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Railway Safety

3.20 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston): My Lords, with permission, I wish to make a Statement about the railway accident that happened at Ladbroke Grove Junction on the approach to Paddington Station on 5th October.

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    “The Government have also received another related report on railway safety. Last year the then Minister for Transport asked the Health and Safety Commission to review Railtrack's role in safety regulation inside the industry. This report is being made public today at the request of the Deputy Prime Minister and I have placed copies in the Libraries of both Houses. I must stress that the report does not suggest that major failures might have resulted from Railtrack's safety regulation role. However, it reports concerns inside the rail industry about aspects of present practice.

    “As a consequence, the Deputy Prime Minister announced on Saturday that he had asked the Health and Safety Commission to send in a specialist team to investigate these concerns and advise on any action required. Railtrack has publicly welcomed this initiative.

    “In parallel, the Rail Regulator has asked the Health and Safety Executive to advise him, under Section 4 of the Railways Act 1993, on the sufficiency of Railtrack's system for setting safety standards and on questions raised in the HSE report as to the independence from internal pressures of Railtrack's Safety and Standards Directorate. Ministers are minded to transfer the main functions of the Safety and Standards Directorate out of Railtrack in order to ensure public confidence that there is no conflict between safety standards and commercial interest. We shall consider carefully where these functions are best located to ensure greater coherence on safety. If we need to legislate we shall do so.

    “Noble Lords should be aware of other actions being taken. We want to identify the safest and most appropriate options from the range of train protection measures presently available or in development. Last week Sir David Davies, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence and President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, agreed to assess and report back, by the end of the year, on the effectiveness, practicability and cost of train protection systems, and also on how best to reduce the present incidence of signals passed at danger.

    “As noble Lords will know, the public inquiry into the Southall rail crash in 1997, having been delayed by legal proceedings, is now expected to reach conclusions by the end of this year. This inquiry, under the chairmanship of Professor John Uff, is considering, among other things, train protection systems and will have the benefit of Sir David Davies' findings. There will also be a public inquiry into the accident at Paddington. Lord Cullen, who has previously reported on safety in the North Sea oil and gas industry following the disaster on the Piper Alpha platform, will chair this inquiry, and indeed has already visited the accident site and started work. Lord Cullen will be looking not just at the causes of this tragic accident, but also at wider issues of railway safety. Clearly a great deal of

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    detailed investigation must still be carried out which may have a bearing on the timescale for Lord Cullen's inquiry.

“The Government will do all they can to avoid undue delay. I have today placed the terms of reference for Lord Cullen's inquiry and Sir David Davies's assessment in the Libraries of both Houses.

    “The lasting legacy of this awful accident at Paddington--the outcome of all the urgent action now in progress--must surely be a more open, more responsive, more rigorous culture of safety across our whole rail industry. We owe the victims and their loved ones nothing less, as I am sure your Lordships will agree."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for making the Statement. I welcome the noble Lord to the Dispatch Box in his role as Minister for Transport. Perhaps I may say how much we sympathise with him in the fact that it is this sad occasion that brings him to the Dispatch Box for the first time in that role.

Perhaps I may join the noble Lord in expressing our sincere sympathy for the families and friends of the victims of this terrible disaster, and in wishing a speedy and complete recovery to those who are still in hospital. Perhaps I may also join the noble Lord in praising the role played by all the emergency services and others who have had to work in such appalling conditions, and whose job is not yet over.

Will the Minister say whether all the victims have been accounted for, and will he confirm that the numbers may be lower than had been forecast in the past few days? We very much hope that that is so. Will he also give the House an assurance that all possible help and support are being given to the families of the dead and injured?

The Official Opposition have sought to conduct their response to this terrible tragedy above party politics. Safety should be above party politics. That is the basis upon which we support the Government's decision to establish the two inquiries under Lord Cullen (into the crash) and Sir David Davies (into train safety systems). We look forward to reading the terms of reference of both inquiries. We have offered the co-operation of all former Conservative transport Ministers from whom Labour inherited the railways two and half years ago.

Can we be assured that the inquiry will be conducted as speedily as is possible consistent with thoroughness, and that it will be able to publish interim findings and recommendations which can be acted upon without delay? Can we also be assured that the inquiry will not be delayed by legal proceedings, as in the case of Southall to which the noble Lord referred? Will the Minister confirm that he is already aware that the Official Opposition would like to assist with any emergency legislative measures that are necessary to speed the inquiry on its way?

