HL Deb 20 April 1937 vol 104 cc967-75

THE EARL OF KINNOULL rose to draw the attention of His Majesty's Government to recent railway accidents and to ask if legislation is contemplated for the replacement of all wooden coaches by steel coaches. The noble Earl said: My Lords, it is a little unfortunate that I should have put this Question down for Budget day because most of your Lordships are in another place. Before I say anything on the subject matter of my Question I would like to pay a tribute to the railwaymen. It is on the railwaymen that the safety of the public depends and the extraordinary rarity of accidents is undoubtedly due to them. When once in a way an accident does occur on the railways, we see large headlines the newspapers. The matter which I am raising to-day has been debated for many years and has been dealt with in newspapers such as the Daily Express rather prominently. I do not want to be controversial; I merely ant to get from the Ministry of Transport, with their experts and their great knowledge, whether their opinion is that it is better for the public that steel coaches should be universally used.

The first steel coach was built in 1905, but it was not until 1913 that the public became aware of the behaviour of steel coaches in an accident. There was a terrible accident in New York, I think on the underground railway there. Only one steel coach was buckled, but the wooden coaches were completely concertinaed. It was said then that if every coach had been made of steel, although they might have been overturned and people might have had a severe shock, passengers would not have been permanently injured or killed. In 1913—I think it was on September 2—there was a terrible accident at Aisgill on the Midland Railway, and a Midland Railway official said at that time, in reply to Major Pringle, I think it was, who was asking the question for the Government Department then concerned, that had these coaches been of steel the passengers would have escaped with a severe shaking, instead of which a great many were severely injured and killed. But I do lot want to go back into the history of twenty-odd years ago; I come down to December, 1933, at which time there was an idea that all railway roaches should be gradually changed over to steel or, at any rate, that they should be built with steel frames. At that time 85 per cent. of our coaches were wooden and it was stated that it would take over fifteen years, at the rate of progress then being made, to convert them into steel coaches. In that month there was a terrible accident, which no doubt your Lordships will remember, at Lagny, in France, and in the course of that accident the steel coaches were left intact. The people in the steel coaches were not injured but the wooden coaches were smashed to pieces and the people in them were killed and mutilated.

I hope the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, who is in his place, will say a word on this. In December of that year, I think following that terrible accident, he expressed the view that steel coaches were certainly very desirable. Actual figures and percentages indicate that we are behind the rest of the world in steel coaches. I have here figures which show that whereas in Great Britain only 15 per cent. of our coaches were made of steel, in Germany 98 per cent. were made of steel; in the United States of America 85 per cent.; in Italy 68 per cent.; in France 58 per cent. These figures show that we are much behind foreign countries in our programme. The actual number of steel coaches that we had was 800, and we had 6,000 steel-framed coaches, out of a total of 44,000 coaches altogether. The chief people who have argued against the steel coach and given reasons why it has not been brought in have said that it is much cheaper to have wooden coaches—putting it on the ground of economy. I want to point out to your Lordships that the steel coach would definitely encourage our industry. Although it is true there is at the moment a boom in steel, owing to rearmament, it is not going to continue for ever. Railway coaches will continue to be required, and from that point of view it is much better to encourage steel coaches than wooden coaches. The wood is imported and therefore does not do this country any good industrially. In France there was a debate on this subject some two years ago in which several members of the Chamber of Deputies expressed the view that steel coaches were absolutely essential. In fact, it was mentioned then that Germany introduced steel coaches in 1912. I have just given your Lordships the figures of three years ago, which contained the figure of 98 per cent. for steel coaches in Germany.

In March, 1934, there was an accident which I think occurred at Doncaster between the first and second parts of the Edinburgh express. It was in a fog. Nobody was injured at all. If they had been wooden coaches, it was stated at the inquiry, there would have been a holocaust of killed and injured. Again, in November of the same year, there was a collision at Hayward's Heath. No one was injured. Again it was stated that, had the coaches been of wood, many people would have been killed and injured. In 1935 there was a very bad accident at Welwyn. These words were used—I think at the inquiry: Death steeplechased down the train, Carriages of steel withstood the impact, but wooden coaches concertinaed. I think Colonel Trench, who was an expert of the Ministry of Transport at that date, said that he preferred the steel coach to the wooden coach. On January 16, 1936, there was an accident at Shrivenham, Buckinghamshire. Mr. Collett, who was the chief mechanical engineer, giving evidence, said: The brunt of the collision was taken by the steel frame of the brake van. It was extraordinary that the body was left practically intact. Colonel Mount, who was conducting the inquiry, asked: Do you think this form of construction saved life? The reply was: Yes, the small casualty list is entirely attributable to our form of construction, which prevented any concertina action or the crushing of passengers. At the beginning of this year there was an accident to the Winter Sports Express in France. In one carriage, which was all-steel, no one was injured at all, but in the wooden carriages there were thirteen killed. I think I have said quite enough to show your Lordships that the question of constructing all carriages of steel is a question which should be brought before the public, and I hope that I shall hear from the Minister of Transport very interesting facts and figures about it.


