I applied for the debate and was enormously pleased to secure it, because those of us who have been involved in this matter have been trying to obtain some redress and ensure that some attention is paid to the tragic case concerning the death of Simon Slade, a constituent of mine. His parents are also constituents of mine and first came to see me at a surgery in my constituency. It was a harrowing interview. I found that the parents of an obviously much-loved son had had to go through the appalling circumstances of their son’s death and the subsequent twists and turns that the officials involved in the case went through—in some cases, their actions were of a rather callous nature. I intend to lay that out for the Minister, whom I welcome to his position.
The details are simple. Simon died at approximately midnight—it is difficult to know exactly when—on 11 January 2007 after he fell between an outgoing train, which had some of his friends on board, and the platform at Gidea Park station. Since his death, Simon’s parents and I have tried to ascertain how their son was able to fall between the train and the tracks, given the guidelines on the gap between trains and tracks. In the course of our investigation, it became apparent, which horrified me, that on the night of his death there had been a catalogue of errors involving National Express, Network Rail and, subsequently, the British Transport police and the rail accident investigation branch, about which I shall enlighten hon. Members.
Early on the morning of 12 January, three officers from the British Transport police broke the news of Simon’s death to the Slade family. They began unbelievably insensitively. I wonder whether we can put ourselves in the position of the parents. The officers went to them and asked procedural questions, functional questions, without much regard to the fact that they were dealing with the death of their son. Then the officers put pressure on Simon’s brother to go with them immediately to Simon’s flat to search for a suicide note, so convinced were they that the incident had been some sort of suicide attempt. They left Mr. and Mrs. Slade in the position of having to cope with the tragic news, having told them that he had committed suicide, which they did not believe. What a shock.
When the officers returned with the other son, one of the officers compounded that crass behaviour by pretty much accusing Simon of committing antisocial behaviour on and around the railways tracks that evening prior to his death. Apparently, there had been a report of someone throwing stones at windows by the track. They had made their conclusions already and they told the parents pretty much that it was Simon’s fault; he was messing around and trespassing. It turned out that they had got their cases mixed up and someone else had been trespassing, but they had made that assumption. That is one of the reasons why no immediate investigation took place: it was to do with a trespasser and they were convinced that they knew what the circumstances were.
What a way to behave. Let us put ourselves in the position of the Slades. As if it was not enough that they had to discover that their son had died in tragic circumstances, they then had to listen to strangers, officials, speaking in quite unbelievably strong official language, telling them that their son had been committing an offence at the time of his death and that anyway he was trying to commit suicide. What a great start to their knowledge of their son’s death.
As a result of that inefficiency, Simon’s death was not investigated by the rail accident investigation branch. It was not informed because it did not appear to be necessary to inform it at the time. It is incomprehensible that when subsequently the RAIB learned the details of the accident, it still chose not to conduct an investigation. When I asked the RAIB about that, its stated reason for not conducting an investigation was that it is required to investigate only serious accidents that have an impact on railway safety regulation or management. By the way, I think that all of that is relevant in this case.
I put it to the Minister that we should not get away from the fact that a young man’s life was lost in an accident on a railway that could have been prevented, as he will discover. I am astonished that the RAIB did not see that as grounds to launch an investigation. In fact, what happened when I went to see representatives of the RAIB with the Slades would be almost funny if it were not tragic. They got in such a state about seeing the Slades that they had to be put in a separate room. They were not sure whether they could see the Slades with me or whether they should see me by myself. They were deeply uneasy about the idea of being confronted by the Slades—whose case this is. We went through an almost 1950s process of official language as excuses for not wanting to see them. In the end, I managed to resolve the situation, but it was absurd.
Clearly, the most dangerous times at a train station are, first, when a train approaches the platform and, subsequently, when it departs. However, despite that immutable fact, it appears that there are no guidelines or rules concerning commuter safety during that process for those manning the stations. They are literally not responsible any longer for that critical and dangerous period with regard to passengers.
It appears that, on the fateful night, the train dispatcher at Gidea Park, having signalled to the driver of the train that he could leave, believed that he had fulfilled his duty and was so intent on returning to his cabin as quickly as possible that he did not stop to watch the train out of the station. He went at a fairly high speed, I understand, back to the cabin and shut the door, even though, as he knew at the time, there were people still on the platform. Had he remained on the platform and seen the train go out, he would most likely have seen Simon fall, because it was while the train was moving that this set of circumstances was happening.
