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Tram Safety

Volume 651: debated on Monday 10 December 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)

I rise to speak slightly earlier than I had anticipated. These are momentous days, but at 6.7 am on 9 November 2016 a far more momentous tragedy occurred, one that would change a community forever, one that would bring horror to the lives of many and one that took the lives of our loved ones. Seven families will never be the same. In one tragic moment, the Croydon tram crash ripped away fathers, sons, mothers and daughters: Dane Chinnery, Donald Collett, Robert Huxley, Phil Logan, Dorota Rynkiewicz, Phil Seary and Mark Smith. Their friends and family members join us in the Gallery this evening. The tram crash at Sandilands junction in my constituency was the worst tram accident in a century. It was the worst rail tragedy for 17 years. Along with those who died, 62 people were injured, several with life-changing injuries.

I want to be clear at the outset of this debate that there is an ongoing criminal investigation into the Croydon tram crash and a coroner’s investigation. It would not be appropriate for me or other colleagues to pre-empt the findings of those investigations by commenting today on the possible causes of the crash or who was to blame. What we know is that a tragedy like this cannot be allowed to happen again on our tram networks. This should have been a wake-up call, and we know what needs to happen. Almost exactly a year ago on 7 December 2017, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch—RAIB—published a detailed 180-page report into the crash, which made a series of important recommendations to improve tram safety across the country’s tram networks in the future.

On that same day a year ago, I asked a question to the Leader of the House about when the Department for Transport would come to the House to make a full statement on how the Government would ensure that the RAIB recommendations were implemented as swiftly as possible. In the year since, no Minister has come to the House to update us on tram safety. Not a single written ministerial statement has been made. In fact, not a single Minister has made a statement in this place on the Croydon tram crash since 14 November 2016, two years ago.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House for our consideration. The fact that nothing has been done, as she outlined, is very worrying. Does she agree that the lessons that need to be learned from the Sandilands train crash cannot be learned without vital funding and that that is a key factor, as well as safety? It must never come to further loss of life before the Government— I say this with respect for the Minister—step up to the mark and do the right thing.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I agree, and I will come on to what has been done and what is yet to be done.

This is not just an issue for Croydon: it is a national issue. There were 267 million tram and light rail journeys made last year. Clearly, the industry, the regulator and local transport bodies have a responsibility to deliver the improvements that we need. I have met the Office of Rail and Road, the deputy Mayor of London, Transport for London and others, and I am grateful to TfL executives for meeting me and families of the victims today in Parliament. But there is also a responsibility on central Government; the ultimate responsibility for people’s safety stops with them.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for raising this very important issue in the House today. She will know, as I do—as a fellow Croydon Member of Parliament—of the high levels of public concern and anxiety about the Government’s failure to act on the recommendations. There has been another speeding tram incident since the fatalities at Sandilands and another crash involving a bus. We really need to know what the Government intend to do and what lessons they intend to implement—having listened to what went wrong—to keep people safe and reassure them that they are always safe on public transport.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right. That has to be on all of us, and we need to make sure that the Government are doing what they can.

The Department for Transport has a duty to ensure that work is being done and to keep Parliament updated on progress. The silence in this place over the last year suggests that the Government have not been as active as they should have been. In fact, a month ago, I learned that they were actively delaying RAIB’s core recommendation—the creation of a new UK tram safety body—because they were failing to release the required funding. If this new body, currently operating in a basic “shadow” form, does not receive the required funding by the end of the year, it will cease to function at all. Other recommendations, which I will come to, have also not seen enough progress, in part because this body is not in place.

Families of the victims are frustrated. All of us are frustrated and all of us are touched by that terrible tragedy. I wrote to the Secretary of State about this and I asked again in the House two weeks ago for a statement or a debate in Government time. Yet again, there was silence from Government. We deserve better than this, so I hope that this evening, the Minister can tell me why the Government have yet to confirm the funding for a new tram safety body; when the funding will be signed off by his Department; and crucially, what actions the Government are taking to ensure that the remaining RAIB recommendations are delivered as soon as possible.

