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Level Crossings (North Essex)

Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2007

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

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:

“Level Crossing Risk is likely to become the largest category of train accident risk on the National Rail network in Great Britain. It is also a significant risk for road users and pedestrians.”

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:

“Risk levels depend to a great extent on the type of crossing protection in place”.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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 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.

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, 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.

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 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.

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?

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 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 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.