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Passenger Safety (Railway Platforms)

Volume 507: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2010

I am enormously pleased to have been here for the last bit of the previous debate, because mine is one of the boroughs concerned. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on having secured the debate and I was keen to hear the Minister’s response. I hope that the Minister will let us have all the pages of her response that she was not able to get to, because I would love to see them.

I am also enormously pleased to be here to raise yet again the tragic death of my constituent Simon Slade. I say that because it is not often that we have an opportunity to raise such an issue again. The issue was brought forward by his parents, Jean and George Slade, who have been trying for some time to obtain some form of redress. The Minister who will respond to the debate is not the same Minister who responded before, so let me say from the outset that there should be no doubt about the fact that they are not seeking a financial settlement for themselves. Through their good efforts, they are seeking a way to ensure that such a tragedy is not, or at least has far less chance of being, visited on anybody else.

The Minister will have had the opportunity to read the previous debate and he will be wondering what points we may be trying to raise this time around. However, it is worth looking at his predecessor’s response, because Simon’s parents have been stalled far too often since the previous debate in their discussions and in their attempts to change the rules for train dispatch and risk assessments. It is important that we bear that in mind.

Let me quickly remind hon. Members why I am here. Simon died just before midnight on 11 January 2007, after he fell between the platform at Gidea Park station and the outgoing train. Worse, he was then left on the tracks for a further 50 minutes, during which time a further three—I stress three—trains came through before he was eventually found.

It was made clear during the coroner’s inquiry that, on the night that Simon died, the train dispatcher at Gidea Park, having signalled to the driver of the train that he could leave, was so intent on returning to his cabin as quickly as possible that he did not stop to take cognisance of what was happening to passengers on and around the station platform. No matter what anybody says, it is clear from all the evidence—common sense dictates this—that had he stayed even a little longer and watched the train leave, he would most likely have seen Simon fall.

In the subsequent investigation and inquest, the train dispatcher’s actions were excused by the fact—this is the most ludicrous part of all—that dispatchers are not obliged to watch trains leave the station. I must say that that was news to me when I came to this case, because I thought that common sense dictated that they were. My experience with good dispatchers made me believe that all dispatchers do that, but they do not, and nor are they required to do so. It is ironic that when the inquest jury and the coroner went to look at Gidea Park station, the same train dispatcher took special care to watch the train arrive and leave the station, even telling members of the jury to stand back as the train approached and left.

Since Simon’s death, his parents have tried in a remarkable way to uncover how the accident came to happen in the light of health and safety rail standards. Above all, they have campaigned in a remarkable way for a change in the rules governing the activities of train dispatchers and for regular risk assessments to prevent such accidents from happening again. To that end, the coroner in the original case agreed with them when he recommended in 2008 that the rule book should be changed to reflect such concerns and failures. In a letter to the Rail Safety and Standards Board, he stated fairly clearly:

“It would seem to me that the training of train dispatchers should still 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.”

However, in a rather complacent response, the rail accident investigation branch stated—this is really just a statement of the facts—that the train dispatcher is not required to watch trains leave the station. The RAIB does not believe that the dispatcher had any particular responsibility for the people on the platform that evening, despite the fact that the dispatcher subsequently behaved with great care, as I said, when the coroner and inquest jury were on the platform. Clearly, the dispatcher had some sense that they needed to behave in a particular way, even if it was not at the time of the dreadful accident.

I remind hon. Members that as a result of the train dispatcher’s not being required to watch the train leave the station, Simon lay on the track for a further 50 minutes and a further three trains went through the station before he was eventually found. Had the dispatcher spent even an extra minute in between trains walking along, or revisiting, the platform, he would most likely have heard Simon groaning, sadly, from the tracks. It is impossible to know for sure, but, who knows, Simon may well have been saved.

The rule book should therefore be changed so that train dispatchers are required to watch the train leave the station. The coroner agreed and said that the RSSB should

“give consideration to amending the Rule Book Issue 1: Station Duties and Train Dispatch to give additional force to this duty of observing the train throughout its passage through the station.”

