HC Deb 20 February 1992 vol 204 cc483-7

'.—(1) This section applies where—

  1. (a) a public right of way over a footpath or bridleway crosses a railway or tramway otherwise than by a tunnel or bridge,
  2. (b) the operator of the railway or tramway has made a closure or diversion application in respect of the crossing, and
  3. 484
  4. (c) in the opinion of the Secretary of State the crossing constitutes a danger to members of the public using it or likely to use it.
(2) The Secretary of State may by order require the operator to provide a tunnel or a bridge, or to improve an existing tunnel or bridge, to carry the path or way over or under the railway or tramway at or reasonably near to the crossing to which the closure or diversion application relates. (3) An order under this section may include particulars as to the tunnel or bridge which is to be provided or as to the improvements which are to be made. (4) The Secretary of State shall not make an order under this section after the end of the period of two years beginning with the day on which the closure or diversion application is made, and not less than two months before making an order he shall give written notice of his proposal to make the order to the operator and to each local authority in whose area the crossing (or any proposed new crossing) is situated. (5) A notice given under subsection (4) above must be accompanied by a draft of the proposed order under this section; and any order eventually made may include modifications of the draft. (6) An operator shall not be regarded as in breach of a duty imposed by an order under this section if he has used his best endeavours to comply with the order. (7) Where an operator is required by an order under this section to provide or improve a bridge or tunnel, but is unable to do so because he does not have the powers or rights (including rights over land) needed for the purpose, he shall not be taken to have used his best endeavours to comply with the order unless he has used his best endeavours to obtain those powers or rights (whether by means of an order under section I above or otherwise). (8) In this section—
  1. (a) an application made under section 6 above, or
  2. (b) a request made in accordance with section 120(3A)(aa) of the highways Act 1980,
for an order by virtue of which a public right of way would be extinguished or diverted;

footpath" has the same meaning as in the Highways Act 1980; local authority" means a county council, a district council, a London borough council, the Common Council of the City of London, a parish or community council and a parish meeting of a parish not having a separate parish council; operator", in relation to a railway or tramway, means any person carrying on an undertaking which includes maintaining the permanent way.'.—[Mr. McLoughlin.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. McLoughlin

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to consider the following: Government new clause 6— Amendment of Level Crossings Act 1983.

Government new clause 7—Orders under Transport Act 1968.

Government amendments Nos. 96 and 97.

Mr. McLoughlin

New clause 8 meets an undertaking given in Committee to introduce a power for the Secretary of State to compel a railway or tramway operator to provide a bridge or tunnel as a replacement for a footpath or bridleway level crossing. This might be constructed either on the site of the crossing or at another reasonably convenient location to which the path or way could be diverted. In some cases, it may be cheaper or more appropriate to improve a nearby bridge or tunnel to take a diverted right of way, and an order may require this instead. We have consulted on this proposal and it has been widely welcomed.

The intention is that the railway or tramway operator will identify potentially dangerous crossings in the first instance, using as criteria the guidance recently issued by the railway inspectorate, on which comments are being sought. It is right that this responsibility should remain with the operator. BR is currently surveying all its footpath crossings, beginning with those on high-speed lines.

Where a crossing is identified as unsafe and, following consultation with the council and other parties, it appears that a stopping-up or a simple diversion to another crossing point is not appropriate, the Secretary of State may step in and propose a bridge or tunnel order. Where all the interested parties agree that a bridge or tunnel is necessary, the Secretary of State will be able to give notice of a bridge or tunnel order at the same time as the operator applies for a diversion or extinguishment order. If a works order under part I is required, that could be dealt with concurrently.

An inquiry may be necessary to decide whether it is reasonably practicable to retain a crossing and to make it safe for use by the public. In such cases it would be premature to publish a draft bridge order as that would prejudice the outcome of the operator's application. If the inquiry inspector recommended that a crossing was unsafe and could not be made safe, but should not be closed, a structure would be needed and the Secretary of State would consider making an order. The Department of the Environment and the Department of Transport will make all the administrative arrangements to ensure that each is aware of the diversion and extinguishment applications.

That meets a commitment given in Committee, which was widely accepted.

