HC Deb 28 February 2001 vol 363 cc960-71

7.2 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the tragic accident at Selby at about 6.20 this morning. I am grateful to the House, in particular to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) for concluding his speech and to the Opposition for giving me the opportunity to speak at this later time, which allowed me to visit the scene and report back to the House.

The latest casualty figure is 13 killed. At this time we believe that that includes two train drivers. There are 75 other casualties, 10 of whom are in a serious or critical condition. I am sure that all hon. Members will wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the injured and to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives in this tragic and horrific accident.

When I visited the scene, I again saw for myself the tremendous efforts of our emergency services and the many agencies that were involved in dealing with the accident. As always, they showed true professionalism, courage and efficiency in, yet again, the most difficult circumstances.

The House will want to join me in paying tribute to the North Yorkshire police, working in conjunction with the British Transport police and other forces, the local fire brigades and ambulance services, the Royal Air Force air sea rescue helicopters, which attended the scene, and the local hospitals that treated the injured. The Minister for Public Health, is visiting hospitals this evening and will thank hospital staff for their work. I also want to pay tribute to the way in which members of the local community responded so quickly to provide help and comfort to the passengers who were involved in the accident.

Let me turn to the facts of the tragedy in so far as they are known. At approximately 6.20 this morning, a Land Rover was travelling west along the M62 motorway, pulling a trailer that was carrying another car. It left the motorway as it approached a bridge that crosses the east coast main line. The bridge is protected by crash barriers, but the vehicle left the road some 30 m before the beginning of the crash barrier. It then travelled along and down the embankment, behind the safety barrier, before falling down the railway cutting and on to the track. In all, on present information, it is estimated that the vehicle travelled more than 100 m from leaving the main carriageway before reaching the railway line.

The driver got out of the vehicle and phoned the North Yorkshire police. As he was speaking to them, the 4.45 am Great North Eastern Railway Newcastle to London train, carrying more than 100 passengers, collided with the vehicle on the track. The passenger train left the rails as a result of the collision, but remained upright. Almost immediately, it collided with the oncoming freight train. The time between the emergency call and the first collision was 40 seconds, and the two trains crashed within seconds of that.

It is essential that this appalling tragedy is subject to the fullest investigation. A number of agencies are involved—the Health and Safety Executive, its railway inspectorate, British Transport police, North Yorkshire police and the Highways Agency. All of them will conduct their own investigations. Therefore, I have asked the Health and Safety Executive to provide me with an interim report within the next few days. I shall then make a decision on what further steps may be appropriate. I shall ensure that report is made public.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his statement. I know that he shares our view that it was appropriate to defer today's debate on other transport issues.

The right hon. Gentleman speaks for the whole House when he expresses shock and sympathy for the victims and their families. We join him in sending our condolences to the injured and bereaved. We also join him in paying tribute to the emergency services. The police and the helicopter, ambulance and fire crews distinguished themselves in harrowing circumstances and appalling weather conditions. Doctors, nurses and other national health service staff have been unstinting in their devotion to the injured. We thank not only the public services involved, but—as he did—the villagers of Great Heck, who were first on the scene.

The victims and their families are uppermost in our minds. At this early stage, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether there is any doubt that the casualty figures that he gave are the final totals? Have all the relatives of the dead been contacted?

Faced with yet more scenes of smashed rail carriages on our television screens, and as we hear yet more harrowing first-hand accounts of a disaster, it is hard to know how to express what everyone feels, but nothing should stand in the way of our determination to rebuild confidence in the safety of the railway. I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister that it is too early to draw conclusions from the accident, and I welcome his call for an early interim report from the HSE.

Everyone accepts that accidents happen. However, we need a full and comprehensive assessment before we can judge whether this was an appalling but freak tragedy, or whether the risk of a similar accident recurring is unacceptably high. The accident follows the tragedies of Hatfield and Paddington. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to resist adding to the burden of the Cullen inquiry into those accidents, so that its findings are not delayed further. However, has he considered reviewing the conclusions of the 1987 working party, which examined the risks associated with road/rail crashes at bridges? Will he also consider creating a successor group?

I assure the right hon. Gentleman of our support for the Cullen inquiry recommendations to be implemented as quickly as possible and our support for his response to today's events. Will he join me in expressing support to those people who work on our railways? This accident is another terrible blow for a troubled and unhappy industry that has been desperately trying to restore its self-confidence and services to passengers. For GNER staff, this is the second tragedy in the space of a few months. Does he agree that a safe and reliable railway depends on all those people who have been striving, and will continue to strive, to achieve that objective? Does he also agree that it is vital that we foster the confidence of the industry and those people who are working so hard to address its shortcomings?

