HL Deb 28 July 1986 vol 479 cc559-64

3.3 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now make a Statement on the Lockington rail accident. The Statement is as follows: A serious accident happened shortly after 10 a.m. on Saturday, 26th July, at an unmanned automatic open level crossing at Lockington about four miles north of Beverley, Humberside. The 09.33 Bridlington to Hull passenger train, a 4-coach diesel multiple-unit, struck a van on the crossing and all four coaches became derailed. I deeply regret that eight passengers and one of the occupants of the van were killed or died of their injuries. A total of 51 people were injured, 10 of them seriously. My right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Transport, has expressed his sorrow at this tragic accident, and his sympathy to the relatives of those killed and to the injured. I am sure that your Lordships will wish to join me in echoing those sentiments. The House will also join me in paying tribute to the work of the emergency services.

My right honourable friend has announced that there will be a full public inquiry into the accident and the report will be published. Until the inquiry has been completed, I believe that it would be wrong to speculate further about the possible cause of this accident.

I have to make a general statement about this type of level crossing. Automatic crossings are generally much safer than manned crossings. This particular type was recommended by an expert working party in 1978. But there have been two previous accidents causing fatalities on this type of crossing in the last two months. The chief inspecting officer of railways has told my right honourable friend that he will not recommend approval of further automatic open crossings pending a re-examination of their safety record.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will recognise the need for this Statement to be made, and will appreciate the fact that the noble Earl has given the Statement. I am sure the whole House will echo the Minister's expressions of sympathy to the relatives of those who have died and to the large number who have suffered injury, and will wish to give encouragement to those who are still injured and in hospital. The seriousness of the figures show the importance of consideration of this item. I am also pleased that the Statement pays tribute to the work of the emergency services. We have come to expect high service from the rescue services—rail, police and the fire service—and it would appear that on this occasion they have come up to all our expectations.

I fully agree with the Minister that it is too early for speculations and conjectures to be made. However, I hope that the inquiry which is to be held will take into consideration what I understand is very strong local opinion. I understand that there is strong local opinion that to make this crossing an unmanned crossing was a condition for continuing the rail service which was regarded as so important to the area. I understand that all local opinion was opposed to this becoming an unmanned crossing.

I am also pleased with the general Statement that there is to be a thorough inquiry into this accident. We have come to expect rail accident inquiries to be of a very high standard, and I am certain that this will be so on this occasion. It is open to question whether or not what is said in the general Statement is correct— that, automatic crossings are generally much safer than manned crossings". We know that from an economic point of view it is of great benefit to British Rail, saving some £11 million a year in wages. But the general Statement refers to, two previous accidents causing fatalities on this type of crossing in the last two months". Can I ask the Minister whether inquiries have been held, and what recommendations have arisen from those inquiries? If the inquiries have not yet been held, are they still taking place, or will they take place?

I am also pleased to note that the Statement concludes that the chief inspecting officer of railways has told the Secretary of State that, he will not recommend approval of further automatic open crossings pending a re-examination of their safety record". When a previous serious accident took place—I believe in Staffordshire—certain changes were recommended. Were those changes put into effect? Have those changes any bearing at all on this recent tragic accident?

When the Statement refers to "open crossings", does that mean that there were only warning bells and lights and no type of barrier whatever? I hope that the inquiry will go into this aspect. If there were no barriers of any type, what will be the future policy on crossings without barriers?

We shall also hope that the inquiry will look into the question of why in this case there was derailment of coaches. Was it due to the make up of the unit, as has been speculated in some areas, with the question of lighter coaches at the front? We shall also hope that the inquiry will look into the question of the type of warning signs on approaching crossings of this character. Is there a general policy regarding having warning flashing lights ahead of crossings? Until the inquiry is held we shall not have the answers to those questions, but we shall look forward to recommen-dations, not simply as to the cause of the accident, but for the future.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, we should like to associate ourselves with what has been said about the admirable work carried out by the emergency services, by members of the railway staff, by the fire service and the police.

I should like to ask the noble Earl two questions. The first is in relation to the last sentence of the Statement that he made concerning the position of the chief inspecting officer of railways. The Statement said that, he will not recommend approval of further automatic open crossings pending a re-examination of their safety record". May I ask the noble Earl whether his department is in discussion with British Rail about those cases where such approval has been given, and where it is likely that there will be a change over to the automatic system over the next 12 months or so. Will he agree that it would be sensible for British Rail to stop any conversion process until this inquiry has published its report?

