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The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the tragic accident at Selby at about 6.20 this morning. I am grateful to the House, in particular to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) for concluding his speech and to the Opposition for giving me the opportunity to speak at this later time, which allowed me to visit the scene and report back to the House.
The latest casualty figure is 13 killed. At this time we believe that that includes two train drivers. There are 75 other casualties, 10 of whom are in a serious or critical condition. I am sure that all hon. Members will wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the injured and to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives in this tragic and horrific accident.
When I visited the scene, I again saw for myself the tremendous efforts of our emergency services and the many agencies that were involved in dealing with the accident. As always, they showed true professionalism, courage and efficiency in, yet again, the most difficult circumstances.
The House will want to join me in paying tribute to the North Yorkshire police, working in conjunction with the British Transport police and other forces, the local fire brigades and ambulance services, the Royal Air Force air sea rescue helicopters, which attended the scene, and the local hospitals that treated the injured. The Minister for Public Health, is visiting hospitals this evening and will thank hospital staff for their work. I also want to pay tribute to the way in which members of the local community responded so quickly to provide help and comfort to the passengers who were involved in the accident.
Let me turn to the facts of the tragedy in so far as they are known. At approximately 6.20 this morning, a Land Rover was travelling west along the M62 motorway, pulling a trailer that was carrying another car. It left the motorway as it approached a bridge that crosses the east coast main line. The bridge is protected by crash barriers, but the vehicle left the road some 30 m before the beginning of the crash barrier. It then travelled along and down the embankment, behind the safety barrier, before falling down the railway cutting and on to the track. In all, on present information, it is estimated that the vehicle travelled more than 100 m from leaving the main carriageway before reaching the railway line.
The driver got out of the vehicle and phoned the North Yorkshire police. As he was speaking to them, the 4.45 am Great North Eastern Railway Newcastle to London train, carrying more than 100 passengers, collided with the vehicle on the track. The passenger train left the rails as a result of the collision, but remained upright. Almost immediately, it collided with the oncoming freight train. The time between the emergency call and the first collision was 40 seconds, and the two trains crashed within seconds of that.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his statement. I know that he shares our view that it was appropriate to defer today's debate on other transport issues.
The right hon. Gentleman speaks for the whole House when he expresses shock and sympathy for the victims and their families. We join him in sending our condolences to the injured and bereaved. We also join him in paying tribute to the emergency services. The police and the helicopter, ambulance and fire crews distinguished themselves in harrowing circumstances and appalling weather conditions. Doctors, nurses and other national health service staff have been unstinting in their devotion to the injured. We thank not only the public services involved, but--as he did--the villagers of Great Heck, who were first on the scene.
The victims and their families are uppermost in our minds. At this early stage, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether there is any doubt that the casualty figures that he gave are the final totals? Have all the relatives of the dead been contacted?
Faced with yet more scenes of smashed rail carriages on our television screens, and as we hear yet more harrowing first-hand accounts of a disaster, it is hard to know how to express what everyone feels, but nothing should stand in the way of our determination to rebuild confidence in the safety of the railway. I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister that it is too early to draw conclusions from the accident, and I welcome his call for an early interim report from the HSE.
Everyone accepts that accidents happen. However, we need a full and comprehensive assessment before we can judge whether this was an appalling but freak tragedy, or whether the risk of a similar accident recurring is unacceptably high. The accident follows the tragedies of Hatfield and Paddington. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to resist adding to the burden of the Cullen inquiry into those accidents, so that its findings are not delayed further. However, has he considered reviewing the conclusions of the 1987 working party, which examined the risks associated with road/rail crashes at bridges? Will he also consider creating a successor group?
I assure the right hon. Gentleman of our support for the Cullen inquiry recommendations to be implemented as quickly as possible and our support for his response to today's events. Will he join me in expressing support to those people who work on our railways? This accident is another terrible blow for a troubled and unhappy industry that has been desperately trying to restore its self- confidence and services to passengers. For GNER staff, this is the second tragedy in the space of a few months. Does he agree that a safe and reliable railway depends on all those people who have been striving, and will continue to strive, to achieve that objective? Does he also agree
Mr. Prescott: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response. I am most grateful for his full support for the emergency services and their remarkable work, which they are still doing. I am not sure what the final casualty totals are, for obvious reasons. All those people who are known to be alive have been removed from the crash site. When we begin to lift the two trains that collided--one was doing about 125 mph and the other was doing 40 mph--we are not quite sure what we will find. Therefore, I cannot give more accurate information at the moment. Certainly those who were involved have been removed to hotels by GNER and are receiving advice and help in those difficult circumstances. I am not sure whether all the relatives have been informed, but the great majority have been, and that task continues. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an accurate answer, but I will write to him tomorrow. If I receive more information tonight, I will ensure that he gets it.
The hon. Gentleman's point about wanting a full investigation was well made, and he is right to suggest that we should not adopt the same procedure that we used for Hatfield, when information was passed on to the Cullen inquiry. We do not now want to delay the inquiry's conclusions, and I shall certainly keep that in mind when I receive the interim report from the HSE in the next few days. I shall keep the hon. Gentleman and the House informed on these matters.
Research commissioned by the Highways Agency is currently being conducted on collisions at bridges, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. As soon as that investigation has been completed, I will make that information available.
The hon. Gentleman was right to conclude that we all want a safe railway system, and everyone strives to achieve that. We always need to be guided by the proper regulatory framework, and the question is whether that framework is correct. Lord Cullen is considering whether the management of our railway system and its safety should be improved, and we must await his report. As the hon. Gentleman said, we must remember that GNER crews were involved, and although we are waiting to find out exactly what happened, I believe at least two of them to be dead. They paid the final price in the most difficult circumstances. We should remember that it is often the workers who pay the price, along with the passengers, and that is why I particularly wanted to mention those two people.
The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we will all strive to secure a safe railway system and that there will be a full investigation. I await the interim report to find out what I should do, but I will report back to him and the House as soon as possible. I appreciate the fact that following our conversations this morning about the difficulty of there being a transport debate today, the Opposition were responsive and agreed to join us in doing what was best so that I could report to the House.