I understand that the dispatcher subsequently said by way of explanation—the Minister will no doubt know about this—that he was scared to be on the platform at night and wanted to get back to his cabin for his own safety. In the subsequent investigation and inquest, it turned out that his action on the night was covered, or should I say excused, by the fact that dispatchers do not have to watch trains out of the station.
Ironically, when the inquest jury and the coroner went to look at Gidea Park station to try to see how the incident had happened, the same official on the platform took particular care to watch the train in and out of the station, even telling members of the jury to stand back as the train approached and left. However, according to the rules that he is governed by, he is not meant to do that; he does not have to. The role of the dispatcher is steeped in confusion, so much so that the coroner got confused about what that role was. Dr. Elizabeth Stearns said:
“The Inquest was led to understand that train dispatchers are supposed to watch the train until it has completely left the station and thus no longer presents a hazard…It would seem to me that the training of train dispatchers should…stress the need to observe all trains until they have completely cleared the station, and that this tragic accident could be cited in the training course to emphasise how important this might be.”
That point has been made by the Slades on a number of occasions. However, in response to that and to the Slades, the RAIB expressly stated that the dispatcher is not required to do that. It does not believe that the dispatcher had any particular responsibility for the people who were on the platform that evening, regardless of the way the dispatcher subsequently behaved when the coroner arrived. I ask the Minister this question: would it be such an onerous task for a dispatcher on the platform to spend an extra 45 seconds simply observing what is going on and giving instructions, in a similar way to what we often see on the London underground? But no, that is expressly not required.
As a result, Simon lay on the track for a further 50 minutes before he was eventually found. He was still conscious at that point, although a further three trains had gone through the station, so how he was conscious is utterly beyond me. Let us try to imagine the horrific nightmare that his parents have to face—their son was lying on the track and three more trains came through before he was discovered. Had the dispatcher spent 40 or 50 seconds, or a minute between trains, to walk along the platform and have a look around, he would probably have heard the groans from Simon Slade who was lying there. If a dispatcher is concerned about his personal safety, that raises other issues for the rail company to deal with. However, what is the point of having somebody on the platform if that person has no duty of care towards the passengers—or customers as we are now rather pointlessly meant to call them?
The RAIB further stated that changing the responsibilities of train dispatchers would go beyond the duty that train operators owe to their customers. However, if something prevents injuries—or worse still fatalities—I would argue, as would anybody in their right mind, that it does fall within the obligations of the train operators. I am astonished that those companies, which owe their success and revenue to commuters, are unable to admit when they have been negligent and refuse to learn from tragic cases such as that of Simon Slade. We have hit a brick wall of refusal in almost every area.
It is clearly absurd that the training of dispatchers does not stress their duty of care towards the passengers who use that service, and I contrast that with the behaviour of London Underground, which I use a lot in the evenings. Surely, as a result of this incident, one thing that the Slade family have been fighting for should happen. At the very least, the “Station duties and train dispatch” rule book should be amended to include that duty of care requirement for all people dispatching trains.
Yes, Simon had been out celebrating, and I dare say that he had had a few drinks—that is why he chose to use the train rather than drive, which is what we are meant to do. However, one of the reasons given for not carrying out an investigation was that Simon had consumed a large amount of alcohol. That was a contrived excuse as it was pointed out that Simon’s behaviour
“was not that which one normally expects.”
I do not know which world the train companies are living in. Of course there will be people in train stations in the evenings who have perhaps been out celebrating and had some fun. Simon was by no means incapable—far from it—and his friends would testify to that. However, I am not in the game of trying to figure out how much he did or did not drink. My point is this: does the life of someone who has had some alcohol cease to be as important as someone who has not? It is an absurdity to make the excuse that because he had drunk alcohol and his actions were strange, the dispatcher did not need to be so careful. It is being used as an excuse for not carrying out a full investigation, as is the claim that he had been trespassing and that he had committed suicide. Rather than accept that they had failed in their duty of care, the officials have sought throughout to blacken Simon’s name in front of parents. That is an outrage.
On visiting Gidea Park station, Mr. and Mrs. Slade noticed that there were no signs warning of the gap between the train and the platform. When Mr. Slade queried that, he was informed that National Express was under no obligation to warn commuters of the gap since the measurements were within the guidelines. The guidelines state—I looked this up—that a gap must not exceed 350 mm. The gap at Gidea Park was 355.6 mm. But who is counting? It is a ridiculously big gap. Why was no risk assessment carried out on that at the time? It is not good enough for the company to excuse itself by saying that it is under no obligation to warn passengers. Anybody who works at or goes to Gidea Park station knows that there is a big gap. Why does the company not put signs up and tell everybody? If the dispatcher was really sharp, he could tell people over a microphone.
