals to close the crossings when the Bill was presented to Parliament, rather than hearing from British Rail that it had a problem and asking whether something could be done.

I am not surprised that Doncaster council has been reluctant to meet British Rail about the matter. The production of such a fait accompli with a parliamentary Bill is not the right way to start negotiations. I can understand why Doncaster and some other local authorities are upset. It is totally inappropriate for British Rail to act in that way. It should have started negotiations. Only when it could prove that negotiations had not produced the desired effect—that is, making it safer for people to cross from one side to the other, and safer for British Rail—should it have introduced the Bill.

Mr. Redmond

Having been on Doncaster council and knowing the rest of the councils, the officers who work for them and their caring attitude and concern about the tragedy that took place, I know that they are anxious to find a solution. The dictatorial attitude of British Rail in saying, "This or else," means that the council cannot win either way. The council is searching for a solution. My hon. Friend would agree that British Rail should adopt a more reasonable approach and have meaningful discussions with the council to find a solution. Kids will cross that land, and they will do so without the supervision of an adult.

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. British Rail appears to want to shift responsibility to whoever is involved in an accident because they should not have been on that line. I agree that councils need to be consulted. Nobody wants a tragedy like that to happen again.

Mr. Bennett

I certainly accept my hon. Friend's intervention. We must look at history and remember that almost all railways were promoted through parliamentary Bills in which compromises were worked out between the requirements of people to get from one side of the railway to the other and the requirements of the railway to have a fairly safe passage. In most early railway Bills, Parliament insisted that a substantial number of underpasses for farm animals and pedestrians or footbridges and, in some cases, trackways for animals were built. It was only with some later parliamentary Bills that British Rail began to persuade Parliament that it was perfectly safe to put in level crossings, whether for pedestrians, animals or vehicles.

It is a little unfair for British Rail now to say that, because it wants to speed up trains—we all want trains to be speeded up—it should take away people's right to cross from one side to the other. Although in some instances not many people will be involved, the crossings will be important to them. They will have bought property and planned where to work on the basis of those crossings.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East says that there is controversy about only one of the 10 crossings. That is not the case. There is certainly controversy at Doncaster and there is also controversy about the crossing at North Mymms, which is on the way to London. About 20,000 booklets have been published showing that route. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) claimed that that had been subject to a closure order which had been denied. The truth is that it was subject to the closure order before the 1980 legislation, so it has not been subject to an order or an attempt to get an order over the past 10 years. The attempt to obtain a diversion was turned down not on the basis that it was unreasonable to provide a diversion because of safety, but on the basis that the alternative route suggested was also unreasonable and that if British Rail had been able to make a reasonable proposal for the diversion at that point, the Secretary of State might have been minded to grant that application. It seems that there is slightly more controversy than the hon. Gentleman suggested.

Mr. Snape

I understand, again from British Rail, that at the crossing to which the hon. Gentleman referred, North Mymms, it is proposed to divert the footpath 295 yd to the north and thence via Skitmans bridge, which takes Bull lane under the railway and links up with the footpath network. I do not know whether that proposal meets with any greater favour than the one to which he referred. My information from British Rail is that the basis of the negotiations with the local authority is the proposal to move the footpath 300 yd. I know nothing about the area, but a diversion of less than 300 yd to avoid crossing the railway line altogether does not seem unreasonable.

Mr. Bennett

I do not intend to go into the details, but, if that was possible, why did not British Rail implement the proposal last summer? Why did it wait to promote a Bill which inevitably will take a long time? If it could find a solution through negotiations and allow local people the right to appear at an inquiry and put objections, surely that would be a better way to proceed than to ask Members of Parliament to deal with the matter. My hon. Friend admitted that he did not know the detailed local geography. I certainly do not. I doubt whether many other hon. Members know the exact details. Probably only the hon. Member for that constituency knows the detail. I have not seen any hon. Members jumping up to make a comment on it. Surely negotiation would be the way to proceed rather than to continue with the Bill, especially as it raises the fear among ramblers that, after 10 crossings being closed this Session, another 10 will be closed next Session and another 10 will be closed in the Session following that.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

While my hon. Friend is on this point, has he considered why these 10 specific crossings have been put before us in this Bill? We have little information about why these 10, of all the various crossings, have been selected by British Rail.

Mr. Bennett

I have not been able to find an exact reason. British Rail has not said that these are the most dangerous crossings. British Rail has not said that all the crossings are on curves. I have already suggested that, with the speed at which trains travel, even on a straight piece of track it is not realistic to rely on people looking down the track and anticipating how soon the train will arrive. We must consider the provision of some effective warning by lights or other means.