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We want the inquiries to look at not just the role of Railtrack, which has been the focus of public attention so far, but at such issues as the design and safety of the carriages involved in the crash, their resistance to fire, the need for emergency lighting systems, and means of escape. We also believe that the safety culture of the industry has much to learn from other safety-conscious industries, such as civil aviation, particularly with regard to driver training.

However, the Government have decided not to wait for inquiry findings in one key area. It is the duty of the Opposition to raise any questions that there may be about substantive policy decisions that the Government are making and to scrutinise their actions. It is in that positive spirit that we have questions on three substantive areas.

First, does the Minister agree that it has been the shared objective ever since the Hidden inquiry into the Clapham rail crash in 1988 that systems should be installed across the railways to prevent trains from going through red lights?

Do the Government continue to share the view taken by Ministers in the previous administration on the advice of the Health and Safety Executive that the system known as ATP--automatic train protection--was not a viable bolt-on system and that the alternative train protection warning system had to be developed? Is the Minister satisfied that the installation of TPWS is proceedings as quickly as possible?

Secondly, when did the Government become aware that the number of signals passed at danger (SPADS) was increasing? What action was taken? Does the Minister agree that the matter of SPADS is as much a matter for the train operating companies, their drivers and their driver training policies as it is for Railtrack?

Thirdly, we shall support any immediate action in advance of the Cullen inquiry where there is evidence that it will improve safety standards and safety practice on the railway. On that basis, on what specific evidence or advice did Ministers decide on Saturday to transfer the safety and standards department of Railtrack to an independent body? Can the Minister say whether the new authority will have different instructions from those that Railtrack presently has? Will it use the existing staff? How will the transitional period be handled?

Will the Minister confirm that the HSC report on this issue dated 30th September states:

    “We do not see any case for immediate concern on safety grounds in the way that S&SD (Safety and Standards Department of Railtrack) has operated its key safety functions",

and that there would be “short-term substantial disruption" caused by such a move? Will he further confirm that the HSC report states:

    “we are not aware of any specific evidence that SSD has executed the key functions with which this review is concerned in a discriminating way",

and that the final paragraph of the conclusion states:

    “We therefore think it important that any decision on the way forward should be taken in the light of a wider and more formal sounding of views in the industry"?

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Why have the Government decided to act without any further consultation as recommended in the report, and without waiting for the conclusions of the Cullen inquiry?

Finally, I reiterate our support for the Deputy Prime Minister's sensible decision to instigate the Cullen and Davies inquiries. We shall support the Government in any actions that help the work of those whose job it is to make our railways as safe as possible.

3.36 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, from these Benches I, too, welcome the Statement, although I greatly regret the necessity for it. I regret also that the Minister finds this the first occasion in his new capacity on which he has to address the House.

I am among many who feel that the clear, open and balanced way in which the Minister has personally dealt with radio and television over the past few days needs to be commended. This has been a highly sensitive and very difficult issue--sensitive for all the reasons that we understand. Here, again, I should like to be associated with everything that has been said about the families and friends of those who were killed or injured and about the different aspects of the emergency services.

The issue is difficult because the causes of the accident are complex. Under pressure, it has been easy to rush to judgment and to look for scapegoats.

I welcome the fact that in what has been said in the House today there has been no argument about the merits or otherwise of privatisation. I was strongly against it at the time, as I believe were all on these Benches. If it had to be done, it was almost certainly done the wrong way. But unless we anticipate any changes in ownership, we must take matters where they are, assume that the question of ownership is settled, and look at structure and responsibility within the present system.

Perhaps I may suggest one or two guiding principles which do not conflict with what the Minister has already said. The first is that Ministers should not accept more day-to-day responsibility for safety. It is not a ministerial task. It ought to lie with an agency independent of the day-to-day decisions of government and with the industry itself.

Secondly, whatever may be done at the top in regard to safety, responsibility for safety must be dispersed right down the line and cannot be separated from operations. There must be a common culture throughout the industry, affecting everyone who works within it. It follows that everyone must know who is responsible for what, and that there must be adequate monitoring and discipline. Decisions must be quickly made and properly enforced. In that respect, I hope that the Government will bear in mind that safety will not be helped by additional layers of bureaucracy. I am slightly worried even now by the number of reports for which the Government have called.

