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10 Jan 2007 : Column 399

10 Jan 2007 : Column 400

10 Jan 2007 : Column 401

Mr. Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Even at this late stage, is there any way in which it would be possible for the Home Secretary to come to the House and make a statement? This morning, I wrote to the Home Secretary explaining that four people have absconded from Sudbury prison who were charged with either murder or manslaughter, and that there was growing concern about that in my constituency. By the time that the letter had been prepared for me to sign, I had to add an addendum saying that another person, also charged with murder, had escaped, bringing the total to five people convicted of murder or manslaughter who are at the moment out of prison and on the loose. Although I appreciate that the Home Secretary is dealing with a number of other problems today, serious concern has been raised for some time about the people who are being sent to open prisons. Is there any way, even at this late stage, in which the Home Secretary can inform the House of any action that he may take?

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was contacted this afternoon by my constituent, Michael Walker, whose son was killed by one of the fugitives who have absconded from this open prison. In 2002, the judge was so appalled that he sentenced Gary Smith to 10 years for manslaughter with no parole. Less than five years later, he has absconded from an open prison. That has left my constituent and his family in perilous fear about where this man might now be, as well as dredging up appalling memories of what they had to suffer at the hands of a murderer who is now free.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The urgency of the matter is underlined not only by the two points of order that you have just heard, but by the fact that the Home Secretary signed off a memorandum within the Home Office in which he said that he was prepared to take the risk that by removing people from the secure estate and placing them in the open estate such problems might occur. In the light of the points that we three Members of Parliament have brought to your attention, can you arrange for the Home Secretary to come to the House urgently to deal with those concerns?

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Mr. Speaker: I am disturbed to hear of the difficulties that hon. Gentlemen find in their constituencies. They will know, however, that I am bound by the rules of the House, which hon. Members have made for me to apply properly. I have no powers to bring the Home Secretary to the House at this time in the evening. All experienced Members who have raised such a point of order will know that there are ways of seeking to ask questions of the Home Secretary. The urgent question system can also be used in such circumstances, although I am not saying that I would grant such a request. I would like Members to reflect on the courses open to them.


Network Rail

7.30 pm

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): The first of my two petitions concerns Network Rail’s proposal to close both Reddish South and Denton stations in my constituency. A skeleton parliamentary service has operated on the Stockport to Stalybridge line since 1991, with just one train a week in one direction. The petitioners recognise that the current line is financially unviable even if the frequency of trains is increased. However, in view of major bids for transport systems being made for Greater Manchester, they argue that the stations should remain open for use on a new commuter route into Manchester Victoria, serving the city centre.

To lie upon the Table.

Dangerous Dogs

7.31 pm

Andrew Gwynne: My second petition, unfortunately, comes at a very fitting time. Late last year I was approached by Courtney’s Campaign in connection with a vicious dog biting incident in my constituency. Last year nine-year-old Courtney Walker was bitten across the face in her neighbour’s garden by the neighbour’s pet bull mastiff. As the attack took place on the dog owner’s property, Greater Manchester police have been unable to call for any criminal punishments.

Under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, a court can call for the destruction of a dog if it is considered to have been dangerous in a public place or in a private place where it is not permitted to be, but not in an easily accessible private place on the dog owner’s own property.

The petition reads

To lie upon the Table.

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Level Crossings (North Essex)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Kevin Brennan.]

7.32 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): It is a great pleasure and honour to have the opportunity to raise the issue of rail level crossing safety in my constituency. I am grateful to the Minister for attending the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) is present as well, and I should be delighted if he made a contribution. I am grateful to the Minister for giving his permission for that.

The question of rail level crossings and their safety is a vexed one. According to a note from the Library, in 2005 there were 7,674 level crossings in Great Britain, of which 79 per cent. were unprotected. I am concerned about the protected crossings. Some 1,623 crossings had manual or automatic gates or barriers, most commonly where vehicles crossed the railway, and there were 253 manual gates operated by railway employees. It is the demise of such crossings in my constituency that gave rise to this debate.

