Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): As co-chairman of the all-party railways group, with the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) who spoke a little earlier, may I associate myself with all the expressions of sympathy, the condolences and the tributes that the Deputy Prime Minister has paid? Will he pay tribute not only to rail staff, but to those passengers who, happily, were not too badly injured? From the interviews that have taken place during the day, it is apparent that great courage was shown by those who were still able-bodied after the tragic accident and who helped the more seriously injured to escape. Will the right hon. Gentleman also pay tribute in particular to members of the British Transport police? As he knows, their work is often forgotten, but there is no doubt that as well as GNER staff and the rail crews, British Transport police played a significant part today.
Mr. Prescott: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his endorsement of the expressions of sympathy and support from both sides of the House. I add my support for the work of the British Transport police. I travelled down with the assistant chief constable and discussed the situation with him. With so many agencies present, one tends to think that co-operation will not be possible, but it was not lacking at all.
The various authorities--the transport police, the civilian police, the fire services and so on--have developed a technique for co-operation that is admirable. They arrive within a short time and get on with the job. They understand it and do it, and one cannot but admire such co-operation. If they can do that despite the different bodies that they belong to, we get the best of services to deal with the most difficult circumstances when a terrible tragedy occurs. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman gave me the opportunity to praise the co-operative work of all the agencies involved in the incident.
Mr. Jon Trickett (Hemsworth): I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement that he made so promptly this evening, and associate myself with his tribute to all those from the emergency services. Our sympathy goes out to all the bereaved and the injured. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, notwithstanding the recent spate of accidents and disasters, railways remain the safest mode of transport?
In paying tribute to the emergency services, I emphasise the work done at Pontefract infirmary, where I understand that more than half the victims of the crash were treated. Not long ago, there was debate about the future of the infirmary. A strong case was made that the hospital is close not only to the railway, but to the A1, the M62, five or six working pits and an explosive chemical works in Castleford. Will my right hon. Friend convey my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who said in his statement two weeks ago that new money would be found for Pontefract, and that the accident and emergency service is safe there, 24 hours a day?
It was not only Pontefract hospital, but quite a few hospitals in the Yorkshire area that responded tremendously. That is why the Minister for Public Health is up there, saying thank you on behalf of all of us for what they have done. As to whether Pontefract hospital is under threat, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is on the Front Bench and will have heard the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Trickett).
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): I am not seeking to allocate blame or asking my right hon. Friend to do that, but I am concerned to learn tonight that at the point where one of the busiest motorways passes over one of the busiest railway routes in the country, the crash barriers intended to protect that very busy railway route seem to have been inadequate and were certainly not long enough. Are those crash barriers the responsibility of Railtrack or of the Highways Agency?
Mr. Prescott: First, as my hon. Friend says, we must wait to see whether any criticisms are made about crash barriers. That investigation is under way. As my hon. Friend rightly says, the M62 is a busy motorway--one of our busiest--and crosses the east coast line. The barriers have not been designed to deal with a Land Rover and a vehicle that career down a bank and go on to the railway line. A balance must be struck. The barriers are not designed to prevent cars from going on to the railways. They are designed to stop lorries running into the bridges over railways, for obvious reasons. Barriers are built where the motorway runs alongside the railway, and crash barriers have then been put in place.
The matter will be investigated, and I assure my hon. Friend that the investigation will be reported to the House. The matter must be kept under constant review. The barriers are largely put in place to protect the bridges. As I reported to the House, the crash barrier is quite a long one. It is longer than is required under the regulations. Yet the vehicle left the road some 30 m before the beginning of the crash barrier and careered down the embankment in a way that surprised all of us. However there will be a thorough investigation and we will report back to the House.
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): As I am sure my right hon. Friend will be aware, the freight train involved in this terrible accident came from Immingham in my constituency, and I am sure that he will appreciate that, when the terrible news came through, it sent a shiver of fear through the families of freight drivers there. My right hon. Friend paid tribute to the passengers and drivers, but will he also pay tribute to the freight drivers who do such
Mr. Prescott: I thank my hon. Friend for her words of support. She is right that there is considerable freight train activity on that line, particularly with the movement of coal to the power stations, which was certainly a contributory factor in the tragedy. Thousands of tonnes of deadweight coal had an effect on the impact. Workers and passengers risk death in such incidents, and the families of railway workers rely on television and radio for the latest information to discover whether their loved ones have been involved in any tragedy. When people speculate on the television and in the press they should bear in mind that there are people who are extremely worried about their loved ones, whether they are rail workers or passengers.
Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles): I add my condolences to all the families of those injured and killed, and my thoughts go to the workers from all the services involved in this terrible incident. It is clear from what has been said in the Chamber today that the accident was due not to a rail problem but a road problem, and the material used to guard motorways when they travel over roads or rail is of particular importance. In the village of Winton in my constituency there have been three incidents in a couple of years in which three different cars have gone off a motorway in similar circumstances to this tragedy, with resultant deaths. Fortunately, they did not hit the houses below. Will my right hon. Friend investigate whether concrete might be a more appropriate material for barriers in such areas?
Mr. Prescott: There have been a number of incidents over several years where bridges go over roads or rails. Those are always a matter of concern and are fully investigated. Where crash barriers are deemed necessary they are provided. Whether the materials used for the barriers might result in an unsafe road is a matter of concern, but if my hon. Friend cares to write to me with particular examples I shall be happy to follow the matter up with the Highways Agency.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): This was an appalling tragedy and the Secretary of State is right to extend sympathy to those families involved, to praise the emergency services and to institute a quick and thorough inquiry. But will he personally consider the national standards for crash barriers and bridge parapets? They are meant to withstand 30 tonne vehicles travelling at 40 mph. They were clearly not in place where this accident occurred. If the inquiry finds that the national standard must be upgraded, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that that will happen?
Mr. Prescott: As I have said, barriers are installed largely to influence the path of any lorry or car that collides with them; they will not stop such vehicles, but they might clear them from the bridge itself. However, the standards are being considered and the investigation will cover such matters. We shall take on board any recommendations and bring them to the House.