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Health and Safety (Railways)

2 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this Adjournment debate. I was asked to initiate it by a constituent whose daughter, Emily Webster was, very sadly, killed in the Ufton Nervet rail accident in Berkshire a few weeks ago. Mr. Webster has been very active on rail safety since the accident and, in particular, he has called for seat belts to be fitted on high-speed trains. I shall come to that issue, among others, later.

In a rail crash, there are five principal sources of   injury. The first is the crush, or the reduction of passengers' survival space. The second is the penetration of the compartment by vehicles or other outside objects. The third is passengers being ejected from the carriage. The fourth is passengers impacting with objects in the carriage, or vice versa. The fifth is fire and toxic gases. I shall talk primarily about the third and fourth of those.

The survivability of a rail crash is the result of a complex interaction between different forces, or the kinematic behaviour of the incident—basically, the higher the train's speed, the greater the likelihood of serious injury. It is a function of the mass and velocity of the train or trains at the start and the end of the incident.

How do we protect passengers? One of the principal issues that arose in the Ladbroke Grove accident was   the crashworthiness of trains, and I refer the Minister to the 2001 Cullen report. Part 1 contained 89 recommendations, much of which required firm action by manufacturers, operators, the Rail Safety and Standards Board and others. Clause 56 said:

The RSSB was to respond to that recommendation, and the "2" in the margin next to it indicated that Lord Cullen thought that the board should do so within 12 months. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us how that recommendation has been implemented and what measures the Government have introduced.

The Selby rail crash cost £15 million. It costs £1.2 million to upgrade a railway crossing. Sadly, 10 people died in the Selby incident. Seven people died in the incident in Berkshire, the final cost of which will be close to £50 million.

The immediate response from Network Rail is that there are nearly 8,000 level crossings and that full barriers cannot be fitted to all of them—there are only half barriers at Ufton Nervet. That would seem to be a reasonable statement for 8,000 crossings. However, it is slightly misleading, because on high-speed lines there are 31 crossings with half barriers and 800 other crossings, which all either have full barriers, CCTV or are manned—all safer options than half barriers.

Network Rail was already aware of the potential of suicides on tracks. Tragically, at Dunhampstead in April 2003, Susan Smith, a nurse suffering from work-related stress, drove her VW Polo on to the track. The train struck the car, pushing it along the track for half a mile. Luckily, no one on the train was seriously injured. So the potential of people driving on to crossings through half barriers just before the train arrived had already been identified.
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I am told that, in terms of road improvements, the Department for Transport values a life at £1.3 million. In claiming that everything is safe on the railways, figures are given to demonstrate that improvements are carried out to the cost of £10 million, including the train protection warning system. However, that leads to a debate on comparisons between road and rail. Rail travel is safer than road transport.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am sorry that I cannot stay for the whole debate because I am serving on a Select Committee. Will the hon. Gentleman accept that another way of looking at unmanned level crossings is to ask whether the road passage across the railway is necessary? Research that I have undertaken demonstrates that Network Rail—to be fair to it for once—has had no success when it has applied to have roads blocked. It is important to consider the road as well as the railway.

Richard Younger-Ross : Network Rail has undertaken a great deal of work to reduce the number of crossings—we have fewer than France, where there are 17,000 crossings and far more car accidents on crossings. There will always be crossings, and I am not sure how many of the 31 could be removed, although some could be upgraded. However, if the crossing is to be upgraded, it is up to the road authority as well as the rail authority because both services are involved. Perhaps joint funding should be used to improve crossings—that may be the cost of a bridge or an improvement to the crossing itself to improve safety. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point.

On the roads there are three deaths per billion kilometres travelled compared with only 0.4 on railways. The figure for air travel is 0.01. Would those who argue that we should put extra money into safety on the roads rather than the railways because the accident rate is low also say that we should not invest in safety in air travel because the figure is only 0.01? No, we would not and should not reduce air safety. It is up to the Department for Transport to work out what can be done to deal with the fact that the rate of deaths on roads is higher. We are making unfair comparisons.

I shall quote just two elements of the argument. Rob Gifford, executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, said:

Dr. Alan Sefton, the head of the railway inspectorate, responded to that by saying:

I hope that the Minister's response will not be to say that we need to spend the money elsewhere. That argument has been made to me by one or two hon. Members, and I reject it totally.

There are ways in which level crossings can be upgraded, as we heard in an intervention. We could put in detection systems or CCTV. Part of the difficulty on high-speed train lines is the stopping distance of trains and warning times. The gates are closed at crossings in
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time for the vehicles to clear, and remain closed for a period, after which the train could stop. If a vehicle is stopped on the track a minute before the gates close, a train has very little chance of avoiding impact with it. That leads one to ask whether longer times are required. However, if we were to lengthen the time during which the gates were down, local residents and those trying to cross would complain. That being the case, we must balance road safety and usage in order to find a solution. We come back to the need to seek help from the road authorities, such as the construction of alternative routes or bridges, or to find other ways of dealing with the issue.

One option that was highlighted by the Liberal Democrats in the debate on the Railways Bill was dedicated high-speed rail lines. That solution would improve passenger comfort as well as resolving many other issues. However, it is unlikely to happen immediately.

I have concerns about the Government's response so far. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), was quoted in a local newspaper as having said:

Bullet trains run on dedicated lines in Japan, and I think that the hon. Gentleman rather missed the point about them. The Japanese authorities spent vast sums on computerising the system, and ensured that there were no level crossings. There are bridges everywhere. The system is very safe for other reasons, which have been built in to it.

Several years ago, a company called Elite, which had pioneered seat belts on coaches, thought that, having done so, it would be a good idea to take them on to trains. It made inquiries but nobody was interested. It bought a carriage and fitted it out to show how it could be done, and invited the rail operating companies to visit and have a look. I understand that nobody bothered to turn up. It also tried to engage with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, both of whom declined; they said that they did not have time to look into the matter any further.