British Rail has adopted an inappropriate approach to implementing the measures in the Bill. The original railway promoters negotiated along the entire length of the track and said that they had to have a certain number of crossings. Perhaps where five crossings were proposed before the railway line was built, the promoters managed to persuade local people and Parliament that they could be replaced by three. Such negotiations can take place and people can be persuaded. Everyone accepts that a walk across the railway track is not particularly safe and that it would be far better to put a tunnel underneath or a bridge over the top. But that is expensive, so instead of putting in one for one, British Rail proposes to put in one bridge or tunnel for two previous crossings.

Mr. Cryer

Does my hon. Friend accept that, when the orginal Acts went through Parliament, landowners often insisted that a bridge should be provided where lines crossed sections of land? By a quirk, in the 19th century the land was perhaps owned by several landowners and no bridge was provided but now people need to cross a railway from side A to side B. In those circumstances and to recognise the change in the pattern of people's behaviour, should not the Government ensure that British Rail has an adequate grant to provide facilities such as bridges to take into account factors that, if they had existed when the orginal legislation went through, would have been provided for by the orginial promoters?

Mr. Bennett

I accept that argument. In agreeing that it may not be possible to replace every crossing with a safer one, I firmly argue that someone must come up with money for safety. It is not appropriate for the money to come from British Rail's capital grant. That problem must be addressed, just as the rights of people to follow traditional routes must be addressed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) pointed out, if safe crossings are not provided, young children in particular will cross anywhere and in great danger. We must consider the problem, but the Bill is wholly inappropriate.

I was disappointed that the Minister did not tell us what happened to the inquiry or that the Government were investigating the whole question of crossings. Instead, he said that the Government were agnostic about the Bill. The problem will not go away. We need a solution that will be satisfactory to walkers and those who travel on trains.

Mr. Redmond

At Mexborough there was a crossing from one side of the station to the other. The old railway sleepers provided a crossing for prams and wheelchairs. Because of some improvements and the 125s from Manchester coming at a greater pace round a curve, British Rail tore up the track without consulting anybody. There is a footpath across the railway lines, but, regrettably, British Rail's solution for disabled people who must get to the other side of the station is for them to travel to Doncaster, change platforms, come back on the return train, and to hell with the inconvenience caused. That is British Rail's attitude.

When we asked British Rail to provide an alternative to the footbridge for mothers and disabled people, the answer was that, provided that South Yorkshire passenger transport authority coughed up the money, it would install an alternative. South Yorkshire PTA is strapped for cash. The local authority is strapped for cash. It is British Rail's property, but it is refusing to fund such a facility for disabled people. That is the attitude which prevails. British Rail does not care what happens, so long as it does not have the responsibility.

Mr. Bennett

I fully accept that.

Will the hon. Member for Keighley or, if he does not get a chance to reply because so many others want to speak, British Rail state clearly whether this proposal to close 10 crossings is the thin end of the wedge and the intention is to introduce further Bills to close more, or whether 10 is the final number? Will it be explained why British Rail succeeded in closing a path at Taunton Deane on safety grounds, yet the Minister has claimed that it is not possible to use those procedures for the crossings in this legislation? Will the Minister explain why British Rail regularly manages to close footbridges temporarily, on safety grounds when they get into disrepair? As I understand it, British Rail has plenty of powers to deal with such issues, at least temporarily on safety grounds. Such issues must be put to local inquiries; that is a far better way to proceed.

We need a comprehensive approach to the problem. We should not approve the Bill. It would be a great breach of parliamentary procedure to give a Bill a Second Reading, which would inflict on other hon. Members the duty to scrutinise it in detail. British Rail could approach the problem perfectly satisfactorily under existing legislation, and I hope that the House will reject the Bill.

9.43 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I entirely share the anxiety of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett).

When private Bills are introduced, we get a single sheet of paper with half a dozen paragraphs of information. I have complained before that that is a contempt of the House. Promoters may be used to doing the minimum amount of work for the maximum amount of money. For example, I understand from a reliable source that those promoters can charge local authorities—and, no doubt, British Rail—£500 an hour for a consultation. The House recently laid down a scale of charges for legislation that ran into several thousand pounds, so it is not cheap. One of the cheapest contributions to Parliament could be more information than we have been given in the seven paragraphs on one side of a single sheet of paper.

The House is also entitled to better information than we have received from the Minister. He was obviously not aware of an investigation by his Department into standards of care on level crossings. He should have come to the House prepared. Although the Department of Transport has an enormous number of civil servants—I realise that only a tiny proportion is devoted to the railways—none of them is in the Box today to provide the Minister with information. When we have asked him for information, he has simply discarded our wish in an act of callous contempt.

