HL Deb 27 March 1969 vol 300 cc1463-73

7.58 p.m.

THE EARL OF CROMARTIE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, in view of the potential danger to the travelling public due to the frequency of derailments, whether they will direct British Railways to withdraw from service the type of goods wagon which is liable to be derailed at speed or to reduce the speed of trains made up with such wagons. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I have put down this Question as I know there are a number of noble Lords, as well as many railway travellers outside your Lordships' House, who are perturbed by the ever-increasing number of derailments on British Railways. Apart from the loss of time—not to mention the expense to the taxpayer which these derailments cause in the re-routing of the trains and clearance of the track, which often must be re-laid—there is a very real danger involved. I do not have to remind noble Lords that only two or three weeks ago a young cadet travelling on the Western Region was killed, due to the passenger express in which he was travelling colliding with one of these derailments. What, my Lords, would have been the scale of the disaster if the cement train derailed last year on the King's Cross/Edinburgh line had fallen inwards, instead of outwards, right in the track of the following Flying Scotsman?

Leaving aside the sub-standard maintenance of rolling-stock, a situation which in my opinion is not helped by the progressive closing of the Scottish repair depôts, there is little doubt that the design of certain goods wagons, more especially the 16-ton mineral wagons, should be subject to some very close scrutiny indeed. Whether they should be taken out of service, or modified in some way, I do not know, but this is a matter which should not be swept under the carpet. I think and hope that the Minister will agree with me that the public should be told what remedial measures are contemplated, before there is a major disaster.

8.1 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend on this very important subject. It is high time that the Government were probed about their intentions in regard to the standards which they propose to operate in their freight wagon fleet. The problem, as I understand it, is that the Railways Board have some 800,000 wagons in operation, 75 per cent. of which are the short-wheel-base variety, built for limited speeds of 45 miles an hour and now totally unsuitable for modern requirements. I believe that a great majority of the 75 per cent. I have mentioned are over 30 years old. Nevertheless, they are used, and have to be used; and, in consequence, too often they are running too fast for their capabilities for too long a period, so that they then overheat and consequently seize up.

Besides the handicap of out-of-date rolling stock, the railway depôts also suffer from a serious shortage of available wagon fleets at certain times of the year. I believe I am right in saying that in peak periods the shortage is something like 30,000 wagons. As was evident the other day, coal traffic had to be turned away from the railways—the very traffic which we were told the railways would cope with under the new Transport Act. The problem is acute, and the result of using this old and ancient rolling stock is that there is now continuing evidence of delays and breakdowns, loss of punctuality in services and now possible accidents. The loss of punctuality in services was particularly stressed in the recent Annual Report of the Central Transport Users' Consultative Committee.

I should like to put four specific questions on the wagon fleet. First, I would ask the noble Lord what research has been done into the overheating of wagon axles and what results have been achieved. Secondly, is it likely that these old-type wagons can be modified, or will they have to be scrapped? Thirdly, how many wagons now in operation are restricted to the 45 m.p.h. limit? Finally, what research has been carried out on the new disc-brake system?

I suggest that the remedy, or partial remedy, is to keep open some of the alternative routes and, where possible, to separate freight from passenger traffic. I could cite the example of two routes between Gloucester and Birmingham, the Bromsgrove route and the Stratford-on-Avon route. The Railways Board intend to keep open the Bromsgrove route and, ultimately, to close the Stratford-on-Avon route. But the Bromsgrove route is extremely hilly for the carriage of freight and includes the famous Licky incline. It has already been proved that this incline is so steep that a number of trains have overrun or overshot the points. I believe that regulations have now been adopted which slow down the services. The freight service generally is not a happy one. The freight services, despite the provisions of the Transport Act, are decreasing every year, revenue has gone down, the services are being withdrawn, and the equipment is old. It is time that we were given the Government's view of the long-term future planning of the Railways Board.

8.6 p.m.


