I am grateful to have secured this debate. The proposed closure of the Wareham station pedestrian level crossing was devastating news for my constituents. The situation is complex, so I shall aim to describe it for the Minister as simply as I possibly can.
Wareham is an attractive small market town in my constituency. The 2001 census figures showed that its population was around 5,600. Sandford to the east, with a population of 2,000, is strongly linked to the town, and obviously the population levels will be higher now.
The town is fortunate in being on the main London to Weymouth line, but, as a consequence, it has a barrier that could split the town in two. The closure would have a disastrous impact on the vitality of the town, the business community, social activities and the whole wider community, so I am pleased to be able to raise the issue directly with the Minister today. There are several players in the decision making that is taking place: Network Rail, the Office of Rail Regulation, Dorset county council, and, I would think, South West Trains, although I have not yet been able to track down its involvement. The people who are affected fall into two categories—my constituents and rail users—which, of course, overlap. Clearly, safety is paramount—I would not argue anything else—but I am not convinced that the full interests of my constituents and public transport users are being taken into account when looking for a solution, which is why I hope that the Minister is in a position to give an overview of the situation.
I believe that the crossing dates back to 1847, since when there has been a road and pedestrian route crossing the railway. There is a footbridge over the railway that reminds me of the old film, “The Railway Children”—it clearly is not compliant with any disability legislation.
The station has two platforms. The London train to Weymouth comes in on the station side, where there is a considerable amount of car parking, which facilitates park-and-train, and taxis are available. Currently, tickets are sold only on this side. Trains to Poole, Bournemouth, Southampton and London depart from the platform to the east. There is access to bus services to Poole and Swanage on that side, but no car parking.
An agreement dated 1 December 1978 was made between the British Railways Board and Dorset county council for the building of a road bridge over the railway. In the lease, clause 3 states that the
“closure and stopping up of the public highway”
over the railway was authorised by the Wareham Bypass Scheme (Side Roads) Order 1973, and that the board was entitled to abolish the road crossing on completion of the bridge, provided that the existing footways were retained. Therefore, the crossing that I am talking about today was retained. It was subject to a lease dated 17 November 1975, which terminated on 24 June 1980. The lease states:
“on this date the Board shall either renew the lease or negotiate with the Council the provision of alternative facilities for pedestrians”.
Clause 24 of the lease states:
“the Council shall in the future provide a pedestrian footbridge over the railway but the date on which the footbridge is provided shall be entirely at the discretion of the Council in agreement with the Board”.
That raises an interesting point: does the council have a legal obligation to provide a decent footbridge close to the existing pedestrian crossing?
A further agreement between the board and the council was made on 25 March 1988 which, in effect, permitted the use of the original crossing for 25 years. There is a pedestrian sign by the crossing pointing to the town centre half a mile away.
The lease goes on to state that the council shall have an option to enter into a new agreement for a further period of 25 years, with such option to be exercised within three months of the expiry of the agreement. Terms and conditions were to be agreed between the board and the council. A further passage states that any dispute between the board and the council about the agreement shall be referred to and determined by an arbitrator. Given the way things are going, I am beginning to feel that an arbitrator of some description might be needed.
The lease specifically states:
“the Board will permit the general public on foot with perambulators and cycles as may be necessary at all times of day or night to use the new crossing”.
The only exceptions refer to the passage of trains and for engineering works. Many residents are saying that there must surely be an established right of way over the railway. However, does a permissive use by agreement create a public right of way? I understand that the consent of the Secretary of State is required, in accordance with section 41 of the Road and Rail Traffic Act 1933. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that point for my constituents.
May I advise the hon. Lady that there was a communication with the Dorset county council chief executive this year, which outlined that the 25-year legal agreement to which she refers with British Railways, as it then was, also led to the extinguishing of all public rights over the crossing in 1980?
I thank the Minister for that, because it provides clarity in the ongoing debate among residents.
