§ 5.34 p.m.
§ Lord Brooks of Tremorfa
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. I am indebted to the honourable Member for Gateshead East for piloting the Bill so far. I am delighted that he has used the opportunity of his success in the Private Members' ballot to promote such a useful measure. This Bill will rectify anomalies in the powers controlling changes to the protection and operation of level crossings.
I will begin by explaining the need for the Bill. Of course, most level crossings in the United Kingdom are on lines operated by the British Railways Board. Changes to almost all of these can be authorised by an order made by the Secretary of State for Transport at the request of British Railways. This is a simple, straightforward procedure and administrative costs are low. But there are also a number of level crossings on railways run by private operators, as well as a few 1601 crossings on British Railways lines, to which changes can only be authorised by private Acts of Parliament or in some cases by a light railway order. I have in mind in particular private companies who operate lines to transport goods, or preservation societies who run tourist railways. This curious state of affairs arises because of the complex tangle of legislation at present covering level crossings. It may help noble Lords if I briefly outline the powers as they exist so that they can see the gaps for themselves.
Much railway legislation is 19th century and the powers controlling level crossings are no exception. Our Victorian forefathers provided legal powers for level crossings to be built and for the provision of protection at crossings for their users. Most of these powers for public railways were drawn together in the Railway Clauses Consolidation Act 1845, though there is still much extant private legislation providing similar powers in special circumstances. Most private railways are still covered by private Acts of this kind. What none of these powers provided was an ability to modernise the protection provided. Men with red flags or other protection suitable for a Victorian railway remained the order of the day.
To meet the needs of the second half of the 20th century, the British Transport Commission Act 1957 and the Transport Act 1968 provided the Minister of Transport—now the Secretary of State—with the power to authorise by order the modernising of the operation and protection of level crossings on virtually all lines operated by British Railways. But there are no similar powers to authorise modernisation of level crossings on lines run by private operators.
The only ways for a private operator to escape from this difficulty are to promote private legislation or, if applicable, to seek a light railway order. Private legislation and light railway orders are costly and time consuming procedures. Operators of the relatively small numbers of crossings on private railways which are in need of modernisation are quite understandably deterred by the expense and complexity of this legal anomaly, while, for the vast majority of level crossings in the country, British Railways have a convenient and simple means of obtaining authorisation for change.
It is quite wrong for different operators of level crossings to be treated in different ways by the law in this arbitrary fashion. This is the biggest gap in existing legislation which the Bill will plug by bringing all operators into line with the procedures currently applying to most British Railways crossings. But because the Bill allows the Secretary of State to authorise level crossing modernisation on the application of any railway operator the Bill will also remedy a few other deficiencies in existing legislation. One example is that the law relating to British Railways crossings over public roads which did not exist at the time the railway was built is uncertain. The Bill will solve that dilemma since authorisation can be given irrespective of the date of the road. Another example of a difficulty is that unless a non-British Railways crossing happens to be covered by existing statute, or the crossing falls within the jurisdiction of a highway authority, there are no powers to provide appropriate traffic signs. The Bill will allow the Secretary of State to authorise any necessary traffic signs.
1602 I hope that I have made clear to the House why this Bill is necessary. I should like to add, by way of reassurance, a few words on what it does not do. I am aware that there is general interest in level crossings and, in particular concern about their safety. First, let me say that this Bill does not touch on the question of what level of protection is appropriate at a crossing. It only seeks to provide an appropriate legal and administrative framework for any modernisation which is deemed necessary. Secondly, the Bill will not lead to unnecessary expense. The initiative for proposing modernisation will rest with the operator who will be responsible for the costs of the work. Thirdly, the Bill does not provide powers to restrict hours of operation of a crossing or to close it. It will not, therefore, restrict the rights of road users using level crossings.
This is a modest measure. However, it is fair and useful and is widely welcomed by those whom it will affect. There has been consultation with a wide range of interested bodies which has revealed considerable support for its intentions: indeed, no one has raised any objection to them. My Lords, I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a Second time.—(Lord Brooks of Tremorfa.)
My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships very long, but I should like to congratulate my noble friend on the way in which he has explained the provisions of the Bill. He has explained its purpose and that it fills a gap. It is something that is badly needed. He described it as a modest measure. However, I think that having heard his explanation noble Lords will agree that it is an important measure. My only purpose in speaking on the Motion is to indicate that although it is a Private Member's Bill I hope that not only will noble Lords support it but that the Government themselves will give it their wholehearted blessing.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Lord Lucas of Chilworth
My Lords, I also should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooks of Tremorfa, for the very lucid way in which he has described the Bill which he is putting before your Lordships this afternoon. I am also grateful to him for bringing the Bill forward and to the honourable Member for Gateshead East who launched the Bill in another place. I should like to add a few words of support. This is a worthwhile measure which will remove the wasteful anomaly of different legal and administrative controls applying to the modernisation of level crossings, depending on their circumstances. Railways have to be authorised to cross roads on the level, and modernisation can be needed to improve the safety of crossings, to make the railway cheaper to operate or to speed the flow of traffic using the crossing. To enable itself to modernise crossings the British Transport Commission, the forerunner of the British Railways Board, took the powers which have been described to us in the 1957 Act. These were added to in the Transport Act 1968. However, as the noble Lord said, neither of those two Acts is normally available to railways other than British Railways.
There are many railways not covered by these powers, but none of them has access to the straightforward 1603 procedures for modernising level crossings which British Railways enjoy. To British Rail, the costs of an order under the relevant Acts are minimal, but any other railway operator who wants to modernise his crossing has either to promote a private Bill, or apply for a light railway order. As the noble Lord, Lord Brooks, has said, the delays and expense involved in using either of these methods are considerable. To the Government that state of affairs seems to be somewhat invidious, and I very much welcome the Bill because it will resolve this anomalous position.
The Railway Inspectorate have recommended the introduction of a measure such as this since the 1978 report on level crossing safety drew attention to the gaps in current legislation. Unhappily, pressure on parliamentary time has prevented anything being included in Government legislation, and so I very much welcome the noble Lord's bringing forward the proposals contained in the Bill. I also understand that consultation has revealed that those directly concerned welcome the Bill and that no one has expressed opposition to it. The Government fully support the noble Lord in his sponsorship of the Bill. May I express the hope that your Lordships' House will give it a very speedy passage?
§ Lord Brooks of Tremorfa
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Underhill and to the noble Minister, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, for the support that they have expressed for the Bill. I am confident that it will receive the fullest support of the House.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.