My Lords, I have a good deal of sympathy with the noble Earl's anxiety as disclosed by his Question, for to-night I set off on my eighth overnight journey undertaken this month. On occasions when my sleeper has been "over the wheels", I have been particularly conscious of the manner in which the bogeys of even the passenger coaches "hunt" at high speeds on some parts of the track, especially on the electrified Euston/Crewe section where they reach speeds of 90 to 100 m.p.h. and come down the banks of the Shap and Beatock.

One cannot help hearing or reading about derailments. Indeed, when one sees a goods train, the wagons of which are necessarily loose-coupled, coming down one of these banks, one appreciates the strain on the wagons and tracks which arises in the present conditions. Last Friday there was a wagon standing in the loop beside the arrival platform at Carstairs with one bearing so burnt out that the wagon had to be chocked up. I understand that it had been there for two or three days and was not the first wagon to have gone wrong in that area recently. Admittedly, all the main line goods wagons have now got oil bearings, but they are modified wagons of the short wheel-base type to which the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has referred. That does not convert them into modern vehicles which are safe to attach to modern trains. The speed of the schedules and the long hauls as compared with the days of steam must put considerable strain on couplings and bearings, especially where sections of the track are in need of replacement.

Without wishing to be alarmist in any way (I confess that I would rather travel by train than by air, all else being equal) I look forward to hearing the noble Lord's reply to my noble friend's Question. Needless to say, I hope that it will be reassuring. Nothing, short of a head-on collision, could be worse than an express train at speed running into a wagon derailed from the opposite line. I was interested when the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, referred to alternative routes. If the density of traffic over the Beatock section calls for high speed schedules, with the necessary drop coming down the bank from the other side, is this not a further reason for the Waverley line to have been kept open in order to relieve the pressure of the goods traffic on the main Carlisle/Carstairs route in order to enable the managers to reduce the schedules of goods trains over the bank?

8.10 p.m.


My Lords, in asking his Question the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, made a commendably brief speech, an example which has been followed both by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier. I am afraid that I must take a little more time because, as each of those noble Lords indicated, the brevity of their speeches did not mask the seriousness of the subject that we are discussing.

The Question as framed by the noble Earl implies that the Government have power to direct British Railways to withdraw from service any type of goods wagon that is liable to be derailed at speed, or to reduce the speed of trains made up with such wagons. I must emphasise right away that the Government have no such power. Under the 1962 Transport Act, responsibility for the safety and efficiency of operation of the railways is the statutory responsibility of the British Railways Board, and the Government cannot, nor would they wish to, if they could, directly interfere with that responsibility. I think I should also, right at the start, put this matter in its proper perspective by pointing out that during 1968 the number of goods train derailments on plain track per million goods train miles on all lines, based on figures supplied by the British Railways Board, was only 2.97. So, while it is necessary and right that the noble Earl should draw attention to the number of accidents, one ought not to allow, either by admission or by inadvertence, the impression to get around that goods wagons are being involved in derailments all over the place.

Railway safety is, however, a matter about which my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport maintains close contact with the British Railways Board, through the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways. Over this problem of goods train derailments the Ministry, through the Railway Inspectorate, have been working in close co-operation with the Railways Board since the incidence of goods train derailments, and, in particular, those caused by short wheelbase wagons with old type suspensions, first began to assume significant proportions. The short wheelbase wagon first showed itself to be prone to derailment on plain track in 1960 when a series of derailments occurred in which such a wagon was the first to leave the rails at a speed of less than 60 m.p.h.—which at that time was the maximum permitted speed for any train that included short wheelbase 4-wheeled wagons.

This speed limit had obtained for many years, but with steam traction comparatively few goods trains in fact exceeded 45–50 m.p.h. for any considerable distance, and although derailments involving short wheelbase wagons had occurred from time to time, they were generally ascribed to the defective condition of the wagon itself or to the state of the track at the point of derailment. With the introduction of powerful diesel locomotives on express goods trains, the actual mileage covered at speeds over 45 m.p.h. increased considerably, and it became evident that certain types of 4-wheeled wagons of short wheelbase were (and I use this expression with some diffidence, seeing the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, sitting opposite) derailment-prone even when apparently in good order, and that when running at speed on plain track only a very slight track irregularity could be enough to derail a wagon.

