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Suggitt’s Lane Level Crossing

Volume 661: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2019

This debate will consider the important subject of the closure of Suggitt’s Lane level crossing in Cleethorpes. I call Martin Vickers.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the closure of Suggitt’s Lane level crossing, Cleethorpes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As you say, this debate concerns a very important subject. Although it relates specifically to Suggitt’s Lane crossing, it should be considered in the broader context of the accountability of Network Rail, a nationalised company that, on this issue, seems to be unaccountable to the Secretary of State of its sponsoring Department.

In theory, Network Rail can be held to account in a number of ways. The Office of Rail and Road monitors health and safety, has a role in determining the public funding that Network Rail receives and sets certain objectives. Andrew Haines, the company’s chief executive, is personally accountable to Parliament for Network Rail’s use of taxpayer’s money, and the Secretary of State for Transport holds some power over the board’s leadership and management of the business, but accountability on issues that can have a significant impact on local communities seems to be totally absent. For it to be so independent that it is wholly unaccountable and free from adequate scrutiny on such matters as the Suggitt’s Lane issue clearly is unacceptable. If Network Rail is able to dismiss the representations of local residents, councils, Members of Parliament and even the Secretary of State, surely it is time to revisit its structures. That should not and cannot be allowed to continue.

Until recently, the level crossing allowed hundreds of local residents every day to pass quickly and easily to the north promenade of the east coast’s premier seaside resort, without the hassle of a bridge. Let us consider the figures: according to Network Rail, 570 pedestrians and cyclists use the crossing each day. That figure undoubtedly will be higher at weekends and during holiday periods, but even assuming that it is a constant 570, that amounts to 208,050 per annum, which equates to over 2 million in 10 years. According to Network Rail’s figures, in 10 years, there have been just 15 near misses. A near miss must meet specific, closely defined criteria. I will return to those figures shortly.

The proposed closure was first drawn to my attention in a letter from the route managing director, Rob McIntosh, of 3 January. Later that month, Network Rail wrote a similar letter to the then leader of North East Lincolnshire Council, Councillor Ray Oxby, informing him that it had taken the decision to close the crossing—not to consult about it, but to close it. That decision was made before any consultation with local residents, the council or me. In that letter, the route managing director either exaggerated the case or was ill informed when he stated that the crossing was very dangerous, and outlined that over 50 freight and passenger trains traverse the crossing every day at speeds of up to 60 mph.

Let us remember the figure of 15 near misses in the last 10 years. Does that qualify as “very dangerous”? For the record, there are three trains per hour Monday to Friday, one in each direction, on the Manchester service, and the two-hourly service to Barton-on-Humber. In other words, there are three trains an hour almost every hour of a weekday. On Saturdays, there are six extra movements, with services to Sheffield via the Brigg and Gainsborough route. Incidentally, four years ago, a new footbridge was erected at Brigg station. No doubt, that improved facilities for a handful of passengers each Saturday, but the logic of spending thousands on the project is at the very least another example of Network Rail’s questionable priorities.

As for freight trains travelling at 60 mph, not a single freight train is in operation on that part of the line. Trains reduce their speed on the approach to the station, and immediately after passing the level crossing, the speed limit falls to 30 mph. Why not reduce the speed before the level crossing? Trains leaving the station do not have time to reach a high speed, so why not allow them to travel slowly, at 20 or 25 mph, until they have crossed Suggitt’s Lane, which is only a quarter of a mile away?

I raised those discrepancies with the Network Rail representatives in a meeting in March, but they seemed to be of little concern to them. In fact, one of their representatives was forward in telling me that given the opportunity, they would quite happily close every level crossing in the country—a laudable but wholly unachievable aim. Unfortunately, although the crossing has been in constant use by members of the public for 150 years, there seems to be no right of way, so Network Rail has been able to close it. It highlighted a pedestrian bridge a little down the line at Fuller Street and argued that it was a suitable alternative for local residents. It may be suitable for the able bodied, but not for the disabled and those with prams and the like. If it did occur to Network Rail—I am sure it did—that a bridge somewhere down the line would pose a great inconvenience for local residents, it chose to dismiss the issue. It is the lack of disabled access that has been the concern that constituents have raised most frequently with me in recent weeks.

Over the last few months, I have been in frequent contact with Network Rail in writing and in meetings, but no progress has been made. I have raised the matter in the House on five occasions in the last couple of months, and have secured the support of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who is in his place, who asked Network Rail to review its decision. He and I met Network Rail representatives on Monday 8 April to make the case further. They agreed to consider reopening the crossing while they review their plans. I presented a petition to the House, organised by Cleethorpes-based DN35 CrimeWatch, which was signed by over 4,000 local residents who oppose the closure.