The second question is in relation to the suggestion that there were very heavy casualties because the light passenger coach was at the front of this train, and that a previous Department of Transport inquiry suggested that it is far safer for the heavy power unit to be at the front, pulling the train rather than pushing it. Will the noble Earl institute urgent discussions with British Rail about their practice in this matter until the report of the inquiry is published?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, raised a number of points and hoped that they would be taken into account in the inquiry. I assure him that I shall pass them on to my right honourable friend the Minister of State responsible for railways. As regards the two previous accidents this year, I point out that there were no inquiries because the cause of the accidents was clear and therefore there was no need for an inquiry to take place.

Turning to the remarks of the noble Lord. Lord Harris of Greenwich, concerning crossings for which approval has been given but in respect of which conversion has not been implemented, it will be up to British Rail to decide what to do next. However, I have no doubt that they will have noted what has been said today in this Chamber by the noble Lord and myself. On the noble Lord's second point concerning the light passenger coach at the front of the train, it would be entirely inappropriate for me to comment on that aspect at this stage.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, I should like to ask my noble friend whether the French railway system—which is generally acknowledged to be probably the finest in Europe—ever has these flashing lights without any form of barrier being used? Is it not a fact that motorists are possibly so accustomed to flashing amber lights on motorways which in the end turn out to mean nothing that when they just see flashing lights, even though they be red, without a barrier, they may not have the desired effect?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, one would of course advise all motorists to take note of flashing lights, particularly when they are red flashing lights at an automatic level crossing. I do not know about the French system; but I know that in preparing the specialist report on this matter in 1978 evidence was taken from European countries, and visits were made to the Netherlands, France, West Germany and Switzerland.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, it is still not clear—and I wonder whether the Minister will answer this question—whether there were any physical barriers at this crossing, and whether, if there were barriers, they were full or half barriers. In relation to the general statement about automatic crossings, does the Minister have any figures on whether the level of accidents at ungated or half-gated crossings diverges from the average figure?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I do not know the answer to the noble Lord's second point; but I shall write to him. As regards the noble Lord's first point, the crossing was an automatic open level crossing, and therefore there were no half barriers or full barriers.

Lord Monson

My Lords, further to the second point made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, will not the Minister agree that there was another fatal accident in Scotland some months ago in which the front carriages of the train were derailed but the engine was at the rear rather than at the front. Is not that an inherently dangerous practice at speeds of more than 35 or 40 miles per hour, and should the practice not therefore be banned?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I recall the accident and refer the noble Lord to the report of it.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, in so far as this was an automated crossing and the inquiry may discover something that went wrong, would it be possible to ask British Rail to make sure that all other automatic crossings throughout the country are immediately examined rather than simply waiting for an inquiry to tell us what went wrong?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as I hope the noble Lord will be aware, British Rail check their automatic crossings on a very regular basis.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, were the recommendations which followed the Hixon inquiry into the railway crossing accident in Staffordshire, to which my noble friend referred, carried out? To my recollection, having taken part in that inquiry, it was a similar type of crossing—an unmanned crossing—and a number of recommendations were made. It may well be that they were carried out. Having probed the question further, it may be convenient for a moment to pass before the noble Earl receives the answer which may be of some interest, if not of importance, to the House!

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, perhaps I may write to the noble and learned Lord on that point and put a copy of my reply in the Library.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, if it is of any assistance to the noble Earl, I think that it was at the time when I had the pleasure of holding the office of Attorney-General.

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, as I come from Yorkshire, I should like to ask whether the Minister is aware that there are now very many concerned people? We are approaching the height of the holiday season. What advice can be given to drivers of cars who are frightened about crossing at these open crossings? How many open crossings are there in this country?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there are 42 crossings which are similar to that at Lockington. As regards what advice one can give to motorists, I think that the answer is to watch the lights extremely carefully, and if there are any lights that are flashing then motorists must stop and not try to beat the train. Similarly, with half barriers, they must not try and weave their way in between the barriers. Of course we are very concerned that motorists should not be alarmed about what can be a perfectly safe crossing if treated properly.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I was a little puzzled by an answer which he gave to an earlier question when he said that a previous incident had not been inquired into because it was obvious what had happened? Surely somebody looked into it and there is some report somewhere, even though there was not a public inquiry? May we have a little further explanation as to why, if an incident happened, there was not an inquiry?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I believe that there was no cause for a public inquiry. However, I believe that a report was naturally made of the incident.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, there will obviously be a good deal of public concern about this tragic accident. Is the noble Earl able to tell the House how many automatic open crossings there are in Britain at present? Will he further say how long the examination will take as opposed to the public inquiry? One supposes that will take quite a while.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I can repeat to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, that there are 42 crossings like that at Lockington. Concerning the inquiry into the safety of these types of barrier, we shall pursue that with the utmost haste and without further delay.

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