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Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): In a horrific incident of this kind, the shattering effect not only on the family of those involved but on those working on and around the railway lasts for a very long time. I know that the Secretary of State will consider carefully the physical means of slowing down a train, but the reality is that that would have been almost impossible for a train at that speed. The unfortunate juxtaposition of the points was among the factors that contributed to the accident. Will he assure me that the families concerned, the people involved and some members of the emergency services will continue to receive not only information but help in the coming months, when they will desperately need it?

Mr. Darling: I attach some importance to that as, having met those who were affected by some of the major rail accidents that happened before I was Secretary of State, it is clear to me that what is important, among many other things, is that people are kept in touch and that they understand what is going on. That is why I was keen to ensure that both Network Rail and First Great Western, which will take the lead in this since it was its train, should get in touch with people and deal with their immediate concerns, as well as concerns that will probably arise over the next few weeks and months.

My hon. Friend is also right that we should not forget what a traumatic experience this is, not just for the railway staff but for everybody who has any involvement. Sadly, every year, a large number of incidents take place, which obviously can be tragic for the people involved, but which can also have a traumatic effect on railway staff. People sometimes forget how
 
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much trauma that causes for such staff. It must be remembered, primarily by their employers but, by others too.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Secretary of State accept that in my constituency, which has probably the highest number of level crossings in the country, there is deep concern about the safety issues, to which I referred in an Adjournment debate some time ago? In Barlaston, the level crossing failed seriously a few days ago, which is of grave concern to local residents. It should not be assumed that the funding is adequate to deal not only with the new technologies to which he has referred but with the necessity in certain cases for tunnels or bridges. That is not a knee-jerk reaction, as in certain cases it may be essential: for example, in Hixon in my constituency, where there was a fatality recently, and where, fortunately, a bridge has now been built.

Mr. Darling: In relation to the hon. Gentleman's first point, I am not aware of the problem that arose on the level crossing to which he refers, but if he would care to identify it in a little more detail, I will find out and write to him, and the letter will be placed in the Library so that people can appreciate the position. Inevitably, level crossings present a risk—anyone being on the track presents a risk. The object must be to try to manage that risk as much as possible. It is worth bearing it in mind that only twice in the past 35 years has there been an incident at a level crossing on a main line that has resulted in the deaths of railway passengers. Undoubtedly, every year, there are cases involving pedestrians and motorists, which are sometimes accidents and, unfortunately, sometimes suicides. In each case, we must try to manage the risk as much as possible. In the past couple of years or so, Network Rail has taken nearly 200 level crossings out of service where it was appropriate and where there was a realistic alternative, which is not always the case.

Finally, I am aware of cases where we would like to spend money and do something, but where other objections must be dealt with, such as environmental objections—I can think of one crossing in particular in that regard. None of these issues is straightforward, but of course we must keep them under review. As I said in reply to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), each crossing is reviewed regularly.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab): May I associate myself with the Secretary of State's remarks about the emergency services and the wider railway community? As someone who previously had responsibility for many level crossings in the east of England, it is only too clear to me what may have happened in this case, although it is right to wait for the inquiry. Having said that, can he say whether any messages are coming back from the industry, particularly Network Rail, with regard to track-side and driving cab radio-controlled systems, to see whether we can improve the mechanism for getting such information to drivers?

Mr. Darling: I know that my hon. Friend knows a great deal about this, as before coming to the House his job was very much involved with railway engineering.
 
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Network Rail has a project that will allow mobile phone communication between the cab and signallers. Again, that is not without difficulty, and some Members, for understandable reasons, are concerned about the placing of the radio masts that must go with such projects. We must deal with that.

I ought to say—I know that my hon. Friend knows this—that from what we know about this case so far, it seems clear that although an off-duty police officer phoned the signal box, no matter what means of communication he had, it was so late that it would almost certainly not have stopped this train, simply because of the speed at which it was travelling. From the time that the barriers come down, there is about 30 seconds, and such trains, by their very nature, take some time to stop. In relation to his general point about increased communication, however, that is in hand. In this case, however, from what I can see, it would not have made much difference.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): The 17:35 Paddington to Plymouth train could not have had a more experienced driver than my constituent, Mr. Stan Martin from Torquay. Will the Secretary of State do all in his power to ensure that those who work on our railways, and their families, realise that safety will remain the primary concern of the railway industry?

Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the 14-year-old Torquay schoolgirl who used her Red Cross skills to nurse and comfort Louella Main, the nine-year-old victim of the crash? The teenager and her mother, who tried to help the child as she lay in a field next to the crash scene, have asked for their names not to be used out of respect for those who did not survive the tragedy.

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman draws attention to one of a number of extremely courageous and thoughtful actions on the part of not just passengers but others in attendance. Many people performed heroic deeds, but for perfectly understandable reasons that will go unremarked, in that their identities will not be known. That is a tribute to their humanitarian feelings, and the hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to it. He was also right to draw attention to the skill of the driver who died. The HSE report makes it clear that he did everything he was supposed to do in the event of an emergency. Sadly, however, he lost his life.

As I said a few moments ago, we should always bear in mind the skill of many people working on the railways who ensure that the system is safe and that rail is a safe means of travel.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): It would clearly be wrong to jump to any conclusions about precisely what happened on Saturday evening, but every Member who has spoken so far has described it as an accident. It is perfectly possible that it was no accident, but a deliberate act of violence and self-violence. Unfortunately, as the Secretary of State has said, suicides on the railway are relatively common, bringing not only tragedy to the families involved but a great deal of pain and personal anguish to drivers and many other
 
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people. Will the inquiry consider what we can do, as far as is humanly possible, to try to prevent further such suicides?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend raises two separate issues. As he says, we should not reach conclusions before they are warranted by an examination of the facts, which will be undertaken by the Rail Safety and Standards Board. As for the precise cause of the accident, that is something that the coroner will determine.

My hon. Friend made a more general point about suicides on the railway, of which there are between 180 and 200 a year. The Department, along with the industry, is already giving attention to that, but as I said earlier, it is impossible to stop people getting on to the track if they really want to. We must see what we can do to reduce the risk and improve the situation. No one could claim that such actions will be impossible in future—that is simply not the way the world works—but I hope the work done by the Department and the industry will help.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that, sadly, up to four people a year die on unmanned pedestrian level crossings, and that it is Government policy to close such crossings where it is reasonable to do so? A few hundred yards up the road from the Benfleet pedestrian crossing is a perfectly safe alternative in the form of an underpass. Closing crossings of that kind would be very much in the interests of public safety, and would solve the problem of noisy train whistles.


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