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Rail Safety

Volume 201: debated on Monday 13 January 1992

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To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has to improve safety on the railways.

We are committed to improving the already extremely high level of railway safety. Both British Rail and London Underground have major safety programmes under way. These include investment in new equipment, new work procedures, additional training and new safety management systems.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the number of railway accidents, which has increased recently, is in no small measure due to the under-investment in British Rail since the Tory Government placed restrictions on the railway system?

As Italy invests £63 per head, Germany £41 per head and this country only £24 per head in the railways, does not the Secretary of State have a teeny-weeny twinge of conscience when he hears of railway accidents?

I might, if the hon. Gentleman's facts were right, but they are wrong in two fundamental respects. First, safety expenditure under the Government and British Rail is higher than it has ever been in British Rail's history—it has gone up from £140 million to £200 million. Secondly, the number of significant train accidents recorded in 1990 was the lowest on record and it is expected that the final figure for 1991 will show a further decline.

I welcome the change of policy, which took place some time ago under my right hon. and learned Friend's sponsorship, of increasing investment in the railways. However, does he agree that there has been a fall of well over half in the percentage of gross domestic product invested in the railways in the past 10 years? If the public service obligation grant is substantially reduced, will not there be an inevitable increase in dissatisfaction with customer service? If my right hon. and learned Friend believes in cause and effect, will he assure the House that he has learnt a lesson from it and that not only investment in but the subsidy to British Rail will be maintained to provide the service that people expect from the railways as we approach the end of the century?

I agree with a certain amount of what my hon. Friend said. There is certainly a case for subsidy on the social railway, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with the judgment of the previous Labour Government, who said that there was no case for subsidising inter-urban services, nor was there a social case for subsidy with regard to inter-city services. As for rural railways and other parts of the subsidised railway, the Government have made it abundantly clear that investment will go ahead. Indeed, it is now higher than at any time since the early 1960s.

Is the Secretary of State aware that London Underground has stated that there is no limit to the number of people who wish to push themselves on to a London Underground train? Does he intend to take action on that official statement?

We are anxious to see an expansion in the capacity of the underground. One reason why we accepted the investment that London Underground told the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was necessary was to ensure that, in years to come, there would be the rolling stock to meet the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

My right hon. and learned Friend will recall the bomb explosion a month ago on the track in my constituency. Mercifully, it did not cause the death and destruction intended. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, although we cannot protect the entire railway track throughout the country, a useful step may be to see whether cameras can be used at strategic points, not least at the busiest rail junction in the world?

I note what my hon. Friend says. There are already a number of cameras at railway stations and other spots. The incident to which my hon. Friend refers happened on track outside the railway station. Clearly, it is not feasible to have cameras covering the whole of the track. It is for those involved in enhancing the security of the infrastructure to identify where cameras would be most useful in the battle against terrorism and vandalism.

May I ask the Secretary of State about the current safety inquiry into the accident at Newton junction in Scotland? Is it true that among the inquiry's recommendations are the provision of signalling alterations, the installation of new protective devices and changed signalling practice at that and other junctions, which may cause delays to approaching trains? Would not it be safer, cheaper and quicker to reinstate the conventional junction lay-out at that and other accident sites? Is not it beyond the realms of possibility that the Secretary of State and railway management have got it wrong on this occasion?

The inquiry's recommendations have not yet been put to Ministers. When they are, we shall consider what the independent inquiry has identified and we shall do whatever is necessary to enhance safety in the use of the railways. Fortunately, our railways remain one of the safest means of transport and I am sure that the whole House welcomes the fact that the number of significant accidents on the railways is now the lowest on record.