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Train Derailment (Ufton)

12.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a short statement on the train derailment that occurred at the Ufton level crossing in Berkshire on Saturday evening.

As the House will be aware, at approximately 18.11 hours, the 17.35 First Great Western service from Paddington to Plymouth hit a car, which had stopped on the railway line at the level crossing at Ufton lane. There were approximately 180 passengers and four train crew travelling on the train. The train driver, the car driver and five passengers died and 37 people were admitted to hospital. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the families and friends of all those who lost their lives and to those who were injured.

I would like especially to praise the work of the Thames Valley emergency services and the agencies who worked closely together to respond to the accident with well-prepared contingency plans. I am told that the first of the emergency services arrived at the scene of the accident within four minutes. We must also thank the staff at the Royal Berkshire hospital and North Hampshire hospital for their care and dedication.

The British Transport police immediately began an investigation into why the car stopped on the level crossing and the actions of the driver. Alongside the police investigation, Her Majesty's railways inspectorate carried out its investigation to determine whether the rail safety equipment at the crossing functioned correctly, and as a result of that, the Health and Safety Executive has produced an interim report, published this morning, setting out its findings. Copies of that report have been placed in the Library and are publicly available.

It may be helpful to the House if I quote from the summary of the HSE report, which sets out what it has found. It says:

that is the points at the entry to a goods line, about 100 yd from the crossing—

The report sets out the HSE's findings in some detail and concludes:

The HSE has now completed its on-site investigation and withdrawn from the site, but it will if required support the British Transport police investigation as it continues.
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The next stage is for the Rail Safety and Standards Board, which has started a formal rail industry inquiry into the incident. A panel of independent experts will consider all aspects of the derailment. They will report within the next six to 12 months, but if any matters of importance on safety arise from their investigations, they will make them known immediately so that the appropriate action can be taken. It is for the coroner to determine the precise cause and circumstances of the deaths of those involved and I understand that the coroner's inquest will open today.

I should like to consider what is being done in the meantime to help those who were in the accident and to resume services on the line. In the past, there has been concern about a lack of clarity on what is done in the aftermath of such an accident to help those who were involved.

Network Rail and the train operating company, First Great Western, are working closely together to help those who were in the accident and their families. First Great Western has already taken the lead on handling claims from passengers. It is trying to contact all those who were on the train. There is a number to call for those passengers who have not already been contacted by the company.

Network Rail has estimated that, because of the damage to the track, it will take at least a week to replace the track and signalling equipment. In the meantime, First Great Western has provided replacement bus services. Network Rail is doing all that it can to restore the service as quickly as possible.

It is clear that this was a tragic accident. We owe it to those who were involved to find out the circumstances surrounding it. The inquiries that have been put in place will try to achieve that. It is ultimately a matter for the coroner to determine the cause of the tragic deaths.

It is clear from the HSE interim report that there was no failure of equipment. However, if there are wider safety lessons to be learned, that is for the RSSB inquiry to establish and for the industry and the Government as necessary to pursue.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for sending me a copy of his statement an hour or so ago. Our first thoughts are for the families of those who lost their lives in the serious and tragic accident. I extend our deepest sympathy to the family of driver Stanley Martin, who died doing his job, the families of the others who died and the passengers who travelled last Saturday, expecting their journey to be safely completed. We also sympathise with all those who were injured and suffered the horrifying and inevitably frightening experience of being involved in a serious accident.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the emergency services, which responded quickly and superbly in the difficult conditions that prevailed at the scene, and the staff of the Royal Berkshire and North Hampshire hospitals. I welcome the publication of the Health and Safety Executive interim report this morning. I look forward to the results in due course of the formal inquiry that the RSSB is conducting.

The HSE report states that both the staff and the equipment that the railways used functioned properly. Knee-jerk reactions or hasty conclusions are the last
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thing that the railways and the travelling public need. However, several questions arise. I appreciate that the Secretary of State may not be able to answer them immediately but I would be grateful for his assurance that they will be considered at the right time.

First, we must determine whether there are any lessons to be learned about the design of level crossings, especially whether the half barrier design, which appears to have operated safely at many crossings for a considerable time, can be improved in any way. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the last comparable accident that involved a level crossing with barriers happened as long ago as 1986?

Secondly, given that modern technology is better and cheaper than what was available in the past, we must consider whether more use can be made of closed circuit television to provide train drivers and signalmen with more advance information about when lines may be blocked. Can the Secretary of State say whether we know yet how long the vehicle was on the tracks before the train struck it?

Thirdly, are there any lessons to be learned about the design of trains, including the protection for drivers, who are now positioned at the front of high-speed and heavy trains, and the interior of carriages—the positioning and angle of seats and other internal fittings? Is there any evidence in this country or abroad that the use of safety belts in trains would be a practical or effective way of reducing the risk of injuries? Does the Secretary of State share the widely held view that it is not practical or cost-effective to replace all level crossings on high-speed lines with tunnels or bridges, as one trade union leader suggested the morning after the accident?

Does the Secretary of State agree that, if any steps can be taken to make trains, which despite the tragedy are one of the safest ways to travel, even safer, they should be carefully considered but that any action or expenditure should always be proportionate to the risks and analysed for their cost effectiveness?

Mr. Darling: I am sure that the relatives of those who were killed or injured and the injured themselves will be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I very much appreciate the measured response of the hon. Gentleman and many others in the aftermath of the accident. He asks number of questions. All these matters will be considered by the inquiry, as the House would expect, but it might be helpful if I make one or two observations.

Most level crossings on high-speed lines—that is, the east coast line, the west coast line, the midland main line and the great western line—have full barrier crossings. There are about 16 crossings on those lines which have the half-barriers, but that is where there are line speeds of 100 mph or less. The line speed on the line in question was 100 mph. I must tell the House—I think the hon. Gentleman appreciates this—that the evidence so far is that the car was already on the track before the barrier sequence started. He asks how long it was on the track. The British Transport police are still investigating that and I do not want to say anything further. It is pretty clear that the car was already on the track, so it was not the case that the barrier was there and somehow the
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driver got round it. That is obviously one of the aspects that will have to be examined.

There are about 8,000 level crossings across the whole network. About 1,700 are barriers and lights, the sort that we are discussing. Network Rail, which owns the track, reviews all the crossings regularly. The last time there was a safety assessment on this crossing was 8 July this year, when it was examined and assessed. People should be aware that these things are kept constantly under review.

The hon. Gentleman asks about design and seat belts. That has been and will be considered. The new trains that are coming into service now are much better constructed than, for example, the old slam door trains that are being taken out of service. Of course attention is paid to interior design and so on. The question of seat belts has been considered both in Britain and in countries throughout the world, but so far there has been a general reluctance to pursue the idea. The issue undoubtedly needs to be looked at again. It is not straightforward, not least because of the fact that people tend to move around trains. Anyone who has been on a train knows that they are not the same as an aeroplane, where people tend to stay seated.

The final point that the hon. Gentleman makes about safety and costs is an important one. When we approach these matters, we should ask ourselves what is best in relation to safety. It was a terrible accident, but we should bear it in mind that rail safety in this country has been improving year by year. It is worth noting that in the past year, when the railways carried a record number of people—the highest number since the 1940s—there had not been an accident involving railway passengers. Sadly, there are accidents around the tracks, but those are other issues that we may explore today and which we need to examine. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman has my assurance that the matters that he raised will be looked at.

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