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response. I am most grateful for his full support for the emergency services and their remarkable work, which they are still doing. I am not sure what the final casualty totals are, for obvious reasons. All those people who are known to be alive have been removed from the crash site. When we begin to lift the two trains that collided—one was doing about 125 mph and- the other was doing 40 mph—we are not quite sure what we will find. Therefore, I cannot give more accurate information at the moment. Certainly those who were involved have been removed to hotels by GNER and are receiving advice and help in those difficult circumstances. I am not sure whether all the relatives have been informed, but the great majority have been, and that task continues. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman, an accurate answer, but I will write to him tomorrow. If I receive more information tonight, I will ensure that he gets it.

The hon. Gentleman's point about wanting a full investigation was well made, and he is right to suggest that we should not adopt the same procedure that we used for Hatfield, when information was passed on to the Cullen inquiry. We do not now want to delay the inquiry's conclusions, and I shall certainly keep that in mind when I receive the interim report from the HSE in the next few days. I shall keep the hon. Gentleman and the House informed on these matters.

Research commissioned by the Highways Agency is currently being conducted on collisions at bridges, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. As soon as that investigation has been completed, I will make that information available.

The hon. Gentleman was right to conclude that we all want a safe railway system, and everyone strives to achieve that. We always need to be guided by the proper regulatory framework, and the question is whether that framework is correct. Lord Cullen is considering whether the management of our railway system and its safety should be improved, and we must await his report. As the hon. Gentleman said, we must remember that GNER crews were involved, and although we are waiting to find out exactly what happened, I believe at least two of them to be dead. They paid the final price in the most difficult circumstances. We should remember that it is often the workers who pay the price, along with the passengers, and that is why I particularly wanted to mention those two people.

The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we will all strive to secure a safe railway system and that there will be a full investigation. I await the interim report to find out what I should do, but I will report back to him and the House as soon as possible. I appreciate the fact that following our conversations this morning about the difficulty of there being a transport debate today, the Opposition were responsive and agreed to join us in doing what was best so that I could report to the House.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby)

This is the second time in recent weeks that my right hon. Friend has had to come to Selby in difficult circumstances. The first time, of course, was during the floods. As we sit here tonight on this bleak Ash Wednesday, many of my constituents are gathering for a service in the local church. Will my right hon. Friend underline the fact that the people of Selby have once again shown great community spirit, resolve and resilience, as they did during the floods? I refer not only to those who were first on the scene this morning, in terrible circumstances, and who did what they could to help, but to those from voluntary organisations and local churches, particularly the vicar of 5,elby abbey and the vicar of Snape, who have been on the scene all day. Their contribution should be recognised and valued greatly.

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend, as the constituency Member for the area, knows only too well that the same people—the emergency services, voluntary organisations and ordinary members of the public—who were involved in this incident came forward to deal with the terrible floods. The House greatly admires the speed with which people come forward to help. It is a source of comfort in the most difficult circumstances that we can rely on those people who do a wonderful job. I recognise that with the floods and this collision, the people of Selby and the surrounding area have suffered grew, pressures on them, but one is always amazed by the resilience of people who, when there is a problem, get together and deal with it. That spirit shone through yet again in this tragedy.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement, and I join him and the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) in offering our condolences to the friends and relatives of those who tragically died and our best wishes to those who were injured in the accident. On behalf of the House, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the praise that he gave to the emergency services and the local people who so rapidly came to the aid of those injured in the tragedy.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister also for making it absolutely clear that the interim report will be made public as quickly as possible. Will he give us an assurance that the full report that will be published in due course will also be made public? Will he ask for consideration to be given in that report to the length of crash barriers on either side of bridges? As there has been confusion in the reporting of the incident, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm, as I believe he has done, that the Land Rover and trailer were the cause of the accident, and not, as some newspapers have reported, the vehicle that was on the trailer?

I am delighted above all by what the Deputy Prime Minister said about the people who work on the railways. He can be assured of our full support in all his work to try to achieve a safe, reliable railway.

Mr. Prescott

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. Members on both sides of the House have offered support to the emergent y workers and the relatives who are suffering at this very moment because of this terrible tragedy.

