HL Deb 07 November 1989 vol 512 cc573-82

4.49 p.m.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport on the Clapham Junction Inquiry Report. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the results of the inquiry into the Clapham Junction rail disaster of December 1988.

"I am publishing today as a Command Paper the report by Sir Anthony Hidden on his investigation under the Regulation of Railways Act into the causes and circumstances of the accident.

"I know that I speak for the whole House in expressing my deepest sympathy for the relatives and friends of the 35 people who died as a result of the accident. Our sympathies go too to the many people who were injured, some of them seriously and some of whom are permanently disabled, and to the many others, both passengers and rescuers, who bear the mental scars of that harrowing day.

"Equally I speak for the whole House in paying tribute to the many people who gave unstintingly of their skills, courage and kindness that day; policemen, ambulancemen and firemen, doctors and nurses, railwaymen and local authority staff, and members of the public. As Sir Anthony Hidden comments, a deep debt of gratitude is owed to them all.

"Sir Anthony Hidden concludes that the accident was caused by faulty wiring work carried out on Sunday 27th November 1988 during a major investment programme to modernise signalling on the lines into Waterloo. That faulty work could and should have been discovered through routine checks, but the wiring was not checked and the fault was not found. During later resignalling work on Sunday 11th December a wire that should have been removed two weeks before was accidentally moved. This made an electrical connection into the Clapham Junction signal box which passed false messages to one of the signals on the main line into Waterloo.

"The investigation has revealed major defects in the way in which British Rail's Southern Region signalling and telecommunications department organised resignalling work and supervised and tested completed wiring. The report makes 93 recommendations. Some are directed towards preventing a recurrence of an accident of this type. Others are addressed to securing improvements in BR's management and organisational systems for safety. Others are directed to the emergency services; and some to the Government.

"I am asking BR to deal promptly with all the recommendations addressed to it and to report to me on its implementation within three months. Many of the recommendations are based on BR's suggestions or on the conclusions of BR's own internal inquiry. BR has already taken action to implement these, although in some cases Sir Anthony Hidden recommends faster implementation. In particular, BR is already committed to two important new developments —automatic train protection and the installation of cab radios.

"BR has anticipated some of the additional cost of implementing the report in its current spending plans. I have endorsed this provision in full. BR will need to consider what further expenditure will be required. I can assure the House that finance will not stand in the way of the implementation of the report.

"I have today written to the chairmen of London Regional Transport and the passenger transport executives asking them, where appropriate, to consider their own systems carefully in the light of the report, and to report to me on their proposals for implementing the relevant recommendations within three months.

"While the inquiry was sitting two further railway accidents took place: at Purley on 4th March 1989 and at Bellgrove two days later. Separate inquiries into those two accidents have been carried out by the Railway Inspectorate and the reports will be published in due course. At my predecessor's request, Sir Anthony Hidden and his team considered whether there were any common issues between the accidents. His report does not suggest that there was any single underlying cause. His wider recommendations were made in the light of all three accidents.

"As I have said, some of Sir Anthony Hidden's recommendations are addressed to the Government. The report recommends that railway legislation should be reviewed and the powers of the Railway Inspectorate widened and clarified. We will introduce the necessary legislation as soon as a suitable opportunity arises. Meanwhile, most of the changes can be implemented by administrative action. Where this has not already been done, I have asked that action should be taken urgently by my department and British Railways.

"The report asks me to ensure that the Railway Inspectorate is adequately staffed to implement the report. Additional inspectors are being recruited and their numbers will be expanded as necessary.

"The report recommends a thorough study of appraisal procedures for the safety elements of investment proposals. All investment submissions which come to me for approval already include a specific section on safety issues. My department will discuss with BR what further improvements can be made.

"The report asks the Government to ensure that BR is allocated sufficient frequencies to operate cab radios effectively. We have now allocated five new frequencies to BR and given it access to two others. This fully meets its requirements.

"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health has considered the recommendations addressed to his department. He has already introduced a review of the health services' response to major incidents with a view to preparing revised guidelines. His department has accepted the remaining recommendations which affect it.

"I have considered Sir Anthony Hidden's recommendations on the costs of representation at the investigation and have accepted them in full.

"Finally, I am very grateful to Sir Anthony Hidden and his assessors for their thorough investigation and their clear and constructive report. I know that Sir Robert Reid and his board are determined to make sure that the lessons of this tragedy are throughly learnt and properly implemented. The necessary action will have the fullest support of the Government."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.56 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating that very important Statement arising from a most tragic accident. At the outset I should like to join in the expression of sympathy to the families and friends of the 35 people who lost their lives and to those who suffered injuries, some of them, as the Statement says, most grievous.

