HC Deb 15 November 2002 vol 394 cc338-44

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

2.29 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

It is six months since the Potters Bar derailment, in which, tragically, seven people lost their lives and many others were injured. One of those who lost their lives was a constituent of mine, the much respected Agnes Quinlevan, a former district nurse who gave a lifetime of service to others and was still serving the community on that fateful day. I know that my constituents would want me to pay tribute to her today.

The other victims of that tragic incident came from all over the rest of the country and, indeed, from all over the world. I know, for example, that representatives from Taiwan are present here today. I am conscious of the fact that, tragically, that incident in my constituency affected families in other parts of the world. We have responsibilities to them arising from an event that took place on the railways of this country.

I shall explore two main issues today: first, issues relating to safety, and secondly, how the families of those who lost their lives can be helped. On safety, the House is aware that that stretch of line is extremely busy and is used every day by many thousands of travellers, including many of my constituents who commute from Potters Bar railway station. They are aware, as I am, that it is barely two years since the equally tragic incident at Hatfield, just a few miles to the north on the same line, in which four people lost their lives. Against that background, and against the background of what has emerged since the Potters Bar derailment, we are looking for a high level of reassurance about safety on the line.

In July, the Health and Safety Executive published a progress report on Potters Bar. The report confirmed that the derailment resulted from faults in the points, which caused them to fail catastrophically. The fault lay in nuts missing from adjustable stretcher bars. As a result, the rear coach was derailed. Worryingly, tests of a sample of nuts on the adjustable stretcher bars of other points in the Potters Bar area revealed that 20 per cent. were not fully tight, according to the Health and Safety Executive. The report also disclosed that a sample inspection of points across the rail network as a whole found differing standards in condition and maintenance arrangements, including record keeping.

The Minister is no doubt aware of written parliamentary questions that I have asked, and I refer him in particular to the answer that I received on 7 November. I was told that Railtrack was taking measures to improve safety, including the provision of guidance on good practice for safely setting up and maintaining adjustable stretcher bars. Can the Minister say whether that guidance has yet been issued? I ask him to satisfy himself that the guidance is comprehensive. Most important of all, will he take an active interest in seeing that the good practice is implemented in the Potters Bar area and throughout the rail network?

I also seek an assurance from the Minister today that the deficiencies found in 20 per cent. of the points in the Potters Bar area have been put right. Will the Minister give an assurance that the in-depth design review of railway points that Network Rail promised to complete by next month will be taken forward in a timely way when it is completed?

As for the question of the causes of the derailment, the possibility of sabotage has been aired and received some prominence in the media. I believe that Jarvis Construction has chosen to give some prominence to the idea of sabotage. It is my understanding that at no stage has any evidence emerged to support sabotage as a cause of the derailment. Indeed, in its July report, the Health and Safety Executive noted that no technical evidence has yet been established to support speculation that vandalism or deliberate damage caused the derailment but it is keeping an open mind. Jarvis and any others raising the question of sabotage may wish to put it into that perspective. As the HSE said, that is speculation. There is no supporting evidence.

My second question is how the victims' families and the injured can be helped, and there are two particular matters that I wish to raise. First, I believe that applications have been made by some families for the coroner to hold what are known as mini-inquests of the kind that took place after the Ladbroke Grove tragedy. They would set out the basic circumstances of what took place in respect of each of the victims. I hope that the feelings of the families will be taken into account on the holding of mini-inquests. It is understandable that they should wish to know the facts about the circumstances of this tragic derailment.

More generally, there is the question of how we face up to our responsibilities. After each of the tragic incidents at Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield there was an early admission of liability by the authority concerned. So far, six months on, there has been no such admission of liability in the case of the Potters Bar derailment. Survivors and relatives of the deceased will want a thorough investigation, to find out how such a terrible event came to pass. They will also want to see an acceptance of responsibility, as happened in each of the other tragic incidents to which I have referred. It would be good to ensure that the victims are not put through the treadmill of litigation, and that they see that someone is facing up to their responsibilities in respect of this incident.

Against that background, many of the bereaved families and injured have called for a public inquiry. I agree that there is a strong case for a public inquiry that would resolve some important issues both for the families and for the travelling public. In the light of what has emerged since the derailment and the way in which matters are proceeding, the case for that public inquiry becomes stronger all the time.

Will the Minister give active consideration to the case for a public inquiry into the Potters Bar derailment? More widely, I urge all those concerned to consider the issue of responsibility. There is the question of how we deal with the families, and how we learn the lessons from the derailment. We cannot begin to learn the lessons until someone accepts responsibility.