Tramways have a proud history in the UK. In the early 1900s, tram networks stretched the length and breadth of the land, connecting not just our cities, but towns large and small. There were 14,000 trams in 1927, and London alone had 30 tram routes across the city. The majority of those were lost in post-war redevelopment, but tram networks still connect eight of our greatest cities and regions: London, Greater Manchester, the west midlands, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Nottingham, Blackpool and Newcastle. Trams create no pollution, are fully accessible and have greater capacity and better punctuality than buses. Trams connect our communities and are conduits for local growth.

When the Tramlink was introduced in Croydon, it brought our community closer together and made a particular difference in New Addington in the south of my constituency. It helped to attract inward investment into Croydon and offered residents the mobility to find jobs across the borough. But when a tragedy of this significance occurs, it shakes people’s confidence in tram networks. The number of tram and light rail passenger journeys across England fell by 0.2% last year—the first drop in almost a decade. Over half of all tram and light rail journeys last year happened in London, where the number of journeys dropped by the bigger margin of 2.1%, while the number of London Tramlink journeys fell by 400,000 to 29.1 million. If that is in any part due to a loss of confidence, we must rebuild that trust, and that starts with showing clear and decisive action on tram safety.

RAIB carried out a 13-month investigation into the Croydon tram crash, and I thank it for its comprehensive work. The RAIB report comes to its own conclusions about the possible causes of the crash, which I will not mention because of the ongoing investigations. Looking to the future, the report makes 15 important recommendations to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. In the year since then, we should have heard from Ministers about how the different agencies, organisations and operators are progressing with their respective responsibilities. I sincerely hope that the Minister can deliver a comprehensive update to the House tonight.

The majority of the 15 recommendations are yet to be fully implemented. The first and foremost of them was to set up a dedicated UK-wide tram safety body to drive improvements across the UK’s tram networks. It is likely that many of the subsequent recommendations on national tram safety cannot be fully implemented without this new body, so it really is a failure that one year on we are still waiting. I understand that the Government funding for the body will be split between the Government and industry. The industry has already allocated its funding and a shadow board has been in place and ready to get to work for months, yet as of last month the funding from Government had still not been signed off. I wrote to the Secretary of State about this over a month ago, and I am yet to receive a reply.

The Department for Transport has, however, given a statement to the media stating that

“final decisions are being made on funding for the Light Rail Safety Board.”

I understand that if full funding is not confirmed by the Government by the end of this year, even the limited work the board is doing in shadow form will cease. Can the Minister therefore confirm whether that funding decision has been made? If it has not, can he explain to me and to the families here today why the Government are delaying?

Recommendation 2 requires tram operators, owners and infrastructure managers to

“jointly conduct a systematic review of operational risks and control measures associated with the design, maintenance and operation of tramways”

and to “publish updated guidance”. That updated guidance has yet to be published. I understand the new light rail safety standards board will be responsible for publishing this, but it does not yet exist. Can the Minister can give us a timetable for the publication of this guidance?

Recommendations 3 to 5 involve changes to trams and tramways to significantly reduce the risk of future accidents. Those changes are very important and include installation of automatic braking systems; technology to monitor the attention state of drivers; and improved signage, lighting and information for drivers. Automatic braking systems have not yet been installed on any tram system. TfL has confirmed that it plans to fully implement a system by next December—more than three years after the crash.

I understand that this is complicated work, that TfL has confirmed that it will award a contract to start it very shortly and that many other operators will look to the work TfL is doing before making a decision on implementing their own systems, but three years feels too long for those of us worried about safety now. I wonder whether the Government could be doing more to work with TfL to prioritise this important work. TfL and Tram Operations Ltd have successfully implemented a guardian device on London Tramlink that can monitor the attention state of drivers and help with fatigue management, but it is unclear whether it has been picked up across other tram networks.

