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Mr. Prescott: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I join him in complimenting GNER, which is our local rail service. I cannot say with accuracy when the line will be open. When I have received the interim report, I may have a better idea of the extent of the damage. I have seen the state of the line. Wonderful efforts have been made by the maintenance people, who have been working extremely hard since the Hatfield accident, but this is a line to which they must return. I cannot give an accurate date for when that line will be reopened. However, as I have said, I shall be able to give further information when I have received the interim statement. I have no doubt that everyone involved would like to see the line reopened as soon as possible. I am sure that that is the wish of the House.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for both visiting the site today and reporting back to the House this evening. I join him in paying tribute to the emergency services. We especially remember those who lost their lives, those who have been bereaved and those who are seriously and critically injured.
GNER has had a terrible six months, but its standing locally is extremely high. The company is based at York. As the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), knows, as do others on both sides of the House who represent parts of York, the city revolves round the railway. Today, I received a letter from York's economic development department about the damage that was done to the community and local business with the loss of the normal full-speed service, which, as the right hon. Gentleman said, was reinstated only on Monday.
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the extent to which weather conditions might have played a part in the accident. I do not know whether the police were able to report on that today. Similarly, I do not know whether that will form part of his investigation, on which I know he will report.
Mr. Prescott: I thank the hon. Lady for her compliments to the emergency services, whose work has been remarkable. We have commented on them and supported them. I have commented on GNER services, which are identified with the region and actively supported. I recognise that York has been the centre of our railway system for a long time and that many people will be concerned about disruption to services. I hope that we can reinstate those services as soon as possible.
I looked into the police reports about the weather, and there was concern about how bad it was. The gritters were on the M62. I think that the last gritting took place at about 2 am. A judgment was made later that the freezing frost was not continuing. Anyone who saw the early film on television would be aware that the weather was not the normal sort of pattern that has been seen in certain parts of the country. We must wait for the outcome of the inquiry to give us further information about what caused
Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): Although my right hon. Friend will need to await the outcome of the investigation, I ask him at the appropriate time to give consideration to the provision of safety information for train passengers. When boarding an aeroplane, we take it for granted that such information will be made available. Is it not time to consider providing similar information to train passengers, especially about emergency, evacuation procedures, such as those that had to be used today by those caught up in a terrible accident?
Mr. Prescott: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. It is interesting that on this occasion, compared with a previous accident when there was concern about whether hammers were available to enable passengers to get outside, notices enabled passengers to get hammers to break out. It is always difficult to know whether passengers should stay in the train or get out.
We are talking of an electric passenger train, but the freight train carried oil and diesel, and there were fumes. Some passengers were obviously concerned that the fumes would lead to fire, as we saw in another incident. We have asked Lord Cullen and others to consider whether more safety information should be available. To be fair, the train companies have provided more information, but there was some talk earlier about whether the hammers were big enough and whether they could be changed. I think and hope that Lord Cullen will be able to give us further advice. I will follow up the matter with the Health and Safety Executive to ascertain whether there is anything more that we can do while we await reports.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I endorse what has been said about the management and staff of GNER, who have seen railway colleagues lose their lives in the accident. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with me that during all the recent emergencies the staff of GNER, at every level, have worked extremely hard to try to restore the quality of service and to support passengers in very difficult situations? As for reopening the line as soon as is reasonably possible, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that because of adverse weather conditions today, both lines to Scotland have been closed?
Mr. Prescott: I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says about GNER staff. I travel on the service for about 20,000 miles a year. I find that the staff have an identity with the company and feel happy about the services that they are providing. I think that that is the experience of us all. The staff want to provide the best service, and that comes across.
The importance of the railways emphasises that we need a good strategic network north and south and east and west. That reminds us how much we are dependent on the railway system. When we have these accidents, we are given the opportunity to think carefully about whether some routes should be compatible. For example, the route via Leeds is not electrified, but many of the trains are. Today's incident is likely to bring such considerations to the fore.
Secondly, in my right hon. Friend's initial discussions with the Highways Agency, did the agency express any views about the geometry of the slip road? Having worked for many years on incidents connected with bridges on our railways, I endorse the remarks of the Opposition spokesman about the need for progress on the interface between roads and railways. The Highways Agency bridge authorities throughout the country and Railtrack must try finally to crack the associated safety problems.
I am extremely sympathetic to my hon. Friend's point about media speculation. I do not suppose that it will make any difference, but I wish that they would not speculate without the facts, as that creates difficulties. From the initial speculation, one would have thought that the vehicle fell immediately on to the track. That is just not true. It careered for 100 m, well ahead of the crash barrier. The gradient of the embankment is 1:3. How the vehicle did not turn over is beyond me. It was a high-sided vehicle and was pulling another vehicle.
Events did not happen as the media speculated from an early stage. From time to time we hear from some so-called transport specialist, who has seen nothing but tells us what should happen and what we should change. That is not helpful. It alarms the relatives, because they get the wrong information. We should find out as much as we can, give the information to the House, and trust the report based on the information available at that time. I hope, although I do not expect that there is any chance of it, that the media will avoid speculating about what happened. It does not help, and my hon. Friend's question gives me an opportunity to say so.
It is true, I believe--I hope the inquiry will look into the matter--that one of the power units that was not damaged was one of those involved in the Hatfield crash. I must await the interim report before I can give a definite response. With regard to the slip road and the need to examine bridge and rail connections, the Highways Agency is looking into that. Research is under way and we will make the information available.
Again, as I said, if one looked at the route that the vehicle took down the side of the road and 100 m to the rail, one would not have thought that that would happen. One would imagine that the vehicle would have stopped well before that, but it did not. As in all tragedies, it is never one incident. It is two or three things together that make for a terrible tragedy. Who was to know that when the vehicle came off the road, a fast passenger train was approaching at 125 mph, as well as a freight coal train carrying a massive weight--thousands of tonnes--and travelling at 40 mph? The impact was phenomenal.