One of the arguments used against seat belts on trains is, "What is to be done with the passengers who are left standing?" There was a question on the issue in another place on 28 October 2004, when Lord Smith of Leigh asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham, who was replying on behalf of the Government, replied:

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There are only about two weeks before the end of this year, so it will be interesting to see whether the HSE actually publishes that report.

On 15 July 2004, the Government published a White Paper on the future of the railway industry, which proposed transferring the responsibility for safety from the HSE to the Office of Rail Regulation, and intend to legislate for that in due course. The implication is that safety would be the responsibility of the rail operating companies. I had a meeting with the Association of Train Operating Companies, which I shall come to in a moment, but the rail operating companies made it clear in my discussions with them that it would not be within their remit to implement a policy on, say, standing on high-speed trains. That would be deemed a major safety issue, rather like train warning systems. They would require Government intervention to legislate on it and would not be expected to implement such a policy themselves. The same is almost certainly true of seat-belt legislation, should we reach the conclusion that seat belts should be fitted.

Much research has been undertaken on seat belts and lap belts on trains. By and large, it has shown that they should be fitted. In their very technical report on the safety of high-speed, ground-guided transportation systems—that has to be American—the United States Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration set out various difficulties and highlighted the particular safety issue of the impact on carriages. They state:

They highlight several other safety issues on trains:

They conclude:

Later, they say:

but they go on to say why there is a difficulty with such belts on aisle seats. They also say:

They also talk about other protection, about how one reduces impact by using soft materials in the carriage, and how one deals with standing passengers.

Mr. Drew : I am interested in the idea of seat belts—I    have always supported them in most moving vehicles—but I do not want to lose the point about people who stand on trains. I am pleased to say that trains seem to be getting busier, with many more people on them. However, I travel on too many trains to the west country that are hideously overcrowded, and we
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are talking not about going 20 or 30 miles, but about people sometimes standing all the way to Swindon and beyond. Under the previous Government's privatisation, there was no measure of an overcrowded train. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that this Government should consider that measure, because it is deplorable that people are being asked to put their lives at risk by having to stand on a train.

Richard Younger-Ross : I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman's points. I have been trying to find research into the Clapham rail disaster. I had a friend who was on the train, and I remember clearly that the number of standing passengers was a factor. The passengers were certainly a factor in the Paddington rail crash because they had been moving to the front of the train at the time of the incident. I have not been able to find that research, but it has struck me since Clapham that we allow too many people to stand on trains.

I have shared trains to the west country and know   how hideously overcrowded they get. That is unacceptable, and it is questionable that in the 21st century we are still allowing railway transportation laws on tickets that say that they bear the passenger from A to B but do not guarantee a seat. Many other countries provide seats—people do not stand on bullet trains in Japan, although they may on others—and we should be moving to seats-only provision for high-speed trains.

Others have also examined improved safety. The science service of the Technische Universitat Berlin stated in a document dated 1 September 2000:

Likewise, research from Finland entitled "Seat belts on trains. Acceptance and usage rates at initial phase"—I shall not try to read the document's name in Finnish—concluded:

As I mentioned earlier, Peter Webster and I had a meeting yesterday with George Muir of the Association of Train Operating Companies and Ray Ford from the Rail Safety and Standards Board. I must put on record our thanks to them—they gave Mr. Webster and me two hours of their time, and we went into great detail on a   number of issues. The RSSB highlighted how it considers safety, and it talked about seats that absorb the impact of the passenger. That is how it has examined the subject. It continued to say that if someone is restrained at the hip, there was a danger of their moving forward and hitting their heads. It quoted a case of a rail accident in Leicestershire where someone did not go into the brace position, hit their head on the seat in front and suffered neck injuries as a result.
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The RSSB went on to say that for the past 18 months it has been researching seat belts on trains. That is exceedingly good news. It is unhappy with the test dummies currently available and has been developing its own, and I understand that it will undertake tests with seat belts and dummies to ascertain what the impact is in different circumstances. I hope that that research is carried out as a matter of urgency, and I am sure that the Minister will gently persuade the board to do that. As I said earlier, I suspect that some things have not been done as a matter of urgency although they have been referred to in reports.

In coaches, we currently have lap belts, and seat configuration in coaches is similar to that in trains: they are generally forward facing with a seat in front. Distances between seats may be slightly different, as might their construction, but we have legislated for seat belts in coaches. Not everyone wears them, but they are there.

I want to put on record the research that Mr. Webster has undertaken. One argument that is advanced is that if we put seat belts in, no one will use them. That may be the case, but I would not make them compulsory, and that would overcome some of the objections. However, he asked 315 passengers to complete a questionnaire—probably on the same train that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and I use. He asked them how long their journey took. The average was one hour and 48 minutes, and times varied from half an hour to five hours. Some 59 per cent. of the passengers never left their seat during their journey, and the average time that anyone was away from their seat was two minutes and 22 seconds.

When the passengers were asked whether they would use a lap belt if one were available, 75.5 per cent. said yes and 19.5 per cent. said no. To the question, "Would you use one for your children?", 96 per cent. said yes and 4 per cent. said no. To the question, "Do you believe seat belts would have any effect in reducing death or injury in event of a train crash?", 76.4 per cent. said yes, 21 per cent. said that they were not sure, and 2 per cent. said no. To the question, "Do you believe seat belts should be available on high-speed trains?", 89.3 per cent. said yes, 3.8 per cent. said no, and 6.9 per cent. did not care.

I hope that, concurrently with the research undertaken on seat belts, the Government will ask for research into passenger response, looking particularly at the examples from America and Finland. The quick answer that I get is that passengers would use them initially but not later. Use might decline over time, but that does not mean that they should not be provided. ATOC does not believe that it would be a major problem or cost to fit lap belts and, if instructed, it has indicated that it would do so. That is the impression that I got from my meeting with George Muir yesterday.