At the outset, I said that people from a wide variety of backgrounds caught the 12.45 for Cambridge and King's Lynn on 10 May—people going about their business, visitors to this country and students. They were all members of the travelling public who put their trust in the safety of the railways. Mr. Ogunwusi was a solicitor on his way to visit a client, and his widow, Sola Ogunwusi, is here today.

Jennifer Cox, a young Australian backpacker, was another passenger. She was thrown out of a window and on to the platform as the rear carriage became detached and careered along the platform before becoming wedged under the station canopy. She sustained serious injuries but fortunately survived. When I met her recently she told me that she had been travelling on the railways in various less-developed parts of the world and from time to time had had qualms about her safety. However, her travels had been uneventful until she arrived in Britain. When she arrived here her qualms disappeared, because she thought our railways were safe. That should give us all pause for thought.

2.39 pm
The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on securing this debate. I join him in extending sympathy to the family and friends of all those who lost their lives or were injured in this tragic rail accident. For all those concerned, the pain will still be very real and very raw. We cannot begin to imagine the nightmare that these people must have suffered and surely must continue to suffer, but we can understand their absolute determination, which the hon. Gentleman expressed, to find answers as to why this tragic accident happened. The priority must therefore be to establish the causes and anything that needs to be done to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

On the derailment itself, the Health and Safety Executive investigation team has established and made it public that the rear coach of a four-coach commuter train bound for King's Lynn from King's Cross derailed while passing over points No. 2182A just before Potters Bar station. The coach detached from the others and came to rest on its side, wedged under the canopies of the station and bridging adjacent platforms. Debris from the accident fell through gaps in the bridge, sadly killing a passer-by. The other three coaches remained upright, travelled on through the station and were brought to a halt about 400m north of it. At the time of the accident, the train was travelling just below the speed limit for this class of vehicle, which is 100 mph.

The emergency services, including both the Hertfordshire police and the British Transport police, were rapidly at the scene of the accident. Safety experts from the Health and Safety Executive attended and joined the British Transport police investigation into the cause of the accident, using their specialist railway inspectors and experts from the health and safety laboratory. They were supported by AEA Technology Rail. It is appropriate at this point to record our thanks to the police, the ambulance service and the firefighters, as well as the many local people who helped out on the day.

The Health and Safety Executive investigation is being undertaken jointly with the British Transport police, who are in the lead while criminal charges other

than those under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 are a possibility. The HSE published a report of its early findings on 14 May, four days after the accident. The HSE investigation, which is a statutory investigation under the 1974 Act, is being conducted under the supervision of an independent HSE investigation board set up under a formal direction from the Health and Safety Commission. The board published a second progress report on the HSE investigation on 4 July. That report confirmed that, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, the derailment resulted from the fact that nuts were missing from the adjustable stretcher bars, causing points No. 2182A to fail catastrophically. The points were also found not to have been fully set in line with the standards expected.

As we all recognise, points are one of the safety-critical components of the rail network. The investigation board helpfully made in its report a number of preliminary recommendations to achieve improvements in the safety of rail travel. Railtrack and its contractors were called upon to review their arrangements for ensuring that railway points are compliant with the standards and specifications expected. In addition, the board recommended that Railtrack should review the design of points with adjustable stretcher bars better to ensure that good engineering standards are achieved and maintained; that the design of the adjustable stretcher bars themselves should be looked at in the short term better to ensure that the component can fulfil its safety functional requirements; and that, in the longer term, consideration should be given to whether a more inherently safe design should be used.

I understand that the investigation board continues to review with top-level people in Network Rail progress towards implementing all its recommendations. The board intends to publish its next progress report in the spring. I would expect that report to say something about the board's view on the progress that has already been achieved.

The board has made it clear that it wants to be open and transparent in its work and will put information into the public domain as quickly as it can, subject to any legal constraints and the need not to impede the ongoing investigation. Clearly, it is important to keep the bereaved families and survivors informed of developments. Both the HSE investigation board and the British Transport police are rightly very sensitive to that need, and I understand that there have been talks with the bereaved families both in groups and individually. That will continue.

It is essential that the direct and root causes of the accident are thoroughly investigated and that the lessons are learned. The Health and Safety Executive's investigation is comprehensive and thorough and examines all the circumstances of the accident to establish the causes of the derailment. That includes considering the factors that contributed to its consequences, such as debris falling through gaps in the Darkes lane bridge.

I appreciate that several bereaved families have requested a public inquiry, and the hon. Member for Hertsmere mentioned that. We must be clear that public inquiries are not convened after every rail accident. They tend to be set up to consider general principles and major structural issues rather than to establish the immediate cause of an accident. The Southall and Ladbroke Grove inquiries produced many recommendations, which the industry is currently implementing. Some of the issues that the Ladbroke Grove inquiry examined may be relevant to the Potters Bar investigation, for example, the management and training of contractors.

