HC Deb 17 October 1994 vol 248 cc21-5 3.32 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the rail crash in Kent.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Dr. Brian Mawhinney)

At about 8.50 am on Saturday, the 8 am train from Uckfield to Oxted and the 8.4 am train from Oxted to Uckfield collided head on near Cowden on a single track section of line. Five people were killed, including both train drivers and a guard. Eleven passengers were injured. I understand that none of the injured was detained in hospital.

I know that the House will want to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the families of the bereaved and to the injured. I warmly thank the emergency services, railway staff and others involved in the rescue operation and pay tribute to their professionalism.

British Rail and Railtrack have accepted responsibility for the accident. They are carrying out their own full technical investigation and internal inquiry into the circumstances and cause of the accident. The results will be made available to Her Majesty's railway inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive. The inspectorate started its own separate investigations at once. Four inspecting officers were on site on Saturday, one with specialist knowledge of signalling electronics.

I have decided to set up an independent inquiry under the Regulation of Railways Act 1871. The inquiry will be headed by one of Her Majesty's railway inspectors who will hear evidence in public. His report will be published, and I have asked that the inspector should report to me as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, Railtrack and British Rail will act immediately should the various investigations currently proceeding indicate the need for urgent measures.

The House will understand that I do not propose to speculate on the cause of the accident. It is for the inquiry to establish exactly what happened. For my part, I will study the inspector's report with great care as soon as it is to hand.

Mr. Dobson

First, may I express the concern and sadness of the Opposition about the injury and loss of life and offer our condolences to the bereaved, our sympathy to those who were injured and our heartfelt thanks to the emergency services? Everyone understands that the Secretary of State cannot give a detailed explanation of the causes of the crash and we welcome his decision to set up an inquiry, but the House will want answers to the following questions either now or at a later date.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that there is a history of signal failures on this line since it was modernised? Why was the route reduced from double to single line working in 1989? Does the Secretary of State accept that single line working reduces the margin for error by making any equipment failure or human error that does happen more likely to result in a crash? How many other recent crashes have happened on lines reduced to single line working? Was the present limited automatic warning system installed on this line and in these trains, and was it in working order?

Is it true that the trains involved were 30 years old? Can the Secretary of State confirm that newer trains are stronger and less likely to crumple or come off the track if an accident happens? Can he confirm that five years ago, the official report into the Clapham disaster recommended the installation of advanced automatic train protection throughout the railway system, and that his predecessor Lord Parkinson accepted that proposal and said that lack of finance would not stand in the way?

Is it true that five years later no start has been made on installing automatic train protection, and that the railway inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive, which is to conduct the inquiry, has not yet even submitted its advice on automatic train protection?

Can the Secretary of State confirm that a technical report from British Rail on automatic train protection has been on his desk since May? Will he keep or break Lord Parkinson's five-year-old promise? If it is a matter of cost, does he agree that to install ATP throughout the railway system would cost less than the £700 million the Government are currently spending on railway privatisation? Does he agree that the safety of passengers and staff should take priority over that?

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for endorsing my words of commiseration and of thanks. The hon. Gentleman asked a series of questions. I am grateful to him for acknowledging that some questions may be answerable now and others may need to be answered on a future occasion once we have the result of the inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the shift of this section of railway to single track. That occurred in 1991. As I understand it, the decision was taken then to introduce new signalling and advance warning systems and to go from two tracks to one because one of the tracks was at that time judged not to be in a fit state for the carrying of passengers.

On the hon. Gentleman's more general point, I am pleased to agree with the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) who said earlier today that there is nothing inherently unsafe about single line working. I am grateful to see that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) agrees with that. Clearly, in a single track operation, it is important that the signalling systems should be accurate and working appropriately. I have no comment to make on that at present. That is precisely part of the current investigation, and we will get answers to that question in due course.

There has been a continuous renewal of rolling stock. I suspect that this is not the occasion on which Opposition Front Benchers should start to get into politically motivated debate. We have spent about £4 billion on rolling stock since 1979. About a quarter of the rolling stock has been renewed since 1985. So a programme of upgrading is taking place.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the Hidden report referred to the importance of ATP. It would have been helpful if he had also pointed out that the report recognised that, technically, ATP was a difficult system to put in place. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North also recognised, pilot studies have been conducted on both the Paddington to Bristol and Marylebone to Aylesbury lines. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras will be interested to know that the studies turned out to be much more complicated in feasibility terms than was originally expected.

Following those technical studies, the report to which the hon. Gentleman refers was submitted by British Rail to my predecessor at the end of March or beginning of April. He passed copies of it to the Health and Safety Commission and Railtrack, asking for their views. I expect to receive those views next month.

I confirm again to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras and to the House that the safety record of the railways is very good, despite this tragic accident. We are determined to see that those safety records are maintained.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

I join my right hon. Friend in expressing the deepest sympathy to those who were involved in this terrible accident and, of course, their families. I saw the effects of the collision for myself on Saturday. I hope that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras will understand why I do not make any personal comment on what I saw or on whether or not the carriages were strong enough. All those facts will come out, as they should, in a public inquiry.