However, in a subsequent letter to the Slades, the RAIB, having started by blaming their son, which is pretty ridiculous, stated:

“Bearing in mind that in all the above cases, the behaviour of your son was not that which one normally expects, changing the duties of dispatchers or making substantial changes to platform designs, which would involve major costs, is most unlikely to meet the test of reasonable practicability and would go beyond the duty that train operators owe to their customers.”

I am not quite sure what the RAIB means when it suggests that Simon’s behaviour

“was not that which one normally expects”.

As I have said before, we encourage people who have had an evening out not to drive, but to use public transport. What exactly is the behaviour that one would expect? Simon was running along the platform at one stage, and that is not what one would expect. I have seen plenty of people run along platforms, and they should be told not to. None the less, they do, so the idea that passengers adhere to a set code of behaviour at all times is ludicrous. That is the whole reason why we need somebody on the platform to make sure that people understand the nature of the danger.

It is not true that placing a requirement on train dispatchers to watch the train leave the station

“would go beyond the duty that train operators owe to their customers.”

In practice—this is the point—train dispatchers often watch trains leave at other stations that I have been to. The problem is that the behaviour of train dispatchers is inconsistent; some take great care of their passengers, while others do not. In the absence of enforceable rules, passengers enter a safety lottery at railway stations. There is no way that they can be held to account for any one type of behaviour.

As I am sure the Minister will know, my constituent George Slade is in discussions with the RSSB to put together a proposal of change to the traffic operations management committee. Despite this ridiculous mess, however, the RSSB proposes even now not to change the rule book, but to add a statement of best practice, which would fall well short of what my constituent and I believe is required and leave us pretty much where we are now. I put it to the Minister that it should not fall to Mr. Slade to negotiate a change to the rule book with the RSSB; that should really be the remit of the RAIB, which failed to investigate the case in the first place and which behaved rather shoddily, as was, I think, admitted across the board.

When the debate was announced, Mr. Slade had a call from Mr. Anson Jack, the chairman of the RSSB. The Department for Transport had, quite legitimately, asked the RSSB to put together a document covering its discussions with Mr. Slade, and I am sure that that document is now in the Minister’s hands. I understand that the RSSB has advised the Minister that Mr. Slade is content with the way things are progressing. If so, I must tell him in no uncertain terms that that is not the case, as was made clear to Mr. Anson Jack at the time of his call. Mr. Slade remains concerned that the RSSB proposes only to add a statement of best practice, rather than to change the rules on train dispatchers. That is where the dispute arises, and I must say that common sense would fall on the side of the Slades. Furthermore, Mr. Slade is not convinced that the Office of Rail Regulation will enforce the statement of best practice, because—and here is where things fall down—it has said that the rule book is not legislation but an industry standard. We are back to square one.

In the last debate that I had on the matter, the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), made the point that Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate had concluded that there was no breach of health and safety regulations. Yet any cursory look at the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 would find that it states:

“It shall be the duty of every employee while at work

(a) to take reasonable care for the health and safety of himself and of other persons who may be affected by his acts or omissions at work”.

I do not believe that the train dispatcher, in hurrying back to his cabin, can in any way be described as having taken reasonable care. He made an omission, and there was a tragic consequence. My concern is about how future dispatchers will interpret “reasonable care” in the absence of clear rules. That is the point: what happens is chaotic, in a sense, because when I travel by train or tube I see completely different sets of standards at different stations.

That is made more of a certainty by the fact that there is still no risk assessment carried out on the danger created by the gap between the train and the platform. There is only one question in the train dispatch risk assessment that refers to that gap. The risk assessment asks

“are stepping distances suspected to be excessive?”

That is all. The answer is no in the case of platform 4, Gidea Park station. Yet the gap is big enough, as was demonstrated, for someone to fall between the train and the platform. Clearly, most normal members of the public would answer that question yes: of course there is a problem with that stepping distance. If the gap was big enough for Simon to fall into, it must, in my book, be excessive. I have tested that view out on other members of the public, and their view is much the same. Common sense, to them, dictates that response, and not some peculiar set of guidelines that seems to be in the heads of the authorities, which leads those concerned to believe something other than common sense.