I shall certainly make the interim report public. I am all for transparency and my general approach is to make reports public where possible. The hon. Gentleman must bear it in mind that although the site is not being investigated as a crime scene at the foment, I cannot give full details until the officials concerned have conducted their investigations and taken statements. I must await their report, but I am committed to making available as much information as possible.

The Transport Research Laboratory has been commissioned to consider the length of crash barriers. It has done some work, and it will now be asked to do more. When that information is published, it will be made available to the House. I hesitate to say exactly what happened, but the visual evidence of the state of the Land Rover and the trailer carrying the car makes it clear that the Land Rover was hit by the train and, judging by its front part, almost completely demolished. It would be unwise of me to enter into any other speculation at the moment—I shall await the report.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that the whole railway community will be shocked and saddened by this latest incident? It appears to merit the description of "accident" more than the other tragedies that have occurred in our railway industry in the past year or so. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, from what we know of the circumstances, no railway safety device in the world could have prevented that accident from happening?

In view of the welcome remarks of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), would it be appropriate for my right hon. Friend to write to Mr. Christopher Garnett, the chief executive of GNER, to tell him that as far as regular rail travellers are concerned, he and his staff run a fine train operating company? This incident and the Hatfield crash are not the company's responsibility, and we ought to say so.

Mr. Prescott

I agree with my hon. Friend that the railway community will be shocked and saddened. The sequence of events is a remarkable set of coincidences: a car came off a motorway, travelled some distance on to the railway track and was then hit by a passenger train, which came off the track into the path of a freight train, all within seconds. As he said, it certainly seems as if that could be properly called an accident, but I must await the report.

I have talked to Mr. Garnett. Anyone who knows him will know that he certainly cares about the railway system and about GNER. He was very shocked by the incident, as he was by Hatfield, and he was on the scene making sure that everything possible was being done, including having passengers allocated to hotels and ensuring that counselling was available. It was easy to see in his face his shock and concern about the fact that there had been yet another railway tragedy. Considerations of what happened and who is to blame provide no comfort at these moments; one must deal with the circumstances. He was in the thick of it, and I am sure that the House was glad to see a man playing that part.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

As one of North Yorkshire's Members, I thank the Deputy Prime Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) for their tribute to the North Yorkshire emergency services. We do not have the strength of personnel that other parts of the country have, and the way in which they responded today was absolutely magnificent. This is arguably the worst tragedy that I can recall happening in our county in my 14 years in the House. Many of us have friends and constituents who use that train to travel to London at 6 o'clock every morning, and we are waiting desperately and anxiously for news of who, precisely, the victims are.

The right hon. Gentleman is right when he says that at this juncture our thoughts are with the families of the victims and the injured victims. I endorse what he has said about the emergency services and the staff of GNER. As the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) said, the accident does not appear to be any fault of the railway. I urge the Deputy Prime Minister to try to get the line reopened as quickly as possible. We do not want to suffer the great delays that occurred because of the Hatfield accident.

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of warm support and for giving me the opportunity to thank the North Yorkshire police and the chief constable, who accompanied me when I visited the site of the accident. It is always difficult when politicians visit such sites, because we wonder whether we are getting in the way. However, it is necessary for a representative of the House to attend such sites and to report back. We have great hesitation about doing so, but I received tremendous co-operation from everyone involved, who wanted to say what was going on, and felt that Parliament needed to know. That is why I asked for the statement to be made later in the day.

A hotline has been opened by the company for relatives who may be concerned about anyone who was travelling on the train. No official information will be given about those who may have died until the relatives have been informed. That is the normal custom, and I think that it is what the House would expect.

Of course, we want to see the line reopened. It is the line that I use, and the same route. There was a speed restriction on the line after the Hatfield accident and the evidence of gauge corner cracking. Improvements were made and the speed restriction was removed only last week. A horrible thought is whether it would have been better if the restriction had still been in place, but it is one that really cannot be entertained. It is one of the terrible circumstances that surround the tragedy. However, the service had benefited from an improvement as a result of the lessons that we learned from the Hatfield accident. We were getting back to a normal service, and I think that the company was to launch a campaign next week to encourage people to return to the railways.

These are difficult and terrible circumstances. Everyone wants to see the line reopened as soon as possible, but obviously in a safe manner. Everything must be done that should be done to improve the line.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the steps that he took, in conjunction with the Opposition, to ensure that we had an early and proper statement. I am aware that he has had the harrowing experience of visiting the site. I join him in his compliments to GNER and its executive director for the work that he has undertaken.