The recommendation on signage and lighting again appears to have been only partially implemented and with a lack of consistency. TfL has implemented a new lower speed limit on the London network, with new restrictions at certain sites such as Sandilands and new junctions, and will be introducing a new system called iTram, which gives in-cab alerts, but again the iTram system will reportedly not be in place until December 2019—more than three years after the crash. Moreover, there is a lack of clarity about whether the speed restrictions or the iTram system will be consistent across the industry, and whether they will be required or optional. In all those areas, progress seems to be too slow and too inconsistent across the country, which, again, may be a sign of a lack of co-ordination owing to the lack of a UK-wide co-ordinating body.

Recommendations 6, 7 and 8 relate to greater protections for passengers and means of escape should a tram have an accident. Understandably and obviously, the families of those who died are frustrated about the difference between the current requirements for the strength of tram windows for side-facing windows and front windscreens. The side windows are required to be the same strength as those of passenger-carrying vehicles on roads, but the front windows are required to be stronger, with shatterproof safety laminated glass—the type required for trains. Recommendation 6 seeks to improve the strength, but, again, there are yet to be changes across the sector. Other tram networks appear to be waiting for TfL, which has been undertaking testing. Last month the Mayor of London said that work to strengthen the windows was due to start shortly, and would be completed by March 2019.

The process is complex. The weight of the stronger glass has clear implications for the ability of trams to go around corners safely. The last thing we want to do is make the glass stronger but, in doing so, increase the risk of another derailment. Nevertheless, I feel that more progress could have been made on window strength, because that would have demonstrated to passengers that clear action had been taken to keep them safe. Two years after the accident, we still do not know when the recommendation will be delivered for tram networks outside London.

Recommendations 7 and 8 relate to emergency lighting and improved evacuation for overturned trams. TfL has issued a tender for improved emergency lighting, while other tram networks seem to be waiting for the creation of the national light rail safety board before acting. The work on evacuation is being led by UK Tram, but it appears that no clear solution has been identified, and it seems unlikely that that recommendation will be implemented at all.

Recommendation 9 requires the Office of Rail and Road to carry out a review of the regulatory framework for trams, which I understand is in progress. It sets out options and recommendations for changes in the regulation of the sector in June. They include options for certification schemes, which could be mandatory or voluntary. The ORR says that it

“would not resist the introduction of mandatory or voluntary certification schemes if demanded by Ministers and/or the sector”.

Perhaps the Minister could update us on his conversations with the ORR about certification. The ORR says that a certification scheme would give it stronger regulatory levers to press for implementation of the Sandilands recommendations. Given the lack of progress and the lack of consistency across the UK tram networks in respect of those recommendations, that might be an advisable course of action for the Government to take.

The final six recommendations are aimed at TfL and Tram Operations Limited, and have specific implications for the London Tramlink network. They seek a marked improvement in the safety culture in London trams, including better mechanisms for driver fatigue management, improved CCTV, operational expertise, and the reporting and resolving of concerns. Several of them, including recommendations 10, 13 and 14, have already been implemented; the implementation of others is still in progress, and is the subject of ongoing reviews. They include a detailed review of fatigue risk management, in respect of which some improvements have already been made, but the full programme is not yet complete.

My hon. Friend is reminding us powerfully of the important recommendations that were made in the aftermath of the crash. I recall being in the Chamber in the days following it, and hearing the Minister speak, in my view, convincingly and well about how the Government would learn the lessons and take action. May I invite my hon. Friend to speculate on why, a year after receiving the recommendations, the Government have done absolutely nothing to follow them up?

I struggle to understand why more has not been done, and I wonder why this has not been a top priority for the Government. In the last year the Department for Transport has had to deal with many other issues that may have been subject to more attention and focus, but I nevertheless think it a great shame that more has not been done.

