HL Deb 16 April 1970 vol 309 cc556-9

3.14 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 what further measures they are asking British Railways to take in the light of Major Rose's report on railway accidents due to failures in continuous welded rail.]


My Lords, Major Rose's report on the rail-way accidents that occurred on continuous welded rail track during 1969, and on the general safety of this form of track, is an interim one. It lists the various weaknesses in design and procedures that have been brought to light following the accidents, and the measures being taken by the Railways Board to strengthen existing track and to ensure that track laid in future will have a greater resistance to distortion. The investigation is continuing, and further reports will be published. These will, of course, describe what further action the Board may decide to take. But statutory responsibility for the safety of operation of British Railways rests with the Board, and not with the Government.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for that Answer to my Question? Is he aware that, following the three serious derailments of last year, there is a good deal of public anxiety about this matter, and although continuous welded rail should be the safest and most economic method of rail-laying this anxiety continues? In the light of Major Rose's findings that some 90 per cent, of these distortions are due to faulty installation or lack of maintenance, could the noble Lord tell us what assurances British Rail-ways have given to Her Majesty's Government that they are really covering those aspects of it that are under their control?


My Lords, I would not claim to be an expert on this subject which, having prepared my-self to answer this Question, I find is much more complex than I myself fore-saw. As the noble Lord is probably aware, the British Railways Board at its Derby Research Station is carrying out extensive researches into the problem, and a second interim report on its findings will be published towards the end of this year. A final report will come later because of two particular elements in the study. Some of the short-comings of procedures that were indicated were, in fact, not shortcomings in the integrity of the individual but were due to lack of knowledge of how sophisticated this problem is in its nature.


My Lords, do I understand my noble friend to say that as a result of the interim report some steps have been taken to remedy existing faults in procedure? Could he be more specific about the steps that are going to be taken about rails that have already been laid and are thought to be dangerous?


My Lords, as I said, I am not hiding behind words, but this is extraordinarily complex. The actual second interim report which I have forecast will depend on studies into the cold rolling of rails, which has an effect on stressing the rails, and the relating of newly rolled rails to rails already in position. That is a complicated relationship. The second study relates to temperature cycling of the bed, of the ballast of rails. The question which the noble Lord put to me originally was on the temperature of last summer. It is not extremes of temperature that are now indicated to be the problem, but temperature cycling and its effect on the ballast. This subject is not one you can deal with by a simple "Yes" or "No" answer. If my noble friend is interested, I am certain we could arrange a small debate on the subject.


My Lords, in view of the fact that there are many miles of this welded rail on the Continent and elsewhere, could my noble friend give any indication whether consultations have been taking place about these Continental lines compared with ours? Could he also say what the difference is in laying these long welded rails here compared with the Continental system?


My Lords, I think the experience of German rail-ways, if we talk about this specifically, is very similar to our own. They had two serious accidents in 1969, caused by the buckling of track formed of rail welded into 70 metre lengths. The Ministry of Transport and the British Railways Board are both in touch with the Continental railway administrations, and in particular with the Germans, to find a firm solution to this problem.


My Lords, assuming that we may this forthcoming summer get the same differences in temperature which occurred last summer, and which apparently caused the temperature cycling, or what-ever it is called, which was the cause of this buckling, can the noble Lord say whether work has been done on all the welded rail presently laid down which would prevent that from happening in the circumstances I have adumbrated?


No, my Lords, I cannot, because as a result of last year's experience a whole series of tests will be taking place during the coming summer in order to establish with certainty the various factors relating to this particular problem. That is one of the reasons for a second interim report in the autumn.


My Lords, may I put a supplementary question to the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell? Do we understand that the British Railways Board are having consultations with the European countries which we know have longer experience with welded rail than we have? And supplementary to the noble Lord's reply to the question by the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger, may I ask this question? Paragraph 40 of the Report tells us that after the Somerton disaster the chief civil engineer of the Western Region issued special instructions about de-stressing for certain distances beyond any spot at which rails had been disturbed for maintenance reasons. My question is, why has this line of thought not been reproduced in the new British Railways Code of Practice? Or is it in fact incorporated in sub-paragraph 7?


My Lords, without answering the noble Lord's question in detail, I can answer him in principle. In point of fact, the Somerton disaster was due to human error but not human negligence. As I said earlier, this is an extremely sophisticated problem. The engineer in question carried out all the practices with precision, but there were certain factors—namely, the restructuring of the bridge and the disturbance of the ballast before that time—which caused the accident to take place. We know what happened on that occasion, and that is why I am saying that studies are going forward and there will be tests during the summer, and a second interim report will, we hope, be issued in the autumn. It is not a simple question, as it might seem.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for the trouble he has taken to deal with this complicated subject? Is he aware that we recognise that it is complicated and might more easily be dealt with by an Unstarred Question, and that we may pursue it in the future in that way?


My Lords, can it be said that a large number of accidents with jointed rails led to the adoption of single welded rails?


My Lords, the noble Marquess is of course right. We have had very serious accidents with non-welded jointed rails.