In replying to the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), my right hon. Friend obviously could not say precisely when we shall see the line reopened. However, can he guess or make a guesstimate of when that might be? As the hon. Gentleman said, there have been great troubles on the line. It is our line, and we all want to see it get back to normal. That includes the travelling public. Given the economic interests of the entire country, it is important that the line should be back in use as soon as possible.

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I join him, in complimenting GNER, which is our local rail service. I cannot say with accuracy when the line will be open. When I have received the interim report, I may have a better idea of the extent of the damage. I have seen the state of the line. Wonderful efforts have been made by the maintenance people, who have been working extremely hard since the Hatfield accident, but this is a line to which they must return. I cannot give an accurate date for when that line will be reopened. However, as I have said, I shall be able to give further information when I have received the interim statement. I have no doubt that everyone involved would like to see the line reopened as soon as possible. I am sure that that is the wish of the House.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for both visiting the site today and reporting back to the House this evening. I join him in paying tribute to the emergency services. We especially remember those who lost their lives, those who have been bereaved and those who are seriously and critically injured.

GNER has had a terrible six months, but its standing locally is extremely high. The company is based at York. As the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), knows, as do others on both sides of the House who represent parts of York, the city revolves round the railway. Today, I received a letter from York's economic development department about the damage that was done to the community and local business with the loss of the normal full-speed service, which, as the right hon. Gentleman said, was reinstated only on Monday.

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the extent to which weather conditions might have played a part in the accident I do not know whether the police were able to report or that today. Similarly, I do not know whether that will form part of his investigation, on which I know he will report.

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Lady for her compliments to the emergency services, whose work has been remarkable. We have commented on them and supported them. I have commented on GNER services, which are identified I with the region and actively supported. I recognise that York has been the centre of our railway system for a long time and that many people will be concerned about disruption to services. I hope that we can reinstate those services as soon as possible.

I looked into the police reports about the weather, and there was concern about how bad it was. The gritters were on the M62. I think that the last gritting took place at about 2 am. A judgment was made later that the freezing frost was not continuing. Anyone who saw the early film on television would be aware that the weather was not the normal sort of patters that has been seen in certain parts of the country. We must wait for the outcome of the inquiry to give us further information about what caused the car to leave the motorway. At present, it seems that the weather was not responsible, but I would not want to say that for sure.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

Although my right hon. Friend will need to await the outcome of the investigation, I ask him at the appropriate time to give consideration to the provision of safety information for train passengers. When boarding an aeroplane, we take it for granted that such information will be made available. Is it not time to consider providing similar information to train passengers, especially about emergency, evacuation procedures, such as those that had to be used today by those caught up in a terrible accident?

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. It is interesting that on this occasion, compared with a previous accident when there was concern about whether hammers were available to enable passengers to get outside, notices enabled passengers to get hammers to break out. It is always difficult to know whether passengers should stay in the train or get out.

We are talking of an electric passenger train, but the freight train carried oil and diesel, and there were fumes. Some passengers were obviously concerned that the fumes would lead to fire, as we saw in another incident. We have asked Lord Cullen and others to consider whether more safety information should be available. To be fair, the train companies have provided more information, but there was some talk earlier about whether the hammers were big enough and whether they could be changed. I think and hope that Lord Cullen will be able to give us further advice. I will follow up the matter with the Health and Safety Executive to ascertain whether there is anything more that we can do while we await reports.

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

I endorse what has been said about the management and staff of GNER, who have seen railway colleagues lose their lives in the accident. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with me that during all the recent emergencies the staff of GNER, at every level, have worked extremely hard to try to restore the quality of service and to support passengers in very difficult situations? As for reopening the line as soon as is reasonably possible, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that because of adverse weather conditions today, both lines to Scotland have been closed?

Mr. Prescott

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says about GNER staff. I travel on the service for about 20,000 miles a year. I fine that the staff have an identity with the company and feel happy about the services that they are providing. I think that that is the experience of us all. The staff want it to provide the best service, and that comes across.

The importance of the railways emphasises that we need a good strategic network north and south and east and west. That reminds us how much we are dependent on the railway system. When we have these accidents, we are given the opportunity to think carefully about whether some routes should be compatible. For example, the route via Leeds is not electrified, but m my of the trains are. Today's incident is likely to bring such considerations to the fore.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

First, may I associate myself with all the comments from my fellow North Yorkshire Members of Parliament? My right hon. Friend knows that I come from a railway community in every sense of the word, and that I have spent many years in York, working in the railway industry. Can he comment on media speculation that the train set involved in the incident today was the same one that was involved at Hatfield?

