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Right now, very short term, short term and long-term decisions have to be made. In the very short term, since 16 September, the crossing has been policed up to 7.30 pm at the latest-so not for 24 hours. I have tried to get figures of any misuse witnessed, but unfortunately there does not appear to be a comprehensive report. The initial cost of policing was £1,400 per week, but there has been a shift to a slightly cheaper private security firm. Originally, the county council used this mechanism to buy time to get alternative measures in place and proposed a follow-up short-term solution to
provide transport for all those who are mobility impaired and cannot use the adjacent footbridge. Cyclists would presumably be required to use the road footbridge, which does not even have a footway between the road and crash barriers.
My constituents were singularly unconvinced that a bus service to take prams, mobility scooters and people who had a proved disability to the other side of the railway line would be practical. They were right; already there is a change of plan for the very short term. The reason for this change of mind is that the detailed work to identify a public transport solution is proving unlikely to provide a sufficiently robust solution for the public. Also, the cost would be more than £100,000 per year, compared with £65,000 for the security presence.
I hear that the debate has moved on and that just policing is not acceptable to Network Rail. I am particularly concerned about whether any alternative will clearly be compatible with disability discrimination legislation, because there is a real issue that there should be access at all reasonable times over the railway line for disabled people.
The idea was that these short-term arrangements would last until Dorset county council secured funding for its long-term preferred solution of building a footpath-cycleway alongside the A351 Wareham bypass. My constituents' first preference is for electronically locked gates, but that is being dismissed on cost grounds over time from the county council and on safety grounds, I think, from Network Rail. I want to be assured that a full risk assessment has been undertaken. There is a busy vehicular and pedestrian crossing at Wool, which is electronically controlled, and an incredibly busy pedestrian crossing in Poole High Street, which is also electronically controlled. There is always the chance of somebody scaling the gates or rushing through, but surely there must be greater risks at those two points. I am looking for a proportionate response.
There is a lease issue, because Network Rail has to renew it in 2013. The original lease says that Dorset county council has the option to extend, but I understand that there would be a monitoring issue in respect of electronic gates when signal boxes change in 2012. Dorset county council tells me that Network Rail proposes charging it £100,000 per year for monitoring. However, there are only two trains an hour, so perhaps there is some bargaining to be done.
My constituents need to know in some detail why electronic gates are not being considered. The ORR letter to the chief executive of Dorset county council dated 1 September states that safety could be improved by the provision of supervised locking barriers or gates linked to the signalling system, although there was a preference for a bridge. It appears that the revenue cost of the additional supervision is the main obstacle to this proposal, which would have the full support of local residents.
Clearly, the type of gates used at Elsenham, where there was a double fatality in 2005, is not suitable. I suggest that we need a gate that is mechanically locked so that it cannot be forced open, with a safe refuge on the rail side for those who are crossing at the time the gates are locked. An additional gate could be provided immediately adjacent to the track that could be opened only to exit to a safe waiting area. I am sure that the
monitoring arrangements could be discussed further. Surely it is possible to find a safe solution if there is a will to meet what constituents want.
If my constituents were convinced that locking gates were not a safe option, there would be other options to consider: a disability-compliant bridge at the station, and the county council's proposal to put in a pavement and a cycleway alongside the road crossing. Residents need to be consulted, but Dorset county council is just saying that the latter is the best option. The fact that only in the 1980s was a road crossing constructed without pedestrian or cycling facilities shows how important it is to get the decision right. I have been informed that Network Rail offered to procure a new modular footbridge at Wareham for Dorset county council, but that was turned down. I am calling for openness, consultation and respect for my constituents' views. My constituents are certainly not responsible for the lack of preparation by Dorset county council before this crisis came upon everybody.
I have outlined some big issues today that involve compliance with disability discrimination legislation for elderly and disabled pedestrians and users of mobility scooters, and provision for mums with pushchairs, for people accessing and leaving the town centre, and for rail users. The existing footbridge is a nightmare. When I had a bad injury two years ago, I could not have used the bridge. I still cannot manage it with a suitcase. People with heart and lung conditions cannot cope with the bridge. People coming in from London have to cross the railway to catch a bus to Swanage. This will deter people who are not young and mobile from using public transport. The heavy pedestrian use of the crossing now reflects the fact that people are walking into town, which is great, so where are the other policy objectives to be considered: walking, cycling and public transport?
The longer route proposed by Dorset county council will mean that older people, and many others, will just get into their cars to go into town, perhaps going to Poole rather than Wareham. The county council route has the advantage of contributing to the strategic cycle network, but that is not my constituents' concern. The proposal by DCC will probably add an extra 300 metres on to the walk into the town centre. It is estimated that the county council's proposed solution will cost £2 million, although no money for that is currently allocated to any budget, and it is anticipated that it will take at least 30 months to construct. Forward planning and consultation does not seem to have been the name of the game.