The Minister drew attention to the report of the Railway Inspectorate on this. Historically, most rail accidents have been caused by human error at some

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point. This disaster is likely to be no exception in so far as the driver appears to have gone through a red light on signal SN 109. But that seems to have been a commonplace, even routine, error. That is perhaps the most worrying factor of all affecting public confidence. It did not happen simply on one occasion. As the Minister said, it appears to have happened over 600 times in 1998: 643 signals were passed at red.

Given that we cannot eliminate human error, obviously the role of technology is to reduce the risk to the absolute minimum. Safety must be an integral part of the system and it is plain that industry must pay for safety for that reason.

I have tried to say that the situation calls for urgent measures, but I hope that they will be calm ones, justified on merit alone. In that respect, I should like to ask a few questions about what the Minister said and his present intentions.

First, can he put a figure on the relative effectiveness of automatic train protection (ATP), about which many statements have been made? If it is only a partially effective system, it is possible that its introduction might make others lazy about their responsibilities for safety.

Secondly, although the Minister mentioned the Southall inquiry, a number of concerns were expressed this morning at that inquiry about how far Lord Cullen's inquiry might overtake and prejudice it. It would be helpful if the Minister were able to say a word more about how far they may work together. He indicated a separateness which is not in keeping with what was said this morning by many of the parties concerned.

Thirdly, is the Minister satisfied that the Railway Inspectorate, within the Health and Safety Executive, has adequate and skilled staff? It may be clear to others, but it is still not clear to me exactly what its role has been. I had assumed that it was a major one in relation to safety, but most of the discussions since the accident seem to have assumed that that was not the case.

Fourthly, in examining where responsibilities lie, has the rail regulator no responsibilities for safety at the moment? What is the case for placing such responsibilities on him and so, it seems, dispersing responsibilities at the top? What worries me about the now rather more tentative statement about Railtrack is the suggestion that the responsibility for safety may be removed from it. That sounds to me an easy and obvious answer, perhaps concerned more with public confidence today than with the long-term best interests of safety. I should like to know more from the Minister and whether he believes that that is a serious possibility or merely something on the table which will be looked at carefully when the calm examination of all the factors takes place.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I thank both noble Lords on the Opposition Front Benches for their supportive attitude on the matter. I should like first to address the questions raised by the noble Lord,

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Lord Brabazon. We fear that some people may still be unaccounted for, but the police assure us that the number who might have been killed appears to be much lower than had previously been anticipated.

On support for the bereaved, the train operating companies, the local authorities and the charitable organisations are providing valuable support for the bereaved and injured. I thank all those involved for their efforts.

We believe that we have acted as purposively as we could in these dreadful circumstances and we hope that there will be as little delay as possible in the inquiry to be conducted by Lord Cullen. As we know, the Southall inquiry was delayed by legal proceedings. It is our hope that Lord Cullen will be able to proceed as quickly as possible, having regard to all the relevant facts. We are aware of the possible interaction between the timing of the inquiry and his report and the possibility of any later prosecutions. However, we shall keep the position under review in consultation with the Attorney-General and I am grateful for the offer of support from the Opposition Front Benches to ensure that we reduce any delay.

As the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, said, the safety culture must be improved. Surely it is fundamental to the whole purpose of Lord Cullen's inquiry. We believe that there is scope for an improvement in that culture across the industry and that these dreadful events have concentrated minds across the industry on the need for a much more co-operative approach and an end to the culture of blame which has existed in some areas.

We hope that we can introduce the train protection warning system as quickly as possible. Orders were laid on 10th August that we wished to see it in place across the network and operating by the end of 2003. However, we know that the Railtrack board has discussed the matter and is investigating to see whether there is any way in which that time-scale can be accelerated. I am grateful to the board for making the matter such a priority.

The noble Lord asked when we had become aware of the increase in the number of signals passed at danger (SPADs). In August this year we were informed by Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate of the latest figures. More detail was provided in early September when the HSE published its report which also listed action that the industry needed to take to reduce the numbers and dangers. I agree with the observation that a degree of acceptance might have come into attitudes towards signals passed at danger because so many were contained inside the safety margins and because there appeared to be a general reduction from the days of British Rail when, at the start of the decade, there were over 900 such incidents. However, the events of last year interrupted the decline and that is when attention was focused on it.