Two years on from the tram crash there is one clear fact that should motivate all of us: trams across the country are still without a consistent level of safety to avoid a repeat of the tram crash. There is still no consistent means by which to monitor and manage driver fatigue. If a tram is going too fast there is still not an automatic braking system. If a tram overturns the windows are not yet consistently shatterproof along the sides of the vehicle. Most importantly, the body to co-ordinate and deliver safety improvements is still not in place. The Government could act upon that right now, and I urge the Minister to do so. I also urge him to work with Transport for London, the Office of Rail and Road and the rest of the industry to make sure the host of outstanding safety recommendations—as many as 11 still outstanding—are delivered upon as soon as possible.

The Government can drive this process forward; we just need the political will. We want something good to come from that dreadful day on 9 November 2016. The victims, their families and all tram passengers across the UK deserve nothing less.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) on securing this important debate, and I know the whole House would wish to join me in offering our condolences to the families and friends of all who lost their lives or were injured, many of them very seriously, in the tram crash of November 2016. It has been suggested that the Government have not been active and energetic on this issue, and I am happy to respond in detail to rebut those suggestions. Let me remind the House of the incident and describe the follow-up actions we have taken.

On Wednesday 9 November 2016, the London Tramlink tram No. 2551 travelling from New Addington towards East Croydon overturned on the approach to Sandilands tram stop on a curved track that has a permanent speed restriction of 20 kph. The tram at that time was travelling at approximately 73 kph. Of the 70 people on board, seven lost their lives and 62 people were injured, 19 of them seriously. Following this tragic accident, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch undertook an investigation, as is normal practice in these types of incidents. RAIB is independent and its investigation and report do not apportion blame or liability. Its sole purpose is to ensure lessons are recorded and learned in order to improve safety and prevent future such accidents occurring.

RAIB published its report into the tram-overturning incident at Sandilands on 7 December 2017. Its investigation identified that the immediate cause of the tram overturning was that it was travelling too fast to negotiate the curve, and the causal factors for that were that the tram did not slow down to a safe speed before entering Sandilands south curve because the driver did not apply sufficient braking. RAIB’s report states that, although some doubt remains as to the reasons for the driver not applying sufficient braking, RAIB concluded that the most likely cause was a temporary loss of awareness of driving task due to a period of low workload. It is also possible that, when regaining awareness, the driver became confused about his location and direction of travel. RAIB found no evidence that the driver’s health or medical fitness contributed to what happened, but stated that, although highly unlikely, an undetected medical reason cannot be discounted. Of course, as the hon. Lady made clear, further investigations are continuing and I know the House will understand that it would not be appropriate to say anything further on this issue.

The RAIB investigation did, however, find that the risk of trams overturning on curves was not properly understood and so there were insufficient safety measures in place. It also found that many of the fatalities and serious injuries were as a result of falling through the windows or doors as the tram overturned.

As the hon. Lady made clear, the RAIB report made 15 recommendations to help to improve safety on UK trams. These recommendations relate to action in five main areas: the need for modern technology to intervene when trams approach hazardous features too fast or when drivers lose awareness of their driving; the need for operators to promote better awareness and management of the risk associated with tramway operations; the need for work to reduce the extent of injuries caused to passengers in serious tram accidents and to make it easier for them to escape; the need for improvements to safety management systems, particularly to encourage a culture in which everyone feels able to report mistakes, including their own; and the need for greater collaboration across the tramway industry on matters relating to safety.

That is why one of the main recommendations in the RAIB’s report was for the Office of Rail and Road to work with the UK tram industry to develop a body to enable more effective UK-wide co-operation, in what is inevitably a varied sector, on matters related to safety and on the development of common standards and good practice guidance. UK Tram, which is the voice of the light rail sector, and the Office of Rail and Road called a meeting of the industry in London last year at which it was agreed to establish an independent review group to consider the RAIB recommendation regarding setting up such an industry body to be responsible for ensuring better co-operation on light rail safety and standards.

