HC Deb 08 November 1999 vol 337 cc857-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Allen.]

1.32 am
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

I suppose that it is inevitable that the seriousness with which rail accidents are treated depends partly on whether there has been serious injury or loss of life. In some rail accidents, mercifully, there is no loss of life or serious injury, but those accidents nevertheless deserve to be treated every bit as seriously as those in which there have been casualties.

The London Bridge rail accident, on 8 January 1999, falls into the latter category. Although, miraculously, no one was killed or injured, the accident was, by any yardstick, extremely serious. It exposed—not for the first time—the serious flaws still present in our rail safety system.

The accident involved two commuter trains—a Thameslink train and a Connex train—that converged, in the evening rush hour, on the same line on a viaduct, as a consequence of the Connex train going through a red light. Nine of the 16 coaches were derailed, and almost 300 passengers were put at risk.

There is little doubt that, with a slightly different point of impact, at slightly higher speed, with the possibility of one or more of the coaches being toppled over the viaduct down into Spa road, we could have had on our hands a human catastrophe every bit as serious as the appalling Paddington rail crash of a few weeks ago. Yet, despite the immense seriousness of the accident, the response both of the rail companies and of the Health and Safety Executive in putting information into the public domain has been lamentably inadequate.

The three rail companies, Railtrack, Connex and Thameslink, have conducted what they describe as an "internal industry investigation". On 14 January, six days after the accident, I wrote to the then chairman of Railtrack, Sir Robert Horton, asking for a copy of the report when it was available. Today, exactly 10 months after the accident, I am still waiting for that report. Worse still, Railtrack has now told me that it does not intend to publish the full report, and may not publish anything at all.

Last Thursday, 4 November, Railtrack wrote to me as follows: Railtrack will be producing a summary of our internal investigation report and this should be available by the end of the year, subject to legal scrutiny and the agreement of the other parties concerned. The railway companies seem to have been more concerned about protecting themselves from litigation than with making themselves accountable to the travelling public. The report should have been published in full months ago. There has been a reprehensible failure of public accountability by the railway companies concerned.

The performance of the Health and Safety Executive has been no better. I have been pressing Ministers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for months to ensure that the full HSE account of the accident was put into the public domain. Yet, on 5 October, I received a letter from the Minister for Transport, Lord Macdonald, which said: HSE will not be publishing a separate accident investigation report". Apparently, all that would be made available was a press notice.

The House will appreciate from the date of that letter that it could not have been more appallingly timed. On the very day that Lord Macdonald was sending it to me, the Paddington rail disaster, as a result of which 31 people so far have lost their lives, took place.

Following receipt of that letter, I wrote to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions; I believe that it was the most vehement letter that I have written to any Minister on any subject in my 25 years in the House. I said that Lord Macdonald's reply was unacceptable, and that the Secretary of State must reverse the decision of his junior Minister and of the Health and Safety Executive not to publish a separate report into the London Bridge rail accident.

The Secretary of State, to his credit, did precisely as I asked and reversed the decision. As a result, on 27 October, the HSE finally published a pretty thin three-and-a-half-page accident report. The Secretary of State's reply to me read: It is not the practice of the Health and Safety Executive to issue a separate public report except in the most serious of accidents. If that is the HSE's policy, it should be radically changed. It is simply not acceptable that the HSE should publish separate accident reports only when there is, effectively, loss of life in rail accidents. The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions must now instruct the HSE to bring about a basic change in policy so that, after any rail accident involving a serious risk to members of the public, a separate accident report is published.

I said that the three-and-a-half page report published by the HSE was thin, and one critical piece of information has yet to be disclosed. We were told that the cause of the London Bridge accident was that the driver of the Connex train went through a red light at nearly 40 mph. It turns out that the same driver had previously taken another train through a red light six months earlier. We have been told that the reason why the train went through the red light was "human error", but that is not an adequate explanation. The travelling public are entitled to know what explanation was given by the driver of the Connex train as to why he went through the red light. Was he unsighted? If so, why? Was he distracted in some way? If so, how? Was he suffering from some lack of concentration? If so, why? The travelling public are entitled to know what explanation the driver gave for going through the red light, having previously gone through both a double yellow light and a single yellow light. I have given the Minister prior notice of that question, among others, and I hope that he will answer it when he replies to the debate.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the accident to which he refers was in my constituency. Has he asked the HSE to answer the following questions? Has it in the past had occasion to report on similar accidents with a similar breach of the rules—the passing of red lights—and, if so, what recommendations has it made and what sanctions has it imposed under its powers? What view does the HSE take of the fact that, as of this moment, it will be four years before the safety system is in place for the junction in question and others?

Sir John Stanley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising those two points. They are pertinent and I shall address the latter question in a moment.