We were asked whether the transfer from Railtrack of the Safety and Standards Directorate may be premature. I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, said, about the report we received. There

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are many well judged and supportive statements in it about the way in which Railtrack conducts its business. I agree with the emphasis put on the fact that while Railtrack looks after the infrastructure, many of the activities on the railways are conducted by the train operating companies.

However, in examining the report, we felt that from inside the industry, from the train operating companies, from the suppliers of equipment and from others on the regulatory side, enough concern was raised about the present operation of the directorate and its location inside Railtrack for us to make it clear that we were minded to see it moved. As I emphasised, Railtrack has accepted our action and welcomed it. About 82 people work in the department; it is not a major part of Railtrack's operations; it is not responsible for all safety on the railways. I want to be clear about that.

I agree that, ultimately, safety is the responsibility of those who carry out the operations. The accountability is theirs, based on principles that I believe go back to 1974 and Lord Robens. The target is to set safety goals and ensure that people are able to organise their activities to meet them, not--as we have been warned against, quite properly, by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers--to add extra layers of bureaucracy to the process.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, in looking at figures that show the effectiveness of ATP I emphasise that that is a generic term for a whole range of systems. For example, I understand that Eurostar trains that travel to the United Kingdom cross four different systems. What we have been looking at in recent years, beginning with the previous administration, is the effectiveness of a range of systems. In taking their decision not to implement ATP the previous administration responded to the advice of British Rail, Railtrack, the Railways Inspectorate and the HSE. It is also true that the then administration did not have the advantage of a choice of a train protection and warning system. The alternative system had not been developed at that time. We decided that that development was the most practical system to introduce across the country.

I stress that the automatic train protection system was introduced on certain high-speed lines by the previous administration. For example, it exists on the Heathrow Express, Great Western and elements of the Chiltern lines, and will do so on the new Channel Tunnel link. It is not 100 per cent effective and there are difficulties in implementing it. For that reason, the systems presently in use on the Great Western line are prototypes, and new and more advanced systems are planned for the West and East Coast main lines and other fast tracks in prospect. But the system that we have offered is not mutually exclusive with automatic train protection. Certainly, it is a cheaper system but it can be introduced more quickly, perhaps in three to four years. We are informed that, if operated properly with well trained drivers, it would account for 85 per cent. of the present SPAD incidents and ensure that they did not happen. The key factor with all these systems is that they cannot

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be overridden by drivers and are to a large extent proof against human error. That is the present situation.

We are also advised that to introduce ATP more widely, as some have advised, would take longer, perhaps six to seven years, or even 10 years if it was introduced across the country. There is a judgment to be made here. It may be possible to introduce both systems in parallel; they need not be mutually exclusive. We hope that in order to advance on these fronts in addition to the advice of Sir David Davies we shall have the advantage of the findings of the Southall inquiry. I am aware that Professor John Uff was consulted at the time Lord Cullen was appointed. Lord Cullen, who is very experienced in these matters, has also been consulted. Both are content that they can work in parallel with different emphases on their findings, that they can be complementary and that both will be informed by Sir David Davies' findings. We believe that that sequence of inquiries should bring together the best possible information that we can use in the months ahead as quickly as possible. I hope that I have managed to cover most of the main points raised by noble Lords, and I look forward to being able to add further information in subsequent questions.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the manner in which he has dealt with the Statement, but can he indicate whether in the terms of reference of the inquiry there will be explicit mention of the role of train drivers, in so far as there may be a need to re-introduce the idea of two train drivers especially on long distance routes, and the role of train guards, bearing in mind that over recent years it appears that there has been a substantial change in practice in that area? Guards now seem to be much more concerned with selling goods to passengers than the duty to protect them, which I understand used to be the rule.

Can my noble friend also indicate whether he approves the statement made very recently by Railtrack, before the accident occurred, that it believed,

    “Paddington to be the best protected major terminal station anywhere in the world"?

Was that not remarkable, breathtaking complacency when it was already known that over the years Paddington had been plagued by incidents of signals being passed at red?

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