I want finally to touch on some other issues that have been highlighted. It is clear that emergency lighting on   trains is inadequate. That is highlighted in the investigation into Ladbroke Grove and other incidents. The signage of how to use doors was also inadequate, and if we go back through the research and reports, we see time and again that people could not get through the doors because they were jammed. In the Ufton Nervet
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accident, people tried to use the hammers to break the windows, but the hammers broke, not the windows. People could not see the signage about how to use the hammers, which windows they should hit and where they should hit them. The means of escape are inadequate. That situation has been criticised time and again and must be addressed. I know that the RSSB is considering that, but there must be a little more urgency and investment.

When we had a debriefing session yesterday after the meeting with ATOC and the RSSB, my constituent told me, "That was quite a good meeting, but I don't want to be here in 12 months' time after another rail accident saying the same things, looking at the same reports and asking why." The question for the Minister is not why should there be seat belts on trains or why should emergency lights be standardised and independent of the train's main battery—the question is why not.

2.31 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I    congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) not only on securing the debate, but on his continuing campaign for seat belts. I   say to him clearly: sign me up. I wholeheartedly support the campaign. He has proved his case in debate after debate with detailed research and the thoroughness of the consultations that he has undertaken as a result of recent rail accidents.

We all come to the debate with our own experiences and concerns. One of my constituents, Brian Cooper, a well respected member of the local community and family man, was killed in the Paddington accident. He was a driver and a member of ASLEF, a professional who through no fault of his own was killed that day. The Southall crash occurred within less than a mile of my constituency, and many constituents and others were injured. In addition, I was in Camden town hall on the night of the King's Cross fire. That was a number of years ago, before I came to this place. I was involved as an officer in arranging emergency morgues for those who unfortunately lost their lives. We have all been sensitised to the issue of rail safety over the years, but most of us acknowledge that rail is one of the safest forms of transport. All our work is about supporting the continuing safety of the rail system.

In addition to supporting the campaign for seat belts, I want to raise three issues briefly. The first relates to the Railways Bill, which is before the House. When the Bill reaches Report and at other stages, there will be limited time to emphasise some detailed points. I want to raise one matter now that I do not think will be picked up as a result of the Bill; I do not think that it will appear in it. I am referring to the transfer of responsibility from the Health and Safety Executive to the Office of Rail Regulation and the resulting transfer of the staff. Staff from the Strategic Rail Authority will be transferred to the Department for Transport.

As hon. Members will know, the Bill makes it clear that the Government's policy is to transfer health and safety work to the ORR, despite the recommendation by Lord Cullen after the Ladbroke Grove crash that such work should be separate from any organisation that is responsible for the economic overview and regulation of the industry. A number of organisations have opposed
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the measure, including the Health and Safety Commission, the HSE, the TUC, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and all the other trade unions that represent workers in the industry. The   matter needs careful consideration, because the one thing that we do not want is for economic considerations to impact in any way on the safety of the industry.

The concern that I particularly want to raise, which I do not think will be picked up in the debate on the Bill, is about what will happen to staff who transfer from the HSE to the ORR and from the SRA to the Department for Transport. We must ensure that the number of staff is maintained and that we do not lose their expertise, as we have in some instances as a result of privatisation. The staff in the SRA are not just bureaucrats dealing with economic competition and other matters. They have within their remit the best running of the service, which includes health and safety. I am concerned about the potential loss of their expertise, too.

My understanding is that, as yet, hon. Members and   others in the industry have not been consulted or   informed of the staffing structures that will be established under the Office of Rail Regulation or within the Department for Transport. It means that we cannot be sure whether the number of staff being transferred is adequate and necessary for the future maintenance of health and safety in the industry and, in addition, whether the right expertise has been maintained, developed and properly organised.

I am especially concerned about some of the information from discussions that are going on within the Departments that there may be a loss of anything up to 200 jobs in the Department for Transport. I am not sure what the staffing numbers in the Office of Rail Regulation will be in respect of the staff transfer from the Health and Safety Executive. I hope that we can be assured today—if not now, perhaps in writing from the Minister—that there will be no loss of jobs or expertise as a result of that transfer and that reduction in staff transferring from the SRA to the Department for Transport will have no effect on overall transport safety in the industry.

So far, we understand that there has been no offer of TUPE in respect of the transfer, so there could be a loss of staff and of professional expertise. In addition, it looks as though some of the staff on transfer from both organisations will be competing for jobs with existing staff in the Department for Transport. That has the potential to introduce turbulence in the organisation, which could—I say only "could"—result in staff taking their eye off the ball with regard to the health and safety legislation that they must ensure is implemented.

I appreciate the dedication of the staff, but any reorganisation of this sort causes anxieties and insecurities, particularly if people feel that their job will not be the same, that it will not be in place for them when they transfer, or that they will be competing against others for new posts that have been established. I would welcome the Minister considering that issue. If he cannot comment on that issue today, I would appreciate his considering it and giving us the information at a later date.

The second issue that I want to raise is the draft Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2004 on safety on London Underground. Earlier this year, the
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Government proposed reform of the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989, which were made after the King's Cross fire. They set a basic minimum standard for fire precautions below ground on London Underground as a result of the Fennell inquiry into that fire. The draft order was brought forward, which would change the burden of proof. At present, the burden of proof is such that the   fire authority must be satisfied that a specific requirement at a particular location is inappropriate, unnecessary or not reasonably practicable if the fire safety order is not to be maintained at the current standards.

However, under the Government's proposed procedure, it will be for the fire authority to demonstrate that the rail industry has failed to carry out a suitable, sufficient risk assessment. That reversal of the burden of proof is causing anxiety in the industry, particularly as the orders were developed as a result of the direct experience of the Fennell inquiry into what happened at King's Cross.

As a result of intervention by the Select Committee on Regulatory Reform, the Government have agreed to review the order and to return after consultation about guidance. I place it on record that we are anxious that that   consultation should start soon and should be as exhaustive as possible to engage all parties.

The King's Cross fire was a shattering experience not just for the travelling public of London, but for all those engaged in fire safety below ground: the workers running the system as well as the firefighters. The Government need to be careful when they lift in any way the regulatory supervision of fire safety precautions below ground. In that respect, care must be taken about future consultation.

