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House of Commons Hansard
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Train Derailment (Grayrigg)
26 February 2007
Volume 457

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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the train derailment which occurred near Grayrigg in Cumbria on Friday evening.

The House will be aware that at approximately 8.15 on Friday night, 23 February, the 5.15 pm Virgin west coast service from London to Glasgow derailed just beyond the points at Lambrigg near Grayrigg. The train was travelling at around 95 mph. At the time, there were 111 passengers and four crew on board. One passenger, Margaret Masson, from Glasgow, sadly died shortly after the accident. Twenty-two people were taken to hospital, including the driver. Five people remain in hospital and three remain in a critical condition. Hon. Members in all parts of the House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to those who have been bereaved or seriously injured, and to friends and relatives.

I would like to praise the work of the Cumbria police, fire and rescue and ambulance services, and indeed the RAF, who worked closely together to respond with well-prepared contingency plans in very difficult circumstances. We must also thank the staff of the national health service for their care and dedication, as well as the local people who came out to help those involved at the scene of the accident.

The rail accident investigation branch arrived at the scene at 11.35 pm and immediately began an investigation to identify the causes of the accident. The RAIB investigation is running independently and in parallel with the investigations of the British Transport police and Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate. The inspectorate as safety regulator will continue to check that the network is safe and to enforce any breaches of safety legislation. The British Transport police will be investigating whether there are any breaches of criminal law. I have been in close contact over the weekend with the RAIB’s chief inspector, Carolyn Griffiths, and I shall now update the House on its interim report following the first 48 hours of its investigation. Copies of that report have been placed in the Library and are publicly available. The report states that the scope of the RAIB investigation into the accident at Grayrigg includes both the design, performance, inspection and maintenance of points at Lambrigg and the behaviour of the vehicles, including interior fittings after they derailed until they came to rest.

I will deal first with the behaviour of the vehicles, where the report states that there is no evidence available to indicate that the journey prior to the derailment had been other than normal. It goes on to state that there was substantial damage to the train. However, all carriages retained the basic structural integrity of the passenger compartment. The RAIB has yet to carry out its inspection of any of the carriage interiors.

I will now turn to where the report deals with the points. The report states that the current focus of the RAIB’s investigation relates to the condition of the Lambrigg 2B points at the site of the derailment. Indications are that these points were the immediate cause of the derailment. No evidence has been found to date that indicates that the driving of the train, the condition of the train or the signalling control system contributed to the accident.

The report then goes on to give a detailed description of the design and condition of the facing points at Lambrigg, and concludes that the immediate cause of the accident was the condition of the stretcher bar arrangement at points 2B at the Lambrigg crossover, which resulted in the loss of gauge separation at the point of switch blades. Let me read to the House what the RAIB has to say about the points:

“Investigation of the locking and stretcher bars in the facing points at Lambrigg crossover showed that one of three stretcher bars was missing, and bolts that secured the lock bar and another stretcher bar were not in place—some of these bolts and the associated nuts and washers were found in the ballast, but others were not. There is no evidence that the bolts had been wrenched free. Two of the stretcher bars were fractured; in one case the nature of the fracture surface indicates that it may have been consequential to the derailment. In the other case the fracture surface indicates that it may have pre-dated the derailment. The latter will be confirmed by further analysis”.

Having come to those initial findings, the RAIB is able to give urgent safety advice to the industry and make recommendations as appropriate. It has not taken such action at this stage of the investigation. However, on Saturday, Network Rail decided to complete an inspection of more than 900 similar points on other high-speed lines around the country.

Following the derailment, the Office of Rail Regulation, as safety regulator, has been monitoring the situation and is satisfied with the actions taken by Network Rail to ensure that the railway is safe to operate. In particular, the ORR supports Network Rail’s precautionary inspection of the 900 points across the network that are similar to the ones that form part of the investigation.

The RAIB will now continue its investigation on all aspects of the derailment and its consequences, in order to produce a final report. As it says in its interim report, it will continue to investigate the immediate and underlying reasons for the condition of the stretcher bars and the behaviour of the rolling stock in the extreme conditions of a high-speed derailment.