I should like to join the hon. Gentleman in expressing my deep appreciation of the quickness and efficiency of response of the ambulance service, the police, the fire services, the voluntary services, including the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, and staff of British Rail and Railtrack. They all responded with extreme efficiency and alacrity and seemed to have worked out a good system of co-ordination.

I should also like to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his prompt response—

Madam Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am waiting for him to put a question to the Minister. The Minister has made a statement which now needs to be questioned.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his prompt response in agreeing to hold a public inquiry? Will he look into the question of compensation for the victims of this tragic affair and the provision of an alternative service for those who live and work close to the site so that they can use the line without extra cost?

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, particularly for his kind words about those who were involved. I join him in paying tribute not only to all those whom he mentioned but to members of the public who were also involved in a helpful way. I thank them, too.

My hon. Friend raised two points. First, British Rail and Railtrack have accepted responsibility, so compensation will follow in due course. I can tell the House that it will follow by application to a single agency, not to both bodies separately. Secondly, while the provision of alternative services is a matter for British Rail, I understand that it is already dealing with the need to run a bus service across that part until the track has been repaired.

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

Does the Minister accept that my right hon. and hon. Friends join in the expressions of sympathy and of support for the work of the emergency services? Does he accept that we think it right to wait for the outcome of the inquiry before commenting on the causes of the accident, but hope that in the meantime single-line working in the railway system will be the subject of particular care in the light of this experience?

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said. I assure him that single-line working is always a matter of care, despite the tragedy that occurred on Saturday.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his statement and for the action that he has proposed. Both are proper. The accident happened in my constituency. I hope that you will bear with me, Madam Speaker, if I add my sympathy to all those involved in the tragedy and my thanks to the rescue and recovery teams which I saw at work yesterday morning. At least seven organisations were involved. They did the excellent job that we always expect of them. I also pay tribute to the civilian back-up, as I describe it, of the villagers of Cowden, who provided tea, cake and comfort to that team.

This terrible accident raises vital issues, and I have two points additional to those that have been raised. First, what will the railways do to ensure that there is sufficient rolling stock on this line of the type required to get the line operating again as soon as the track has been repaired? Will the Secretary of State confirm my understanding from Network South Central that this tragic accident will not affect the future of the line, which is of great importance to travellers in my constituency and in neighbouring constituencies?

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for joining in the expressions of condolence and appreciation, especially as the tragedy occurred in his constituency. I agree that we must await the outcome of the inquiry before drawing conclusions. I have no understanding that the crash is likely to call into question the use of the line. I think that I can offer my hon. Friend the assurance that when the line has been repaired the service will be restarted with adequate rolling stock.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I thank the Minister for his statement, but will he expand on the issue of the financial underpinning of safety on the railways? It is five years since the Clapham disaster and, despite the assurances of the now Lord Parkinson that money would be found for safety, the recent British Rail board review on ATP makes it quite clear that it constantly has to balance the financial requirements of safety against the financial requirements of modernisation.

Dr. Mawhinney

I have two things to say to the hon. Lady. First, if she goes back to the Hidden report she will see that it stated that as soon as the technical feasibility had been established ATP should be phased in over five years. We are still in the process of seeking to establish the technical feasibility, given the difficulties that the pilot schemes threw up. I hope that the hon. Lady will understand that there is no hesitancy on these issues: they need to be carried forward thoroughly.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (Surrey, East)

I visited the site of this tragic crash on Saturday morning and I hope that my right hon. Friend will join me in paying tribute to the emergency services and to all who brought speedy relief to a terrible situation. Does he find it a matter of considerable regret that Opposition Members—perhaps not so much in the House but in the press—have seized upon this as an opportunity to make cheap party-political jibes? Will he join me in sending condolences to the family of Mr. Brett-Andrews, one of my constituents, who died in the crash?

Dr. Mawhinney

I certainly associate myself and the Government with my hon. Friend's comments on the tragic death of his constituent. I judge that the mood of the House is that this is not the occasion for party-political exchanges, and I shall exhibit the restraint that has been exhibited thus far.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

It is always sad to ask questions at such a time. Does the Secretary of State remember that about 10 years ago in search of savings, his Administration pressed for the introduction of many more automatic open level crossings? To its shame, the railway inspectorate acquiesced, the crossings were introduced and deaths multiplied, culminating in the Lockington disaster and the Stott report, which resulted in the matter being put right. This is a similar situation, so will the Secretary of State learn the lesson that, whatever the other factors, if the line had been double track the disaster would not have happened? That lesson is obvious to every hon. Member and we all know what should be done.

Dr. Mawhinney

First, I do not see the similarities that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. Secondly, I again agree with his Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North that single-track working is not inherently unsafe. Thirdly, the new arrangements that were put in on this track in 1991 were fully approved by the railways inspectorate.

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