Clause 11 of the lease is particularly relevant to the current situation. It states:
“if at any time the Board are required as a result of any change in the law or any direction or requirement of the Railway Inspectorate of the Department of Transport to alter or modify the controls or any part of the new crossing the Council shall pay the Board such charges incurred by the Board in complying with such changes in the law direction or requirement”.
The county council is thus potentially facing a big bill, and perhaps that is why we find ourselves in this crisis situation today. There has been no clear planning by the council over the past few years, during which time the problems have been identified.
The Wareham road bridge was built over the railway in the 1980s, and a decision was taken not to provide a footway because the former level crossing was available for pedestrians. It gave an easier route to town and was segregated from the main road. It is easy to be clever with hindsight, but it seems absolutely incredible, looking back, that part of the main road network made no provision whatsoever for cyclists.
Problems seem to have surfaced around 2004, and from 2006 there has been pressure to take action to resolve the matter. There have been three campaigns at the crossing, where leaflets were handed out, and there has been press coverage.
Network Rail tells me that, over the years, it has worked with the council to try to address safety issues. It has undertaken work looking at alternatives to the crossing, including options such as an underpass, lifts and ramped bridges, and it has offered to undertake the work to implement a solution. However, it has told me that, thus far,
“we have been unable to agree a solution with Dorset County Council”.
I feel that it is because a big bill is looming that hard negotiations are taking place.
Network Rail has also independently installed a CCTV camera at the crossing, and there are voice announcements as well as a red light that warns users to stand clear of the crossing when it is in use. Misuse at the crossing received national media coverage after Network Rail released CCTV footage showing a young mother with her baby running across the crossing and ignoring the red light. Network Rail says that there have been 25 incidents at the crossing in the past 12 months when the driver has had to apply brakes, and that there are more than 80 recorded misuses at the crossing over the past four years. It says that that is more than three times the number of incidents at any other crossing in the south-west area and that it represents one of the worst records in the country. I do not believe that my constituents are particularly disregarding of regulations and laws, so this is a strange situation.
The matter has been brought to a head by the Office of Rail Regulation, with the threat of what is known as an improvement notice being issued to both the council and Network Rail. It requires steps to be taken to remove risk at a crossing that is considered to be dangerous, as we have heard. The latest news is that the crossing could be closed at the beginning of December.
Local residents need a presentation from Network Rail to be convinced of the level of abuse. Network Rail has been invited to a public meeting tomorrow night and I can only hope that it turns up, because it really will help to facilitate the discussion. Just imagine how the vast majority are feeling at the prospect of this important route to and from the town being closed. Why should they be punished for the actions of a few? What exactly constitutes a near miss? Network Rail has a duty to my constituents, so I really look forward to its presence at that meeting.
Right now, very short term, short term and long-term decisions have to be made. In the very short term, since 16 September, the crossing has been policed up to 7.30 pm at the latest—so not for 24 hours. I have tried to get figures of any misuse witnessed, but unfortunately there does not appear to be a comprehensive report. The initial cost of policing was £1,400 per week, but there has been a shift to a slightly cheaper private security firm. Originally, the county council used this mechanism to buy time to get alternative measures in place and proposed a follow-up short-term solution to provide transport for all those who are mobility impaired and cannot use the adjacent footbridge. Cyclists would presumably be required to use the road footbridge, which does not even have a footway between the road and crash barriers.
My constituents were singularly unconvinced that a bus service to take prams, mobility scooters and people who had a proved disability to the other side of the railway line would be practical. They were right; already there is a change of plan for the very short term. The reason for this change of mind is that the detailed work to identify a public transport solution is proving unlikely to provide a sufficiently robust solution for the public. Also, the cost would be more than £100,000 per year, compared with £65,000 for the security presence.
I hear that the debate has moved on and that just policing is not acceptable to Network Rail. I am particularly concerned about whether any alternative will clearly be compatible with disability discrimination legislation, because there is a real issue that there should be access at all reasonable times over the railway line for disabled people.