The incidence of short wheelbase derailments first began to be significant in 1962, and in succeeding years the Chief Inspecting Officer has called attention, through the medium of his Annual Report on railway accidents, to the increase in goods train derailments of this particular kind. Throughout this period, also, there have been a series of discussions between the inspecting officers and officers of British Railways who were fully alive to its seriousness right from the first. During 1961 and 1962 the Board instituted a drive to improve the standard of maintenance of goods rolling stock, and withdrew from traffic one particular type of short wheelbase wagon, the pallet van, which had an especially bad derailment record. Quite early in these discussions the possible need for a reduction in the maximum speed permitted for short wheelbase wagons was being urgently considered, and early in 1963 a limit of 50 m.p.h. was placed on all trains that included them.

In 1963, also, the Board referred the problem to their Research Department at Derby, where a series of experiments was put in hand to test the running of short wheelbase wagons over track that included known irregularities. As a result of these tests, of the wealth of evidence that had been accumulating over the years, and of the continuing discussions with the inspecting officers, the British Railways Board early in 1966 took the highly restrictive step of reducing the speed limit for all trains that included wagons with a wheelbase of 10 feet or under to 45 m.p.h. It is at this figure that the speed limit for these wagons still stands. I can assure noble Lords that, in addition to making these reductions in the speed limit, the Board have, over a period, taken action in various ways to ensure that this speed limit is not broken.

As regards the present limit, I feel that I should point out that recent analyses of goods wagon derailments show that the reduction of the speed limit to 45 m.p.h. has already largely eliminated speed as a major factor in short wheelbase derailments. Of the 156 such derailments in 1968, there were only 3 in which a speed of between 35 and 45 m.p.h. was considered to be a contributing factor. This, I am informed, shows that the way ahead does not lie in any further reduction of a limit which is already highly restrictive from the operational point of view. Nevertheless, 156 out of a total of 215 derailments on plain track in 1968 were caused by short wheelbase wagons. And the incidence, at any rate up to the end of 1968, was still rising, the comparable figures for 1966 and 1967 being 83 out of a total of 144, and 107 out of a total of 169 respectively.

The core of the problem is, of course, that out of a British Railways' fleet of 4-wheeled wagons that totals just over 400,000, nearly 330,000 have short wheelbases. It is indeed the sheer numbers of short wheelbase wagons that makes them such a problem, the two types that caused most derailments in 1968 being the 16-ton mineral wagon, of which there are over 186,000, and the vanfit, of which are are nearly 50,000. Noble Lords have asked: what are the measures, short of the withdrawal of wagons from service (which would seriously reduce British Railways' capacity to handle their goods traffic) that have been, and are being, taken to reduce the proportion of short wheelbase wagons in the British Railways' goods wagon fleet? Let me give some answers.

Since 1962 no further short wheelbase wagons have been built, either by British Railways or by private owners. With very few exceptions, all new wagons built since then have been of 15 ft. wheelbase or above, and all the main classes of wagons built have been provided with suspensions of improved design. Most of these wagons are capable of running safely at speeds of at least 60 m.p.h. Since 1962, also, private owners have acquired some 10,000 new wagons, mainly tank wagons, all of which are of long wheelbase and are fitted with modern types of suspension. This has enabled British Railways to take positive action to eliminate most of the private-owner, short wheelbase wagons.

During the last four years over 1,300 bogie wagons have been introduced to meet freightliner requirements, which has enabled the fleet of short wheelbase covered goods vans and open wagons to be substantially reduced. Thus there has been a progressive reduction in the number of goods vans, but by the nature of the work on which they are used they incur the longest mileages at sustained speed. Similarly, the introduction of nearly 5,000 new, high-capacity, long wheelbase coal wagons for what I am told is described as "Merry-go-round" working between the collieries and the power stations has enabled British Railways to dispense with an appreciable number of short wheelbase mineral wagons.