Wareham is a vibrant town with many restaurants, pubs and individual shops. Recently Sainsbury's joined the Co-op in the town centre which is, of course, suffering from the recession. My constituents from the far side of the railway bridge walk and cycle into town now for many activities. A recent survey showed that more than 1,200 people used the crossing on just one day. My constituents' quality of life must be a consideration. I should like to ask the Minister whether, if this dispute carries on, there is any way in which he could intervene.
"I have lived here for 23 years...and have therefore used the crossing a few thousand times...I will point out some of the consequences of closing the crossing. Without level passage across
the railway it will be either impossible for many to cross or far more dangerous than the status quo. I am 76 and visually impaired, go at least once a week from Northmoor into Wareham, riding gently or pushing as safety demands, mainly to fill the pannier-bags with food-shopping. I could neither heave the bicycle up the steps of the footbridge nor easily and safely lower it on the other side. The alternative would be either to ride or push it round by the main road, exactly the kind of route I do not now use on SAFETY grounds. Other elderly people have powered buggies, for which these alternatives are equally (or more) impractical.
Then 'early-birds' tell me that school-children using the route include many on bicycles, more able physically to cope with the bridge but chattering groups are likely to trigger falls on the descent, potentially serious. As for the thought of Northmoor kids weaving their way through rush-hour traffic on the A351, even the most bone-headed official should manage to see that it will end in tragedy and 'this must never happen again'. Yet do we want all these children to be conveyed in cars or buses, rather than get healthy exercise between home and school?
Finally, there are all the good people who are neither children nor pensioners, but just as deserving of a safe, direct and convenient route between the two parts of Wareham, on foot or bicycle, in buggy or with pushchair. We are all human beings with needs, and a huge majority of us use the present crossing responsibly."
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for securing this debate on the pedestrian level crossing at Wareham, Dorset. She asked me for an overview, and she has provided a good one. I will try to address as many of the issues as possible in the time that she has left me.
This is an issue on which my Department has received significant correspondence from local residents recently, so I welcome this opportunity to update the hon. Lady on behalf of her constituents, particularly as I understand that a town meeting is being held in Wareham tomorrow to discuss the issue. The matter has arisen as a result of recent activity to consider the future of Wareham level crossing following increasing safety concerns.
The Government treat railway safety seriously, and an important aspect is safety at level crossings. Railways are one of the safest forms of transport and continue to improve. Changes to rail safety within the past 10 years -for example, the introduction of train protection systems, new rolling stock and better management of the infrastructure-have resulted in the UK having a rail safety record comparable to other western European countries. Previous primary rail safety risks, such as signals passed at danger, have fallen significantly owing to such mitigation measures to the point that, according to figures compiled by the Rail Safety and Standards Board, level crossings now represent the largest category of catastrophic risk to train passengers. Fourteen motorists and pedestrians died at level crossings last year, and I am sure that we are all aware of the tragic triple fatality at Halkirk level crossing only last month.
The day-to-day running of the railways and their safety is a matter for rail operators and the Office of Rail Regulation, as the independent rail safety regulator. My Department shares their concern about the risks at level crossings, but are mindful, as the hon. Lady outlined, of the impact that their closure may have on local communities. The conflicting needs for safety and access at level crossings are one reason why my Department, in partnership with the ORR, asked the Law Commission
to undertake a wide-ranging review of level crossing issues. The review is under way, and my officials have forwarded details of the case at Wareham to the Law Commission as an example of the conflicting pressures that occur in practice at level crossings.
Analysis of incidents shows that 96 per cent. of the risk at level crossings is due to accidental or deliberate misuse by pedestrians and road users. Considerable time and money is being spent by the rail industry to understand why that is so, and to improve facilities, equipment and education-for example, Network Rail's "Don't Run the Risk" advertising campaign to raise safety awareness. I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that the incident to which she referred is one of the examples in the campaign's material.
The crossing at Wareham has red and green warning lights to show when it is safe to cross. In addition, Network Rail has put in place measures such as audible warning messages and CCTV. The latter captured the image that has had much coverage in the media of a young woman with a pushchair using the crossing when it was clearly not safe to do so. However, despite those efforts, problems and incidents persist, including regular near misses at Wareham. I understand that 25 incidents have occurred at the crossing when the train driver has had to apply the brakes, and more than 80 misuses at the crossing have been recorded over the past four years. That is more than three times the number of incidents at any other crossing in the south-west and is one of the worst records in the country.
I understand that British Transport police have agreed to maintain a temporary presence at the site, for which I am grateful, but clearly that is not sustainable. Against the background of persistent abuse, both Network Rail and the ORR have raised concerns regarding the ongoing safety of users of the Wareham pedestrian level crossing, highlighted by risk modelling, which suggests that the risk of a fatality is very high. It is clearly imperative that action is taken to improve safety at Wareham. No one wants a tragic accident, such as that in a similar situation at Elsenham in 2005.
In dispensing its legal duties as the independent rail safety regulator, the ORR is considering formal enforcement action in the form of improvement notices requiring better protection and safety at the crossing. For historic reasons at Wareham, those improvement notices will be directed at both Dorset county council and Network Rail. The ORR believes that improved safety at the crossing could take a number of forms, including the provision of suitable barriers or gates, but it believes that the provision of ramps to the existing footbridge and closure of the crossing would represent the most effective risk control and efficient use of public funds over the long term. The decision on which option to pursue is ultimately for Dorset county council in conjunction with Network Rail.