The idea was that these short-term arrangements would last until Dorset county council secured funding for its long-term preferred solution of building a footpath-cycleway alongside the A351 Wareham bypass. My constituents’ first preference is for electronically locked gates, but that is being dismissed on cost grounds over time from the county council and on safety grounds, I think, from Network Rail. I want to be assured that a full risk assessment has been undertaken. There is a busy vehicular and pedestrian crossing at Wool, which is electronically controlled, and an incredibly busy pedestrian crossing in Poole High Street, which is also electronically controlled. There is always the chance of somebody scaling the gates or rushing through, but surely there must be greater risks at those two points. I am looking for a proportionate response.
There is a lease issue, because Network Rail has to renew it in 2013. The original lease says that Dorset county council has the option to extend, but I understand that there would be a monitoring issue in respect of electronic gates when signal boxes change in 2012. Dorset county council tells me that Network Rail proposes charging it £100,000 per year for monitoring. However, there are only two trains an hour, so perhaps there is some bargaining to be done.
My constituents need to know in some detail why electronic gates are not being considered. The ORR letter to the chief executive of Dorset county council dated 1 September states that safety could be improved by the provision of supervised locking barriers or gates linked to the signalling system, although there was a preference for a bridge. It appears that the revenue cost of the additional supervision is the main obstacle to this proposal, which would have the full support of local residents.
Clearly, the type of gates used at Elsenham, where there was a double fatality in 2005, is not suitable. I suggest that we need a gate that is mechanically locked so that it cannot be forced open, with a safe refuge on the rail side for those who are crossing at the time the gates are locked. An additional gate could be provided immediately adjacent to the track that could be opened only to exit to a safe waiting area. I am sure that the monitoring arrangements could be discussed further. Surely it is possible to find a safe solution if there is a will to meet what constituents want.
If my constituents were convinced that locking gates were not a safe option, there would be other options to consider: a disability-compliant bridge at the station, and the county council’s proposal to put in a pavement and a cycleway alongside the road crossing. Residents need to be consulted, but Dorset county council is just saying that the latter is the best option. The fact that only in the 1980s was a road crossing constructed without pedestrian or cycling facilities shows how important it is to get the decision right. I have been informed that Network Rail offered to procure a new modular footbridge at Wareham for Dorset county council, but that was turned down. I am calling for openness, consultation and respect for my constituents’ views. My constituents are certainly not responsible for the lack of preparation by Dorset county council before this crisis came upon everybody.
I have outlined some big issues today that involve compliance with disability discrimination legislation for elderly and disabled pedestrians and users of mobility scooters, and provision for mums with pushchairs, for people accessing and leaving the town centre, and for rail users. The existing footbridge is a nightmare. When I had a bad injury two years ago, I could not have used the bridge. I still cannot manage it with a suitcase. People with heart and lung conditions cannot cope with the bridge. People coming in from London have to cross the railway to catch a bus to Swanage. This will deter people who are not young and mobile from using public transport. The heavy pedestrian use of the crossing now reflects the fact that people are walking into town, which is great, so where are the other policy objectives to be considered: walking, cycling and public transport?
The longer route proposed by Dorset county council will mean that older people, and many others, will just get into their cars to go into town, perhaps going to Poole rather than Wareham. The county council route has the advantage of contributing to the strategic cycle network, but that is not my constituents’ concern. The proposal by DCC will probably add an extra 300 metres on to the walk into the town centre. It is estimated that the county council’s proposed solution will cost £2 million, although no money for that is currently allocated to any budget, and it is anticipated that it will take at least 30 months to construct. Forward planning and consultation does not seem to have been the name of the game.
Wareham is a vibrant town with many restaurants, pubs and individual shops. Recently Sainsbury’s joined the Co-op in the town centre which is, of course, suffering from the recession. My constituents from the far side of the railway bridge walk and cycle into town now for many activities. A recent survey showed that more than 1,200 people used the crossing on just one day. My constituents’ quality of life must be a consideration. I should like to ask the Minister whether, if this dispute carries on, there is any way in which he could intervene.