I want to raise the issue of risk assessments. I do so with some care because, at the moment, it is difficult to pin down hard evidence; much of the evidence that is coming forward is anecdotal. I want to use this occasion to draw attention to the discussions that are taking place in the rail industry about the way in which fire risk and safety risk assessments are generally undertaken.

A view is emerging—at this stage, it is only anecdotal—that when risk assessments are undertaken they are carried out on behalf of companies by a limited number of professional agencies, and that there almost seems to be a monopoly situation emerging among the professional advisers on risk assessments in the rail industry. There is also a view that companies are increasingly putting pressure on the professionals that undertake those risk assessments. Obviously, such matters would give us all cause for concern.

I would like to put two things on record today. First, I invite anyone in the industry who has any evidence of    companies putting pressure on professionals undertaking risk assessments to come forward and to provide us with hard evidence. We can then discuss and debate that evidence with the Government.

Secondly, the Government need to consult and to consider whether new guidance should be drawn up in conjunction with the new body that will be established—the Office of Rail Regulation—on how those risk assessments should be undertaken. We must ensure that the risk assessments are completely independent, that assessors are not at risk from pressure from
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the    individual companies concerned, and that the assessments are undertaken properly by professionally trained individuals and organisations. We must also avoid the situation in which a limited number of agencies or companies provide those risk assessments, leading to the emergence of a monopoly.

Finally, I pay tribute again to all who work in the industry for maintaining its current safety levels. It is as a result of professional dedication that we have such a safe rail industry and rail system. However, the maintenance of that safety record is also a result of the eternal vigilance of hon. Members.

2.43 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD): I, too, begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on raising this important subject for debate. I congratulate him also on his campaign to achieve the provision of safety belts in all coaches. I will not, however, speak on that subject today, although I wish to raise a number of other potential safety improvements later in my remarks.

The crash at Ufton Nervet took place just to the south of my constituency—about 100 yd to the south of the border between my constituency and the constituency of Wokingham. The train that was involved in the crash was due to stop—it would have been its next stop—at Newbury, in the heart of my constituency. As soon as I heard about the crash, I realised that it was almost inevitable that a number of people who were on that train and potentially among the injured or dead would be among my constituents and, indeed, that I would probably know quite a number of them personally. That has turned out to be the case. Sadly, one of those who died was indeed known to me, as was her daughter, and I also knew quite a number of the injured. Many of my constituents have been greatly saddened by the accident and are keen to see that any lessons that can be learned from it are duly learned.

I pay tribute to those in the emergency services, who did a wonderful job. I was with some of them on that night seeing the work that they were doing—I was, of course, not at the site itself, where I thought that it would be entirely inappropriate for me to be, because I could do nothing there. The emergency services did a fantastic job in getting people out as quickly as they could and in saving those who were injured from any further injury.

I should like also to pay tribute to many of the local residents who, when they heard what had happened, voluntarily went down to the site and did a good job in helping those who were involved in the crash. I pay tribute also to the landlord and the employees of the "Winning Hand" pub, to which many of the walking wounded were able to go and be given help, succour, warmth and some sort of hope for the future, having been involved in such a traumatic accident. Many of the passengers showed a deal of heroism at the site. Having got out fairly quickly and without much injury, many went back in to help those who were left behind. That shows a terrific heroic spirit, to which it is well worth paying tribute. I send my condolences to the victims and the relatives of those who were so tragically killed on that night.
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There are a number of lessons to be learned from the    incident, some of which have been mentioned by my hon. Friend, who also brought up the subject of hammers. About two days after the crash, I received a call from someone who was not one of my constituents—I suppose because he had heard me on the radio or seen me on the television—who told me about his experience. He had been in one of the carriages that toppled over in the accident, after which he found that the doors at the end of the carriage seemed to be blocked, as one might expect in such a horrific accident. It was fortuitous that he later ascertained that he could unblock them and get out through them because, having found them apparently blocked, and having read the emergency instructions, which all too few of us do, he remembered where the emergency hammers were, and took out a hammer at one end of the carriage and hit the window correctly in the corner at its weakest spot, only to find that the hammer snapped at the end of the shaft, and the window did not break. Assuming that that was just bad luck and that the hammer was faulty, he used the emergency hammer at the other end of the carriage, but precisely the same thing happened there. It was only then that he made greater efforts to open the doors and found that he could get himself and his fellow passengers out through them.

Richard Younger-Ross : Is my hon. Friend aware that the problem with hammers was highlighted by Lord Cullen in his report on the Ladbroke Grove accident?

Mr. Rendel : I was not aware of that. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has raised that point, because it shows that the incident may not have been a one-off and that there are serious faults in the manufacture of the    hammers, which make them pretty useless. The hammers are there to give people hope that they may be able to get out in an emergency. For people then to find that they cannot get out because the equipment is not up to its job is worse than anything. The knowledge that this issue has been raised before makes it even more important that hammers are tested again and again to ensure that they can be used for their proper purpose.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of emergency lighting. As I said, it is fortunate that the passenger of whom I spoke had read the emergency instructions beforehand. All too many of us do not read emergency instructions or update ourselves on them. If, in the event of a crash, we have not bothered to do so and there is no proper emergency lighting, we cannot possibly see what we are supposed to do, especially if one is lying on one's side. So, the importance of good emergency lighting is the second lesson to be learned from that accident. If there is none, we really are in trouble if we do not know all the things that we are supposed to do in such situations.

Richard Younger-Ross : Is my hon. Friend surprised to hear that the Cullen report on Ladbroke Grove also raised the issue of emergency lighting failure?

Mr. Rendel : That surprises me rather less. I have been aware for a long time that emergency lighting on trains is not very good, so it does not surprise me that the issue has been brought up before. I had not realised that hammers had broken before, but many of us have been aware of the lack of emergency lighting for some time.
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However, the train did have some light-sticks, which some people managed to use to give some light, but light-sticks would probably not give sufficient light for a person to read. They may give a vague glow to enable one to see a little of the carriage and where other people   and objects are, but they certainly would not be sufficient to give one a chance to read the emergency instructions.