The RAIB final report will take some months to prepare. In light of its interim report we know how the accident happened. Now, we and the travelling public need to know why. Let me assure the House that if in the course of their investigations the investigators discover something that needs to be done to improve safety, it will be done immediately.

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I start by thanking the Secretary of State for giving me early sight of the statement.

I know that the whole House will want to join the right hon. Gentleman in his expression of condolence to the family of Margaret Masson, the lady who died in the accident on Friday. We join him in sending our best wishes to all those who were injured, including two members of Mrs. Masson’s family, and we hope that they make a speedy recovery. I would also like to associate myself and my colleagues with the tributes to the driver of the train, Iain Black, who clearly demonstrated great personal courage at the time of the accident. We hope that he makes a full recovery from his injuries.

It is at times like this that we appreciate how well served we are by our emergency services in this country. This was an extremely difficult incident to deal with in a remote location, set away from major roads, but clearly the police, fire and ambulance services, the RAF and the local NHS in Cumbria responded quickly and effectively to the accident and we have every reason to be grateful to them.

We should also be grateful to the other group that tends to do so much when major accidents take place and whose contribution can sometimes be overlooked: members of the public and local residents. Local voluntary groups swing into action. The doors of homes, pubs, schools and community centres are quickly opened to those involved in the accident. We send our thanks to the local community in Cumbria, which responded so quickly and so well. It is also a tribute to rail staff that they moved so quickly to deal with the consequences of the accident for other rail passengers and to restore services on the remainder of the west coast main line.

It is clearly a matter of serious concern that such an accident could take place on one of our most important rail routes. Moreover, it appears that there may have been an operational failure within Network Rail, and that must be addressed as a matter of urgency. I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s reassurance that any recommendations for urgent safety improvements during the RAIB investigation will be acted on promptly.

Although every fatal accident on our railways is a tragedy, it is a credit to the rail industry that statements such as today’s are so rare. Safety standards on our railways are now higher than they have ever been. Inevitably, and partly because it is now so rare, an accident such as this commands extensive media attention. Clearly, it is absolutely vital that there be a full and proper investigation of Friday’s events. We owe that to the people who have suffered as a result of what took place. Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that the worst possible outcome of the past few days would be if the accident served to undermine confidence generally in rail travel in this country? I hope that Members on both sides of the House will reinforce the message that rail remains an extremely safe way to travel, even though it is vital that the lessons from Friday’s accident be learned and acted upon.

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I am sure that the relatives of the victims of the accident on Friday evening will be very grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. I very much appreciate the measured response taken by him and by several colleagues in the House since the tragic events on Friday evening. Let me also thank him for the general tenor of his remarks, which reflects the reality that, notwithstanding the tragedy and the lessons that will need to be learned, a general message should go out from this House today that we have seen significant improvements in rail safety in recent years, and we must be cautious in our language, to ensure that we do not undermine the rightful degree of confidence that people feel in rail travel. At the same time, of course, given the tragedy that occurred on Friday evening and the inevitable public concern that has arisen as a consequence, it is important that the public realise that this investigation will be most thorough, and that, as I say, we shall take forward the recommendations of the inquiry.

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I thank the Minister for his expressions of condolence following the death of my constituent, Margaret Masson. I am heartened, as are many of my constituents, by the speed at which the investigation has progressed. Can he give me an assurance that as much information will be produced as quickly as possible in order that the family of my dead constituent and those who were injured can put this matter behind them as soon as possible in the full knowledge that everything has been revealed?

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I am of course happy to give the undertaking that, in a manner consistent with the work that has already been undertaken, whereby an interim report has been published on the Monday following the accident on the Friday evening, the inquiry will be taken forward expeditiously. That said, it is important to place on record the fact that that we must allow the investigators the opportunity to carry out a very thorough inquiry. They have made it clear that if in the course of that inquiry they uncover evidence that suggests that action needs to be taken ahead of the publication of the final report, they will have no hesitation in bringing that information to our attention, and in turn we would have no hesitation in acting in response to their recommendations.

