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Rail Accidents (Grayrigg and Potters Bar)

Volume 494: debated on Friday 19 June 2009

My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Lord Adonis, has made the following ministerial statement:

Further to the written statements by the then Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) on 23 October 2008, Official Report, column 19WS and 19 November 2008, Official Report, column 24WS, I would like to inform the House that following careful consideration, including those representations made by affected parties, I have decided that the public interest is best served by the continuation of the two inquests that have begun into the deaths resulting from the rail accidents at Potters Bar and at Grayrigg. I have therefore decided not to convene a public inquiry into the accidents, either individually or jointly.

I regret the length of time taken to reach this point, and the anxiety that this may have caused to those who have lost loved ones. However, the chronology of events and the issues are complex and I considered it important to ensure that my decision regarding the next steps is the right one.

Having considered the material before me, I am satisfied that separate inquests will allow for appropriate further independent investigations of the accidents, with the bereaved and injured able to participate and express their views and concerns in a transparent forum open to public scrutiny. Although the conduct of the inquests is a matter for the coroners, the inquests will be capable of examining the relevant issues raised by the accidents, including those that are common to both.

Safety on the rail network is a paramount consideration. In relation to the Grayrigg accident, I am satisfied that the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) has carried out a thorough investigation into the accident as part of the new rail safety and accident investigation regime, which included consideration of relevant issues arising from earlier accidents including Potters Bar. In particular, I note that the RAIB consulted with key stakeholders, including the bereaved, prior to the publication of its final report, during which process no further lines of work or testing by RAIB were identified. There will be a further independent examination of the accident during an inquest, which I am satisfied is capable of addressing any relevant questions that remain unanswered. I shall make funds available to the Coroner for South and East Cumbria, to assist him in carrying out a full investigation, if these are requested.

With regard to the Potters Bar accident, it has already been established that there will be an enhanced inquest into that accident, and funding has previously been agreed to enable the Hertfordshire coroner to appoint an assistant deputy for this purpose. A High Court judge, Mr. Justice Sullivan, had been appointed accordingly; but he has since been made a Lord Justice of Appeal. We are working with the Lord Chief Justice to identify an appropriate judge to act as an assistant coroner in the Potters Bar inquest and I understand that he hopes to make a decision shortly. This inquest, which was adjourned following the Grayrigg accident, will provide an opportunity for a further independent examination of the Potters Bar accident, with the bereaved and injured able to participate in a forum that is open and transparent. I consider that, in the light of the court’s comments during the earlier judicial review proceedings, the proposed full inquest into the Potters Bar accident should be capable of addressing any relevant unanswered questions.

The travelling public will want to be assured that the rail network is safe; I have an identical interest. I note that, in October 2008, the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), the independent rail safety regulator, assured the then Secretary of State that no further immediate actions to ensure the safety of passengers and staff were necessary as a result of RAIB’s final report into Grayrigg, beyond those that had already been taken.

Moreover, in the light of the significant changes and improvements to the railway safety regime during the period between the Potters Bar and Grayrigg accidents, I believe it is in the public interest that the new structures are allowed to operate as intended. I note that actions have already been taken by RAIB and ORR following the Grayrigg accident to secure the ongoing safety of the railway. Since I am satisfied that effective investigation and action have already taken place, I see no good reason to take steps which may call the new structures into question prematurely or which might be seen as questioning the independence, value and outcome of the RAIB investigation into Grayrigg before the ORR, the rail industry and others have had a sufficient opportunity to act upon all of its recommendations.

As stated in the written statement to Parliament by the then Secretary of State on 23 October 2008, the Government consider it essential to ensure that the way forward selected is one that will deliver closure to those who were affected, as soon as possible. I do not consider that any significant advantage in timing would be achieved by setting up a public inquiry, such as to outweigh other considerations in favour of proceeding with two inquests, as has been suggested by some of those who made representations to me. The timetable for further investigations into these accidents is a matter for the coroners, who may wish to discuss the timing of the inquests given that there may be some overlap between the interested persons involved. However, even if the separate inquests are held sequentially, I anticipate that the two inquests are capable of being completed to a similar timescale as would apply to a public inquiry. In these circumstances, I consider that the way forward selected is consistent with my objective of helping to deliver closure to those affected with minimal delay.

I am grateful for the comments and observations received from interested parties, which have served to inform me in reaching a decision.

The full text of my decision has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. Copies are also available from the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office.