Finally, I should like to read some comments of a resident who does not use a car:
“I have lived here for 23 years…and have therefore used the crossing a few thousand times…I will point out some of the consequences of closing the crossing. Without level passage across the railway it will be either impossible for many to cross or far more dangerous than the status quo. I am 76 and visually impaired, go at least once a week from Northmoor into Wareham, riding gently or pushing as safety demands, mainly to fill the pannier-bags with food-shopping. I could neither heave the bicycle up the steps of the footbridge nor easily and safely lower it on the other side. The alternative would be either to ride or push it round by the main road, exactly the kind of route I do not now use on SAFETY grounds. Other elderly people have powered buggies, for which these alternatives are equally (or more) impractical.
Then ‘early-birds’ tell me that school-children using the route include many on bicycles, more able physically to cope with the bridge but chattering groups are likely to trigger falls on the descent, potentially serious. As for the thought of Northmoor kids weaving their way through rush-hour traffic on the A351, even the most bone-headed official should manage to see that it will end in tragedy and ‘this must never happen again’. Yet do we want all these children to be conveyed in cars or buses, rather than get healthy exercise between home and school?
Finally, there are all the good people who are neither children nor pensioners, but just as deserving of a safe, direct and convenient route between the two parts of Wareham, on foot or bicycle, in buggy or with pushchair. We are all human beings with needs, and a huge majority of us use the present crossing responsibly.”
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for securing this debate on the pedestrian level crossing at Wareham, Dorset. She asked me for an overview, and she has provided a good one. I will try to address as many of the issues as possible in the time that she has left me.
This is an issue on which my Department has received significant correspondence from local residents recently, so I welcome this opportunity to update the hon. Lady on behalf of her constituents, particularly as I understand that a town meeting is being held in Wareham tomorrow to discuss the issue. The matter has arisen as a result of recent activity to consider the future of Wareham level crossing following increasing safety concerns.
The Government treat railway safety seriously, and an important aspect is safety at level crossings. Railways are one of the safest forms of transport and continue to improve. Changes to rail safety within the past 10 years —for example, the introduction of train protection systems, new rolling stock and better management of the infrastructure—have resulted in the UK having a rail safety record comparable to other western European countries. Previous primary rail safety risks, such as signals passed at danger, have fallen significantly owing to such mitigation measures to the point that, according to figures compiled by the Rail Safety and Standards Board, level crossings now represent the largest category of catastrophic risk to train passengers. Fourteen motorists and pedestrians died at level crossings last year, and I am sure that we are all aware of the tragic triple fatality at Halkirk level crossing only last month.
The day-to-day running of the railways and their safety is a matter for rail operators and the Office of Rail Regulation, as the independent rail safety regulator. My Department shares their concern about the risks at level crossings, but are mindful, as the hon. Lady outlined, of the impact that their closure may have on local communities. The conflicting needs for safety and access at level crossings are one reason why my Department, in partnership with the ORR, asked the Law Commission to undertake a wide-ranging review of level crossing issues. The review is under way, and my officials have forwarded details of the case at Wareham to the Law Commission as an example of the conflicting pressures that occur in practice at level crossings.
Analysis of incidents shows that 96 per cent. of the risk at level crossings is due to accidental or deliberate misuse by pedestrians and road users. Considerable time and money is being spent by the rail industry to understand why that is so, and to improve facilities, equipment and education—for example, Network Rail’s “Don’t Run the Risk” advertising campaign to raise safety awareness. I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that the incident to which she referred is one of the examples in the campaign’s material.