At a further meeting held in Manchester in January this year, the Department for Transport, the Office of Rail and Road, tram system owners, operators and infrastructure managers convened to discuss the way forward and how the sector as a whole could take responsibility for and ownership of proceeding with the recommendations arising from the RAIB report. At that meeting, the independent review group reported its proposals for a light rail safety and standards board to be formed. The review group also proposed that there was a need properly to scope the new organisation and its function, structure and budget, particularly with regard to funding.

The board has now been created to provide expert support to the light rail industry in this country and to take forward sustainable improvements in the safety and efficiency of tramways and light rail systems. It will also oversee the work to undertake the recommendations from the RAIB report, and its primary functions will include risk analysis, informing industry decisions and sharing best practice; codification and development of standards and guidance; establishing relationships with other light rail jurisdictions around the world; light rail innovation and research; collaboration with other industry safety bodies; safety, accident and near miss reporting, collation and analysis; reviewing industry dissemination of information and lessons learned; and oversight of competent persons and accreditation.

The hon. Lady suggests that the Department for Transport has not provided funding or been active in ensuring that the recommendations from the RAIB report have been implemented, but let me assure the House that that is not the case. While the board was being set up, the Department allocated £250,000 to UK Tram in July this year as an interim payment to ensure that progress on working through the recommendations could begin quickly. I am pleased to report to the House that work on the recommendations is being taken forward by the sector. The light rail safety and standards board steering group has now developed a business plan setting out the functions of the full board. A board of directors has been elected and a chief executive officer has been appointed. The Department received a further funding proposal from the board in late October—that is, five or six weeks ago—and I am pleased to say that we are looking closely at this request and I expect to make an announcement shortly.

Meanwhile, a range of other work is under way. UK Tram has defined a programme to develop a light rail risk analysis model that can be applied to all UK tramway systems and, where appropriate, to other light rail systems. UK Tram has let a contract with consultants after the steering group agreed the terms of reference for this project, and work has now commenced on the development of this risk model. UK Tram has also reviewed the availability of technical devices for automatically monitoring and/or controlling the speed of a tram on the approach to junctions and other key locations. We expect a full report to be published by UK Tram next week. Building on work undertaken by Transport for London, UK Tram has reviewed the availability of driver vigilance devices—also named driver inattention devices—which could monitor the alertness of a driver and detect when they are likely to lose concentration. Again, a full report is due to be published for UK Tram members next week. I am also pleased to inform the House that all tramway operators in the United Kingdom have reviewed all bends and curves on their systems and introduced countdown speed restrictions and chevron signs on the approaches, where required.

In order to identify means of improving the passenger containment provided by tram windows and doors, UK Tram and the operators have been in discussions with manufacturers to see whether improvements can be made. The information that they have gathered so far indicates that laminated windows could be fitted—albeit, as the hon. Lady has mentioned, at extra cost and, more problematically, extra weight—to new vehicles. For current tram fleets, fitting a protective film to the windows would help to reduce risk.

Regarding doors, most UK tramway systems have more modern vehicles with doors that have fully welded construction, which offers far more structural integrity and should aid containment in the context of a crash. Operators have also reviewed their emergency lighting, and suppliers have been able to offer a cut-off switch that is covered and not exposed in the event of an impact. Most suppliers stated that they could also offer as an option internal lighting with integral energy storage in the lighting units, if required. Progress is being made on the recommendations from the RAIB report.

This is an important issue at an important moment. Light rail is popular, as can be seen from the statistics: more than 267 million passenger journeys were made on the eight light rail and tram systems in England in 2017-18. The sector prides itself on being one of the safest modes of public transport, and it strives to maintain high standards in safety. The safety record speaks for itself. Until this accident occurred in 2016, no passenger had been killed on a tram since January 1959. The Government are committed to ensuring that industry and the regulator apply the lessons that have been learned so that a tragedy of this kind can never happen again.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.