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I, too, thank the Secretary of State for allowing me early sight of the statement and of the interim report by the rail accident investigation branch. I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of sympathy to the family of Margaret Masson and to all those who suffered serious injury in the accident. Let me also say, as did the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), that the conduct of the driver of the train seems to have been particularly courageous and professional, and that should be properly recognised. I also welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment that, should the investigation highlight any such need, all necessary action will be taken. It is important that we maintain confidence in our railways as a safe way to travel.

It is early days, but it seems apparent from the interim report that the circumstances of the accident are very similar to those at Potters Bar. The Secretary of State will be aware that the Health and Safety Executive produced an extensive and very helpful report at the conclusion of the incident. Will he confirm that all the HSE’s recommendations and conclusions produced on that occasion have been fully implemented? Will he ensure that the ongoing investigation will look into the use of emergency hammers on these trains? Will he establish whether they were used on this occasion and, if so, how they were found to perform? I have received representations that led me recently to seek a meeting with the Rail Safety and Standards Board. I have not yet had that meeting, but I believe that there could be lessons to learn.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and, indeed, for the tributes that he paid to the driver and other railway staff who were working on Friday evening. He is right to characterise this as early days. I appreciate that the focus of the investigation is the points at Lambrigg—clearly, the prior investigation into the incident at Potters Bar identified the issue of the points—but I would be cautious at this stage about drawing too direct a parallel, in the sense that we need to allow the investigators of the latest accident to take their work forward. We know that the centre of their efforts relates to the points, but it is important to understand better the circumstances explaining how the points were in this condition. On the hon. Gentleman’s more general point, we have taken forward recommendations in the light of the HSE report on Potters Bar.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final question about hammers, I would make a couple of points. First, I fully expect the investigators to look at all the relevant issues, including the ability to leave the train after the derailment. However, I would certainly point out that one of the features that many people have commented on, even in the past 48 hours, is the extent to which both the Pendolino structure and, in particular, the laminated glass on the train withstood what was inevitably a very high-impact crash. It is a great tribute to the engineering of the Pendolino that there were not multiple fatalities as a result of a very high-speed impact on Friday evening.

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No one who saw the derailment of those carriages and the engine could do anything other than marvel at the miracle that saved so many lives. That was a tribute not just to the engineers for the original design, but to the speed of response by the emergency services, as well as the courage and efficiency of the driver. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that, when the RAIB looks closely at the design of the existing carriages, it will also pass on the information to those working in the industry to ensure that it is taken up? Over and above that, can we be certain that, in the event of our being faced with something even vaguely like this happening again in some other field, the lessons of having to bring in emergency services in extremely difficult circumstances over difficult terrain will have been passed to other areas and will have been learned?

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Let me address both those points. First, I am able to offer my hon. Friend the assurance that she seeks on sharing widely with the industry the results of the RAIB’s work. On her second point about the co-operation of the emergency services on Friday evening and what lessons can be shared more widely, as one of the Ministers responsible for the Civil Contingencies Bill, I am glad to say that there is now a framework whereby such lessons can be effectively shared. I am sure that, in the normal course of events, the emergency services will want to review the action that was taken on Friday evening. Certainly, the initial indications from a number of people who have spoken to me who were present at the scene were that there was a very effective degree of co-ordination among the emergency services in, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, extremely difficult circumstances—not simply the location, but the weather and the time on Friday evening at which the crash occurred. I am sure that there will be opportunities for whatever lessons can be learned—notwithstanding the success achieved by the emergency services on Friday evening—to be distributed widely across the emergency services throughout the country.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I spent this morning at the crash site near Grayrigg in my constituency, and while I was there I spoke to residents who told me of their horror at the occurrences on Friday evening. Given that the site is accessible only across farmland, will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the wholehearted efforts of the local community were invaluable, and that their support and assistance now is worthy of the highest tribute? Does he also recognise that the whole community of Grayrigg has emerged with unsought-after but none the less heroic credit as a result of its support?

