HL Deb 05 November 1969 vol 305 cc335-9

2.36 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a statement concerning British Railways policy with regard to laying down long welded rail, and what special safety measures are being taken in that connection.]


My Lords, the British Railways Board, whose responsibility this is, have informed my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport that they intend to extend the mileage of continuous welded rail as quickly as possible. There are several reasons for their adoption of this policy. It will lead to an increased life for the track components and reduced maintenance costs: it will lead to a smoother ride for the rail vehicles using the track and for the passengers in them; most importantly, there will be a greatly reduced risk of broken rails, and such breaks as do occur will be likely to be less dangerous.

The Board say that since 1960, when the laying of continuous welded rail was started, the Code of Practice they have been using has been regarded as satisfactory. But the unusual weather conditions and the high occurrence of track distortions in continuous welded rail in the recent summer have shown that the margins already provided must be increased to ensure the stability of continuous welded track. Your Lordships may be interested to learn that the distortions in jointed track in 1969 have also been greatly above average. The special measures the Board have now put in hand to increase the margins of resistance to heat distortion in continuous welded track take the form of increased ballast provision and of the re-adjustment of the continuous rails themselves to a higher stressfree temperature condition than has hitherto been deemed necessary. This work should be completed before the onset of the hot weather of 1970.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his full Answer to my Question. May I ask him whether he is aware that, in the light of recent accidents, there is a good deal of anxiety about the safety of the continuous welded rail, despite its obvious advantages? There are two questions that I do not think the noble Lord completely answered in his full reply, which I should like to study. The first is whether the continuous welded rail is out of the experimental stage; and secondly, whether experience in this country and elsewhere has been sufficient to establish all the facts needed for satisfactory laying down and maintenance. If the answer to the second question is "Yes", why are we still having trouble? If the answer is "No", can the noble Lord tell us what action, other than what he has now told us, is being taken to establish maintenance satisfactorily?


My Lords, first of all, we are in close contact with other nations using continuous welded rail. There is a constant interchange of information between ourselves and other countries using this system. If I may be completely frank with the noble Lord, I think the problem is that it is well beyond the experimental stage. In the beginning of this process from 1960 there were no accidents, but it is considered that it is possible, although by no means certain, that as continuous welded rail becomes a commonplace perhaps the standards to which this track is laid are not as closely rigid as was the case in the early stages of laying continuous welded track. In my Answer your Lordships will have noted that the Code of Practice is being surveyed and tightened up to ensure that the admittedly rising number of accidents in continuous welded rail do not in fact continue. The result of the inquiry into the accident at Somerton may show that the abnormally good weather conditions this summer caused the accident.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord one further question? Is he aware that his reference to the abnormally good weather conditions of this summer and the higher temperatures, is rather disturbing? Is he further aware that in other countries in Europe and America, where far higher temperatures obtain, a great deal of experience must have been gained, with wider ranges of temperature difference between summer and winter? And is the noble Lord aware that there is a rather uncomfortable feeling that there his not been quite the sufficiency of care given to this innovation that there ought to have been?


My Lords, the noble Lord may think it worth while to debate the report on the accidents that have taken place which will appear early in the new year.


My Lords, my noble friend has said that welding will increase the life of the rail. Can he give us an assurance that it will not diminish the life of the passengers?


My Lords, can my noble friend say whether he and British Railways have taken account of the fact that what were abnormal temperatures last summer may not be abnormal if we continue to discharge carbon dioxide into the air by the burning of various fossil carbons, so increasing the greenhouse effect?


My Lords, is it possible that welded rails can be satisfactorily used for very complicated crossovers, such as exist outside London Bridge?


My Lords, that is a technical question which I am afraid I am not able to answer. This may come out in the inquiry.


My Lords, can the noble Lord clear up one point? In one of his replies to my noble friend he said, I think, that the standards used now are not so accurate as the standards used in 1960. Did the noble Lord mean that the standards used now are different, or that the implementation of the standards is not as precise as it was?


My Lords, it is just possible that familiarity may be breeding some contempt, if I may put it this way, and it is for this reason that the Railways Board are re-examining the codes of procedure relating to the laying of this track.


My Lords, my noble friend did not answer my question, apparently on the ground that it was thought to be frivolous. It was not frivolous, and I would ask: can he give us an assurance that the welded rail is not shortening the lives of the passengers?


My Lords, if I may say so, that is a very different question.


My Lords, the noble Lord has given us a wealth of information but, arising out of the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton, can he tell us where the experiments on which a great many of his statements are based are taking place?


My Lords, I shall have to write to the noble Lord on that point.


My Lords, will the noble Lord take into consideration the anxiety of other Members of this House, and will he not make it possible for the whole House to be aware of this interesting information when he has ascertained it?


My Lords, may I repeat what I said? The accidents that took place this summer are at present the subject of a study, and a report will be issued early in the new year. Without doubt, it will be a very detailed report. May I suggest to noble Lords that its publication may provide an opportunity to discuss the implications of the accidents that are taking place.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether this report will also cover the accident at Somerton in Somerset?


Yes, my Lords, that is correct; it will.