My Lords, I have listened with great interest to the speech of the noble Earl, and I think I may say that we are all in sympathy with the intention that lie has in view. There are certain remarks that occur to me on the subject. For one thing, we have not heard anything about the finance of scrapping a great number of wooden carriages and introducing a great number of steel carriages. So far as I know, the capital connected with the existing wooden or partly wooden passenger rolling-stock must amount to at least £100,000,000. When one takes into consideration the extreme rarity of railway accidents, which is mostly due to continuous brakes and block signals, we must be very careful about recommending any policy which would cause a large increase of expenditure at a time when the country can ill afford it. If large expenditure is to be incurred, it would certainly seem to me that there is a much better chance of saving life by spending the money on the roads than there is by spending it upon the railways.

Again, I do not think the noble Earl has quite appreciated how much has already been done in the direction that he advocates. It is not so much a question of steel coaches against wooden coaches as of coaches with great resistance that will not telescope and crumple up when an accident takes place. It is by no means certain that any sudden change over to what he describes as steel coaches would have that effect. What has actually happened of late years on the railways—I speak subject to correction; I see that a director of the Southern Railway will no doubt follow me; he knows better, and I see he shakes his head—is that for quite twenty or thirty years railway coaches in this country have been steadily increasing in strength, and when collisions occur it is a comparatively rare event for the train to telescope in the way a train used to do with the old matchbox rolling stock, as it was called. I wish to be fair to the railways; I have often spoken against them but in this respect I think they have done their duty. For the last thirty years or so the strength of carriages has been steadily increased, partly by more solid wooden construction and partly by introducing more and more steel, and the latest arrangement, which consists of very strong steel under-frames attached very firmly to one another with strong buckeye couplings, make it extremely improbable that one frame will ride upon another if an accident happens. I do not think there is any serious need, certainly not for legislation, to hurry up the introduction of steel rolling stock.

Then, of course, there is the question of fire. If you have all-steel rolling stock it is very much more difficult to break down the sides of the carriages in which passengers may be imprisoned than it is if you have wooden rolling stock. You can break through wooden walls comparatively easily, but steel walls have to be cut open by acetylene cutters and other apparatus, and in certain circumstances it is quite possible that the severity of the accident might be increased rather than diminished. The noble Earl has referred to the terrible railway accident at Lagny on the Eastern Railway of France four years ago. What happened at Lagny was that a train composed mostly or entirely of steel coaches ran, at a speed of approximately seventy miles an hour, into the back of a train which was only just on the move and composed for the most part of old wooden coaches. The wooden coaches were smashed to atoms, and almost the whole of the casualties, numbering some 200 killed, took place in the wooden coaches. The people in the steel coaches suffered very little. It has been pointed out, over and over again, however, that if both trains had been composed of steel coaches there is no reason whatever to suppose that the number of casualties would have been smaller, though they would no doubt have been more equally distributed between the two trains. So I do not regard that accident as furnishing convincing evidence in favour of steel coaches as against wooden coaches.