May I also join the Secretary of State in acknowledging that the local emergency services and hospitals deserve high commendation? All performed their roles with the sensitivity and effectiveness that we have come to expect in our part of Cumbria. I also wish to join him in extending my sincere sympathy to the family of Mrs. Margaret Masson, who tragically lost her life, and to all the other victims of this horrific crash. We and they will want answers as to how and why this disaster occurred. I understand that these are early days, but given that today’s interim report suggests that, as with Potters Bar, points failure seems to be the most likely cause of the accident, will the Secretary of State consider holding a public inquiry so that the full facts of this terrible tragedy can be revealed in full and in public, in order to reinforce confidence in our rail network?

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I find myself in support of the overwhelming majority of the hon. Gentleman’s points. First, on behalf not only of the Government but, I am sure, of the whole House, I would wish him to pass on directly to his constituents our gratitude and admiration for the action that they took in what he described as “unsought-after” circumstances. He is right to acknowledge that there was a degree of heroism shown by the community on Friday evening. That heroism has been matched in recent hours and days by a degree of forbearance, given, for example, the fact that to move the heavy lifting equipment to the site in order to remove the carriages, significant disturbance to the adjacent farmland will be necessary. I am sure that all hon. Members are grateful to his constituents for their forbearance and understanding in what are inevitably very difficult circumstances.

Similarly, I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the NHS staff in Cumbria. I place on record the fact that it was an operation of such significance that NHS staff from far beyond Cumbria were also involved. It brings great credit to our national health service that all those resources were deployed in such difficult circumstances.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final substantive point about a public inquiry, I do not believe that today is the day on which to make such a judgment. We have had an interim report after only 48 hours, and the right and appropriate response of the Government is to allow the investigators to take forward their work. We will draw the appropriate conclusions when that work has been concluded.

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As has just been mentioned, this is a difficult site, and it is obviously important that the repairs are carried out properly and that the investigators are able to carry out all the investigations that they need to carry out. Can my right hon. Friend give us any idea of when services might return to normal on that line? Will he also tell us what arrangements are being made in the meantime for alternative services and diversions of trains?

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I should perhaps express an interest at this point. I travelled on the west coast main line on Friday afternoon. I was actually due to take the overnight sleeper north from Euston to Glasgow on Friday evening. It is a service that I use most weeks, and it has seen significant improvements in recent years. The best indications that we have had from Network Rail and those working at the site are that it will take between 10 days and two weeks for normal services to be established once again. Services are operating, however, with a bus service running from Lancaster to Carlisle and, given the existence of the Carlisle-Settle railway, it will be possible for services to run directly from Euston to Glasgow notwithstanding the ongoing work that will be necessary at the site of the crash.

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Will the Secretary of State put this tragedy into context by informing the House how many people were killed in rail crashes last year and how many in road crashes? Assuming that the daily carnage on our roads has been repeated in the three days since this rail tragedy, will he confirm that something like 30 people will have been killed in road crashes in that time? How many road deaths does it take to get him to come to the Dispatch Box to talk about road crashes?

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It is appropriate to take a responsible and measured approach to the challenge of safety on our roads and on our railways. To the extent that the hon. Gentleman points out that a great deal more work has still to be done on road safety, of course I agree with him. On an average weekend, about 21 people are killed in road accidents. I do think, however, that it is appropriate to have made a statement to the House at the earliest opportunity, given the public concern that inevitably and understandably has arisen as a result of Friday evening’s significant derailment.

Of course, I and my colleague Ministers are available to the House on a monthly basis to answer questions on transport policy, including road safety policies. I also suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he take the opportunity to look at the road safety review that my Department is due to publish, which shows its ongoing commitment to continue to drive down the number of those who are killed and seriously injured on our roads.

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As a regular user of the west coast main line, I, too, pay tribute to the driver of the train involved in Friday’s accident, Iain Black. It is reassuring to know that drivers of his calibre are in charge of the many thousands of passengers who use our railways each day. The investigation of the accident will be vital. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that if any recommendation requires further overseeing of maintenance or work carried out on the tracks, we shall ensure that it, and every other recommendation, is met in full?