I have been trying to establish the different safety records of different types of level crossing. The accident statistics are thankfully very sparse. For that reason they do not tell us much, except that manual gates operated by railway employees caused precisely zero fatalities and zero injuries in 2005. By comparison with the record of other crossing systems, that is outstanding. Other kinds of crossing produce casualties—both injuries and fatalities.

I turn to a document entitled, “Development of a programme of level crossing research to improve railway safety in Great Britain”, produced by the Rail Safety and Standards Board on 16 February 2004. It states at the outset:

That is not to say that the risk from level crossings is growing; other safety aspects on the railway are improving, so that then becomes the biggest single issue that the railway bodies have to deal with in addressing rail safety.

There are some useful statistics in the document giving some assessment of the relative risk posed by different kinds of crossing. On page 6 of the document, it is stated:

A chart shows the equivalent fatalities per year for different types of crossing. It shows that manned gates or barriers offer a risk that is equivalent to one fatality per year, whereas automatic half-barriers or automatic open locally monitored barriers offer significantly increased risk.

I suspect that those statistics are based solely on fatalities, so I have been looking for other sources to demonstrate the relative safety of different types of crossing, because if we are to remove manned crossings we need to have a better idea of their relative safety.

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I turn to a more recent document: the Rail Safety and Standards Board document entitled, “Level crossing safety performance report June 2006.” In chart 14 on page 22, that document shows that manually controlled gates offer by far the lowest risk of near misses, particularly compared with manually controlled barriers protected by closed circuit television and operated remotely. It is difficult to describe those findings, but as I have drawn the chart to the Minister’s attention I hope that he will be able to respond to it.

The particular challenge that my constituency faces is that three manned sets of gates—those at Alresford, Thorrington and Great Bentley—are set to be replaced by alternative crossing systems. It is widely understood among the public that they will be replaced by automatic barriers—barriers that are tripped by the train approaching the level crossing. I fully accept that that might not be the case and that Network Rail is, as is its obligation, looking at alternative systems of monitored automatic barriers, or even at barriers operated by remote control under CCTV surveillance.

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that there is considerable concern in my constituency about the possible introduction of automatic gates especially in Frinton, but also at the crossing just outside Clacton? There are concerns about the safety implications and about accessibility for disabled people and for older folk who depend on motability scooters. What assurances does my hon. Friend think can be given on safety grounds, and also in respect of accessibility, if those changes are to be made?

Mr. Jenkin: I am sure that the Minister has listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said, and I hope that he will be able to respond in due course to the points that he has raised, because I am raising similar points about the crossings that I have mentioned.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me at such an early stage, but as he has asked about what would replace the currently staffed gate at Alresford, it might be useful if I put it on record that it will be replaced not by automatic barriers but by a manually operated barrier, although one that will be operated remotely. I think that the hon. Gentleman refers to it as being automatic on his website, but it will not be automatic.

Mr. Jenkin: I am grateful for that clarification. I had understood that to be the case. I think that there is an easily confused use of terminology here, which is much more precise to the experts in the industry than to lay people such as myself. I apologise to the House for that. The problem is that in each of these three cases there will no longer be a crossing keeper on the site.

Let me deal with the Thorrington case first. The crossing is not in the centre of a village; it is not at a focal point of the community. It is a very busy road, and with the junction improvements that are planned on that site I can see strong justification for having manually controlled barriers, albeit remotely controlled and monitored by CCTV. Incidentally, the same goes for the crossing at Chitts Hill, which I have not
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mentioned privately to the Minister. Chitts Hill is to the west of Colchester, and again the crossing is not within a village. It is on a busy rat-run of roads between Colchester and West Bergholt, and I can fully understand that there is a case for Network Rail to replace manned crossings there, provided that there are improvements to the crossing, particularly to the width.

I turn now to the Alresford crossing. It is right at the heart of the village, at the end of the station platform. It is by the shops, which are on both sides of the railway, and the local chippy and Chinese takeaway are very nearby. This is a focal point, particularly for younger people in the evening. At both ends of the school day children cross the railway on foot at that point. In the evening, particularly in the summer months, young people tend to congregate near the station and the crossing.