That is all I need say about that. But if the Government are going into the question of doing everything they can to avoid railway accidents there are certainly things which might be done and which would have, in my opinion, much greater effect in saving human life than the sudden introduction of a policy of building only steel coaches. The first of those concerns the great question of punctuality. It is a most extraordinary thing that punctuality has always been neglected on the British railways. British railway officials absolutely refuse to issue to the men distinct instructions on the importance of making up lost time. It is impossible to have perfect punctuality in Every way, and the only way to increase punctuality is to make up lost time. Of course it should not be done in a stupid or reckless manner, but carefully thought-out instructions could be issued to the drivers to which they could have recourse when trouble arose. Somehow or other the railway companies up to the present have entirely failed to draw up such regulations at all. If the Minister of Transport is in earnest and wants to prevent railway accidents this is one of the matters into which he should look most carefully. Another point is that it occasionally happens that a train takes a sharp curve at too high a speed. It is a very rare occurrence, but it does happen. The Great Western Railway have laid down a cab signalling apparatus which enables a train to be brought up automatically if it is running past a danger signal. It is quite a simple matter to extend this system so that if a train is approaching a sharp curve at too high a speed it would be automatically pulled up. I hope the Ministry of Transport will look into that question too. Otherwise, I do not think I need add anything except to repeat my sympathy with the intentions of the noble Earl, although I do not see entirely eye to eye with him.


My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has drawn the attention of His Majesty's Government to recent railway accidents, and asked if legislation is contemplated for the replacement of all wooden coaches by steel coaches. Official inquiries have been ordered into the circumstances attending the recent accidents at (1) Bow Road, (2) Battersea, and (3) Crewe. The question of the effects of the form of construction of the carriages concerned in these accidents will be a matter for careful consideration by the officers holding the inquiries, and it is of course not possible yet to anticipate their findings. The question of the strength of railway carriage stock has been considered by the Ministry, and earlier by the Board of Trade, on many occasions in the past, arising out of the reports of inquiries held into previous railway accidents, notably in the cases of Aisgill (1913), Darlington (1928), Charfield (1928), Port Eglinton (1934), Winwick Junction (1934), and Welwyn Garden City (1935). Consequent upon the investigation of these and other accidents, the attention of the main line railway companies has been drawn to the value of strengthening the construction of railway coaches, more especially by way of the reinforcement of bodies, ends, etc., of coaches; also by the adoption of improved coupling and buffer arrangements, which have proved of material value in many cases in reducing the effect of accidents; and during recent years all main line railway companies have made great progress in these directions.

The consensus of technical opinion, after having due regard to the experience of accidents both at home and abroad, has resulted in a practice on all main line British railways to construct all new stock with massive steel under-frames and substantial wood, or steel and wood, bodies. At the present time, the proportion of steel used in railway carriage construction is in the region of 75 to 80 per cent. of the total weight, the balance usually representing hardwood body framing, decorative fittings, panelling, internal linings, etc., where wood may be used. The latest methods of construction, for example the use of welding instead of riveting to which my noble friend Lord Monkswell referred, are adding further to the strength of vehicles. During the past three years, the number of coaches constructed with steel under-frames and steel, or steel and wood, bodies, has increased by over 4,000 and during the same period over 6,000 carriages constructed with wood, or part wood, under-frames have been scrapped. An analysis of the present stock of the main line companies shows that of a total of about 42,000 coaches, 33,000 are constructed with steel, and nearly 6,000 with steel and wood, under-frames, leaving only 3,000 with wood under-frames; 11,067 of the steel under-frame coaches have also steel, or steel and wood, bodies.

As a result of their study of the question in the light of the accidents which the noble Lord no doubt has in mind, the technical advisers of the Ministry are of opinion that there is no justification on safety grounds for pressing the main line companies to depart radically from their latest practice, which is tending to ever-increasing strength. Apart from fire risk, which has been so largely reduced by the substitution of electric lighting for gas, it should not be forgotten that, when a collision occurs, the momentum of moving vehicles has to be absorbed somehow, and the resulting incidence of casualty must always be largely fortuitous. Dynamics cannot be eliminated by the use of all-steel construction, which is not necessarily stronger than composite construction. It may happen that coaches are thrown about violently, with widespread damage and injury; on the other hand, there may be telescoping with resultant destruction of possibly only one vehicle, with perhaps a high proportion of casualties therein, but comparative immunity for the rest of the train. It should also be remembered that in this country the utmost efforts are made to prevent accidents, as well as to minimise the effects when accidents do unfortunately occur. I think I am right in saying that in 1936 only three passen- gers were killed as a result of train accidents, and that is a very remarkable illustration of the degree of safety that exists to-day in our present arrangements. I hope by the remarks that I have made that I have managed to dispel some, it not all, of the fears which the noble Earl expressed in his speech.


My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Earl very much for his reply. I am certainly very much relieved by what he has said, and I am sure the public generally outside your Lordships' House will also be relieved.