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I associate myself with the tributes paid by my hon. Friend. I want to make a couple of points. First, as I have already intimated to the House, if recommendations result from the ongoing work of the investigators ahead of the publication of the final report, of course we will have no hesitation in ensuring that they are implemented. It will be for the rail accident investigation branch to make any recommendations when it concludes its report. Of course, we will give those serious consideration and seek to implement recommendations that will improve the safety of the travelling public.

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My friend told us that Network Rail checked 900 sets of points. How often are those points routinely checked? Is that a matter of visual examination or do points suffer from metal fatigue? When were the points at Grayrigg last inspected?

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On the general regime, that is a matter of which the chief executive of Network Rail has been speaking in the last 48 hours. It has a regime that involves weekly and monthly inspection, as well as, as I recall, 13-weekly inspection. There is also now a train, which moves across the UK network, that can continually videotape the track to provide a visual record of its condition. However, given that we are only at the interim report stage and that these matters are subject to ongoing inquiries by the investigators, it would not be appropriate for me to give undertakings on behalf of Network Rail. Ultimately, it is for Network Rail to account to the rail accident investigation branch as to the particular circumstances that gave rise to these events.

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I share the sentiments of condolence expressed by my right hon. Friend. Early indications show that the rolling stock on the Pendolino train displayed a robustness never seen before on the rail network. Does he agree that that is a testament to the dedication and skill of the engineers and technicians of the west midlands, many of whom designed and produced the safety features on the Pendolino train? Given that Alstom has chosen to close the plant in the midlands, does he not think it vital that we do everything we can to retain the skills of those people in the service of the UK rail industry?

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I certainly associate myself with the tributes that have been paid to the engineers and to the workers who helped to manufacture those trains. Sir Richard Branson described the Pendolino when he visited the site of the incident as “built like a tank”. All the indications that we will all have seen on our television screens suggest that the carriages were able to withstand Friday evening’s high-impact crash with far better consequences for those on board than would have been the case with more traditional rolling stock, where the structural integrity of the carriages might well have been compromised.

My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge that Alstom manufactured those carriages in Birmingham in the west midlands. I pay tribute to the work that those people have done. As is the case not simply in Birmingham, but in Derby and elsewhere, the Government are keen to ensure that those skills continue to be available to the British rail industry, because, as we have seen in recent days, they produce a prime product.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the question of how rail is maintained leads one to support what Sir Richard Branson said in the aftermath of the incident, which is that some vertical reintegration must be reintroduced so that the train operating company has a say on the level of maintenance on that particular railway? Does my right hon. Friend also accept that there is a need to monitor the reuse of those coaches to ensure that they are fit for purpose?

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I am not convinced by my hon. Friend’s argument. First, as part of a measured response to the terrible accidents and events that occurred on Friday evening, it is right to recognise that there has been significant investment in the network in recent years and a consequential improvement in safety.

At this stage, I do not want to prejudge the ongoing investigation of the rail accident investigation branch, but I cannot say that it is obvious that rail safety on the west coast main line would be improved by breaking up the ownership of that railway into any number of different train operating companies that would have responsibility for the maintenance and safety of individual pieces of the track.

Real progress has been made in recent years, and it would be appropriate at this stage to leave it to the rail accident investigation branch to find out why we encountered those terrible circumstances on Friday evening.

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I associate myself with the tributes to Iain Black, a member of ASLEF. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating that organisation on its mature and measured responses since the accident, led by its general secretary and also its Scottish secretary, Kevin Lindsay, who is a constituent of mine? In the light of that mature approach to industrial relations, and to encourage partnership working in the railway industry, will my right hon. Friend consider allocating seats on the RAIB to the trade unions?

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It is fair to acknowledge that trade unions play an important role in the rail industry, and I am happy to confirm that at the Dispatch Box today.

On the ongoing work of the rail accident investigation branch, I should say that its remit stretches widely. If any organisation—be it ASLEF or any other trade union—or any individual has information relevant to the circumstances of the Grayrigg crash, I strongly encourage them to bring that information to the RAIB’s attention; I am sure that it would lend a willing ear to it.