I shall now deal with the issue of prosecutions for the London Bridge crash. There are two potential prosecuting authorities—the Crown Prosecution Service and the railway inspectorate, which is part of the HSE. I have been in correspondence with both bodies and I have been staggered by the replies that I have received. The reply that I received from the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr. David Calvert-Smith, read: You ask whether papers have been submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to this accident and whether a prosecution is under consideration. To date we have received no papers from the police. The reply I received from the chief executive of the HSE, Miss Jenny Bacon, was similar: You also ask whether we have received relevant papers from the police. Railway Inspectorate took charge of the investigation a few hours after the accident. The police involvement was limited and to our knowledge they did not produce a detailed report.

So here we have a very serious accident, in which 300 people were put at risk, but in respect of which police reports were not submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service or to the railway inspectorate. That leads me to the matter of prosecution policy in relation to rail accidents. Frankly, I am baffled. It is apparent that one prosecution policy applies to the road system, and that a completely different policy applies to the railways.

As the House knows, motorists get prosecuted every day of the week for going through red lights. However, it seems that going through a red light on the railway system confers almost complete immunity from prosecution in almost any circumstance, even though the risk of large-scale loss of life is substantially greater.

An extremely interesting article on prosecution policy by the Health and Safety Executive appeared in The Independent on 16 October. It began by stating: The Health and Safety Executive brought prosecutions over just one train accident last year, during which the number of 'significant' accidents increased to 104, a jump of nearly 15 per cent. In the wake of the Paddington disaster, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions said that he was considering removing safety responsibilities from Railtrack. In the light of the HSE' s approach to prosecutions, I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman should consider removing prosecution responsibilities for rail accidents from the HSE and transferring them to the Crown Prosecution Service. That would at least ensure a far greater degree of consistency between prosecutions on the road system and prosecutions on the rail system.

Finally, I shall deal with future train safety measures in the light of the London Bridge crash. The rail safety regulations introduced in August this year require Railtrack and the rail operating companies to introduce a train protection system throughout the rail network by the end of 2003. That is more than four years from now—far too slow and leisurely a time scale to bring about the critically important improvements needed in the rail safety system.

The vulnerability of the present system to driver error is all too clear. The crashes at Southall, London Bridge and Paddington were all occasioned by trains going through red lights. Indeed, the travelling public might reasonably conclude that the present system is frighteningly fallible in terms of human error. Too many people have already paid for that fallibility with their lives.

I believe that the four years to the end of 2003 is far too long to wait for the improvements that will come when a train protection system is installed throughout the network. I urge the Secretary of State to review that date and hope that he will take steps, as a matter of urgency, to shorten the time scale and ensure that such a system is in place in the shortest possible time.

1.49 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)

Let me begin, as is usual, by congratulating the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) on securing the debate. I also thank him for raising this important subject and for letting me know in advance the key questions that he intended to raise, the answers to which I shall endeavour to provide.

Before I deal with the right hon. Gentleman's questions, and go on to summarise the Government's approach to rail safety in the light of the more recent appalling tragedy at Ladbroke Grove, it will benefit the House if I briefly describe the main aspects of the London Bridge rail crash of 8 January 1999. The accident occurred at about 17.25 at the Spa Road junction, near London Bridge station. The 15.51 Connex South Eastern service from Dover Priory to London Charing Cross collided side on with the 16.22 Thameslink Brighton to Bedford train. Four Connex train coaches and five coaches of the Thameslink train were derailed.

The accident caused severe disruption to rail services from London Bridge, Charing Cross and Cannon Street stations. Thankfully, there were no fatalities and only minor injuries to a small number of people: four were taken to hospital, but were not detained. Immediately after the accident, the electric current was cut off from all lines around the scene and the emergency services were called. Two hundred and eighty-two people were evacuated from the Connex and Thameslink trains.

However, another train—the 17.25 from London Bridge to Guildford—was trapped between London Bridge station and the accident site, from which about 100 people were also evacuated. The Health and Safety Executive report concluded that the evacuation of passengers from that train was not well organised. Some passengers were left to find their own way about half a mile along the track to London Bridge, and were fortunate to escape injury despite the electric current having been cut off.

In response to certain deficiencies in the training and experience of staff dealing with emergency situations, which became apparent during the HSE investigation, Her Majesty's inspectorate of railways has taken steps to ensure that those are fully addressed by the companies concerned. In particular, the Connex train operating companies have changed their emergency procedures to ensure that a responsible person is appointed to deal with each train affected by a major incident, and to arrange the evacuation of passengers where necessary.

Those, then, are the main features of the accident, and one practical upshot of the investigation of the circumstances surrounding the crash. Let me now turn to the questions raised by the right hon. Gentleman, which seem to me to fall into three groups.

First, the right hon. Gentleman asked specifically what explanation was given by the driver of the Connex train for going through the red light. The answer is that the driver continues to believe that he had a green signal and that he heard the bell for the automatic warning system associated with the signal. However, technical evidence and testing carried out as part of the inquiry proved that that could not have been the case. Weather conditions at the time were poor, with poor visibility. It is possible that that had an influence on what happened, but that is only speculation.