From press reports during the investigation it is clear that Sir Anthony Hidden conducted a most searching inquiry. I am certain that the House will share my expression of gratitude to Sir Anthony for the tribute paid to the emergency services and others, to which reference is made in the Statement. Some of the recommendations are made to the emergency services; some relate to BR's own emergency plans. On reading that section my mind went back to the debate we had last week when reference was made to the need for attention to be given to our peacetime emergency services.

I am grateful for the arrangements made for me and, I believe, one or two others to receive an advance copy of the report. However, as I received the report, which consists of over 200 pages, only about an hour and a half or two hours ago, it will be understood that I have not read it in full. However, I note at the outset that Sir Anthony expresses his gratitude for the splendid assistance given to him throughout the investigation by his three outstanding assessors.

The report must be studied very carefully before a final decision is made on the investigation but I note the important chapters on wiring which caused the accident and how the errors came to be made. I should like to read just three lines from Chapter 8.46 of the report: There was incompetence, ineptitude, inefficiency and failure of management in the way it came about that on Sunday, 27 November 1988, that particular workforce were engaged in doing those particular jobs". The 93 recommendations will require detailed consideration. I do not criticise the Statement or the noble Viscount for not detailing them but the fact that there are 93 recommendations means that it would be very unwise to comment on them except in somewhat general terms. I believe that noble Lords will share my opinion, which is also that of others, that travel by rail is safe. I was particularly impressed by the three comments made by Sir Anthony at the start of the chapter in which he detailed the 93 recommendations. He said that lessons have to be learned,

  1. "(i) most importantly, to seek to prevent another such accident happening by addressing both the immediate and underlying causes;
  2. (ii) to promote a better safety culture within British Rail; and
  3. (iii) to mitigate the effects of any future accident".
The House will be pleased to learn that those are the only two references that I shall make from the report. It may be suggested that I picked them out especially but in fact as I flipped over the pages of the report they seemed to me to be outstanding comments.

Paragraph 17.10 of the report offers very strong criticism of the failures in the discharge of management responsibilities. Some of the recommendations stress the importance of the proper organisation of signalling work, and the need for improved training, supervision and testing of completed work. I note also the strong emphasis placed on BR improving its management and organisational systems for safety. Paragraph 17.13 lists no less than 16 failures in procedures followed out. I am pleased that British Rail has already moved to implement matters that arose from its own internal inquiry, in particular the installation of cab radios and the automatic train protection.

I note also with satisfaction that the Secretary of State accepted all 93 recommendations and has asked British Rail to report within three months on those addressed to BR. Can the noble Viscount inform us whether the House will have a report in due course on the response received from BR to those very important recommendations addressed in particular to it?

Can the Minister add to the assurance that adequate finance will be available to implement the report? What will such finance cover? Have the Government decided what matters will be covered by the additional finance? If expenditure is required for more resignalling work, and possibly track work, will it be available? Have the Government yet considered in what ways the powers of the Railway Inspectorate should be widened and clarified?

I note with satisfaction the acceptance of the recommendation to ensure that the inspectorate is adequately staffed. The statement says that some additional staff have already been recruited. It would be interesting to know how many additional staff have been recruited and what might be the ultimate number.

The answer to one question appears to be missing from the Statement. Is there adequate staff available for the important rewiring work? There is also the question of satisfactory working conditions. I note that the report refers to the low level of wages and the considerable amount of overtime that is being worked. I hope that the Government will seriously consider paragraph 16.80 of the report on which the Statement is completely silent. The paragraph refers to three matters that are not the fault of any individual. They are: (i) deferment of projects involving large capital expenditure; (ii) the method and frequency of reorganisation within BR; and (iii) the control of the execution of major projects". I have been a little selective in picking out the items from the report. However, those were outstanding. The report requires the most serious consideration. On the whole I believe that we can be satisfied with the attention that the Government have given to the 93 recommendations.

5 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I also thank the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement. Our first thoughts go to the relatives of the 35 dead, to the 500 people who were injured, 69 of them seriously, and to the many people outside that small scene on that December morning last year whose lives have been affected by what was an awful tragedy.

I also join in thanking Sir Anthony Hidden and all those who assisted him in carrying out this excellent inquiry. We are very well served, as we were served by Mr. Fennell in the King's Cross fire disaster, by people who are prepared to give their professional expertise in these inquiries. One only wishes that such inquiries were not necessary.

On reading the report in the short time since we received copies, one has a strong feeling for the old saying that for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, and so on. A chain of accidents occurred here. However, from what I have read, the report deals not only with the technical aspects of the accident which led up to the disaster but of the culture that lies behind it and the failures of individual people and management as a whole.