As regards the immediate future, noble Lords should know that the size and type of some of the wagons needed for the carriage of the future types of goods traffic have only recently been decided. Studies to determine the likely amount of freight the Board can expect to carry over the -next two decades will take sonic time to reach fruition. The results will eventually govern the final pattern of the future British Railways' goods fleet. It is not just a question of a like-for-like substitution of wagons with modern suspension for those at present existing. In anticipation, however, of what the requirement would be for the future wagon fleet, British Railways initiated in 1965 the design and building of six prototype wagons of long wheelbase and with double link suspension for technical assessment. These have proved satisfactory when running at speeds up to 75 m.p.h. Following this, in mid-1968 my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport gave authority for the construction of 250 covered goods vans of this design to enable a commercial assessment to be carried out.

Finally, as regards replacement the the British Railways Board have told my right honourable friend that they will shortly be submitting to him a request for authority to build a number of new long wheelbase wagons in connection with the development of general freight traffic. Thus, within the financial limitations imposed on the Board action will be taken to replace the old short wheelbase wagon fleet as quickly as possible.

As to the immediate future, analyses of the plain track short wheelbase derailments in 1968 suggest that the main single factors are traction and braking shocks (some 31 per cent.) and mechanical failures (some 20 per cent.), with minor defects in the track some way behind (some 10 per cent.). These track defects, where they occurred on passenger lines, were insufficient to affect passenger trains but were enough to upset the balance of a short wheelbase wagon. Some 12 per cent. of short wheelbase derailments were attributed to multiple causes; that is, when minor deficiencies in wagon and track tolerances come together. The Board have been and are taking steps to overcome these three factors. Traction and braking shocks, particularly at slow speeds, when they have most often caused derailments, are the results of minor faults in driving techniques associated with the type of equipment, and measures for improvement in these fields are actively in hand.

Mechanical failures are in many cases the result of insufficient or faulty maintenance. Great emphasis is being placed on the need for better maintenance, and active steps for its improvement are also being taken. Derailments of short wheelbase wagons because of defective track have mainly been the result of slight twists in the track, which have been insufficient to affect wagons with suspensions of satisfactory design, much less passenger coaches. Standards of track maintenance on goods lines that run alongside passenger lines and where a derailment might affect a passenger train are being given special attention.

At this point I might mention the Ashchurch accident, to which the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, referred. He will forgive me if I do not follow him in this matter, but the inquiry into that starts to-morrow and it would be quite improper for me to make any comment about it. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, asked a number of questions. I think I have covered them, but I should like to say, on the question of withdrawal of wagons, that it is a matter for the Board in the first instance, in their investment projects, to decide whether to scrap or to replace; but when I mention that the cost of providing a new wagon is something of the order of £5,000 it will be seen that the task of replacing some 300,000 wagons is not the sort of thing which can be thrown at the British Railways Board all at once when they are faced with the requirement to operate in a system where deficit-financing is at an end. But I hope I have said enough to make it clear that the Board regard this as a strong claimant upon their investment projects. Does the noble Earl wish to say something?


My Lords, I do not think the noble Lord has quite told us what the long-term plans of the Railways Board are as regards replacement and the withdrawal of these wagons. I think we are entitled to know that.


I think I have covered that in general terms. I have indicated the sort of steps they have already taken; I have indicated the fact that there are 250 of the new type being constructed so that there is a proper commercial assessment; and I have also indicated the steps which the Board have taken to try to work out the kind of wagon which they are likely to need for the other traffic which they may expect to get. So the Board are doing as much as they can within their resources immediately. But they have to recognise the fact that the right solution is to fit this in, as the noble Earl has said, with proposals to meet the long-term situation.

Finally, I should like to assure noble Lords that my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport, through the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways, is keeping closely in touch with developments in this field. He is satisfied that, within the limits set by the availability of financial resources and the need to avoid building wagons before the future requirements can be determined, as satisfactory a programme as possible is being followed for the replacement of the worst short wheelbase wagons and for the maintenance of those that have got to remain in use and of the track on which they are to run.

I know that neither my right honourable friend nor the British Railways Board view the problem with complacency. I think it is proper and useful that the noble Earl should have asked this Question, because undoubtedly there is from time to time a large measure of public concern about an accident of this kind. I have spoken at some length because I think it is right, in the interests both of the general public and of the Railways Board, that as much as possible of this information should be put on public record.