The crossing at Wareham has red and green warning lights to show when it is safe to cross. In addition, Network Rail has put in place measures such as audible warning messages and CCTV. The latter captured the image that has had much coverage in the media of a young woman with a pushchair using the crossing when it was clearly not safe to do so. However, despite those efforts, problems and incidents persist, including regular near misses at Wareham. I understand that 25 incidents have occurred at the crossing when the train driver has had to apply the brakes, and more than 80 misuses at the crossing have been recorded over the past four years. That is more than three times the number of incidents at any other crossing in the south-west and is one of the worst records in the country.
I understand that British Transport police have agreed to maintain a temporary presence at the site, for which I am grateful, but clearly that is not sustainable. Against the background of persistent abuse, both Network Rail and the ORR have raised concerns regarding the ongoing safety of users of the Wareham pedestrian level crossing, highlighted by risk modelling, which suggests that the risk of a fatality is very high. It is clearly imperative that action is taken to improve safety at Wareham. No one wants a tragic accident, such as that in a similar situation at Elsenham in 2005.
In dispensing its legal duties as the independent rail safety regulator, the ORR is considering formal enforcement action in the form of improvement notices requiring better protection and safety at the crossing. For historic reasons at Wareham, those improvement notices will be directed at both Dorset county council and Network Rail. The ORR believes that improved safety at the crossing could take a number of forms, including the provision of suitable barriers or gates, but it believes that the provision of ramps to the existing footbridge and closure of the crossing would represent the most effective risk control and efficient use of public funds over the long term. The decision on which option to pursue is ultimately for Dorset county council in conjunction with Network Rail.
I am told that Dorset county council has sought advice from Network Rail on the cost and feasibility of installing barriers at the site, but that future signalling changes in the area complicate monitoring by staff, and discussions are ongoing on that point. I can only encourage Network Rail to examine fully the option of barriers. I understand that ORR would be willing to consider supervised magnetic gate locks, as fitted at Elsenham, but would have reservations about automatic locking of gates with an emergency release, which could be subject to abuse and might lack a means of checking that they close and lock for each train.
Dorset county council has also been investigating both short and long-term opportunities to secure safety and accessibility at the crossing. I understand that possible closure of the crossing has indeed been proposed for early December and that Dorset county council considered that on the basis of alternative robust accessible arrangements being in place. It investigated a public transport solution in the event of closure—putting on buses to connect the crossing to the town—but now believes that that is not a feasible alternative. Any infrastructure solutions that meet all requirements, such as accessible foot and cycle routes, are by their very nature a longer-term option. Network Rail is considering plans to make it easier for cyclists to use the adjacent footbridge.
I understand that the council is continuing to discuss options with Network Rail, including whether temporary measures such as an official presence at the crossing would help to tackle the safety risk in the interim, while longer-term, more permanent solutions are investigated. Any decisions arising from those discussions will have to satisfy the safety requirements of the ORR.
Apart from the obvious safety issues, I understand that the railway divides large residential areas from Wareham town centre and that the crossing is a key link between them. Although alternative pedestrian access is provided, I am advised that it is unsuitable for older people, people with restricted mobility, wheelchairs and scooters, people with small children, those with heavy baggage and cyclists, as the hon. Lady said.
Representations made to me by local residents have suggested that closure of the crossing without adequate provision for those groups would effectively divide the town and isolate communities—something that we would be keen to avoid. I am confident that the safety issues at the Wareham crossing are being handled appropriately by the ORR. When making the final decision, Dorset county council and Network Rail must consider, as well as safety, the impact of any closure on local communities, including accessibility requirements of the groups to which I referred. When considering that, I am sure that the council will be mindful of its obligations under equality legislation.
Safety concerns are of great importance, but the severance of communities and reducing accessibility to key transport routes are no less so. On that basis, I encourage Dorset county council, in conjunction with Network Rail, to ensure that all appropriate options, in both the short and longer term, are considered for the future of the crossing and that the safety, accessibility and community needs of Wareham are appropriately provided for. I hope that tomorrow’s town meeting, to which I understand key stakeholders have been invited—I hope that they will attend—successfully contributes to the ongoing debate on the future of the Wareham crossing.