HC Deb 13 May 2002 vol 385 cc503-15 3.32 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the tragic rail derailment at Potters Bar on Friday 10 May, when coaches of the West Anglia Great Northern 12.45 train from London King's Cross to King's Lynn came away from the tracks immediately to the south of Potters Bar station when travelling between 80 and 90 mph.

I understand from the police that the train was carrying about 150 people. Seven were killed as a result of the derailment, and about 40 injured. Two remain on the critical list. At a time like this, our thoughts must be with the families and close friends of those who lost their lives. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing our condolences to the bereaved and in wishing a speedy recovery to those who were injured.

Once again, the bravery, courage and professionalism demonstrated by our emergency services—fire, police, medical and health and safety staff—were outstanding. The reaction of the emergency services and the railway staff concerned was the product of constant training and planning, enabling them to perform in a way that the whole nation can be proud of.

His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales visited the injured and staff in Barnet and Chase Farm hospitals on Saturday, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is visiting the same hospitals this afternoon. I am grateful that the local Member—the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison)—was able to join me when I visited the scene on Saturday. We also visited the local fire station to thank members of the fire service who attended the crash.

Potters Bar station is in the centre of the town, and a notable feature of this appalling event is the reaction of local people who came rushing to aid those involved in the crash. In the midst of horror, their selfless behaviour, care and compassion were remarkable. The people of Potters Bar can take pride in their response. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to them all.

The investigation into the cause of the crash began immediately. British Transport police and Hertfordshire police are working in partnership with Her Majesty's railway inspectorate from the Health and Safety Executive. Early indications are that a set of points south of the station were the cause of the derailment.

The railways inspectorate believes that the points in question moved as the rear of the third carriage of the train passed over them, and as a result deflected the fourth and final carriage towards the left. That happened because nuts on two stretcher bars were detached. The locking bar connecting the tips of the points was then subject to forces normally shared by the stretchers, and it broke. The rear carriage derailed and slewed sideways, detaching from the rest of the train. It skidded along the track, passing over a bridge and came to rest on its side, wedged under the station canopy. The rear bogie was torn off by the collision with the bridge superstructure, and came to rest on the down slow line, causing severe damage.

The investigation is now pursuing the question of the circumstances surrounding the nuts being detached from the two stretcher bars, causing the points to fail. The nuts that were detached have now been removed for forensic investigation, and a major portion of the points is also being removed for examination by the Health and Safety Executive.

The HSE will publish its interim report in the next few days, and we must await its findings. That interim report will be made public. In addition, I can inform the House that, exercising powers under section 14(2)(a) of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission will tomorrow recommend that the commission direct the Health and Safety Executive to conduct an immediate formal investigation into the circumstances of the train derailment. A report will be made public as soon as possible. The Health and Safety Executive intends to announce further details of the scope and arrangements of the investigation in due course.

Railtrack acted quickly to inspect 800 sets of points across the country and found no similar defects. Her Majesty's railway inspectorate has since examined other points in the Potters Bar area. It, too, has found no similar defects. I have been advised by the railway inspectorate that there are no indications so far of any problem that would require speed or other restrictions elsewhere on the network.

Railtrack's chief executive told me this morning that, although the company's initial investigation had led it to believe that the points in question had been replaced in December, it now knows that to be incorrect. Railtrack now confirms that the points are in fact about eight years old. It has also informed me that the normal lifespan of a set of points on this type of track is between 20 and 25 years.

Gauge corner cracking had been identified on rails in the vicinity in September 2001, and as a result a temporary speed restriction had been put in place until grinding to treat the gauge corner cracking had been completed. The speed restriction was lifted on 24 December. Neither Railtrack nor the Health and Safety Executive has any reason to believe at present that gauge corner cracking is linked to the causes of this accident.

The response to this incident by the emergency services, the industry and the railway inspectorate has been marked by the closest possible co-operation between all concerned. That co-operation continues as the focus shifts to recovery of services and investigation of the points failure. It is clearly essential that the on-site investigation be undertaken as quickly as possible, provided that it is concluded with complete thoroughness.