The third lesson that needs to be learned comes from the interesting point that in train crashes of the sort that happened at Ufton Nervet, in which a train runs into a vehicle on a level crossing, there are often no significant injuries or deaths among train passengers. I understand that it was the first time in 18 years that a train passenger has been killed in an accident of that sort.

The reason why much greater damage was done to the passengers in the Ufton Nervet case was that the train continued for a long time along the top of the sleepers in an upright position after being derailed on the level crossing. Indeed, I understand that in a crash last year a train that was derailed after hitting something travelled upright for two miles. In the case in question, however, the train hit a set of points at a freight siding only about 200 yd beyond the point at which it was derailed, before it was toppled.

Damage was done to the passengers inside the train because the carriages fell on their sides and because some buckled. When the carriages fell over some of the   windows on the underside broke and, sadly, some people were either thrown out or injured by being dragged along as the train ran along the ground.

That shows that the rail services and Network Rail should look into all level crossings that are close to a set of points, where exactly those circumstances might arise again. That is particularly so where there is a half-barrier crossing and therefore a greater likelihood—although not much greater—of an accident with a car derailing the train in the first instance.

Half-barriers on high-speed lines should certainly be looked at again. There is not much chance of stopping a train travelling at even 100 mph—about the maximum speed across a half-barrier crossing—if a vehicle is on the crossing. It is relatively easy to get a vehicle on to the crossing, particularly if somebody is trying to commit suicide, as seemed to be the case.

My fourth point, which has not been raised yet, but which the passenger who spoke to me mentioned, is that there seems to be no procedure for the emergency services to collect the names of those involved in such incidents after the event. In the case in question, the train company concerned received great credit for giving those who were uninjured every opportunity to reach their destinations, by coaches or other means, as quickly as possible after getting off the train. That is all very well for the passengers concerned, who want to go home and be with their loved ones after such a traumatic incident. However, if they are all taken away by the rail company quickly, before their details are taken, it is difficult to get   back in touch with them, to inform them of any available counselling services to enable them to get over   the trauma, for instance, except through general announcements on the radio or in the press.

Another important reason why it might be important to get back in touch with passengers is because facts might come to light after the event that indicate that
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something was wrong with the train. It might be important then to get back in touch with the people who were sitting in a particular carriage, to ask whether they noticed anything—whether the brakes were squealing, whether the windows were cracked before the train left the station, and so on. It might be necessary to ask the passengers about many things to establish what was really wrong with the train and how the damage and injury to passengers could have been avoided. There ought to be a system that is known to all the emergency services for collecting the names and details of the passengers involved in such incidents before they leave the site and can no longer be properly traced.

I want to reiterate that, in general terms, travel by rail is much safer than travel by road. I would hate anyone to think that the accident in question should prevent or deter people from travelling by rail. It is important that we should continue our rail services and encourage people to travel by rail. However, people will be encouraged more if they can be sure that the rail system is as safe as it can be. I therefore hope that some of the points raised in this debate will be properly considered by the Minister and by the rail services, to ensure that every rail passenger can be sure that they will arrive at their destination safe and sound.

2.54 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), as well as other hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, on speaking so knowledgeably and, at times, movingly on such a serious subject. I apologise for not being the usual Liberal Democrat transport spokesman; we are currently experiencing the same problem with transport spokesmen as Liverpool is with strikers. We wait with anticipation the January transfer window, and I am sure that the problem will be resolved. I was a member of the Transport Committee, but I apologise if some of what I   say reveals that my knowledge is like some of the track—a little rusty.

Safety on rail is absolutely paramount, in the personal sense, for passengers, and in a commercial sense, for the companies. They wish to provide a safe service, and that is obviously crucial to the long-term financial viability of rail. Despite Hatfield, Potters Bar, Southall, Selby, Berkshire and Ladbroke Grove, basically people still feel safe on trains. Statistically, it would appear that, compared with family cars, trains are safe. However, being safe is not the same as being invulnerable. The law of physics still applies, and when a train stops abruptly, passengers, unless restrained, will continue to move at the same velocity as the train previously was. Accidents will happen, and passengers will be brought to an abrupt stop, along with parts of the train body. I am acutely aware of that phenomenon because I have been in an accident myself, where I did not have a safety belt—not a train accident but a car accident. My one recollection is not of actually hitting something—I never realised that I had done so—but simply of blood pouring out of my head. The accident had happened before I was even aware of it, and it was a relatively low-speed car accident. I can anticipate what a high-speed train accident must be like, and how horrifying it must be for the individuals involved.
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As with cars, the thrust is about design. Clearly, much thought goes in to the security of fittings on trains to ensure that they do not become displaced when accidents occur. Much thought also goes in to what sort of windows and glass should be installed, but clearly not enough thought has gone in to what sort of hammers are used to break the windows when people need to escape through them. Thought has also been given to the security of luggage—people have been seriously maimed by their own or misplaced luggage—and to how doors function in an accident. The overwhelming imperative, as with car safety, is to ensure that if an accident occurs, there is nothing obvious that will do immediate and dramatic damage to individuals. It was some time before car drivers realised that what was most likely to happen to them in the event of a front collision was that they were going to be pinioned by their own steering wheel.

Much thought has been given to the positioning of fuel tanks, and to consider what might happen if one caught fire. Honeycombing layouts have been suggested that will mean that if one aspect of the fuel system starts to combust, the whole thing will not catch fire. Thought needs to be given to how people exit if the worst-case scenario happens, and what happens when they cannot exit, how the carriage will function and if there is enough survival space for the people involved to remain alive until they are rescued.