The Bill seeks to provide an outside body with additional powers and we are supposed to approve it without the requisite information. If we seek to obtain that information, we are told that it is not available. That is not good enough; nor is it good enough to say that a Select Committee will look into the matter, because we know how Select Committees work. They are lovely for the lawyers; they charge an astronomical sum, which causes Tory Members hardly to raise an eyebrow. In the same breath Tory Members speak about urging those who do useful jobs to curtail wage claims and about lawyers who charge hundreds of pounds a day. The lawyers speak slowly so that the days stretch out into long refreshers. No wonder they feel refreshed when they spend so many days going through the measures. I have never sat on a Committee considering a private Bill. That is not an invitation to put me on one—I do not want to be on one, as my duties on other Select Committees take a great deal of time.

Because the Chamber is important—all 650 Members have access to it—information should be provided there and not hived off. It does not matter what the procedure is; we cannot take part in Select or Standing Committees to obtain information but should be informed here.

Mr. Redmond

My hon. Friend said that we received one page of scant information on the Bill. That seems to be the trend. The Government give us little detail on which to base our judgment because too much knowledge could be dangerous. Regretfully, there appears to be a nasty practice of ensuring that Bills reach their Committee stage where the Government have the right to nominate a chairman. Committees can therefore he loaded by a Government who seek to push Bills through. My hon. Friend is correct about the lack of information, but will he comment on the way in which Chairmen are appointed to Committees?

Mr. Cryer

My hon. Friend is right and simply provides some details to endorse what I said.

The Chamber is the most important place in Parliament. We hoped that it would be invigorated with the advent of the television cameras and, by and large, it has been. But whether it is invigorated by good attendance on some occasions and sparse ones on others such as this, information should be available to Members.

Mr. Chris Smith

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and agree with everything that he said about the inadequacy of the information that tends to come from the Government on such occasions.

Paragraph 4 of the seven short paragraphs that constitute the promoter's statement, which should contain the fundamental point behind why British Rail is introducing the Bill, states that it represents the first stage of a more comprehensive review of the position on high speed lines. It says nothing about the nature of the review or of the parameters within which the review was conducted. It also says nothing about the safety considerations that formed part of the review. It simply tells us that a review has taken place. Surely it is ridiculous that we are asked to make decisions about a Bill based on a review about which we are told absolutely nothing.

Mr. Cryer

My hon. Friend is right. The statement could usefully and relevantly have said that the review was being conducted in conjunction with the railway inspectorate's examination into safety at level crossings.

Having got that point of information out of the way, I should say that, although I do not have a financial interest, in railway debates I always like to decare that I have five £10 shares in Keighley and Worth valley light railway, which has two level crossings. I have never received a dividend and I never expect to, but my contact gives me a background in the operation of railways, albeit ones on which the trains run more slowly than those under consideration tonight.

On the Worth valley railway, as on every other, safety is of the utmost priority. Those of us who are considering the Bill critically are not critical of safety: we are arguing that safety standards should be maintained at all times. The limited and sparse information that we have includes a letter circulated by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller), which states: There is a real need to minimise the risk of another tragic accident such as that which occurred at Carr Lane, Doncaster, last year, when a woman and two children were killed". He is right, but one wonders why, almost 12 months after the accident occurred, British Rail has done nothing. If the matter is so pressing that it requires the resources of Parliament, why has not British Rail undertaken safety measures such as linking approaching trains with some sort of light or bell-warning device on that crossing? That is a legitimate question.

Mr. Waller

I do not know whether, like me, the hon. Gentleman has visited Carr lane crossing. If he has, he will have seen the safety measures that have been adopted, the signs that have been erected and the way in which the approach to the crossing has been altered to try to do the best for people crossing the line. I do not have time to go into detail, but there are great defects with lights, and it is possible that, if lights were installed as the hon. Gentleman suggests, we would kill more people than we save.

Mr. Cryer

I know that signs are displayed there. I followed the case carefully because it was such an horrific and tragic accident. I was thinking of something more positive, such as the operation of barriers or the construction of a bridge. It might be said that those are costly measures—the bridge might cost £250,000—

Mr. Waller

A lot more.

Mr. Cryer

The hon. Member for Keighley says, from a sedentary position, "A lot more." What is life about? If people want to go to an important nature reserve, why should not the Government invest that sort of money? The hon. Member for Keighley does not raise an eyebrow when the Secretary of State for Defence says that we are to spend £7,000 million on a European fighter aircraft or when we put Tornados, at £21 million apiece, out of use because there are too many of them. Why do we have two standards—one for defence expenditure and one for facilities that help and widen people's experience by allowing them to go to a nature reserve near an urban district? That will be made more difficult.