It is impossible to go in detail through the 93 recommendations. I have not had time to read them all myself. However, the Government's attitude to those recommendations is to to be commended, as is that of British Rail. I am pleased that the Minister has seen fit to draw these recommendations to the attention of LRT and the PTEs at the earliest possible moment. I welcome too the statement that finance will not stand in the way of ensuring safety in the future. There must be a question on how far finance stood in the way of safety in Ole past. But that is a matter we may discuss another day.

I feel sad that British Rail's management has not been able to create a climate within its organisation that might have avoided the disaster occurring. There is no doubt that at the top management level of British Rail for many years there has been a desire to run a safe railway. Sir Robert Reid made it clear in his evidence that that was the standard that British Rail senior management expected to be set. At paragraph 13.12 he assured the inquiry that British Rail Board was committed to "absolute safety" and indeed had appointed a director of safety in November, the month before the accident. However, the report continues: In this case the target of absolute safety was not met. The causes were a combination of bad practice and mismanagement … I am satisfied that the errors which were made did not result from any deliberate decision to to cut corners on safety". Nevertheless, at an earlier point the report states: Sadly, that regime did not exist and management at all levels within the S&T Department of BR's Southern Region failed abysmally, irrespective of any good intentions, to see that such a regime was developed, cultivated and enforced". I do not intend to name names from the report today. It would not be right. However, the report goes into considerable detail about individual responsibilities. With reference to one of the testers, it states: He was, in fact, at much too junior a level to have the responsibility for such a task, which, while it was certainly not thrust upon him, slipped down the levels of authority until it came to rest on his desk". One begins to see a picture emerging of a degree of sloppiness in middle management.

Later, at paragraph 16.26 the report states: The problem, yet again, was that [he] was left to his own devices by higher management and his devices were neither adequate nor safe". The report does not point the finger only at management, but in other directions also. It states: The situation is not the fault of BR alone. The unions too must bear their share of responsibility for attitudes of entrenched resistance to change which are out of place in a modern world. It was a matter of regret to the Court to see during the evidence how obvious and how deep was the mistrust and suspicion employer had for union and union had for employer". It goes much deeper than one accident on one day. It goes to the whole culture of this great nationalised industry. The report continues: The comments I have made on recruitment and promotion and on payment of wages apply with equal force to the level of overtime working tolerated in British Rail. It is an outdated and wasteful system which by reason of the unsocial hours involved inevitably has a resultant adverse effect on recruiting. Constraints on recruiting are constraints on safety and have to be removed". With those slightly selective quotations I hope that I have been able to indicate to the House that within the report there is much that we should consider in great detail.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, I wish to hear the Government's reply as regards the Railway Inspectorate. How far is it up to establishment and how far do they consider that to be adequate? One is glad that the Government are taking steps to increase the numbers. However, recently there have been a number of occasions on which the question of safety has arisen. Often it is the level of inspection and investigation which is not up to what we consider to be adequate. Is it thought that any matters will be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions and is further action in that direction anticipated?

This matter is far too complex to deal with in a short exchange such as this. I have already spoken for too long but there are many other points that I should like to make. I hope that the usual channels can find time between now and Christmas to set a debate on this important topic.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Tordoff, for their positive reaction to the Statement. I certainly take note of their comments. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, criminal prosecutions is a matter for the prosecuting authorities. I agree with him that this is not the time to enter into lengthy or detailed discussions on the report. They can be left for a future occasion should the noble Lord wish to arrange for a debate through the usual channels.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked about BR's future response to my right honourable friend's request for a three monthly report on progress. I shall certainly take up his point with my right honourable friend. As regards the noble Lord's other two points, in May my right honourable friend's predecessor told the chairman that he would give sympathetic attention to any proposals for authority for major investments to enhance safety. That is recorded in the report at Chapter 14, paragraph 14, and it remains the position. My right honourable friend cannot give blanket assurance that any safety proposal will be approved however great the cost and however small the benefit. The report recommends that the cost effectiveness of safety measures should be explored and he has accepted that.

As regards the important question of the Railway Inspectorate, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, more inspectors have been recruited. Since last year there has been an increase by almost half the number. The chief inspector's current assessment is that he will need another three inspectors to implement the Hidden Report in full but he will recruit more if necessary. At present the Railway Inspectorate's professional staff is 23 strong. It was recruiting up to a level of 31 but as a result of the report, the number will be increased by three to a total of 34.

At this stage I cannot go into too much detail. I remind your Lordships that the accident occurred while a major modernising programme was taking place to improve signalling on the line to Waterloo. Therefore, the argument put forward in some quarters that under-investment was a contributory factor is totally unjustified.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I wish to ask the noble Viscount —

Noble Lords


Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I believe that the order of the House is that occasionally members of the SDP have an opportunity to contribute. On behalf of these Benches I thank the noble Viscount. Like other noble Lords I have not had the opportunity of studying the report in detail. However, from a quick perusal I can see that it is most searching. I add my thanks to the authors and assessors.