Clearance of the site has begun. Once the investigation of the site has been completed—it is hoped that that can be done over the next few days—it can be handed over to Railtrack for repairs to be completed. At this stage, it is impossible to say precisely when the entire site will be returned to normal use, but in the meantime the train operators are putting in place alternative services. The rest of the network is unaffected.

In this tragic incident, lives have been lost, and we must not forget those who survived but who will be mentally and physically scarred for the rest of their lives. That is why it is vital that we discover not just what happened at Potters Bar but how it happened. We owe a responsibility to all involved in the Potters Bar derailment— a responsibility to identify exactly what took place and then to take the necessary steps in response. That is a responsibility that we will discharge.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. On behalf of the official Opposition, I join him in sending my deepest sympathy to all the relatives of those who died in the train crash at Potters Bar. We also send our best wishes for a speedy and full recovery to all those who were injured.

We are united across the House in our shock and sorrow at what has happened. Lives have been shattered by the crash, and we in the House owe people our commitment to ensure as best we can that an accident of this nature does not happen again. My hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), whose constituency covers Potters Bar, and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) visited the crash site on Friday hours after the accident. They have told me of the extraordinary commitment and hard work of those in the emergency services called to the site.

Yesterday, I visited the crash site myself. Among those I spoke to were two members of the crew of one of the first ambulances on the scene. They described to me what they had faced. Terrible though the scene had been, they had a job to do and they did it. Their dedication and professionalism shone through, as it did from all those in the emergency services to whom I spoke. We owe our emergency services a great debt of gratitude for all that they did and continue to do to respond to the crash. Our thanks must also go to those in the national health service who are caring for the injured; as the Secretary of State said, to the members of the local Potters Bar community, who rushed to the scene to help; and to those who are continuing to provide support locally as work on the site continues.

I was also struck yesterday by the meticulous way in which the British Transport police and the Health and Safety Executive were carrying out their investigation. It is essential that we find out exactly what caused the crash, so that any necessary lessons may be learned and action taken to ensure the safety of our rail network.

Many people who travel by train day in and day out will understandably be concerned about the safety of the network. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, despite the appalling tragedy that occurred at Potters Bar and the other rail tragedies of the past few years, compared with other forms of transport, our railways are still safe—and indeed that safety has been steadily improving?

The Secretary of State is reported as describing the accident as a one-off, isolated incident. That implies that there are no lessons to be learned from the accident, yet all the reported possible causes of the loosening of the holding nuts on the points—vandalism, sabotage or poor maintenance—would suggest that there are lessons that should be learned, and that describing the accident as a one-off event before the right hon. Gentleman was in receipt of the report from the Health and Safety Executive was premature. Will he confirm that if this proves to be more than a freak accident from which there are absolutely no lessons to be learned, a public inquiry will be set up?

In the Secretary of State's statement, he reported that 800 sets of points across the whole network had been inspected following the accident. What form of inspection was undertaken on those points? Was it the same type of inspection as took place the day before the accident on the points at Potters Bar?

Is the Secretary of State aware of local concern about security at Potters Bar station, which led to a meeting between the train operating company, the local police, British Transport police and local representatives in late April?

Finally, I do not want to pursue this line of questioning too far—I am sure the Secretary of State will appreciate why—but is it true that the cause of the accident lay not just in an act of omission, in removing holding nuts from bolts, but in an act of commission, in tightening one of the bars on the points, thus making an accident more likely? Given the record of vandalism on points across the country and their vulnerability to sabotage, does he still stand by his statement that this is a one-off, unique event from which there are no lessons to be learned? Will he assure the House that, given the possible cause of this accident, regular and additional inspection of points will be made?

This was an appalling tragedy and our thoughts and prayers remain with the bereaved and injured. I can assure the Secretary of State that the Opposition stand ready to support the Government in taking the actions necessary to ensuring the safety of our rail network.

Mr. Byers

I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) recognises that the House is united in our response to the tragedy and to the individuals involved, their families and the community of Potters Bar.

I should put the record straight right at the beginning. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the hon. Lady has misquoted what I said. At no stage have I said that there are no lessons to be learned. I said clearly on Saturday that there is a difference between what might be a one-off incident and a generic problem with the railway network. That is an important distinction to make.