This is not a party political issue, it is an issue of common sense. Wherever possible, more must be done by rail operating companies to avoid fatalities and injuries being sustained by commuters. As I understand, 29 people were injured in 2008 alone, and basic changes such as increasing the number of staff on platforms, making cursory checks of the platforms and introducing better signage or a mechanism to reduce the gaps between trains and platforms should have been looked into. Even delivering an audible warning about the imminent movement of a train could prevent accidents from occurring.
I would like to commend the Evening Standard on its campaign for safer stations, which I utterly support. As a result of that, and perhaps because of some internal movement within the companies, both Silverlink and Chiltern Railways have increased the manning of their stations, which I applaud. National Express has utterly failed to do that. However, if companies increase the manning of their stations, they ought to introduce a duty of care or there will be little point.
There is no reason why the safety procedures that we see actively followed every day on London Underground cannot be duplicated to a larger extent at railway stations. When I began work for this debate I had a number of calls, one of which, sadly, was from a father who was concerned because his daughter had fallen into the gap next to the platform on 9 January 2009 at Clapham Junction station. She sustained only minor injuries as I understand that someone managed to hold her up, but how many other people risk their lives, or are unaware of the risks that they run, due to the lack of duty of care on behalf of the rail companies?
George and Jean Slade have asked for nothing more than for people to own up to where they have failed and to put the problem right. They started the organisation Mind That Gap to raise awareness of the spaces in between trains and platforms and the danger that they pose. They have not allowed the questionable treatment that they received—which was appalling at best—deter them from striving to ensure that no family has to go through the suffering that they have endured.
Having worked on this case for a considerable length of time, I must say how impressed I have been by the dignity and decency of two good people, Mr. and Mrs. Slade. They have been wronged. I will say that again—they have been wronged by the companies and officials who had a duty of care for passengers and ultimately for their son. What happened on that night should never happen again. Up to this day, the Slade family have yet to receive even an apology from any of the organisations involved in the case. It is time that those responsible owned up, stopped the backsliding and took responsibility for their failure to act.
Let me congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing this debate and, importantly, on the words that he said about this sad incident. I would like to offer my condolences to the family and friends of Simon who, as the right hon. Gentleman said, died two years ago. Like other hon. Members, as a father I can only imagine the experiences suffered and effect that such tragic consequences have had on the Slade family. I genuinely understand their desire to ensure that it does not happen to other families and individuals.
Although these words may not be of great comfort to Mr. and Mrs. Slade, travelling by rail is one of the safest forms of transport. The investigation by Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate concluded that Mr. Slade’s death was an accident, and that was confirmed by the coroner’s verdict of accidental death.
I will attempt to answer some of the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman. As a result of its thorough investigation into the circumstances of Mr. Slade’s death, HMRI concluded that there was no breach of health and safety regulations. That investigation gathered evidence from witnesses and physical evidence from the scene, including CCTV footage of Mr. Slade’s actions with his companions before the tragic accident. A separate investigation by the British Transport police and a case review by the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that there was no basis for bringing a prosecution. I realise that Mr. Slade’s family will disagree with those decisions, but two organisations involved with safety, plus the coroner’s jury, have concluded that this was an accident and that the railway companies were not at fault.
In his opening words, the right hon. Gentleman raised an issue about British Transport police and the way that this incident was initially handled directly with the family. I shall pass on those comments and follow them up to ensure that lessons are learned in the handling of tragic accidents. I shall raise that point with ministerial colleagues and the British Transport police, and find out whether lessons have been learned and steps taken to avoid such situations arising during what are very difficult times.
The accident was not initially reported to the rail accident investigation branch. It was believed that there was a trespasser and that they were one and the same. However, once it was established that that was not the case, the incident was reported to the RAIB, which has since written to the relevant parties reminding them of their duties in that regard. In April 2008, Mr. Slade’s family contacted the RAIB about the accident. Having learned that the accident did not involve trespass, the RAIB conducted a preliminary examination of the incident to determine whether it should investigate. The conclusion of that examination, which included a review of the police evidence and the report from Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate, was that an investigation by the RAIB was not appropriate as it was unlikely that it would improve the safety of railways and prevent future accidents. That conclusion would have been reached whether or not the reporting process had worked correctly.
