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Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, that is an important point, given the metallurgical concerns expressed over the past day. I have heard that particularly heavy rolling stock had been travelling over that line, which may have been a contributing factor, but I have also heard from another source that that has not been the case, and that the rolling stock involved was, in fact, lighter than some of the engines that have been employed. In view of the contradictory views expressed over the past couple of days, the House will understand why I am anxious to receive the report from the railway inspectorate.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that at the moment there are too many instances of bad quality track and that something urgently needs to be done so that the confidence of the travelling public can be addressed properly? Is he also aware that large capital gains have been made by those in charge of the railway system, which does not sit well with what has happened tragically in the past few days? The Minister mentioned haste in addressing the issues that have arisen due to the crash and that is to be welcomed. As far as the public is concerned, we face delays of too great a length in such matters.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, the matter of broken rails is serious. It is not limited to the railways in the United Kingdom. In France the statistics for broken rails number in the hundreds and the concern is that there has been a rise in recent years. We believe that the £100 million investment programme that Railtrack has recently put in place has clearly been a contributing factor in reducing the number of broken rails in the last six-month period. There is a balance to be struck between the profitability of a company and its ability to borrow in the market place, the better to invest in the improvement of our railway system. As I said earlier, we want to ensure that we do not have just a stable and an effective Railtrack under proper corporate governance, but also one that is able to invest alongside the £60 billion of investment from the public and private sectors that we envisage the railways needing over the next 10 years.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I welcome the measured sentiments that have been expressed in this Chamber in response to the terrible accident at Hatfield and associate myself with them. Does the Minister agree that one further important role that the Government can perform in the terrible aftermath of

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such a tragedy is to reassure the travelling public about the overall relative safety of travelling by rail in comparison with travelling by road? It would be a double tragedy if large numbers of people were diverted from using the rail network to using road travel, which historically has been shown to be much more dangerous by a factor of around 100.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, puts his finger on the important issue of the relative risks involved in different modes of travel. We can state with certainty that rail is the safest form of surface travel. However, we must understand the public emotions on such matters. Although there are 3,500 deaths on our roads every year--100 times more than on our railways--the fact that people have put their lives into the hands of rail companies and railway staff and that the outcome of accidents can be potentially catastrophic lends another dimension of concern to such accidents. We have to reaffirm that, so far as the railways are concerned, safety must be the highest priority.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, as one who depends entirely on the East Coast main line, can the Minister tell the House what the position is in regard to travel from London to Yorkshire over the next few days? Over 30 years ago, when I began regular journeys on that line, I could write legibly by hand, but I cannot do so now. If I were to travel on a number of services in Europe, and certainly in France, I would be able to glide along on a smooth, permanent rail. Is it too much to hope that one day such a system will be available in the United Kingdom?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, at present the situation is that the services from London to the North can loop round the accident site, adding about half an hour to the journey. The East Coast main line is the location of one of the major works to be targeted by the £60 billion programme of investment that will take place over the next 10 years. As I said earlier, that will be a programme of investment both from private and public sources. Understandably, in relation to the West Coast main line, one hears complaints of inconvenience from travellers, but that project, running at a cost of around £6 billion, is one of the major post-war engineering works in the United Kingdom, employing at present thousands of people. One message we must send out is that to rebuild a 150 year-old railway system cannot be done without inconvenience. We have to ensure that it is done without compromising safety.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I must declare an interest in that I am a member of the Strategic Rail Authority. However, today I am speaking in a personal capacity as a former senior executive on the railways. First, I am sure that all railway employees, not just Gerald Corbett, feel a deep sense of dismay at what happened, and that dismay is shared right through to the people who drive the trains and those on the platforms.

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My question is this. Does the Minister agree that there are pressures on the industry to improve punctuality, to increase the number of trains to carry the extra people who want to travel, and to gain access to the track for maintenance and repairs? Does he agree also that, under the present contractual structure, those pressures come into conflict with one another?

Perverse incentives are generated by the present contractual structure. For example, if Railtrack needs to get on the track to do extra repairs to enhance safety, it must make penalty payments for every train which is delayed for every minute. That must cause people to be less enthusiastic to disrupt the service and do the work than they would be if those incentive structures were different. Is it not time to consider whether the incentives we put in place, through regulation and contracts, always put safety first?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, the incisiveness of the noble Lord's contribution comes as no surprise, given his deep involvement with the industry over many years. I share his concern in those areas. Some of the contracts inherited through the privatisation process are closed book, fixed price contracts which are adversarial in nature. Railtrack has been trying to develop new relationships with maintenance contractors and to develop new forms of contract. It believes that in that regard it has made progress on track quality and so forth. However, it is surely time to review the contract structure urgently. I assume that that is one of the areas which Lord Cullen will want to examine. His interest will be welcomed by Railtrack and many others in the industry.

Lord Woolmer of Leeds: My Lords, does my noble friend recognise the deep sense of loss felt in Leeds at this tragic accident on the main rail link between Leeds and London? Also, is he aware of our support for and the pleasure we feel in seeing the additional funding going into railways? However, does he recognise that three tragic accidents in three years will inevitably shake public confidence in rail travel? If we do not recognise that, we do not do the public justice.

Given the reported awareness of the fault on this route, and that the replacement rail was in fact lying alongside the track for several months, does not Railtrack have an obligation to publicise reports of defective track and the remedial action it intends to take? Does it also have an obligation not only to report those matters to the Railways Inspectorate, but also to have the Railways Inspectorate agree what the proposed action should be?

Those of us travelling on that line over those months are appalled that during that time somebody took the decision to put the disruption of rail travel before safety and did not even impose a rail travel limit. Is my noble friend aware that putting safety first, with an independent body ensuring that that happens, is now becoming urgent?

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Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I accept the general thrust of what my noble friend says. I should say that since the Ladbroke Grove accident we have taken urgent measures to try to improve rail safety, including the acceleration of the new train protection systems, improved driver training and action to improve the number of SPADS which has shown the improvements mentioned earlier. We have also established a national confidential incident reporting system for the railways.

Some of the more detailed questions asked by my noble friend are best left to the investigation by the Health and Safety Executive and to Lord Cullen when he reports on the complex relationships inside what is not only a complicated, but also a huge industry. The measured way in which Lord Cullen has been advancing his inquiries to date gives us every confidence that he will come to cogent, sensible conclusions.

Lord Monson: My Lords--

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords--

The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I think it is time for a contribution from the Cross Benches.


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