The simple device of a risk assessment that was, in reality, clear, would have an added advantage. It would help dispatchers immediately to recognise the dangerous state of their stations and to behave with greater care. Some stations are more dangerous than others, and they would make that judgment and be more likely to make a point of attending to what happened on the platform at the time of arrival or departure of a train. There are risk assessments on platforms, lines and train dispatch, so why is there not a risk assessment on the gap between trains and platforms? Given that 80 per cent. of passenger accident risk occurs on the platform, according to the figures of the Rail Safety and Standards Board, why is no risk assessment carried out on the danger created by the gap between the platform and the train? In the specific case of Gidea Park, given the size of the gap, why were there no warnings and why is there no signage about the size of the gap? Why does the dispatcher not warn people over a microphone? That does happen—but not at that station. It happens elsewhere.

The RSSB’s rule book, issue 2, “Station Duties and Train Dispatch”, states that

“whenever possible, passengers must be told to stand well back from the platform edge when a nonstopping train is approaching the platform”

and

“when a train with slam doors is arriving”

and that

“whenever possible, passengers must be told to stand behind the platform warning line if there is one”.

Given that there is a platform warning line on platform 4 at Gidea Park station—it is a bit faded, but it is there—why are not passengers told to stand behind it? If passengers are to be warned about non-stopping trains and trains with slam doors, why cannot they be warned about all trains? It is utterly illogical.

The RAIB, in a letter to the Slades, stated:

“we do not believe that the provision of additional signing of gaps between platforms and trains, or announcements warning of gaps, would have prevented your son’s accident.”

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? I find that statement almost completely incomprehensible.

In the previous debate on this matter, the Minister’s colleague made the point—I am not quite sure why—that more than 2.1 billion passengers enter and leave trains on the Network Rail and London Underground systems, and that in 2007 there were eight passenger fatalities involving moving trains and station platforms on those two networks. I mention it only because the Minister may be tempted to say that again. I am not quite sure what point the Minister was then making. We know that railways are safer than the roads. That is the fact and that is why people travel on them. The point is that if we are seeking to excuse even those eight deaths on the basis that somehow one death is acceptable, I do not agree that it is. This debate is not a challenge on safety across the board. It is about recognising that there is a clear issue and a problem, which could lead and has led to other issues and problems resulting in the death of someone who need not have died, and may lead to other deaths in the future. That is the point that the Slades are making.

One final point I want to make is about the difference in the level of passenger care between Network Rail and London Underground, which was made clear to me only this morning as I was coming in by tube. Train dispatchers on London Underground, as I witnessed, seem to take great care to watch the trains arrive and leave the station, telling passengers to stand back as the train approaches and leaves. I am sure that other hon. Members have had the same experience, and I feel good about that happening. It seems reasonable and logical. Furthermore, there are both audible and written announcements on London Underground, reminding passengers to “Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.” Why are there not more announcements like that on Network Rail? Why is it left to a sort of lottery?

Given that London Underground and Network Rail are regulated for safety purposes by the same body, the Office of Rail Regulation, and that the ORR’s “Railway Safety Principles and Guidance” does not say anything substantive about such announcements, it would seem that the greater care taken of passengers on London Underground happens regardless of any rules or guidance. London Underground has decided that it is common sense to take those actions, and that is my point. If it does so because it is common sense, why is it not necessarily common sense to do it elsewhere? What is the point of the ORR if it does not apply a consistent framework of rules to both its networks and if it lets things lie as they do, with such inconsistency? Mr. and Mrs. Slade are simply asking for those organisations involved in this case to accept some responsibility, because of the failure to adopt a clear set of rules and assessments, for the death of their son. They do not want to find a way of suing, or taking the matter further. They simply want at least some clear understanding. They also want—and this is the critical part—those organisations, in recognising that they have some responsibility, to make an effort to change things for the future and amend the rules so that such a tragedy does not happen again.