One of the crossing keepers there told me how he has had to intervene, call the police and deal with the inevitable problems that arise when groups of bored young people congregate late at night, perhaps a little the worse for wear because of alcohol. He wonders who will provide for the safety of those children if there is no crossing keeper. I am looking for assurances from the Minister. It seems that there can be no substitute for having someone on site. Even if the site is being monitored by CCTV, that cannot necessarily provide the comprehensive awareness that someone on the site would have. Even if the CCTV shows young people trespassing on the track, what can the monitors do except perhaps stop trains until the police arrive to deal with the trespass? I cannot see how that will be satisfactory.

Secondly, I turn to the Great Bentley crossing. This, too, is right by the station, on the edge of the village but near a pub and shops and next to the local primary school. Again, at both ends of the school day, children will be coming and going across the railway. Great Bentley has the largest village green in the country, and this is another area where young people tend to congregate. I foresee the same kinds of difficulty.

Before Network Rail is allowed to proceed with these changes, I simply ask the Minister what assurances he can give me and my constituency that safety will not be compromised. Returning to the statistics that I have talked about, all the evidence suggests that unmanned crossings carry higher risks than manned crossings, and there seems to be a very strong case for maintaining manned crossings in these locations.

7.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) on securing the debate. I also thank him sincerely for the measured and considered way in which he has approached the issue, which is clearly a serious matter for his constituents and for all hon. Members. I will talk briefly about level crossing safety more generally before turning to the specific case of North Essex.

As the hon. Gentleman said, there are more than 7,600 level crossings throughout the mainline rail network. There are several different types of crossing,
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and they range from open crossings with no barriers or gates, which are used when a road is quiet and train speeds are low—I shall return to that important point later—to crossings with full barriers that are monitored by CCTV. Level crossings of whatever type are adequately safe when they are used correctly. However, I must make an important point: absolute safety is an impossible goal, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates.

It is important that the right type of crossing is used in particular locations to achieve adequate safety with minimum delays to road traffic. Account should be taken of factors such as the number and speed of trains, the volume and type of road traffic, the nature of private use, the number of pedestrians using the crossing and the location of the crossing itself. What might be appropriate for a quiet country road or a crossing on farm land might not be appropriate for a busy urban area.

The annual reports on railway safety that are produced by the rail safety regulator give details of the numbers of each type of crossing on the national network and details of accidents on all railways, which include heritage lines and the London underground as well as the overland network that is maintained by Network Rail. Copies of the annual railway safety reports are in the House Library. The most recent report, which was for calendar year 2005, showed that there were 27 train accidents at level crossings and that they resulted in 16 fatalities. Those fatalities were made up of nine pedestrians, four drivers of road vehicles, two cyclists and one train driver. More detailed data on level crossing safety are given in the annual rail safety performance reports that are produced by the Rail Safety and Standards Board.

Some 96 per cent. of accidents at level crossings are considered to be caused by road driver or pedestrian misuse, whether that is intentional or unintentional. Although the statistics show that the safety record for level crossings in this country is among the best in the world, it is always desirable to try to improve safety. As the hon. Gentleman said, level crossings now represent the single greatest source of the risk of train accidents—that is accidents with the potential for multiple deaths.

Network Rail, the operator of the mainline network, is putting a significant effort into improving safety at level crossings. It is focusing on closing crossings altogether whenever the opportunity arises, improving the operation and maintenance of level crossings, running a programme of risk assessment to identify where additional action might be needed and implementing measures to promote the safe use of crossings. The hon. Gentleman may well have seen or heard the effective television and radio campaign that Network Rail ran last year to highlight the very real dangers of misusing level crossings. More generally, Network Rail is working hard to improve the efficiency of its operations—without, of course, in any way compromising safety—with the aim of reducing the substantial costs of the rail network, which inevitably fall on taxpayers and rail users.

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