In the light of the briefing that I had before I made any public comments—this is now being confirmed publicly—I said that there were certain events and actions that had taken place in relation to the set of points that meant that we could look at the incident in isolation from the rest of the railway network. That point is important, because we know from Hatfield that sometimes there can be generic problems affecting the railway network that have to be dealt with.

For the record, at no time have I said that there are no lessons to be learned; there are lessons that can be learned from any accident. Safety is so good—whether on our railways or elsewhere—because we learn from the accidents that happen, just as I am sure we will learn from this incident.

The hon. Lady raises a number of specific points. On the question of a public inquiry, at the moment the right way forward is to consider the outcome of the investigations that are now taking place, particularly the formal investigation that will be commenced tomorrow by the Health and Safety Executive. We should await the outcome of the investigations before deciding whether or not a public inquiry is appropriate. That is the right step to take.

In terms of the checks made of the 800 points and whether they were checked in the same way as in previous inspections that may have taken place of the set of points in question, for reasons the House will understand it would be inappropriate for me to comment on what inspections may or may not have been made of those points. I do know that the work carried out by Railtrack on the 800 points has not identified similar defects. The railway inspectorate has audited the work carried out by Railtrack. It has not done so on all 800 points yet, but it is in the process of making sure that the procedures we used were appropriate in the circumstances.

Security at the station, and whether this was an act of omission or commission are, rightly, matters for the investigations themselves and I would not want to pre-empt their outcome. On the question of safety on our railways, it is difficult in the immediate aftermath of an incident such as the derailment at Potters Bar to say, "Our railways are safe." We get criticised in newspapers if we say that. But if one looks at the long-term trend, it is true that, per passenger-mile travelled, railway travel is getting safer. The facts bear that out and I am pleased that the hon. Lady recognises that.

One reason why railway travel is getting safer—this is an important point—is that we learn lessons from incidents—whether Hatfield, Ladbroke Grove, Southall, Clapham or Potters Bar. Lessons will be learned and the appropriate changes will be put in place. We owe that to the people involved in the incident at Potters Bar, and that is what we will do.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

While adding my deepest sympathy to the family and friends of all who died, I wish to mention in particular a young student, Jonael Schickler—a PhD student at Queen's college in my constituency—who, tragically, was one of those who died on Friday.

In endorsing my right hon. Friend's comments on the valuable work done by the emergency services, I commend the action of the train driver, Andy Gibson, who went beyond the call of duty in helping those who were trapped and injured. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at this sensitive time, it is particularly important that we, as Members of this House, continue to support the rail industry? I travel on the line in question twice weekly, and I shall continue to do so.

Mr. Byers

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is a tragedy when anybody loses their life, particularly someone who—like the student she mentioned—had their whole future ahead of them. She is right to commend the action of the train driver, Andy Gibson, who gave immediate assistance to those injured, and to point out that we should support the rail network. Like her, I have travelled on that line many times, when visiting friends in Cambridge. A personal knowledge of the service in question brings home the difficulties that can be created. We need to acknowledge that point—I, too, travelled by train on Saturday—but we must recognise that our railway network provides one of the safest forms of travel. We must not be complacent, however, but vigilant to ensure that we retain that position.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I echo the condolences expressed by the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) to the families affected, and their supportive statements about the emergency services. The Secretary of State said that this is a one-off incident, but we need to await the Health and Safety Executive's comments. What is clear, however, is that signals were apparently not involved. I wonder whether he is considering reviewing the use of SPADs—signals passed at danger—as the key safety performance indicator.

If this incident is shown to be linked to the management of contractors—a key concern in the leaked, overdue Hatfield report, and in the Cullen report—or to contractors' ability to obtain the necessary skilled staff, or to the inconsistent safety standards that the Cullen report also highlighted, would the Secretary of State agree that the incident perhaps constitutes not a one-off, but one of several such incidents? Will the Secretary of State confirm when he intends to introduce safety legislation to deal with such issues, and will he use that as an opportunity to update the House on the progress that is being made on the different recommendations emerging from the Hatfield report, Lord Cullen's inquiry, and Professor Uff's inquiry?

Finally, does the Secretary of State now have confidence in the information provided to him by Railtrack concerning this particular set of points? He said that gauge corner cracking was present in the vicinity of the relevant section of track, but can he confirm whether it was present on that particular section?