Mr. Snape

One question that arises directly from the Minister's speech is, who pays? The Minister said that the responsibility would lie with the railway or tramway operator once they have identified a level crossing or footpath that is considered to be unsafe. I said on behalf of the Opposition during a similar debate in Committee that we would be unwilling to see a greater financial burden placed upon British Rail, perhaps at the expense of railway services.

In Committee we used the example of a level crossing in Doncaster where tragic fatalities occurred comparatively recently. Can the Minister turn his mind to the future of that crossing? Does he feel that that crossing would be covered by the provisions of the new clause? That crossing goes over no fewer than four or five running tracks and a goods loop or a siding. Obviously, any alternative, whether a bridge or a tunnel, would be expensive. In those circumstances, it is all very well to say that the Secretaries of State for Transport and the Environment would give the authority, but who would sign the cheques?

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

I should like to follow the point made by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape). It would be churlish not. to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his courtesy and help on the points that I have raised directly with him. I spoke on Second Reading, but I did not serve on the Committee.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposition that a level crossing is a cost to be borne by the railways and that it should be part of their expenses and shown in their accounts is another example, of which dozens could be listed if it were in order to do so, that will show that it is always the railways that are expected to bear the cost when road meets rail. Road transport has all its track costs borne by the taxpayer. It is the same for the British Transport police. A total of £40 million is shown for them on the railways books, but all the costs of road policing are borne by the taxpayer.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if, at some future date, we are to have a discussion about railway policy, the question of who pays when there are historic hangovers such as level crossings needs to be tackled? I am sure that the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East would agree that it could be done on a bipartisan basis. Perhaps my hon. Friend will recognise that this is an ongoing problem. Level crossings are just one example of a wider problem.

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)

The Minister will recollect that, in Committee, although we welcomed a clause such as this, I raised the question of the disabled. In the past, when bridges have been constructed, the disabled have not been considered. Whose responsibility will that be now? Does it rest with the local authority and local planning committee, with British Rail or with the construction company operating the crossing? We know that there are various crossings in Britain to which the disabled do not have access and where they have to travel many miles before they can cross. Whose responsibility will that be?

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

I welcome the new clause and the amendments. I am pleased that the Minister has met the points that we raised. Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), I should like to know who will pay and, more importantly, how many orders there will be. There is no point putting the provision in the Bill if, in practical terms, there will not be any.

As I understand it, British Rail identified in its legislation on east coast main line safety that 11 crossings were causing concern. I understand that negotiations on two of the crossings are at an advanced stage. That leaves nine crossings. Can the Minister tell us whether any of those nine will be the subject of a tunnel or a bridge, particularly the one at South Mimms, which is on the London way and is probably the most controversial? Has British Rail now agreed to drop the east coast safety measures in view of the fact that they will effectively be overtaken by this legislation?

We know that some of the regulations under the Bill will not come into force for some time, but I hope that the Minister can confirm that the level crossing provisions and the safety measures related to them will come into force quickly and that it will be possible for British Rail to start constructing bridges or tunnels, where it is deemed necessary, at an early stage.

Mr. McLoughlin

I hope that I can go some way to helping my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley). I am grateful for his thanks for meeting him and the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) during the passage of the Bill.

Where a bridge or tunnel order has been made, the Department will pay a grant to British Rail in England and Wales under EC regulation 1192/69. The regulation prescribes that the grant shall be equal to the proportion of the cost borne by the railway operator, less any additional costs for modification made at the request of British Rail and the value of any benefit that British Rail derives from work carried out. That means that the grant proportion is likely to be higher than the 50 per cent. grant payable for level crossings. Because of that, we estimate that the annual grant expenditure, assuming 10 orders for foot bridges, would be nearly £2 million rather than the initial figure of about £ million that I mentioned in Committee.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) asked about the east coast main line legislation that is presently before the House. It is for British Rail to decide how it wishes to proceed with that legislation. It will want to take into account what happens with this Bill if it reaches the statute book.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish also asked about crossings, particularly the one at South Mimms. I would rather not try to answer him today, but I shall write to him and suggest what I think will be the outcome of any discussions on that.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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