Secondly, in my right hon. Friend's initial discussions with the Highways Agency, did the agency express any views about the geometry of the slip road? Having worked for many years on incidents connected with bridges on our railways, I endorse the remarks of the Opposition spokesman about the need for progress on the interface between roads and railways. The Highways Agency bridge authorities throughout the country and Railtrack must try finally to crack the associated safety problems.

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and for his support for the people who were involved in this terrible tragedy and for the emergency services.

I am extremely sympathetic to my hon. Friend's point about media speculation. I do not suppose that it will make any difference, but I wish that they would not speculate without the facts, as that creates difficulties. From the initial speculation, one would have thought that the vehicle fell immediately on to the track. That is just not true. It careered for 100 m, well ahead of the crash barrier. The gradient of the embankment is 1:3. How the vehicle did not turn over is beyond me. It was a high-sided vehicle and was pulling another vehicle.

Events did not happen as the media speculated from an early stage. From time to time we hear from some so-called transport specialist, who has seen nothing but tells us what should happen and what we should change. That is not helpful. It alarms the relatives, because they get the wrong information. We should find out as much as we can, give the information to the House, and trust the report based on the information available at that time. I hope, although I do not expect that there is any chance of it, that the media will avoid speculating about what happened. It does not help, and my hon. Friend's question gives me an opportunity to say so.

It is true, I believe—I hope the inquiry will look into the matter—that one of the power units that was not damaged was one of those involved in the Hatfield crash. I must await the interim report before I can give a definite response. With regard to the slip road and the need to examine bridge and rail connections, the Highways Agency is looking into that. Research is under way and we will make the information available.

Again, as I said, if one looked at the route that the vehicle took down the side of the road and 100 m to the rail, one would not have thought that that would happen. One would imagine that the vehicle would have stopped well before that, but it did not. As in all tragedies, it is never one incident. It is two or three things together that make for a terrible tragedy. Who was to know that when the vehicle came off the road, a fast passenger train was approaching at 125 mph, as well as a freight coal train carrying a massive weight—thousands of tonnes—and travelling at 40 mph? The impact was phenomenal.

That set of circumstances defies belief. If I had come to the House and reported that such an accident had occurred, most hon. Members would have thought that it was not possible. What one learns about tragedies is that the impossible often happens. That is always the difficulty for us when we try to avoid them.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

As co-chairman of the all-party railways group, with the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) who spoke a little earlier, may I associate myself with all the expressions of sympathy, the condolences and the tributes that the Deputy Prime Minister has paid? Will he pay tribute not only to rail staff, but to those passengers who, happily, were not too badly injured? From the interviews that have taken place during the day, it is apparent that great courage was shown by those who were still able-bodied after the tragic accident and who helped the more seriously injured to escape. Will the right hon. Gentleman also pay tribute in particular to members of the British Transport police? As he knows, their work is often forgotten, but there is no doubt that as well as GNER staff and the rail crews, British Transport police played a significant part today.

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his endorsement of the expressions of sympathy and support from both sides of the House. I add my support for the work of the British Transport police. I travelled down with the assistant chief constable and discussed the situation with him. With so many agencies present, one tends to think that co-operation will not be possible, but it was not lacking at all.

The various authorities—the transport police, the civilian police, the fire services and so on—have developed a technique for co-operation that is admirable. They arrive within a short time and get on with the job. They understand it and do it, and one cannot but admire such co-operation. If they can do that despite the different bodies that they belong to, we get the best of services to deal with the most difficult circumstances when a terrible tragedy occurs. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman gave me the opportunity to praise the co-operative work of all the agencies involved in the incident.

Mr. Jon Trickett (Hemsworth)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement that he made so promptly this evening, and associate myself with his tribute to all those from the emergency services. Our sympathy goes out to all the bereaved and the injured. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, notwithstanding the recent spate of accidents and disasters, railways remain the safest mode of transport?

In paying tribute to the emergency services, I emphasise the work done at Pontefract infirmary, where I understand that more than half the victims of the crash were treated. Not long ago, there was debate about the future of the infirmary. A strong case was made that the hospital is close not only to the railway, but to the A1, the M62, five or six working pits and an explosive chemical works in Castleford. Will my right hon. Friend convey my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who said in his statement two weeks ago that new money would be found for Pontefract, and that the accident and emergency service is safe there, 24 hours a day?

