§ 3.36 p.m.
§ THE MINISTER WITHOUT PORTFOLIO (LORD MANCROFT)
My Lords, with your Lordships' permission and that of the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, I should like to intervene to make a statement on the rail crash last night at Lewisham.
At about 6.20 p.m. last night at the country end of St. Johns Station on the South Eastern Down Main Line, the 4.56 p.m. eleven-coach steam passenger train from Cannon Street to Ramsgate collided heavily with the rear of the 5.18 p.m. ten-coach electric passenger train from Charing Cross to Hayes, which was standing at a signal with the brakes on. Both trains were running late because of fog, and they were crowded with passengers. 867 The collision occurred underneath the bridge which carries the railway from Nunhead to Lewisham over the main line. The leading coach of the steam train left the line of the track and knocked away a supporting column, dropping two of the steel girders of the bridge on to the first two coaches of the steam train, which was still moving.
The engine of the steam train was not derailed and there was not much damage to the rear coach of the electric train, but the two coaches ahead of it were telescoped together and the body of one of them was swept away. The three leading coaches of the steam train were practically demolished by the fallen bridge. An electric train which was moving slowly on to the bridge was stopped by its driver when he saw the trouble below and it was neither derailed nor damaged.
I deeply regret to say that the casualty roll in the crowded trains was very heavy. So far as it is known at present 76 people have been killed, including the guard of the electric train, and 193 injured, 116 of them seriously. My right honourable friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation has appointed the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways to hold an Inquiry into this accident, and my right honourable friend the Minister visited the site with him this morning. I am sure the House will understand that the Government cannot make any further statement on this matter at present.
The Government would like to take this opportunity of paying a tribute to the outstanding work done, not only by the emergency services and the voluntary organisations but also by those living near the scene, who so unselfishly put their houses and their belongings at the disposal of the rescuers. The conditions in the dense fog and darkness were appallingly difficult and distressing, and there can be nothing but praise for all concerned who worked with such efficiency and determination throughout.
Your Lordships' House will, I know, wish to express its deep sympathy with the relatives and friends of those who lost their lives in this accident and with those who were injured. Sir Brian Robertson has also asked my right honourable friend to express his sympathy and that of the British 868 Transport Commission, and to say that the Commission will accept full legal liability for compensation in connection with the accident and that all such claims will receive full and early consideration.
§ 3.39 p.m.
VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLS-BOROUGH
My Lords, it is with very deep emotion, I am sure, not merely in Parliament but throughout the whole nation, that the news which has now been given in detail by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has been received. This is one of the greatest disasters that we can recollect in the history of our passenger railway service in this country. The surrounding circumstances of fog, darkness and generally horrible conditions which affected everyone, not only those suffering from injury but those who were seeking to do their utmost to rescue them, were such that the whole spectacle was one of dire distress. We can only pray that those who have been injured may be looked after and helped to recovery by Divine Providence and that provision will be made for them, and that the same Divine comfort may come to the large number of people who are already bereaved and, as seems likely, to the greater number still to be bereaved. My colleagues and I share what has been said in the last two paragraphs of the statement.
Before any of us begins to pass any hasty judgment on this, that or the other point likely to arise, we should await the result of the detailed inquiry which will be made. I do not think that we should forget to utter a word of sympathy with the devoted railway servants who had to face their tasks under weather conditions like this. On the night before last I sought to go home from your Lordships' House in my own car, and for the last three-quarters of an hour I was exceedingly afraid of the method of propulsion under my control, because I could see nothing at all. When we think of the conditions under which these men and women work, our hearts go out to them and we pray that because of these conditions they may not make mistakes, though they suffer great hardship in their occupation.
My Lords, I should like to add from this part of the House our full agreement with what the noble Viscount has said about this terrible calamity 869 and to express our sympathy with those involved and with the relatives of those who have been killed. There is one point I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft: The newspapers have reported with what extraordinary generosity the people in the neighbourhood of the accident turned out everything available to help. It has been said that there is not a family in the district of Thurston Road which has not given blankets, hot tea and everything else that could be thought of, to help the injured. I am sure that these people did not think of any reward and would not think of taking a reward for what they have done, but perhaps my noble friend could see that they receive some compensation for their being out of pocket as a result of their generosity and warmth of heart.
§ LORD BALFOUR OF INCHRYE
My Lords, could I put one point to the noble Lord? He said that there was going to be an inquiry by the Chief Inspector of Accidents. In a great national disaster such as this, is it right that the Chief Inspector of Accidents, worthy official as he is, who has many other railway accidents to investigate, should be the focal point of the investigation? Might such an investigation not take in broader aspects of railway policy than the immediate causes of this accident? Would the Minister consider, as has occurred in the case of great national air disasters, a wider tribunal, consisting of an independent Chairman assisted by two assessors, who could look at the accident both in particular and in the light of general railway policy?
My Lords, I am not a technical expert in this matter and I will certainly take into consideration the point which the noble Lord has raised. I must say, from experience of past accidents, that usually there has been universal approval for the manner in which the Chief Inspector has carried out his difficult task. I know that he commands the utmost respect in all walks in the country. I will also bring the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rea, to the attention of my right honourable friend.
My Lords, may I add that I think that this is a general point and not one with reference only to a particular street or to one disaster?