Mr. Byers

The hon. Gentleman raises several points. In terms of judging safety, SPADs have been regarded as effective, but I am always open to suggestions on the ways in which safety might be improved. An important part of learning lessons on improving safety is always to reflect on what might offer the best performance indicator.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned concerns about contractors. Without expressing a view on what the investigation may reveal in this case, I agree with him that the Cullen report made some clear recommendations about contractors, and I am concerned that not enough progress is being made on their implementation. On 1 May, I wrote to the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, asking him to report to me by the end of May on the progress made on Cullen's recommendations—a point that I reinforced when I met him this morning. This is a crucial issue, irrespective of what the investigations into this case might discover. Progress must be made on the Cullen report's recommendations.

We regard the safety Bill as a priority, but I cannot pre-empt what might appear in the Queen's Speech later this year. The hon. Gentleman raised specific points about whether gauge corner cracking was present on that particular site. I refer him back to my statement, because that contained the latest information that I received from Railtrack, just 40 minutes before I came into the Chamber. It said that gauge corner cracking had been identified on rails in the vicinity in September 2001. I will be more than happy to inform the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Maidenhead and other right hon. and hon. Members about the exact location of gauge corner cracking when I receive further information, but neither Railtrack nor the railway inspectorate believes that it was a factor in the incident.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that this latest dreadful accident has shaken the confidence of the public in what is manifestly a safe rail system. It therefore behoves the House of Commons to ensure that we take urgent action to restore that confidence. Is he prepared to call together Railtrack, the companies, the Health and Safety Executive and the railway inspectorate to ensure that the whole system of employment of contractors is looked at urgently, because there have been constant rumours about the time taken to obtain classification and qualifications, as well as about the employment of unskilled labour? If the rail system is to be returned to its proper safety level, the public demand is for clear accountability. We should no longer have to wait for reports from accident inspectors, and from those concerned with day-to-day maintenance of safety on the railways, before urgent action is taken.

Mr. Byers

I understand the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend and her Select Committee has drawn our attention to those points in relation to the maintenance of the railway network. There are real concerns about the use of contractors and, in some cases, sub-contracted labour. We do not know the particular circumstances in relation to Potters Bar, but I have just been handed a letter that has been faxed to me by the company secretary of Jarvis, a Mr. Mason, in which he says that all the inspections of those particular points were carried out by Jarvis employees. No sub contract labour was involved. Each of the Jarvis staff involved is fully experienced and qualified and holds all requisite training certification. Clearly, the matter will need to be investigated, but that is a direct quotation from a letter that I have just received from the company secretary of Jarvis.

Irrespective of the outcome of the investigations and what happened in this case, Cullen identified an issue in relation to the use of contract staff. As I say, I have asked the chair of the Health and Safety Commission to report to me by the end of this month on procedures that he will put in place with the industry. I met him this morning and reinforced that point. Genuine concerns exist and must be addressed, irrespective of the outcome of the investigations of this derailment.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I thank the Secretary of State for his invitation on Saturday and for the co-operation of his office. As the Member of Parliament most directly affected, I join him in extending condolences to all those who have lost loved ones in the accident. Our thoughts must he with them at this time.

I also join the Secretary of State in the tribute he paid to the railway staff, including those stationed at Potters Bar railway station, and to the emergency services—the Hertfordshire police, ambulance and fire services, as well as other members of the services—who attended so promptly and skilfully, and so professionally. Their skill has been commended by all who witnessed the terrible sights at Potters Bar. I also join in his tribute to the members of the public who helped in the moments immediately after the accident. People in the vicinity of the station, on the platform and in local shops and businesses did everything they could to help. The emergency services were also supported and helped by members of the local voluntary services.

Will the Secretary of State bear it in mind that, in the midst of their sorrow, people in Potters Bar and other users of that extremely busy line are naturally concerned that this tragic incident took place close to the site of another tragic incident at Hatfield? They now want a high degree of reassurance. Does the Secretary of State agree that such reassurance can best be provided by the fullest possible answers to the questions how and why that tragic incident came about? It has left my constituents with the sorry spectacle of that carriage lodged in the middle of their railway station after it had travelled down the platform. My constituents never want to see such a sight again—in Potters Bar or anywhere else—and hope that every possible lesson can be learned from this incident.