I am told that Dorset county council has sought advice from Network Rail on the cost and feasibility of installing barriers at the site, but that future signalling changes in the area complicate monitoring by staff, and discussions are ongoing on that point. I can only encourage Network Rail to examine fully the option of barriers. I understand that ORR would be willing to consider supervised magnetic gate locks, as fitted at Elsenham,
but would have reservations about automatic locking of gates with an emergency release, which could be subject to abuse and might lack a means of checking that they close and lock for each train.
Dorset county council has also been investigating both short and long-term opportunities to secure safety and accessibility at the crossing. I understand that possible closure of the crossing has indeed been proposed for early December and that Dorset county council considered that on the basis of alternative robust accessible arrangements being in place. It investigated a public transport solution in the event of closure-putting on buses to connect the crossing to the town-but now believes that that is not a feasible alternative. Any infrastructure solutions that meet all requirements, such as accessible foot and cycle routes, are by their very nature a longer-term option. Network Rail is considering plans to make it easier for cyclists to use the adjacent footbridge.
I understand that the council is continuing to discuss options with Network Rail, including whether temporary measures such as an official presence at the crossing would help to tackle the safety risk in the interim, while longer-term, more permanent solutions are investigated. Any decisions arising from those discussions will have to satisfy the safety requirements of the ORR.
Apart from the obvious safety issues, I understand that the railway divides large residential areas from Wareham town centre and that the crossing is a key link between them. Although alternative pedestrian access is provided, I am advised that it is unsuitable for older people, people with restricted mobility, wheelchairs and scooters, people with small children, those with heavy baggage and cyclists, as the hon. Lady said.
Representations made to me by local residents have suggested that closure of the crossing without adequate provision for those groups would effectively divide the town and isolate communities-something that we would be keen to avoid. I am confident that the safety issues at the Wareham crossing are being handled appropriately by the ORR. When making the final decision, Dorset county council and Network Rail must consider, as well as safety, the impact of any closure on local communities, including accessibility requirements of the groups to which I referred. When considering that, I am sure that the council will be mindful of its obligations under equality legislation.
Safety concerns are of great importance, but the severance of communities and reducing accessibility to key transport routes are no less so. On that basis, I encourage Dorset county council, in conjunction with Network Rail, to ensure that all appropriate options, in both the short and longer term, are considered for the future of the crossing and that the safety, accessibility and community needs of Wareham are appropriately provided for. I hope that tomorrow's town meeting, to which I understand key stakeholders have been invited-I hope that they will attend-successfully contributes to the ongoing debate on the future of the Wareham crossing.
Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): Just over a year ago, hon. Members on both sides of the House, many of whom are here again this afternoon, spoke in a debate in this Chamber on the grave humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. At that time, the Government of Sri Lanka were pursuing a brutal military campaign, in which thousands of innocent civilians lost their lives, tens of thousands were injured and hundreds of thousands were displaced and left without access to shelter, sanitation, water, food or medical facilities. The conduct of that war-the use of heavy artillery, multi-barrel rocket launchers and white phosphorus in densely populated civilian areas-was brutal, inhumane and almost certainly illegal, so all of us took some comfort in the cessation of hostilities, but although the guns may be silent in Sri Lanka for the first time in 26 years, the price of peace could not be higher.
Nearly 300,000 civilians are being detained in camps in the north-east of Sri Lanka. The Government of Sri Lanka call them "welfare camps" and in the controlled images that they release to the international media, we see benevolent Ministers dispensing supplies to grateful, smiling Tamil families. The reality, though, is camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed soldiers, where latrine pits overflow and children fight for water, where emaciated pensioners lie in cramped tents and where thousands of young men disappear without trace. If the Government of Sri Lanka had even one ounce of regard for the welfare of the civilians held, they would be released without any further delay.
My hon. Friend the Minister saw for himself just how grim the conditions are, and I commend him for visiting Sri Lanka just a few weeks ago, yet since March 2008 the Government of Sri Lanka have confined virtually everyone displaced by the conflict to detention camps.
Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I thank the right hon. Lady very much for outlining these circumstances. Will she comment on the fact that the Sri Lankan Government frequently use the argument about land mines and use the need for demining as their reason for not releasing people from the camps? Surely that is an area where the international community could ensure that there was no question but that demining capacity was provided rapidly.
The numbers in the camps swelled as the conflict intensified this year and more and more civilians were forced to flee their homes. By the time that formal hostilities drew to a close in April, some 300,000 civilians, including 50,000 children, were being held in 41 camps across four districts, but the end of the war did not mean liberty for the camps' inhabitants. Even though the Government readily declared that the war was over, they are still not ready to let people leave, so for the civilians kept in the camps, the peace dividends that the Government of Sri Lanka promised in their victory declarations have failed to materialise.
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