HC Deb 27 July 1988 vol 138 cc249-50W
Mr. Watts

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what consideration his Department has been giving to the problems of damage caused to bridges by overheight road vehicles; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

These problems have been considered by a departmental working party. A copy of its report, "A Strategy for the Reduction of Bridge Bashing," has been placed in the Library.

The working party points out that the bridges mainly at risk are some 3,400 rail over road bridges of less than 16' 6" (5.03 m) in height, most of them on local roads. Bridge strikes can cause not only road casualties, but also death and injury to rail users in cases where the track is dislodged by the strike. In addition, substantial damage to property can occur.

The working party notes that in 1987 an average of some 23 bridge strikes a month were recorded, most of these not having serious consequences. This represents a substantial reduction on the rate 15 years ago. So far, road casualties in the United Kingdom from bridge strikes have been few, and there have been no rail casualties. None the less, there have been a number of bridge strikes which could have led to more serious consequences, and the working party's assessment is that the risk of a strike causing loss of life from a train derailment is of the order of one in 10 years. They identify a package of possible measures for consideration, assuming that it was desired to reduce substantially over five years the incidence of the more serious categories of bridge strike. These include:

  1. (1) improved road signing, including replacement of advisory bridge height signs with mandatory ones, and in particular cases where justified by the risk, installation of infra-red systems which detect overheight vehicles in advance, and trigger display of a sign to the driver;
  2. (2) structural measures to increase the clearance at certain vulnerable trunk road bridges (in the context of the general bridge strengthening programme already announced);
  3. (3) procedures for notifying local highway authorities and the police of movements of vehicles above certain heights;
  4. (4) extensions of requirements for display in drivers' cabs of the height of vehicles, and installation of warning devices on certain vehicles to show when lifting gear is raised;
  5. (5) consideration by British Rail of the installation of emergency telephones in certain cases;
  6. (6) further development of facilities for offering route plans for movements of high vehicles;
  7. (7) advice to licensing authorities to take into account bridge bashing incidents when administering licensing of heavy goods vehicles and their drivers;
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  9. (8) legislation to permit erection at bridges of beams and other devices not forming part of their structure which are designed to arrest an overheight vehicle, although the working party considers the practical problems and cost of such devices make them unattractive, at least in the short term.

It will never be possible to eliminate the risks of bridge bashing. The basic problem is one of driver awareness and driver error. The need is to consider ways of increasing this awareness, and reducing the scope for error. The working party's report is a useful contribution to this. We intend in the light of it to improve road signing at our lower trunk road bridges, and to assess case by case whether the risks warrant installation of an infra-red detector system. We intend to consult the local authority associations on the analogous action which local highway authorities might take in relation to local road bridges. An amendment will be made as soon as possible to the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 1981 to enable mandatory instead of warning signs to be installed at bridges without the expense of a traffic regulation order.

The Department also invites licensing authorities to take into account bridge bashing incidents in the exercise of their functions, in so far as this is possible under the present law.

We are already consulting industry on the question of installing warning devices on skips and tipper lorries and will similarly consult bodies representing manufacturers and users on the working party's recommendations for an extension of the requirements for displaying height in vehicle cabs. In addition, the Department will want to seek the views of representatives of users, local authorities and the enforcement authorities about a system of notification for movement of high vehicles. Any new regulatory measures will be taken only if they are justified in the light of both their benefits and the financial burdens they impose on industry, local authorities and regulatory bodies. Decisions on any notification system will need to be considered particularly carefully from this standpoint.

My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales will carry out separate, parallel consultations on the working party's recommendations with local authorities in Scotland and Wales. In addition to consulting specific organisations on the working party's recommendations (copies of the report are being sent to them) we would very much welcome other views and suggestions. These should be addressed to: Highways Maintenance Branch, Department of Transport, 2 Monck Street, London SW1P 2BQ. Copies of the report are available from Her Majesty's Stationery Office, priced £6.