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Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. On behalf of the official Opposition, I join him in sending my deepest sympathy to all the relatives of those who died in the train crash at Potters Bar. We also send our best wishes for a speedy and full recovery to all those who were injured.

We are united across the House in our shock and sorrow at what has happened. Lives have been shattered by the crash, and we in the House owe people our commitment to ensure as best we can that an accident of this nature does not happen again. My hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), whose constituency covers Potters Bar, and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) visited the crash site on Friday hours after the accident. They have told me of the extraordinary commitment and hard work of those in the emergency services called to the site.

Yesterday, I visited the crash site myself. Among those I spoke to were two members of the crew of one of the first ambulances on the scene. They described to me what they had faced. Terrible though the scene had been, they had a job to do and they did it. Their dedication and professionalism shone through, as it did from all those in the emergency services to whom I spoke. We owe our emergency services a great debt of gratitude for all that they did and continue to do to respond to the crash. Our thanks must also go to those in the national health service who are caring for the injured; as the Secretary of State said, to the members of the local Potters Bar community, who rushed to the scene to help; and to those who are continuing to provide support locally as work on the site continues.

I was also struck yesterday by the meticulous way in which the British Transport police and the Health and Safety Executive were carrying out their investigation. It is essential that we find out exactly what caused the crash, so that any necessary lessons may be learned and action taken to ensure the safety of our rail network.

Many people who travel by train day in and day out will understandably be concerned about the safety of the network. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, despite the appalling tragedy that occurred at Potters Bar and the other rail tragedies of the past few years, compared with other forms of transport, our railways are still safe—and indeed that safety has been steadily improving?

The Secretary of State is reported as describing the accident as a one-off, isolated incident. That implies that there are no lessons to be learned from the accident, yet all the reported possible causes of the loosening of the holding nuts on the points—vandalism, sabotage or poor maintenance—would suggest that there are lessons that should be learned, and that describing the accident as a one-off event before the right hon. Gentleman was in receipt of the report from the Health and Safety Executive was premature. Will he confirm that if this proves to be more than a freak accident from which there are absolutely no lessons to be learned, a public inquiry will be set up?

In the Secretary of State's statement, he reported that 800 sets of points across the whole network had been inspected following the accident. What form of inspection

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was undertaken on those points? Was it the same type of inspection as took place the day before the accident on the points at Potters Bar?

Is the Secretary of State aware of local concern about security at Potters Bar station, which led to a meeting between the train operating company, the local police, British Transport police and local representatives in late April?

Finally, I do not want to pursue this line of questioning too far—I am sure the Secretary of State will appreciate why—but is it true that the cause of the accident lay not just in an act of omission, in removing holding nuts from bolts, but in an act of commission, in tightening one of the bars on the points, thus making an accident more likely? Given the record of vandalism on points across the country and their vulnerability to sabotage, does he still stand by his statement that this is a one-off, unique event from which there are no lessons to be learned? Will he assure the House that, given the possible cause of this accident, regular and additional inspection of points will be made?

This was an appalling tragedy and our thoughts and prayers remain with the bereaved and injured. I can assure the Secretary of State that the Opposition stand ready to support the Government in taking the actions necessary to ensuring the safety of our rail network.

Mr. Byers: I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) recognises that the House is united in our response to the tragedy and to the individuals involved, their families and the community of Potters Bar.

I should put the record straight right at the beginning. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the hon. Lady has misquoted what I said. At no stage have I said that there are no lessons to be learned. I said clearly on Saturday that there is a difference between what might be a one-off incident and a generic problem with the railway network. That is an important distinction to make.

In the light of the briefing that I had before I made any public comments—this is now being confirmed publicly—I said that there were certain events and actions that had taken place in relation to the set of points that meant that we could look at the incident in isolation from the rest of the railway network. That point is important, because we know from Hatfield that sometimes there can be generic problems affecting the railway network that have to be dealt with.

For the record, at no time have I said that there are no lessons to be learned; there are lessons that can be learned from any accident. Safety is so good—whether on our railways or elsewhere—because we learn from the accidents that happen, just as I am sure we will learn from this incident.

The hon. Lady raises a number of specific points. On the question of a public inquiry, at the moment the right way forward is to consider the outcome of the investigations that are now taking place, particularly the formal investigation that will be commenced tomorrow by the Health and Safety Executive. We should await the outcome of the investigations before deciding whether or not a public inquiry is appropriate. That is the right step to take.

In terms of the checks made of the 800 points and whether they were checked in the same way as in previous inspections that may have taken place of the set of points

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in question, for reasons the House will understand it would be inappropriate for me to comment on what inspections may or may not have been made of those points. I do know that the work carried out by Railtrack on the 800 points has not identified similar defects. The railway inspectorate has audited the work carried out by Railtrack. It has not done so on all 800 points yet, but it is in the process of making sure that the procedures we used were appropriate in the circumstances.

Security at the station, and whether this was an act of omission or commission are, rightly, matters for the investigations themselves and I would not want to pre-empt their outcome. On the question of safety on our railways, it is difficult in the immediate aftermath of an incident such as the derailment at Potters Bar to say, "Our railways are safe." We get criticised in newspapers if we say that. But if one looks at the long-term trend, it is true that, per passenger-mile travelled, railway travel is getting safer. The facts bear that out and I am pleased that the hon. Lady recognises that.

One reason why railway travel is getting safer—this is an important point—is that we learn lessons from incidents—whether Hatfield, Ladbroke Grove, Southall, Clapham or Potters Bar. Lessons will be learned and the appropriate changes will be put in place. We owe that to the people involved in the incident at Potters Bar, and that is what we will do.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): While adding my deepest sympathy to the family and friends of all who died, I wish to mention in particular a young student, Jonael Schickler—a PhD student at Queen's college in my constituency—who, tragically, was one of those who died on Friday.

In endorsing my right hon. Friend's comments on the valuable work done by the emergency services, I commend the action of the train driver, Andy Gibson, who went beyond the call of duty in helping those who were trapped and injured. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at this sensitive time, it is particularly important that we, as Members of this House, continue to support the rail industry? I travel on the line in question twice weekly, and I shall continue to do so.

Mr. Byers: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is a tragedy when anybody loses their life, particularly someone who—like the student she mentioned—had their whole future ahead of them. She is right to commend the action of the train driver, Andy Gibson, who gave immediate assistance to those injured, and to point out that we should support the rail network. Like her, I have travelled on that line many times, when visiting friends in Cambridge. A personal knowledge of the service in question brings home the difficulties that can be created. We need to acknowledge that point—I, too, travelled by train on Saturday—but we must recognise that our railway network provides one of the safest forms of travel. We must not be complacent, however, but vigilant to ensure that we retain that position.

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