Much of all this has been learned the hard way. People have not always anticipated, or been able to   anticipate, what might happen in every scenario. I   should therefore pay tribute to someone such as Mr.   Webster, who has experienced an appalling tragedy but who wishes to draw from such a tragedy lessons that ultimately will benefit other people. I am full of admiration for such people; we all know individuals in other contexts who, having had awful events overtake them, ensure that none of the same happens to other people. Mr. Webster is clearly a man of that ilk, and given the gravity of what happened to him, it is commendable that he took steps to bring information to my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge, who in turn has brought it to the awareness of the House of Commons.

After any tragedy, people try to learn practical, sensible lessons, and seat belts are an obvious idea because they will save lives. There may be a dispute as to whether they should be mandatory or optional; there may be discussion about how they can be fixed and whether they can be fixed satisfactorily to existing carriages. There may also be operational considerations about how will people will use them. If people keep getting out of their seats, will there be discomfort for other passengers? It is worth talking about these issues, but if there is a prima facie case for saying that lives may be saved—my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge has presented more than a prima facie case—there is, at the very least, a case for serious research and for train companies actively to consider piloting the use of seat belts.

As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, there is a balance to be struck between economic and safety considerations; that is almost inescapable. Of course, one could build a family car that could survive any sort of accident that might
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befall it, but the problem is that it would be prohibitive to produce and use. The same applies to all safety recommendations, right through even to the Cullen report. None the less, in the debate about economic and    safety considerations, priority must lie with safety,   which must not be sacrificed for short-term commercial gain.

One other lesson that we can learn—it applies to the seat belt issue, too—is that problems invariably become more complicated the fewer the people on the train who are seated. We should not, therefore, countenance a system that presupposes that people will not be seated for most of the time. Given the way in which the railways work and passengers appear, there will inevitably be an element of overcrowding and some passengers will be unable to find seats, but we should not have scheduled or planned overcrowding. On the Virgin inter-city service that I often use, the four first-class carriages are usually unavailable to most passengers, and, at peak times, the four standard-class carriages are invariably full of standing passengers. Such situations are a known economic fact of life, which occur repeatedly on high-speed inter-city services and often lead to particular carriages being declassified. Such commercial practices are unacceptable because they compound safety problems.

There is often a long lead-in time for safety improvements on public transport. It was known for some time—long before the Herald of Free Enterprise toppled over—that roll-on/roll-off ferries had a problem. The problems of carriage slam doors and inflammable seats were also known for some time. If rail is to become safer, we must think ahead quickly because the lead-in time for improvements means that it takes a while to design, commission and build new trains.

Richard Younger-Ross : My hon. Friend may be interested to know that some rolling stock companies are pressing for changes to be made quickly, because they are building stock now. Their economic concern is that they should not be asked to retrofit carriages to new standards at a later date.

Dr. Pugh : That is right. We might set a higher safety standard, but it might not be possible to meet it other than by cashiering workable trains, which would be economically prohibitive for train operators. That is why we need to think ahead. The long lead-in time for safety improvements in public transport also means that the same issues apply to demands to make signalling more sophisticated and to improve track.

None the less, the fundamental recipe for safety is simple. We need clear responsibility for safety, a vigilant inspection system to establish that safety conditions are met and the desire and imagination to drive up standards. Mr. Webster and my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge have shown that there is that imagination and desire to drive up standards, and I am sure that the Minister will want to share it.

3.5 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I    congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing the debate. As it follows the Ufton Nervet accident, the thoughts of all of
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us are with the families who have been affected by that tragedy, including that of the train driver, Stan Martin, who was just doing his job, and with Peter Webster and others whose loved ones were killed. I also join the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) in paying tribute to the emergency services, which responded quickly and superbly in the difficult conditions that prevailed at the scene. Despite that tragic accident, we should not forget that rail travel continues to be one of   the safest forms of travel in the United Kingdom, as   the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington (John   McDonnell), for Newbury and for Southport (Dr. Pugh) have said.

The safety of our railways has always attracted a large amount of scrutiny, particularly in the media. It is right that we discuss openly the safety of the railways. However, it is equally important that we do not forget that rail is a safe form of travel—there was not one major incident on the railway during the whole of the year 2003–04, whereas 3,508 people were killed last year on the roads, a 2 per cent. increase on the previous year. That is nearly 10 people a day. We should recognise the rail industry's efforts to reduce risks even further.

While comparisons show that rail continues to be the safest form of travel, that does not mean that there are not still improvements to be made, nor that we should become complacent about safety issues. The points made by the hon. Member for Teignbridge must be explored and considered. One of his suggestions—I have also heard him propose it on the Floor of the House—was to fit trains with seat belts.

Hon. Members will know that it was a Conservative Government who made the wearing of seat belts in cars compulsory. It has been estimated that 50,000 lives have been saved and 590,000 serious casualties avoided as a consequence of that legislation. Therefore, I can say that my party recognises the benefits of using seat belts where appropriate. However, I have searched for examples of countries in which trains have been fitted with seat belts. The Health and Safety Executive has said that it is not aware of any such schemes in operation anywhere else in the world. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister can provide us with any examples.

I have found just one limited example of a trial of seat belts on a train—I understand that it is the only one that   has ever taken place. In 1999, the Finnish rail administration carried out the experiment of fitting seat belts in some of the carriages of a train. Over the course of a year, it gathered the views of 1,500 passengers, some of whom had had the chance to use the belts. It found that seat belts were used by just 1.1 per cent. of passengers who had the opportunity of using them. That is the difficulty with the idea; one of the main selling points of train travel has always been that, unlike in a car, one can wander around the train—perhaps to use the buffet or restaurant or to go to the lavatory—rather than being confined to one's seat. Therefore, seat belt wearing will not happen without a change in the culture of train travel. If the figures from the Finnish experiment are accurate, it is clear that seat belt wearing would have to be made compulsory to be effective. When we introduced the legislation to require those in cars to use seat belts, the seat belt was already regarded as acceptable, and something that should be used. It had widespread public support.
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Anybody who travels at peak times, especially on London-bound commuter trains, knows full well that the number of passengers is invariably greater than the number of seats. That often results in people standing in the gangways and in the door vestibule areas. Clearly, if seat belt legislation were introduced, train capacity would be greatly reduced. While that is not in itself an argument against seat belts, it is something to bear in mind.