The Health and Safety Commission and the Secretary of State need to consider the outcome of the Health and Safety Executive investigation into the cause of the incident before deciding whether the issues raised by Potters Bar would benefit from a public inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned liability. Compensation is a further issue for those bereaved or injured in the accident. Pending the outcome of investigations by transport police and the Health and Safety Executive, Railtrack and industry parties involved in the accident agreed that Railtrack should act as the lead party for considering and settling all claims, without victims and relatives having to prove legal liability. That was done to prevent further distress to the families involved, and to unlock the compensation process to enable the bereaved and injured to proceed with claims without having to sort out whether there is industry liability or ascertain where it lies. I understand that Network Rail, which has bought Railtrack, has contacted the relevant families about that.

More generally, safety is at the heart of our policies for revitalising the railway. However, it is also important to remember that rail remains one of the safest forms of surface transport in this country. It is some six times safer than travel by car, and the overall record has gradually been improving. Since the 1970s, the frequency of fatal train accidents has reduced from roughly five a year to approximately one a year. The number of signals passed at danger in 2001–02 was the lowest 12-month total recorded since records began in 1985.

Although the railway's general safety record is good, several rail crashes in recent years, including Potters Bar, have demonstrated that we must not be complacent and that much remains to be done. The industry is now focused on putting right the weaknesses that those recent major accidents revealed.

Work is under way to implement the many recommendations that emerged from the public inquiry reports into the Southall and Ladbroke Grove crashes as well as the joint inquiry on train protection systems. Many recommendations cover a wide range of technical and operational issues, including signal layouts, signal sighting, driver management and training, the crash-worthiness of rolling stock, fire mitigation and passenger escape from trains.

Other recommendations cover the whole safety regime, including contractors, safety leadership in the industry, safety cases, the need to accredit suppliers, licensing for train drivers, and the need for both an independent industry safety body and an independent rail accident investigation branch.

The Health and Safety Executive continues to monitor implementation of all the recommendations. At the end of the month, it will publish a detailed themed report on progress from the Southall, Ladbroke Grove and train protection systems public inquiries.

It was announced in the Queen's Speech this week that the Government will introduce a Bill in this Session that will include proposals to create an independent rail accident investigation branch. The sole objective of the RAIB will be to discover what caused an incident or accident so that lessons may be learned and safety improved throughout the industry. Separating the RAIB from the judicial process will enable it to be tasked solely with discovering the causes of accidents, not with any subsequent prosecution. That should allow the facts to be established and published more quickly than under the current system.

The RAIB will also ensure that those affected by an accident, including any victims and the bereaved, will be kept in touch with the progress of its investigation. It will be required to publish a report on the conclusion of its investigations as well as interim reports while its investigations are still ongoing if there are urgent safety lessons to be learned. Although that cannot apply to the Potters Bar accident, it should make a difference to future investigations.

A key component of the strategy to improve rail safety is the implementation of the train protection and warning system, which is being rolled out across the rail network. Installation will be complete by the end of 2003. As at the end of July 2002, 79 per cent. of the passenger fleet and 67 per cent. of the Railtrack fitment programme were complete. The industry estimates that TPWS will reduce the risk from SPADs by between 65 and 80 per cent. On the European rail traffic management system, the HSC is seeking the views of passengers, railway staff and the wider public before putting advice to Ministers in early 2003 on the best way forward. The ERTMS will further improve train protection.

The Potters Bar derailment has once again raised concerns about track maintenance and the use of contractors in that process. Indeed, the same issue has been a key component of the investigation of the October 2000 Hatfield accident. Earlier this year, a HSC report on the use of contractors concluded that contractorisation itself is not the problem, but there is a need for better management control and a well-trained work force. The Cullen recommendations now being implemented should deliver that.

In addition, I am sure that we all agree that Railtrack's recent announcement of a new approach to improve its management and oversight of its maintenance contractors is a welcome step. Under the new arrangements, which will be introduced to the eastern region early in 2003 and throughout the rest of the country by April 2004, Network Rail will decide what gets done and when, with contractors responsible for the quality of the work.

All that must be underpinned by a cultural change in the railway industry, and we know that John Armitt, the chief executive, and his team at Network Rail, as well as the companies throughout, are determined to achieve it. Such change is vital to developing the railway system that we are determined to deliver—a revitalised industry with safety at its heart that is built on seeking cost-effective ways to improve. We want the industry to look forward rather than to the past, and to look outward rather than inward. That is fundamental to building a live and vibrant safety culture throughout the railway industry, and it is the foundation stone of preventing such accidents as Potters Bar.

The Government are committed to ensuring that we have a safer railway, for no other reason than that we owe it to all those affected by the Potters Bar derailment to make that happen.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Three o 'clock.