I am aware that the actions of the train dispatcher on duty on platforms 3 and 4 at Gidea Park have been investigated, with the conclusion that he acted correctly. The dispatcher checked that passengers had finished boarding and alighting the service before giving the driver the signals to close the doors and then to move off once the doors had closed safely. It was not part of his duties, as set down in the railways rule book, to observe the train’s departure from the platform. In any case, there is no means of quickly stopping a train in such circumstances.
The Minister makes the point that it was not within the dispatcher’s duties, as set down, to observe the train’s departure, and that anyway he might not have been able to stop the train and therefore the initial accident. However, Simon Slade lay there for a further 50 minutes. Had the dispatcher witnessed the accident, he might at least have been able to prevent what followed. A further three trains went through the station, which more than certainly ensured that Simon Slade died that night. That is an important point. Those rules should be changed so that dispatchers have to stand for an extra 45 seconds or so to see the train out.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point. The Rail Safety and Standards Board considered a change to the rule book. I shall come to that in a moment.
No one saw Mr. Slade run down the platform after the train began to depart from the station, fall over and disappear down the gap. As a result, he was not found for a considerable length of time, which is deeply regrettable. The rules and regulations laid out for dispatching trains at Gidea Park and all driver-only operation trains make clear the systems, requirements and key operations in place. The train dispatcher and train driver are required to communicate with each other. The three key modes of indicating that it is safe to move away are: “train ready”, “close doors” and “right away”. The latter is communicated after the dispatcher has checked that people are not half on the train or caught in any way and that the train doors have closed. The “right away” signal gives the all clear to move when nothing further inhibits the train’s departure.
In the Slade case, the coroner wrote to the RSSB after the inquest, inviting consideration of changes to the relevant part of the rule book concerning train dispatch. The RSSB is an independent industry body whose role is to facilitate the development of, and a consensus on, standards within the rail industry. It put the request to the relevant industry standards committee of experts, which considered it and decided that no action was appropriate at this stage.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the gaps at Gidea Park and asked, “What is 5 mm? Who’s counting?” Well, the investigation was. It found that the gaps at the station all fell within the standards laid out by part 2 of the railway safety principles and guidance, to which he referred. Precise measurements are laid out to determine whether a gap is acceptable. However, gaps between trains and platforms at stations are a safety necessity in their own right. They ensure that trains, especially those passing through at speed or larger freight services, do not strike the platform or affect passengers waiting for a stopping service. Industry standards and guidance recommend what the maximum clearances between platforms and the footplates on passenger trains should be, and Network Rail applies those standards when building new platforms or making significant changes to existing ones. As Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate found, when investigating this case, the platform-train gap on platform 4 at Gidea Park fell within the accepted parameters.
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and all those who read and listen to our deliberations that the railway industry is not cavalier about such sites and the issues to which we refer—gaps and required spaces and so on. Where there is a severe problem, the operators must take action to mitigate it, such as making warning announcements for passengers or marking the platform. We must remember that the gap at Gidea Park fell well within the requirements laid out in the safety regulations, so there was no need for a passenger announcement. Anyway, an announcement about minding the gap would have been for those alighting at the station, not for those getting on. Where mitigation measures are insufficient, the industry is required to make physical improvements, as it did at Southall before Heathrow Connect services were permitted to stop at that station.
Where possible, we have taken the option to have level access. Modern trams, the Jubilee Line extension, Heathrow Express and the docklands light railway all provide level access as they serve platforms dedicated to them, as will be the case in the tunnel section of Crossrail.
Every year, more than 2.1 billion passengers enter and leave trains on the Network Rail and London Underground systems. Taking the Network Rail figures for 2007, and London Underground’s for 2006-07—to give a typical year—there were eight passenger fatalities involving moving trains and station platforms on those two networks. Six of these fatalities involved trains entering stations, and hence were not affected by the gap between train and platform. The other two accidents were the incident involving Mr. Slade and one at Haddenham on 13 February 2007, when a passenger got out of a train and then either lowered himself or fell into the space between the end of two carriages while the train was stationary. In the latter case, the coroner returned an open verdict.
I want to ask the Minister’s opinion. He has told us what the independent body said about not changing the rules, but does he think that it is common sense to have rules that prevent the dispatcher from watching a train out of the station to check that the passengers are clear of it? In is own personal opinion, would it not be common sense to change those rules?
Under guidance laid out in the rule book, dispatchers check that the train is clear to move off from the station.
In summary, I genuinely understand the concerns and depth of feeling about this case. I have made it clear already that we will take steps in relation to the British Transport police and keep under review the situation concerning railway safety—
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).