The photographs in the report bring back to us the real horror of the events as we witnessed them on the day of the terrible accident. For obvious reasons it is unfortunate that the accident took place, not least because it is bound to diminish the reputation of public transport at a time when we need to re-emphasise its importance in solving environmental problems and so forth.

I was the longest-serving member of the British Rail Board before I retired. As such I wish to say that, while the report makes comment on the incompetence and inefficiency in this instance, we should keep in mind the large number of passengers carried by British Rail, particularly in the South-East. I assure noble Lords that the question of safety on the railways has not been overlooked or neglected in the proceedings of the board. This particular case is unfortunate but, considering the volume of traffic carried, British Rail is to be congratulated on having a safety record higher than that of most other railways in the world.

Inspection of the annual reports of British Rail and the Department of Transport shows that every year the details of the number of accidents are revealed. While in this case British Rail has lamentably fallen short of its usual standards we must remember that it observes high safety standards. That is particularly important at a time of increasing automatic signalling and devices and of high speed trains. Every week I travel for six hours on a high speed train to London. I am always comfortable in the knowledge that nothing will happen. In considering the responsibilities of British Rail we have a right to condemn its inefficiencies and incompetence in this case but we have no right to cast a general condemnation on British Rail as a whole.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, pointed out the words in the Statement: Finance will not stand in the way of the necessary impovements". There is almost an implication that to some extent finance contributed to the lack of the necessary standards of safety. I am delighted to have the Minister's firm assurance in the Statement that finance will not stand in the way.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. The best way in which I can respond is to stress that in terms of deaths per passenger mile travel by rail is far safer than by car. Rail accidents stay etched in out minds because there are so few and when they occur they are so horrific. However, we must not allow ourselves to forget how rare they really are. I assure the House that safety is my right honourable friend's top priority. It is certainly BR's and LRT's. Sad though it is, we cannot have completely safe railways because risk can never be entirely eliminated. We must identify the risks and try to minimise them. It is in that respect that the report is so useful and constructive.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, will my noble friend accept that for 36 years I have travelled from my home in Surrey through Clapham Junction Station at least 10 times a week? Cynical as it may seem, is he aware that many people believe that it is a miracle that this is the first time such a major accident has occurred in the area? Will he also accept that it is due largely to the skill of the railway workers, even though the report—which I have not had an opportunity to see—makes obviously justifiable criticisms which we must debate at a later date?

Is the Minister further aware that I was on a train just an hour after this accident and it was of course some time before anybody quite realised what had happened? Two acquaintances of mine were on the train from Poole; and fortunately, neither was seriously injured.

I have one question to ask the Minister having, as I say, not seen the report. What priority is given to the training of those operating the signals at busy places like Clapham Junction where enormous skill is needed? Can he give any indication as to whether the training will be elaborated upon as a result of this awful tragedy?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, on the latter point I advise my noble friend to read the report. I believe that he will find the answer better stated there than any I am able to give. I should like to emphasise that money was not the cause of the accident. I have travelled through Clapham Junction on a number of occasions over the years and, with the number of trains which go through that particular part of the line—hundreds per day—in all directions, I agree with my noble friend that it is a miracle that there has not been a previous accident. I give due praise to those who control that line. The whole point is that this new investment should make it safer in the future than it has been in the past.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, perhaps I could first apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for jumping up too quickly. The Minister referred to the Bellgrove accident. I have not yet had an opportunity to see the report but I hope that the Minister will convey to the Secretary of State that part of the worry in Scotland is a belief that the accident may have been caused because of the singling of the line and the lack of adequate signalling. The difficulty for Scottish people is that it seems to be part of British Rail's policy to continue with this singling of certain lines, believing that the signalling can be improved. There is a very heavily used part of the line on the outskirts of Glasgow at Milngavie where they are talking of doing the same thing. I merely want to register that I hope a lesson will be taken from the accident at Bellgrove.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I certainly take note of what the noble Lord says. I do not believe that he would expect me to comment in advance of the report. I can tell him that the completion of the Bellgrove report has been delayed because until very recently a key witness was too ill to give evidence.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I also thank my noble friend. He may be aware and no doubt the House would like to know that since a safety officer has been appointed, British Rail is now in consultation with RoSPA on general safety matters on the railways.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for making that point.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I asked my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe to speak because not only am I in receipt of a pension from British Rail but I worked for seven years on Southern Region. I should however like to thank the noble Viscount for his considerate words regarding British Rail.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl.