HL Deb 30 June 2003 vol 650 cc594-6

2.53 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the safety regulations on the railway have been amended to preclude the use of the opposite line for trains in instances where track has been signalled for that purpose.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, we have consulted the Health and Safety Executive, the Rail Safety and Standards Board and Network Rail. None is aware of any recent amendments to standards or regulations that preclude the use of bi-directional signalling operations. However. I understand that the Railway Group Standard for the provision of lineside signals was changed in February 2002 when the installation of simplified bi-directional signalling was withdrawn for new signalling schemes.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords. I thank the Minister for that reply, although I must say that it was rather opaque. The fact is that governments have sanctioned large sums of money for the provision of bi-directional signalling on most of our main lines and it is not being used, causing huge delays to people. It also prevents the safety regulations being enforced because it is difficult to inspect track if the single line is not used. Will the Minister therefore take back that Answer and press officials as to how much use is being made of bi-directional signalling where vast sums—tens of millions of pounds—have been spent in providing it and it is not being used?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am sorry if the noble Lord thought the Answer was opaque. He has much greater experience of the rail industry than I have and I thought the reply was perfectly clear. The simple fact is that the overall position with regard to bi-directional signalling has not been changed. I believe that the noble Lord is commenting on a limited area concerned with simplified bi-directional signalling for temporary or emergency situations which has been withdrawn. I hear what the noble Lord says about the potential costs in the through-flow of traffic, but it has been withdrawn because it was not felt that it was giving the necessary level of protection for trackside workers and that it caused some confusion with regard to the automatic warning system when trains went against the signals on the single tracks. Those are the two reasons for a limited reduction.

As regards the noble Lord's more general question about the whole system being suspended, that just is not so.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, perhaps I may give my noble friend an example and ask him a question. Is he aware that the Strategic Rail Authority has announced that the franchise for the Great Eastern Ipswich to London service will be based on a total closure of the line every three weeks until 2012 so that the track can be renewed? That is a closure of 54 hours every third weekend for the next 10 years because the company will not be able to operate some trains on the single track remaining. Does my noble friend agree that that will seriously disadvantage passengers and freight? Perhaps he will encourage the industry and its contractors to come up with schemes that enable single-line working to be operated safely.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend is right; the priority is safe operation of single directional working on the railway. I do not have particular knowledge of the problems with regard to the service on the line he mentions but I shall look into the matter. Some unfortunate costs are attached to the massive investment being put into renewing track since Hatfield in order to guarantee that it is safe. That causes some disruption to the railways.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, is the Minister aware that those of us who spent some time at Didcot station at seven o'clock this morning would have welcomed a train arriving at any platform on any line and from any direction? Is it not somewhat depressing that the Strategic Rail Authority has lowered the punctuality thresholds for Network Rail and the services?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the second point is an important one. There are signs of a slow improvement in punctuality. The noble Viscount is right. We are starting from a base that is scarcely tolerable. We therefore want to see a more rapid improvement and that is why demands on Network Rail are an increasing tendency. However, I notice that the Opposition spokesperson does not care in which direction he travels so long as he travels.

Lord Methuen

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Midland Main Line services were suspended for the whole of Friday because apparently a Thameslink train brought down a mile and a half of the overhead line? Such incidents do not seem to occur in other countries. Will the Minister inquire why it happened?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, that was an unfortunate occurrence. It is the case that now and again some accident occurs on the railway producing massive disruption to passengers. Rightly, passengers feel poorly done by when that happens. For example, huge anxieties were expressed and there were great swathes of public complaints some weeks ago after a railside fire put the Paddington line out of action. Such events occur. I hear what the noble Lord says about accidents not happening elsewhere, but I believe that in some systems they do.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while everyone has a right to expect the railway to operate as safely as possible, we are in danger of adopting double standards when we treat railways so differently from highways? Is there a proposal, for example, for the rules on bi-directional working on our railways to be applied to contra-flows on motorways?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, that is perhaps a little adrift of the Question. I believe that the only view to which we would all subscribe in this House is that we expect vastly higher standards on the railways than those we have been able to achieve on the roads, and we intend to keep it that way.