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Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I wish to start with an apology, as I will shortly be chairing a meeting that I have organised and must leave the Chamber immediately after my speech. No disrespect is intended.
It is a matter of only a few weeks since the tragic rail disaster at Ufton near Newbury. My constituent, Emily Webster, a schoolgirl, was sadly one of the five who died. I have since had conversations with her family and her father, and they are all concerned about rail safety. Her father in particular has raised the issue of seat belts in trains, which I shall come to later. The Bill transfers health and safety responsibilities to the Office of Rail Regulation and the question that we must ask now and on which we have to test the Government in Committee is whether that will improve rail safety.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) likened what is proposed to a Civil Aviation Authority approach. The one thing about the CAA is that it responds and carries out its inquiries quickly and looks into what needs to be remedied, after which the air industry does its repairs promptly. One aspect of the rail inquiries that we have had in the past is that they have taken a long time. Recommendations made in other inquiries are often not fully taken up and are sometimes not implemented. It is all very well to say that rail travel is a safe mode of transport. Yes, it isit is far safer than flying or drivingbut that is no excuse for saying that we should not improve standards even further.
I had a conversation earlier with my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), two of whose constituents tragically died. He cannot be present because of previous commitments, but he raised a number of safety issues relating to the Ufton disaster. It appears that the emergency hammers that are used to break the glass broke before the glass did, so the windows could not be knocked out. Perhaps people were hitting the windows in the wrong place, but could not see the emergency signs. He asked whether there should be additional emergency lighting.
It appears that the points near the crossing may have added to the disaster. If that is the case, it is a safety issue that needs to be explored further. Perhaps all crossings near points need to be looked at in detail to see whether it is possible to ensure that a chain of events that was perhaps a freak, but a tragedy none the less, cannot be repeated.
Another point that my hon. Friend made was about people leaving the accident scene without their names having been taken. That may cause problems in relation to post-traumatic shock, but evidence is a problem. We have referred to the noises that passengers hear, perhaps from the rails, but it is a problem if they cannot be contacted to find out whether they have any evidence. I hope that the new safety mechanisms will ensure that such details are not only looked at, but acted on, as I am sure they would be in many other areas.
It is not a matter of whether we should have seat belts, but a case of why we should not have them. Seat belts demonstrably improve safety in the air and on cars. Common sense says that, if somebody is in a moving vehicle that comes to a halt very abruptly at high speed and turns over, a seat belt will aid their chances of survival and reduce any injuries that they receive.
The Finnish transport authority is often quoted as saying in part that such a proposal could not be recommended, largely on the ground that people would not wear seat belts. Passengers felt that there should be seat belts, however, and the authority felt that they would reduce the number of injuries and deaths. Peter Webster has done his own research on a train. He spoke to a large number of passengers and gave them a quick survey to fill out. He found that the vast majority were in favour of seat belts on trains. When it came to children, the vast majority of passengers said that although they might not wear belts themselves, they would insist that their children did so. That may have saved Emily's life. We do not know.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I respect the sincerity of the hon. Gentleman's argument, but I would take a great deal of persuading about the merits of installing seat belts, which it would presumably be compulsory to wear. However, may I put to him this prosaic but serious question: what about those on trains who are standing?
Richard Younger-Ross: I take the point. I think that I recall that the number of people standing on the train was a contributory factor to the injuries sustained in the Clapham rail disaster and that the injuries in the Paddington rail disaster were compounded by passengers standing up and moving through first class to the front of the train, as the train came into the station. Standing passengers on a train are at risk. People do not spend a lot of time standing on trainsif seats are available, they may go to and from the buffet car. Peter Webster researched how long people spend out of their seats, and, by and large, people on long journeys spend only a few minutes out of their seats.
Some trains are overcrowded. In my constituency, some people are left on the platform because the trains are too full, which is unacceptable. In the transition to full privatisation, the overcrowding on trains in my constituency led to the rail company putting up fares to try to relieve congestion. In that case, the rail company doubled school fares because the trains were too crowded. It did not put on extra carriages and tried to force people off the trains to reduce overcrowding. We need investment in the rail service to increase the number of seats on trains and to reduce the chance of people standing.
Seat belts on trains need not be compulsorythe hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) referred to that issue, which is not the pointbut they should be optional and they should be there to give passengers the chance to affect their lives and those of their families. That does not cover all eventualities, and I do not say that it does. On an aeroplane, one is not compelled to wear a seat belt all the time, but one is compelled to wear one on take-off, landing and when the pilot says so. Vacuums occur, and people have been injured in accidents because planes have suddenly lost height. One
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cannot take account of such events, although I am not saying that one should take account of all eventualities, because we would wrap everything in cotton wool if we did so.
In my view, the provision of seat belts would certainly aid safety at a cost that would not be considerable. A company has contacted the rail companies and offered to fit out carriages on a trial basis. Why not? Rail companies should fit out a carriage or two to measure use and passengers' responses. Having done that, they might say, "No one uses seat belts. They are a waste of money," which might be a valid argument in those circumstances. Until someone does that, however, they cannot argue that point.
Finally, I shall comment on some other issues. The accident at Ufton involved a car on a crossing in which a train hit the car and derailed. Crossings are seen as a problem for the rail operator, but I should like to ask why, because the Bill does not address that point. A crossing is an interconnection between road and rail. If improvements to the crossing are needed for rail safety, they are also needed for road safety. Whether the matter involves a trunk road or a county or other local authority road, the road authority should logically bear part of the cost of improvements, which might involve constructing a bridge.
The road authorities often pressurise Railtrack on gate-closure times, which is one of the reasons why indicators on crossings may not workthe train stopping time may be greater than the time that the gate is shut for traffic. If the length of time that a gate is down is a traffic concern and if a congestion problem relates to that period of time, the road authorities should perhaps deal with the situation by constructing an underpass or bridge.
If one constructs a bridge or alters access, one requires planning consent. One of the Bill's oddities is that rail authorities have permitted development rights: they can put up mobile phone masts for their own use along the track and do a lot of other work without planning consent. On planning, Network Rail and the rail operators should be accountable for all that they do. They may not need full planning consent, but they should be accountable, which does not mean the limited accountability to which they are subject at the moment.
The Bill touches on finance. My background is in architecture. One can examine the costs of running an organisation in terms of whole-life costs or on a cash-flow basis. One of the problems with rail privatisation is that it considered the rail companies in terms of cash flow rather than in terms of whole-life costs. When we examine the costs and how we fund the railways and discuss budgets with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, we should do so not only in terms of today's budget, but in total and in the round. If one always worked on cash flow, total costs would exceed the costs if one had built in maintenance costs from the beginning. The road network is a classic example: if a county council cuts its maintenance programme to save money, the structure of the road is eventually damaged, which means that structural repairs are required.
Bypass loops past stations such as Newton Abbott and opening up platforms to improve capacity would improve the Waterloo rail line. Creating an alternative route to Cornwall for whenever Virgin Trains get stuck
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at Dawlish because water is on the line or because a storm has damaged the sea wall is vital for the Cornish economy. Whenever the Tamar bridge is closed for repairs, it affects districts and towns further down the line.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to contribute to today's debate. I ask members of the Committee to examine and test improvements to health and safety, and the measures that I have described will work to that end.
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