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for his endorsement of the emergency services and the statements made from both sides of the House. He gives me the opportunity to say yes, rail is a very safe mode of transport, but the big question for us is whether we can make it safer. That is always the question on which the House will concentrate its mind. There will come a time when we will have more and more debates about it, but this is not the moment. I am pleased to say that all the signs are that it was riot a failure of a safety system that contributed to the collision today, but I must wait to see what the reports tell us.

It was not only Pontefract hospital, but quite a few hospitals in the Yorkshire area that responded tremendously. That is why the Minister for Public Health is up there, saying think you on behalf of all of us for what they have done. As to whether Pontefract hospital is under threat, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is on the Front Bench and will have heard the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Trickett).

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

I am not seeking to allocate blame or asking my right hon. Friend to do that, but I am concerned to learn tonight that at the point where one of the busiest motorways passes over one of the busiest railway routes in the country, the crash barriers intended to protect that it very busy railway route seem to have been inadequate and were certainly not long enough. Are those crash barriers the responsibility of Railtrack or of the Highways Agency?

Mr. Prescott

First, as my hon. Friend says, we must wait to see whether any criticisms are made about crash barriers. That investigation is under way. As my hon. Friend rightly says, that M62 is a busy motorway—one of our busiest—and cross the east coast line. The barriers have not been designd to deal with a Land Rover and a vehicle that career downn a bank and go on to the railway line. A balance must be struck. The barriers are not designed to prevent cars from going on to the railways. They are designed to stop lorries running into the bridges over railways, for obvious reasons. Barriers are built where the motorway runs alongside the railway, and crash barriers have then been put in place.

The matter will be investigated, and I assure my hon. Friend that the investigation will be reported to the House. The matter must be kept under constant review. The barriers are largely put in place to protect the bridges. As I reported to the House, the crash barrier is quite a long one. It is longer than is required under the regulations. Yet the vehicle left the road some 30 m before the beginning of the crash harrier and careered down the embankment in a way that surprised all of us. However there will be a thorough investigation and we will report back to the House.

Shona McIsaac (C leethorpes)

As I am sure my right hon. Friend will be aware, the freight train involved in this terrible accident came from Immingham in my constituency, and I am sure that he will appreciate that, when the terrible news came through, it sent a shiver of fear through the families of freight drivers there. My right hon. Friend paid tribune to the passengers and drivers, but will he also pay tribute to the freight drivers who do such tremendous work moving goods around the country, and do all that he can to ensure that Railfreight retains business confidence?

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for her words of support. She is right that there is considerable freight train activity on that line, particularly with the movement of coal to the power stations, which was certainly a contributory factor in the tragedy. Thousands of tonnes of deadweight coal had an effect on the impact. Workers and passengers risk death in such incidents, and the families of railway workers rely on television and radio for the latest information to discover whether their loved ones have been involved in any tragedy. When people speculate on the television and in the press they should bear in mind that there are people who are extremely worried about their loved ones, whether they are rail workers or passengers.

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles)

I add my condolences to all the families of those injured and killed, and my thoughts go to the workers from all the services involved in this terrible incident. It is clear from what has been said in the Chamber today that the accident was due not to a rail problem but a road problem, and he material used to guard motorways when they travel over roads or rail is of particular importance. In the village of Winton in my constituency there have been three incidents in a couple of years in which three different cars have gone off a motorway in similar circumstances to this tragedy, with resultant deaths. Fortunately, they did not hit the houses below. Will my right hon. Friend investigate whether concrete might be a more appropriate material for barriers in such areas?

Mr. Prescott

There have been a number of incidents over several years where bridges go, over roads or rails. Those are always a matter of concern and are fully investigated. Where crash barriers are deemed necessary they are provided. Whether the matterials used for the barriers might result in an unsafe road is a matter of concern, but if my hon. Friend care to write to me with particular examples I shall be happy to follow the matter up with the Highways Agency.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

This was an appalling tragedy and the Secretary of State is right to extend sympathy to those families involved, to praise the emergency services and to institute quick and thorough inquiry. But will he personally consider the national standards for crash barriers and bride e parapets? They are meant to withstand 30tonne vehicles travelling at 40 mph. They were clearly not in place where this accident occurred. If the inquiry finds that he national standard must be upgraded, will my right ion. Friend give an assurance that that will happen?

Mr. Prescott

As I have said, barriers are installed largely to influence the path of any lorry or car that collides with them; they will not stop such vehicles, but they might clear them from the bridge itself. However, the standards are being considered and the investigation will cover such matters. We shall take on board any recommendations and bring them to the House.