Mr. Byers

Once again, may I say how grateful I was that the hon. Gentleman was able to join me in both visiting the scene on Saturday and meeting members of the local fire service who carried out such heroic work? We were both amazed at the modesty of individual firemen, who saw such work as part of their job. Having seen the scale of what happened, it is a remarkable compliment to them that they see such work as part of what they do. The hon. Gentleman is also right to point out the important role of the voluntary services in such situations.

I fully understand the concerns felt by people in Potters Bar, which is just a few miles south of Hatfield. The situation is different, however; Hatfield was a generic problem as regards the network. All the information available thus far is that that is not the case on this occasion.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that people will want answers to the question: how did this occur? It is now becoming clear how the incident occurred, but we do not know why. The investigation will now have to focus on that aspect. The hon. Gentleman is also right to point out that if we are to regain the confidence of the travelling public, they will want answers to those clear and appropriate questions.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been universal acclaim on both sides of the House for the efforts of those public services, in Potters Bar and elsewhere, that managed to save lives and help the families of those who lost people in that horrific accident? Is not it time—especially after this Secretary of State's action on Railtrack, which caused fury among the Opposition—that there were more people in the public services? That would be wonderful. As a start, perhaps when the inquiry has been held, the Secretary of State might consider taking over the infrastructure of Railtrack and all the rest of it—together with the maintenance—and getting rid of Jarvis and all the subcontractors, who, without doubt, probably played a part in the matter.

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend is right to express the support shared by all Members for the way in which, once again, the emergency services and the public services more generally, discharged their responsibilities on Friday and during the weekend in relation to the accident at Potters Bar.

The whole question of the industry's infrastructure and its safety was addressed by Lord Cullen's second report. The Government have accepted all those recommendations and we are now seeing their implementation. That will mean changes in the way in which safety is dealt with in the industry. In my view, that will make real improvements, but it is paramount that there is speedy implementation of all those recommendations, including those about the use of contractors. The best way forward is to consider in the round the proposals that came out of Cullen two and ensure their speedy implementation.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

The Secretary of State has referred to the fact that the accident took place just outside my constituency in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) but that a number of the seriously injured were sent to Barnet general hospital, Chase Farm hospital and two other hospitals. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that after news of the accident broke, an accident and emergency unit—which had undertaken many practices—was immediately activated and that the response, not only between the emergency services but within each service, was magnificent.

The incident took place near a county boundary and I refer to the co-operation between two ambulance trusts, between the Hertfordshire police and the Metropolitan police, and between local hospitals in Barnet and the nationally renowned neurosurgical unit at the Royal Free. Will he accept that, to local people, the community response was magnificent? We are particularly grateful that the Prince of Wales visited Barnet general and Chase Farm hospitals on Saturday morning, and that the Secretary of State for Health completed a visit to those two hospitals today.

Mr. Byers

The way in which emergency procedures went into place on Friday is a real commendation to those who have been planning for the worst. We saw on Friday how effective they were at putting in place those procedures. There are always concerns, when people are working across boundaries, that bureaucratic layers will get in the way of response. What is notable about Friday, however, is that that did not happen at all. People put aside all those constraints and got on with the job, irrespective of boundaries or budgets. That is exactly how it should be.

I join the hon. Gentleman in thanking the Prince of Wales for his visit on Saturday, which was a great boost to the injured and to the staff in the two hospitals—Barnet general and Chase Farm. He is also right to say that the Royal Free, which we have not mentioned and which is my local hospital, played an important role with some of the most seriously injured people. I am sure that we are all praying that those people who are fighting for their lives are successful in doing so.

There are lessons to be learned, and part of that is the way in which emergency services can act in a co-ordinated and responsive way. They did themselves proud on Friday, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether, in his earlier meeting with representatives from the railway inspectorate and the Health and Safety Executive, they indicated that any investigation into the tragedy at Potters Bar would include not only a review of the methodology and frequency of track inspections, which are varied and many, but a review and an audit of enforcement action that may result from such track investigations? That point will be of great interest to those who want to say that they still have full confidence in our railway industry.