I have spoken much today of common sense, because I think that that is what has gone missing in this case. Too often, in the discussions that the Slades have had with various departments, the idea of common sense has been met by those on the other side by what I can loosely describe in the words used many years ago by, I think, Dr. Johnson, as a “confederacy of dunces”, and an absolute refusal to recognise that common sense should change the rules. Instead, the rules dictate how we should define common sense. The organisations concerned should learn the lesson from this tragic accident and take action now to prevent another like it from happening. They should not prevaricate or try to find ways to hide behind a set of ludicrous and almost non-existent rules.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) for obtaining the debate. Rail safety is an important issue for the Government, and the railways are one of the safest forms of transport, with safety continuing to improve.

Recent improvements in the industry include the introduction of new train protection systems, new rolling stock and better management of the infrastructure. The independent rail safety regulator, the Office of Rail Regulation, has acknowledged a steady improvement in railway safety standards, and the UK’s record is comparable to that of other western European countries. To build further on this strong safety record, the high level output specification for rail calls for a 3 per cent. reduction in the risk of death or injury to passengers and staff by the end of 2014.

I realise that those overall improvements may come as little comfort in the unfortunate but thankfully rare circumstances in which fatalities and injuries occur. Just over a year ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark) debated the tragic events that resulted in the death of Simon Slade when he fell between platform and train at Gidea Park station. The circumstances surrounding Simon’s death were deeply regrettable, and were compounded by the fact that he was not found for a considerable length of time after the original accident. However, all the organisations that examined or investigated the incident found it to be an unfortunate accident, with no fault on the part of the railways.

The investigation by Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate concluded that Mr Slade’s death was an accident. That was confirmed in the coroner’s verdict of accidental death. Separately, an investigation by British Transport police and a case review by the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that there was no basis for bringing a prosecution. The rail accident investigation branch conducted a preliminary examination of the incident, which included a review of the police evidence and the HMRI report to determine if it should investigate the case. It concluded that an investigation was unlikely to improve the safety of railways and prevent future accidents.

I am sorry to delay the Minister, but I wish to make it clear that the original investigation was ludicrously delayed because the inspectorate did not follow up the accident immediately; it assumed that Simon was one of those supposedly causing trouble on the tracks further down the line. The whole issue was therefore left, and as a result the Slades were told in a terrible way about the death of their son. For the record, it was a failure on the part of the inspectorate, and although it has come to a conclusion, it was utterly complacent at the time.

I acknowledge what the right hon. Gentleman says.

I am aware that the actions of the train dispatcher on the night of Simon Slade’s death were investigated, the conclusion being that he acted correctly. It was not part of his duties, as set down in the railway rule book, to observe the train’s departure from the platform; as a result, with the station otherwise quiet at that time of night, no one saw Mr. Slade run alongside the departing train, fall over, and then disappear down the gap between the train and the platform.

The right hon. Gentleman raised concerns about those rule book procedures during the previous debate, as he did again today, and looked for some change to be made to the rail industry approach. As he said, the coroner in the Simon Slade case wrote to the Rail Safety and Standards Board after the inquest, inviting consideration of changes to the part of the rule book relevant to train dispatch. I understand that the RSSB put that request to the train operator and management standards committee, or TOM. Having considered the incident, it decided that no action was appropriate at the time. I note, however, that questions on the platform-train interface are regularly considered by TOM, and addressed when appropriate, including on train dispatch.

I am pleased to note that, as part of that ongoing scrutiny of procedures, the RSSB has recently completed research project No. T743, which provided a review of passenger train dispatch from stations. It took account of the modern characteristics of train operation. However, its definition of dispatch was confined to procedures before the train wheels have started to turn, and was not directly applicable to the factors found in the Slade case. That research will have highlighted for the industry knowledge of the potential issues that relate to platform-train interface safety throughout the train dispatch process. That should prompt individual operators to re-examine how processes are applied at the locations for which they are responsible, identify any weaknesses and implement appropriate mitigation measures.

