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Let me turn to what is happening in North Essex. Network Rail is installing a new signalling system. The system will improve the network’s reliability, which, in turn, will benefit passengers by improving train
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performance, which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would welcome. New signalling means more reliable equipment, which means more punctual trains. The new signalling will also provide more operational flexibility. That will mean that when incidents do occur—I am talking about incidents such as a failed train—they can be more easily worked around, thus meaning that there is a better service for passengers. Most re-signalling schemes also deliver faster operating speeds on the line. Modern signals need less maintenance than older ones, which reduces the cost of running the railway.

As part of the work to renew and modernise signalling, Network Rail, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, proposes to modernise crossings that currently require a railway employee to be stationed at each crossing to close the gates across the road manually to allow trains to pass. Perhaps, for the record, we should start referring to those crossings as staffed, rather than manned. The Network Rail proposal would have significant benefits, reducing the length of time for which a crossing was closed and cutting operational costs without compromising safety. It would also reduce the risk of the crossing keeper getting injured by road traffic.

The hon. Gentleman said that there were no manned crossing fatalities in 2005, but there is a history of the workers who man those crossings getting injured as a result of drivers being impatient, reckless or irresponsible in their efforts to cross the railway line even as the gate is being closed. The numbers involved are not huge, but the injuries suffered have sometimes been serious.

Automated crossings mean that barriers are closed for shorter periods, resulting in the smoother flow of train and road traffic, with fewer delays for both. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the comparative safety performance statistics for different types of crossing. Those comparisons, which I have seen, are produced by the Rail Safety and Standards Board, and they show that manually operated crossings have a better safety record than other types. However, a purely statistical analysis does not take account of the different ways in which trains, motor vehicles and pedestrians use the crossings.

Safety is a major consideration, but it has to be weighed against other factors, such as the wider benefits that accrue to rail passengers from more reliable trains, and to motorists from the shorter time for which crossings are closed. Moreover, the statistics to which the hon. Gentleman referred do not compare like with like, as they do not discriminate between high-speed rail lines, urban lines or village lines. That means that it is very difficult to achieve an absolutely accurate picture of the relative safety of crossing types, although I accept that he is right to raise the matter, since the bald statistics, in the absence of context, do paint a particular picture.

Manually operated gated crossings may be statistically safer, but it is the considered view of the independent rail safety regulator that other types of crossing are also safe when used correctly. A range of factors needs to be considered when determining the most appropriate type of crossing for a given location. If a crossing is properly monitored with CCTV, that is sufficient to check that it can be used safely by trains.

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Mr. Jenkin: Young people are not likely to think about how such crossings should be used properly. Will the Minister say what happens when the camera sees kids messing around on or near a crossing, putting both themselves and train passengers at risk?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that concern. The crossing in his constituency to which I referred earlier will be replaced by a manual barrier controlled remotely from a signal box. When the video screen shows someone trespassing, that is a very serious matter for Network Rail. Lines of communication are available to ensure that trains heading to that location are alerted to the fact. The police—and, if necessary, British Transport police—are also alerted.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government would not give a green light to any infrastructure change for level crossings if we believed that it would in any way compromise the safety of pedestrians, especially young ones. It is far better for us to rely on the evidence of the experts. The Network Rail proposals must be approved by Her Majesty’s rail inspectorate, which is part of the Office of the Rail Regulator. That is where the expertise in these matters lies. Although it is of course entirely appropriate for MPs to raise concerns on behalf of their constituents, I do not think that it is up to Ministers, with their shallow technical knowledge, to make decisions about the safety of level crossings and to determine what is safe and what is not. I would much rather allow Her Majesty’s rail inspectorate to make that decision on the Government’s behalf. The vast majority of people in the industry would be far more comfortable with that process than with Ministers making that decision.

It is the view of the independent rail safety regulator that each type of crossing is adequately safe when operated and used correctly, as long as the type of crossing is appropriate for the location. The safety of railway employees working manual gates is, as I said, an area of growing concern. There is a need for closer working and better co-operation on level crossing safety between road traffic and rail authorities.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that a provision in the Road Safety Act 2006, which is expected to come into force shortly, will permit road traffic measures as well as purely rail measures to be specified in a level crossing order. That will make it easier to control the speed of road vehicles on the approach to level crossings through measures such as rumble strips to alert vehicles to slow down, increased use of warning signs and more enforcement cameras.

In the case of the level crossings in North Essex that concern the hon. Gentleman, Network Rail will need to convince the railway inspectorate that the replacement crossings that it wants are as safe as or safer than the existing crossings that they replace. I reiterate my earlier point that if it cannot make that case, the replacement will not go ahead. The railway inspectorate has professional expertise in level crossing safety and I have already said that it is right for decisions on technical areas to be taken by those with the proper technical background.

Members on both sides of the House have welcomed the improving performance of our railways in terms of punctuality, reliability and safety. Having said that, it
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may not be entirely true, as I doubt whether every Member of every political party will welcome those particular improvements, but most Government Members certainly do. Network Rail is investing heavily in upgrading infrastructure to deliver improving performance.

There is no point in putting in modern signalling systems in areas such as North Essex if trains and road traffic are then going to be slowed down by antiquated and prohibitively costly level crossings, where crossing keepers are required to open and close gates manually at some risk to their own safety. It would not be in Network Rail’s interests to replace existing crossings with ones that are less safe; apart from the human cost, that would lead to delays and disruption while incidents were dealt with. The decision on what is safe will be taken by the rail safety experts in Her Majesty’s
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railway inspectorate. We should trust their judgment in approving the most suitable type of level crossing for the particular circumstances of each location.

I pay tribute again to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue on behalf of his constituents and for leading this debate in a very measured and considered fashion. I fear, however, that my comments this evening may not be sufficient to reassure him on all the points that he raised. Nevertheless, it is the case that all types of level crossing are safe when used correctly and that safety records at level crossings in the UK are among the best in Europe. Any changes proposed by Network Rail and consequently approved by HMRI will do nothing to change that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Eight o’clock.

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