Mr. Rendel : Will the right hon. Gentleman go into more detail on the Finnish experiment? Did it involve local, short-distance trains, or high-speed, long-distance trains? Did the experiment take place when seat belt wearing in cars had already been introduced on a mass basis in Finland? If I remember what he said correctly, the experiment took place a few years ago. In Britain, we are used to the idea of wearing seat belts because we use them all the time in cars, so there might be a much higher take-up of seat belts in trains.

Mr. Knight : I am seeking further and better particulars of the Finnish experiment, and until I receive them I do not know how much weight we should give to it. It may have been a flawed experiment. Perhaps the Minister can give us more information; I would welcome any details. So far, I have found out that it was a fairly limited experiment on a long-distance train, but I do not know whether the train stopped frequently.

It is important to take experts' views into account when considering safety matters. Her Majesty's railway inspectorate has commented on the idea of introducing seat belts. It is

In reference to the Finnish experiment, it says:

I agree with that and am not yet convinced that the fitting of seat belts is the answer.

Another consideration is the cost. If a study showed an overriding case for seat belts, the cost would be a secondary consideration, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge said. However, if the case was ambiguous at best and usage was low, as in the Finnish study, there would have to be careful consideration of the best way to spend the money. For example, could the money be better spent improving luggage racks, so that in the event of a collision or sudden braking, the luggage stays secure and does not fall down and become a danger to passengers? Could the money be better spent improving means of escaping from an overturned carriage by perhaps providing an escape hatch or door to avoid the problems of windows not breaking when hit with the emergency hammer? Or, as the hon. Member for Newbury said, could the money be better spent on level crossings, where there is always a risk of a collision, perhaps to warn the signalman or at specific crossings where there are points near to the interface with the road?
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There has been a debate on introducing seat belts in the United States but, as far as I am aware, there have not yet been any experiments. The US Federal Railroad Administration has said that it does not believe that seat belts are necessary on trains

so instances of passengers being thrown forward are far fewer than in a car. It concludes that

I do not know why it reached that conclusion, and I should like to see the evidence for that. One fear is that seat belts on trains might make them less attractive to users and drive passengers on to roads, which we do not want to happen.

Does the Minister find it worrying that last week the survivors of the Paddington disaster expressed their concern that some measures proposed in the wake of the disaster are still to be introduced? We welcome progress that has been made on many of the problems outlined in the inquiry, but will the Minister comment on the specific concerns of the Paddington survivors group? What does he have to say about the increase in the number of signals passed at danger, and the failure to install anti-collision systems in all 2,500 signals considered high risk?

Accidents are not the only aspect to consider when debating health and safety. The personal safety of    passengers is also important, and everything reasonably possible should be done to ensure it. It is therefore disturbing that Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary has revealed an increase in the number of incidents involving personal attacks on the London tube and the national rail network. Its figures show that violent crime has increased by 14 per cent., and that sexual assaults have recently increased by more than 12 per cent. Could the reason for those increases be the underfunding of British Transport police? The Conservative party has supported calls earlier this year from the Select Committee on Transport for the funding of British Transport police to be included in the rail review. Will the Minister do that?

Although funding and the numbers of police are important, we need to consider new ways of deploying them. One option would be for trains travelling late at night on services at risk from yobbish behaviour to have a designated police officer in one carriage. That would surely reassure passengers that they were safe travelling by rail at night.

We look forward to the Minister's comments on these issues. The safety of all rail passengers should be paramount, and the Government need to continue to address this matter. We should always be prepared to make changes and improvements in the public interest where there is evidence that we should do so.

3.16 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr.   Tony McNulty) : I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing this important debate on rail safety. I am grateful to those colleagues who prefaced their remarks
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by saying that rail is an extremely safe form of travel. That is no accident. Over successive years, many professional, dedicated and committed staff throughout the rail industry have sought to ensure, and have succeeded in ensuring, that rail is overwhelmingly a safe form of travel.

I take this opportunity to offer my deepest sympathy to the families and friends of all those who were killed in the fatal accident at Ufton Nervet on 6 November. As   others have done, I thank the emergency services for   their swift and efficient response to the incident. Throughout that weekend, the speed, efficiency, commitment and professionalism of all involved, including Network Rail and First Great Western, were quite staggering. Often in the past, the wrangling between Network Rail, the train company and others about who was responsible for what added to people's discomfort in the wake of such incidents. In this case, however, Network Rail and First Great Western acted in an exemplary fashion.

I also thank all those in the Bishop of Reading's office who organised last week's memorial service, which I attended. It was very moving, and a fitting tribute to those who died or were injured. Although I cannot begin to understand the pain and anguish of families such as the Websters, which they must continue to suffer, I can appreciate the desire of all those affected by the accident to ensure that measures are taken to prevent a similar accident from happening again.

As people know, the Health and Safety Executive report, published on 10 November, confirmed that there were no faults with the level crossing equipment or the   train, and that the train driver was in no way to blame. In effect, there was no failure of the railway infrastructure. Indeed, all the lessons learned from the past were fed into the design of the train involved, which showed the robustness of those trains. I am no safety expert, but I believe that that robustness probably and mercifully prevented there being more casualties and injuries. Many of the staff, the police and other emergency services personnel to whom I spoke who were working on the ground when they heard the first reports of what had happened at Ufton Nervet anticipated far worse casualties. They say that the design of the train and its crash worthiness were part of that robustness, which, as I said, meant that there were fewer injuries.

If I have one small criticism of the tenor of today's debate, it is the notion that those lessons have not already been learned and that new features have not been built into the structure and design of trains. They have been. That is not to suggest that there are not lessons still to be learned, and I shall come to those shortly. It is no accident that we have one of the safest rail systems. It is the result of the successive iteration of the design, structure and other features of rolling stock. I do not fully accept that economies are fed into the process by ROSCOs and that safety, especially for new rolling stock, somehow falls down the agenda. That is not the case, and it is irresponsible to suggest that it is.