I should add that there is no record of any previous signals passed at danger—SPADs, as they have become known—at the Spa Road junction in question. The driver has been permanently removed from driving duties following the accident.

The second group of questions asked by the right hon. Gentleman relate to possible prosecution following the accident and to the publication of reports of investigations into it. The right hon. Gentleman asked why no papers in relation to the accident have been submitted by the police to the CPS, and also why no prosecution has been initiated by the HSE. The explanation is that the investigation of the accident was undertaken by an inspector from HMIR, which used its enforcement powers under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. The police have not investigated the accident. It was HSE's assessment that there was no justification for a prosecution.

I should add that successful prosecution of individuals under section 7 of the 1974 Act requires evidence of a degree of negligence amounting to recklessness. A momentary lapse of concentration in an otherwise attentive individual does not normally satisfy that test. It was felt in this case that there was such a momentary lapse, and that other factors may have had an influence. There was, therefore, no justification for a prosecution. I should also remind the right hon. Gentleman of the failure of the attempted criminal prosecution of the driver in the Watford crash.

On the broader issue of publication, the right hon. Gentleman asked about the initial decision of the HSE not to publish a separate accident report. I am in no way seeking to minimise the seriousness of the accident near London Bridge but, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware, it is not the practice of the HSE to issue a separate public report except in the cases of the most serious accidents. In normal circumstances, therefore, the details of accident investigations such as that undertaken at London Bridge are published in Her Majesty's railway inspectorate's annual report. The report covering 1998–99 is to be published on 1 December. However, in the light of the understandable public concern aroused by the tragedy of Ladbroke Grove, it was decided that it was in the public interest to publish the full report on the London Bridge accident immediately, and it was published on 27 October.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the publication of the full report of the Railtrack internal investigation. That is essentially a matter for Railtrack, but he knows from earlier correspondence with my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Transport that Railtrack has said that it is producing a summary report for publication, subject to legal scrutiny and the agreement of the other parties concerned. I received confirmation today that it remains Railtrack's intention to publish that summary report.

Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman asked connected questions about the installation of train protection systems. In particular, he asked why the train protection warning system, TPWS, would not be installed until the end of 2003. This is absolutely not the occasion to seek to score party political points, but it is perhaps a pity that the previous Government were not more proactive on the matter. This Government have worked as quickly as possible to find a practical solution, and the Railway Safety Regulations 1999, laid before Parliament on 10 August, require TPWS to be introduced and operational across the railway network by the end of 2003 at the latest. That date was chosen as a challenging but realistic target. Significantly, the industry has now agreed to investigate measures for accelerating that process. No alternative method of train protection could be installed in anything like that time scale.

On the installation of automatic train protection—ATP—on that part of the network operated by Connex, let me say this. ATP is currently installed on the Chiltern line, Heathrow Express and Great Western as a pilot scheme. In addition, it will be fitted to all the high-speed lines as they are upgraded: the west coast main line, the east coast main line, and Midland Mainline. The channel tunnel rail link will also get full ATP.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has asked Sir David Davies to report before the end of the year with his initial assessment of the effectiveness, practicability and cost of train protection systems. That information will be available to Lord Cullen, who is conducting the Ladbroke Grove inquiry, and Professor Uff, who is conducting the Southall inquiry, and they will jointly consider train protection systems. The Health and Safety Commission will advise the Government on any recommendations that they make.

The Deputy Prime Minister also agreed with rail industry leaders at the rail safety summit on 25 October an immediate programme of improvements designed to drive up safety standards in the wake of the Paddington rail crash. There was agreement in principle on a range of practical steps to rebuild confidence in the rail industry.

There will be a review of consistent standards of driver training by train operating companies. A nationwide independent confidential reporting system will allow all staff to phone in safety concerns. Implementation of TPWS on track and trains will be accelerated. The means to accelerate the development programme for ATP systems will be identified. There will be immediate investigation of all incidents involving SPADs to a common standard. There will be urgent action on the 22 steps required by the Health and Safety Executive for reducing SPADs. Finally, a consistent approach to safety management, embracing best practice, across the network will be established. A further rail safety summit will report on progress on 30 November.

In summary, therefore, the decision to introduce TPWS, the Cullen and Davies inquiries, the work being undertaken on SPADs and the rail safety summit held on 25 October, to be resumed on 30 November, all demonstrate this Government's overwhelming commitment to safety on our railways. We are now at a critical point, at which all those responsible for running our railways must endeavour to create a new national safety culture that will enable all parts of the industry to work together to improve safety. Only then can we begin to rebuild the public's confidence in a safe and efficient rail industry.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate, which has permitted the House to return to these vital issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Two o'clock.