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend has a wealth of experience in these areas from his occupation before he was elected to the House. In my meeting with the railway inspectorate and the Health and Safety Executive, it was made clear to me that there will be a thorough and full investigation. Such an investigation will want to take into account all those relevant matters in relation to what happened at the point south of Potters Bar, and that is appropriate in the circumstances.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

Will the Secretary of State accept that, in my constituency, which has five stations on the affected line and thousands of commuters, there is deep concern about this crash? May I express my and my constituents' condolences to the families of the bereaved and our best wishes to those who are seeking to recover in hospital at present? Does the Secretary of State understand that, after Hatfield, my constituents endured many months of delays on the line caused by speed restrictions and engineering works? It was thought that that was to ensure that there would not be another significant crash. Yet, months later, we face this dreadful crash. Does he understand that there is a need for great reassurance among my constituents about the safety of this line in the future? What reassurance can he give them today, based on the briefings that he has had?

Mr. Byers

I fully understand the concerns of the hon. Gentleman's constituents. It is an absolutely natural reaction to what happened on Friday. As I said in my statement, Railtrack has checked about 800 points and they have not been found to have similar defects. The railway inspectorate has specifically looked at points near to those at Potters Bar to check whether there was a particular problem with maintenance there and it has not identified any similar defects. The fact that the railway inspectorate has not imposed any speed restrictions as a result of this accident is a clear indication that it, as the independent safety expert, believes the network to be safe. I think that we are looking at a particular set of circumstances affecting a particular set of points. If the investigation shows that that is the case, we need to find out the reason for what happened. However, that is something for the investigation and we will have to await the reports and recommendations that we receive as a result of the inquiries and investigations that are now taking place.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

Will my right hon. Friend secure the publication of the representations that the railway trade unions have made over the past year to Railtrack, the Health and Safety Executive, his Department and the railway inspectorate about the safety of track generally? Will he review the mechanism by which the views on safety issues of workers within the industry are heard and listened to?

Mr. Byers

The views of the trade unions and those with day-to-day experience of the network are important and need to be taken into account. Although I do not wish to draw conclusions about this incident, such people are often able to identify quickly and at first hand any particular problems or deficiencies that might exist. A sensible procedure needs to be put in place whereby individual employees can raise concerns with their employer and with the industry. I would have thought that that would be one of the issues that will need to be considered in the light of the investigations that are taking place.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

The Secretary of State will be aware that my constituents were among those killed and injured in this terrible tragedy. I wish to take this opportunity to express on behalf of my constituents our condolences to those who suffered bereavement and our deepest sympathy to those who were injured and to their families. Along with other Members of the House, I also wish to express our appreciation to the emergency services, the hospital services and the people of Potters Bar for the support and help that they gave in tending to the injured.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) have said, there is a sense of shock among those who use this railway line regularly. They suffered lengthy delays after the Hatfield crash and they thought that they were doing so in pursuance of a safer railway. Notwithstanding the outcome of the investigation into this incident, is it not right that an account is given to them of how safety has been secured on this line and how it will he maintained in the future? There should be the fullest possible disclosure of all relevant information about the safety features of this railway.

Mr. Byers

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I fully understand the shock that must be felt by his constituents and all those who use the line regularly given that the incident took place so close to the one in Hatfield. He is right to say that people need to account for what happened. I have made it clear since Friday—over the weekend and, indeed, again today—that all the relevant parties will have to make a full disclosure of exactly what happened and about the issues for which they have responsibility. Confidence will be re-established only if people receive a proper and coherent explanation of exactly what took place. All the bodies involved recognise the importance for the industry of doing precisely that. There is now probably a greater acknowledgment in the railway industry that, if it is to secure the confidence of the travelling public, openness and transparency will be key factors.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

To revert to the line of thought of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on contractors, is it not true that, in the time of unity of the rail industry, inquiry was really a matter of getting the truth? Now, with the fragmentation of the industry and with so many contractors involved, is my right hon. Friend at all worried that we live in a culture of blame that could obscure the truth because people might want to blame others because of legal obligations?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend makes an important point, but so far in the wake of the derailment at Potters Bar we have not seen the sort of finger-pointing and blame that we saw after Hatfield and Ladbroke Grove. There is a clear difference. There is a recognition within the industry that it does the industry a disservice if people do not take responsibility for their part of the railway industry's operations. That has been a noticeable factor in events since the derailment at Potters Bar.