Richard Younger-Ross : I return to the point about everything having been done. The rolling stock is quite old. First Great Western's policy is to use toughened rather than laminated glass. It may be that the fatalities were caused by people being thrown through the glass to
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the outside; but it would have been different in a GNER train, as it would have had laminated glass. The industry is debating whether to use laminated glass, and the Minister's comment may be—

Mr. McNulty : Absolutely not. My comments were about the crushability, crashworthiness and other elements of the sets. I freely said that there were lessons to be learned, as has been suggested, about such things as emergency lighting, hammers and windows. However, without over-speculating, and given the complexity of the accident, things could have been far, far worse with a frailer set of carriages.

I know that there are lessons to be learned, and I   shall   come to those shortly. Not the least of them—it is one point among a host—is that the Rail Safety and   Standards Board is exploring in greater detail the   proximity of the points to the level crossing—a complexity that made things worse. That and all other dimensions of the derailment will be examined in a formal rail industry investigation by the RSSB, but it is right and proper that the investigation will consider the wider aspects of level crossing safety as well as the immediate cause of the accident.

The points made about level crossing safety were well made, but they, too, need to be seen in context. The dangers of level crossings are not new, and the interface between rail and road presents particular problems. I   shall deal with the specifics in a moment, but all 8,000    level crossings are regularly risk-assessed. However, even with the greatest will in the world, one cannot risk-assess people's behaviour.

There has been an array of various types of level crossing incidents. On the very night of the Ufton Nervet accident, at a half-barrier crossing not far away, a white van zig-zagged between the two barriers while they were down. We have had instances on crossings on farm land—they are unmanned, and crossing is entirely up to the individual—and an incident at a fully staffed full-barrier crossing in Lincolnshire. Crossings are always kept firmly under review. A national level crossing safety group is always considering how to improve things and make crossings safer. That group rightly includes highway authorities, the police, motoring groups, ramblers and others who might use level crossings.

I shall dwell momentarily on the question of seat belts. It is true that the Secretary of State has asked the RSSB to consider the question of seat belts as part of its formal industry investigation into the Ufton Nervet derailment. We cannot say, as the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) suggested, that a prima facie case can be made that seat belts save lives. It is not that clear cut. Indeed, concern has been expressed that, in some circumstances, safety belts can cause damage by restraining passengers. However, all these areas need exploration.

There has been a limited Finnish experiment. I am trying to find out more about it, but I believe that a train of three or four carriages had only 131 seat belts, so the outcome was limited and the results not terribly worth while. However, I think that the RSSB needs to consider that matter and we have made a commitment in that regard.

When it comes to changing safety regulations, we take our steer from the Health and Safety Commission, and it is on record as saying that it is not convinced, in
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relation to the reasonable practicability guide relating to   health and safety legislation, that safety belts are appropriate. However, the matter needs exploring on an ongoing basis. Indeed, considering all issues and research on an ongoing basis is the key to our success in relative terms on rail safety. Safety hammers, laminated glass versus other types and emergency lighting—the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) is right that light-sticks were used in a limited way but to great effect at Ufton Nervet—will be explored in the context of Ufton Nervet and more broadly, as is right and proper. The hon. Member for Teignbridge will know that we are setting up a rail accident investigation branch along the lines of the marine and aviation equivalents, as per Lord Cullen's report. The legislation has been passed and the RAIB will be in place by next spring.

Let me make a few points on the issues that hon. Members raised beyond Ufton Nervet and the consequences of that. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) that there is no suggestion other than that all rail safety functions and staff currently at the Health and Safety Executive will move en bloc to the office of rail regulation. There is no question of any redundancies or anything other than everything going over to the ORR. The case of the Strategic Rail Authority and the Department for Transport is slightly different, in that about 100 staff at the Department are involved with rail   and there are about 500 at the SRA, and there is duplication in that pool of 600 staff. I am talking about central administration and backroom staff rather than railway experts. According to the high-level design that we have put out thus far for the DFT structure in respect of rail, we think that about 250, 280 or 300 staff will be a more appropriate number when the duplication and other elements have worked their way through the system.

Having said that, we are not about to lose the expertise that the SRA provides in respect of rail. I have said time and again that the SRA's demise is not a function of a critique of how ineffective it has been over the past three or four years. The SRA has been very effective in many areas of expertise. That is what has got us to a position in which we can move on in terms of the model. All staff at the SRA and the DFT come under Cabinet Office provision and TUPE when it comes to transfer. That is a certainty.

I shall take back to the Department my hon. Friend's concerns about consultation on fire safety below ground because I do not have sufficient knowledge of that. I am troubled by the point about economic pressures being brought to bear on professionals who conduct risk assessments. If there is any evidence to support such a claim, I would certainly like to see it. Underpinning all that we do on rail safety in terms of the public and private sectors is proper, professional and dispassionate risk assessment of danger, whether that relates to level crossings or other aspects. I share many of the concerns that hon. Members have, and they will be explored in relation to Ufton Nervet. Rail safety underpins everything that we do; it is paramount.

I return to the starting point for many of the contributions that we have heard: rail safety is overwhelmingly good in this country. Very sadly, on the day of the Ufton Nervet accident, 10 people died on our roads, and 10 people died the next day. I agree with the
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hon. Member for Teignbridge about comparing apples with oranges; we must consider safety across all modes of transport. The hon. Member for Newbury is right to say that Ufton Nervet was the first time that there had been rail passenger casualties because of a level crossing incident for the best part of 18 years, and the incident before the one 18 years ago happened 20 years before. We must learn the lessons of Ufton Nervet and keep a strong focus on what is happening in relation to level crossings, but all hon. Members can be assured that safety in the rail industry will remain paramount in our focus. I appreciate that our deliberations have been largely non-political and non-partisan, as they should be. The people who travel on our railways would expect no less.

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