The cost would be £250,000—perhaps a bit more—but that would not apply to every crossing. This crossing has become the focus of attention because it was the site of a tragic accident. Let us find the money somewhere. If the Government want to do something, they find the money. It is important that we get these things in perspective. Why do the Government always act in such a penny-pinching way in respect of projects designed to broaden experience or to maintain and develop life?

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) knows, the civil service pours out money for bypass roads. I am thinking, for instance, of the provision that is made for the heavy vehicles that take traffic from the railways. There seems to be no limit to the amount of money that the Department of Transport is prepared to spend on such schemes. Of course, some of them are intended to increase safety, but others are for fairly lavish purposes that many of us question. The number of civil servants devoted to railway matters is about 70, whereas the number devoted to roads is about 2,000.

In terms of annual Government expenditure, the amount involved here would be very tiny. The Government should look more closely at the circumstances. For one thing, such expenditure would help to create jobs. I realise that that would be a very unusual attitude for a Government who, over the past 10 or 11 years, have destroyed jobs. However, why should they not turn over a new leaf and decide to provide some jobs in the civil engineering industry, which is very much in the doldrums, and help people in Doncaster at the same time?

Mr. Redmond

My hon. Friend is quite right. The Bill seeks to make access to Potteric Carr a damn sight more difficult and more dangerous. I question some of the figures given by those talking about the cost of a solution. No doubt any number of redundant miners would be quite willing to provide a solution costing a damn sight less than the amount that we have been given.

Mr. Cryer

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government cannot find £250,000 in this case, yet they were able to spend £6,000 million to attack the miners in 1984. That is why thousands of miners are redundant. The Government found £10,000 million to pay off the debts accumulated by the public utilities—the family silver—that were sold off. Consider also the amount that was spent on the employment of City gents in various merchant banks and financial advice institutions to promote privatisation. It is mind-boggling that the Government cannot find a few thousand quid to provide a bridge that would give ordinary working people the advantage of being able to cross a bridge to Potteric Carr nature reserve. It is absolutely outrageous.

Mr. Waller

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the question be now put:—

The House divided: Ayes 64, Noes 38.

Division No. 141] [9.58 pm
Arnold, Sir Thomas Irvine, Michael
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Kirkhope, Timothy
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Knapman, Roger
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Boswell, Tim Knowles, Michael
Bowis, John Latham, Michael
Bright, Graham Lawrence, Ivan
Carrington, Matthew MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Chapman, Sydney Maclean, David
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) McLoughlin, Patrick
Conway, Derek Mans, Keith
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Cope, Rt Hon John Monro, Sir Hector
Currie, Mrs Edwina Moss, Malcolm
Davis, David (Boothferry) Moynihan, Hon Colin
Emery, Sir Peter Nicholls, Patrick
Franks, Cecil Oppenheim, Phillip
Freeman, Roger Paice, James
Goodlad, Alastair Porter, David (Waveney)
Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW) Redwood, John
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Ground, Patrick Sackville, Hon Tom
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Skeet, Sir Trevor
Harris, David Snape, Peter
Haselhurst, Alan Steen, Anthony
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W) Stevens, Lewis
Hunter, Andrew Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Thompson, D. (Calder Valley) Wolfson, Mark
Thurnham, Peter Wood, Timothy
Trippier, David
Walker, Bill (T'side North) Tellers for the Ayes:
Widdecombe, Ann Mr. Gary Waller and
Winterton, Mrs Ann Mr. Peter Bottomley.
Alton, David McCartney, Ian
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Beith, A. J. McNamara, Kevin
Bermingham, Gerald McWilliam, John
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Martlew, Eric
Buckley, George J. Maxton, John
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Carr, Michael Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Pike, Peter L.
Cryer, Bob Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Dixon, Don Skinner, Dennis
Duffy, A. E. P. Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Dunnachie, Jimmy Spearing, Nigel
Foster, Derek Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Galloway, George Wallace, James
Godman, Dr Norman A. Wells, Bowen
Hardy, Peter Wray, Jimmy
Haynes, Frank
Hood, Jimmy Tellers for the Noes:
Hughes, John (Coventry NE) Mr. Martin Redmond and
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn) Mr. Andrew F. Bennett.

Upon the report of the Division, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided in the affirmative, because it was not supported by the majority prescribed in Standing Order No. 36 ( Majority for closure or for proposal of Question).

It being after Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Thursday.