We need to discover the precise details of what happened, and the investigations are making good progress. I hope that the interim report, for which I asked the Health and Safety Commission on Friday, will be available in the next couple of days, because that would reassure the travelling public about what took place, even if it might not be able to tell us why it took place.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

We must all await the findings of the Health and Safety Executive's inquiry, but once again there is debate about standards of maintenance and the use of unqualified subcontractors in the fragmented privatised British Rail. Does the Secretary of State understand that that can only deepen the concern with which Londoners view the coming of the public-private partnership to London Underground—a measure that the Government appear to be committed to forcing through in the teeth of all informed opinion, including that of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions?

Mr. Byers

We have always said that if the modernisation of the tube is to go ahead, it will have to satisfy the safety case. The Health and Safety Executive must be sure that a proper safety regime is in place. We have established a clear condition on the proposal: if the HSE is not convinced that the safety case is made, the modernisation of the underground will not go ahead. If that condition is not met, we will not proceed. Safety will not be compromised in respect of the modernisation of the tube.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

As the Secretary of State knows, the train that derailed was on its way to my constituency. Many of my constituents are regular users of that train, as am I. In fact, I came quite close to catching that train, and would have done so had I been present for the early part of Friday's business. As it happened, I took an earlier train, but some of my constituents were on the train that derailed. One was in the fourth carriage manning the refreshment trolley, and he was fortunate to escape with his life. King's Lynn has been in a state of shock, as this is the first time in 100 years that it has been directly involved in a rail tragedy of this nature.

The Secretary of State has expressed his hope that the causes of the accident will become known in the near future, but we can conclude that it was the result of either maintenance failure or malicious interference. If the former, I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that we should carefully examine the whole nature of contracting and subcontracting, especially in the light of the fact that Railtrack's spot checks have revealed that one in 20 of the engineers who work on tracks do not have full safety certification. In that light alone, to restore public confidence in the rail network, as we all want, will require a full public inquiry.

Mr. Byers

I can understand the concerns of the hon. Gentleman's constituents in King's Lynn and North-West Norfolk. The scale of the accident is such that it must cause concern to those who travel on that line.

It is too early to jump to precise conclusions. Although we now know what happened, we simply do not know how it happened; that is a matter for the investigations. It is premature to announce a public inquiry. It is better to let the interim investigation take place. The formal investigation by the Health and Safety Executive is to commence tomorrow. When we have the HSE's conclusions, we will be able to take a decision on whether a public inquiry is the appropriate way to proceed.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

On behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, I wish to be associated with the sympathies and condolences extended to those who have suffered in the tragedy, and with the thanks to all those who gave assistance on the day and afterwards.

The Secretary of State mentioned that Railtrack has undertaken 800 checks on points since the accident. Will he confirm that it is the self-same contractors who have carried out those safety checks? Is he totally happy with that obtuse way of monitoring the state of our track and maintaining it? Precisely why has it taken so long to implement the recommendations of the key Cullen inquiry? If it transpires that maintenance and monitoring played some part in the accident, who will take responsibility?

Mr. Byers

Shortly before I came into the House, Railtrack informed me of the 800 checks on points that had been carried out. I do not know the details of who will have done that. All I know is that the Health and Safety Executive is auditing the way in which the checks were carried out. The railway inspectorate has undertaken its own checks on the points in the Potters Bar area to ensure that there was not a problem with the way in which that section of line was being maintained. It has found no similar defects. The HSE is double checking the work that has been carried out by Railtrack.

As for responsibility, we must first find out what happened. There is the danger that we might run ahead of ourselves. We are all anxious to ascertain exactly what happened and who was responsible, and that is understandable. Let us reach conclusions after a proper investigation. We can then have the debate about what action should be taken.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the vital implementation of the recommendations of the Cullen report in respect of contractors. I may have mentioned earlier my concern that not enough progress was being made. That is why, on 1 May, I wrote to Bill Callaghan, the chair of the Health and Safety Commission, to tell him that I wanted to know by the end of this month what action was being taken to implement the recommendations speedily. I wrote that it was a vital area that must be addressed urgently.