I believe that additional work has been undertaken by RSSB on the risks of dispatch once the wheels of the train have started to turn. That was prompted by industry requests and the Slade family’s “Mind the Gap” campaign. I believe that it has been concluded that industry-wide changes are not likely to be of benefit, but that various options could beneficially be employed in certain locations or situations. A range of options to reduce the risk of people falling from the platform during train departure has been analysed by RSSB experts, and a paper will be discussed by the RSSB TOM standards committee shortly.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we are all interested in hearing the outcome of those discussions. I was sorry to hear him say that Mr. Slade was not content with the position taken by the RSSB. I find that regrettable, and I shall write to him with the RSSB’s views on the points that he raised.

I am sure that the House will agree that the RSSB’s work is a positive development, but that is even more the case because the RSSB and Mr. Slade have been working closely on these issues. Indeed, they have agreed to be joint signatories to a proposal to introduce a rail industry standard, with appropriate guidance for the benefit of train operators. The proposal is for the RIS to include guidance on the dispatch element before the train starts to move, based on the findings in T743, and on reducing the risk of people falling from the platform during departure once the train has begun to depart. We hope that that development will contribute to an even further reduction in the risk of travelling on the railways, perhaps preventing similar accidents from taking place in future.

I assure the House that the ORR, the independent health and safety regulator of the railways, continues to monitor the safety aspects of train dispatch. Its railway safety directorate, which was formed from Her Majesty's railway inspectorate, has carried out a number of inspections and investigations of train dispatch issues throughout the rail network during 2009-10.

I asked this question of the Minister’s predecessor, who promised to keep the matter under review—which he has done. Why does he think that the device of changing the rules is so unacceptable? What is the reason behind that?

I struggle to speculate on the reasons. The right hon. Gentleman asked why there had been no risk assessment at Gidea Park station. I understand that if the gap was within the parameters specified by the industry, it would not happen, but that if the gap was greater than the given measurement, a risk assessment would be made and mitigating measures introduced if it was excessive.

I was about to say that the ORR, through its rail safety directorate, considers the relevant train operating company’s safety certificate and authorisation applications as they relate to train dispatch. They also meet the relevant TOC safety team, make checks at stations, scrutinise risk assessments and competency files, and undertake journeys with train guards through unstaffed stations. In that way, they can get a thorough understanding of the safety and risk issues associated with train dispatch, and intervene if necessary.

We must not forget that the gaps have a safety function. Although the minimal gaps that we find on modern tram systems would be ideal, a gap is necessary on the national rail network to ensure that trains do not strike the platform, particularly when passing through at speed or, like freight trains, they are of larger dimensions. To an extent, that answers the right hon. Gentleman’s question about the different practices of London Underground and the heavy rail network. It is true to observe that London Underground has train dispatchers, but they are present only at busy times and at busy stations. Those circumstances are not universal on the London underground, and it would not necessarily be appropriate for them to be so.

Before he concludes will the Minister please say that he now thinks that the Government should look again at changing the rules for the dispatchers? Anything short of that will again leave things open to abuse. Will he get up and say, “I think it is a good idea that they should look at this again”—not just guidance, but a rule change?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that guidance that steers the train operating companies to look appropriately at the risks at each station sounds like common sense to us all. However, I am not sure whether he is asking for the rules to be changed and to be universally applied. I do not think that that would be the right thing to do.

Industry standards and guidance recommend maximum clearances between platforms and footplates on passenger trains, and those are applied by Network Rail when building new platforms or making significant changes to existing ones. As my fellow Minister noted last year, not every gap at every station currently meets those standards, due to tight curves or historically low platforms that remain at stations with low usage. Where the gap is severe, operators may take independent action to mitigate the problem—for example, by making warning announcements of the sort mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman or by marking the edge of the platform. If such action has not been taken but is considered necessary by the ORR, its inspectors can insist that mitigation measures be taken; it can also require substantial physical improvements to be made if necessary.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).