Late in April, I had the opportunity to make representations directly to Andrew Haines, the chief executive of Network Rail. I pressed him on the situation and argued that, at the very least, the crossing should be reopened while a review takes place. He promised that he would personally look into the issue, which he duly did and wrote to me to say, “No change.” In a matter of days, I discovered that Network Rail had erected a permanent barrier at the crossing to make it impossible for pedestrians to cross. Clearly, it did not consider the recommendation of reopening very seriously, or in any great detail.

The response from Network Rail to date has been disappointing, but I remain committed to the campaign, and will continue to support local residents, who I am glad to see in the Public Gallery, in their objections to this heavy-handed and ill-advised decision. According to Robert Wainwright, head of level crossings at Network Rail, the UK has one of the best level crossing safety records in Europe. That is especially remarkable as our country has one of the most intensively used rail systems in the world.

Five years ago, the Select Committee on Transport, of which I was a member at the time, produced a report on level crossing safety. I draw hon. Members’ attention to two of its recommendations. The first stated:

“We recommend that Network Rail address criticism of its apparent preference for footbridges as replacements for level crossings and explain what assessment it makes of the impact on disabled people of replacing level crossings with footbridges rather than underpasses.”

The second stated:

“We are concerned that the proposed appeal mechanism for closure orders, using judicial review, will be out of reach for ordinary people and, increasingly, local authorities. We recommend that the DfT consider using alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation by the Office of Rail Regulation”.

Did the Committee not also state in its recommendations that it considered there was merit in applying a public safety test to any diversionary route that may result from the closure of a level crossing? Is the hon. Gentleman aware of whether Network Rail followed that recommendation in this situation?

I certainly recall that point. I have to confess that I do not know whether it has been followed through. We will wait to see whether the Minister is able to confirm that.

I understand that in the past decade, Network Rail has made a great deal of effort to improve the safety of level crossings. Initiatives such as the introduction of level crossing managers and ever-improving technology have proven successful in improving behaviour at level crossings. From a practical perspective, technology is probably the most effective means of changing outcomes. It is a huge factor in the reduction of deliberate misuse and human error across the country. I see no reason why Network Rail could not implement technology to aid pedestrian decision making at Suggitt’s Lane. Perhaps it could include supplementary audible warnings and overlay miniature stop light solutions.

In September 2013, the Law Commission published a report and a draft Bill containing a series of recommendations aimed at improving the safety and regulation of level crossings. Its suggestions included providing tools to support health and safety regulation, including level crossing plans and enforceable agreements between railway operators and other duty holders, and giving the Secretary of State the power to issue directions if necessary. Those proposals, if properly implemented, have the potential to make level crossings much safer, so that Network Rail feels less incentivised to close them on a whim.

Clearly, a vast number of alternatives to closure are available to Network Rail. I have no doubt that this decision was taken as it was the easiest and cheapest option. There was no need for Network Rail to take into consideration the trouble the closure would cause elderly and disabled residents, given the lack of powers for any person or institution to hold it to account. That is unacceptable, and it must change.

Installing a modern footbridge with disabled access at Fuller Street would prove extremely expensive. Whether the funding for that came from the owner of the bridge, North East Lincolnshire Council, or from Network Rail, it would be public money. I question whether public money should be spent on eliminating a theoretical risk at Suggitt’s Lane when there are thousands of level crossings, many with trains passing at 125 mph, where the money could be better spent.

I referred to the 15 near misses to which Network Rail referred. Remember, that is 15 near misses in 10 years, during which time more than 2 million people will have passed over the crossing. On 9 April, Mr Ian Stuart from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch emailed one of the local campaigners, Lynn Sayles. He wrote:

“We have reviewed our records from when we were established in October 2005 and have found details of only one Incident at Suggitt’s Lane level crossing, which occurred on 13 January 2011. The circumstances of this particular case were unclear, but involved an individual being found with an injury in the vicinity of the crossing. However, there was no direct evidence that the injury had actually been caused by a train. The RAIB received no formal notification from the industry about the accident and the circumstances could not be substantiated so no further action was taken.”

Only one of the 15 near misses was considered significant enough to involve the RAIB. That is one near miss, in which the circumstances could not be substantiated, against more than 2 million crossings. Why close the crossing and cause massive inconvenience on the basis of those results?

Of course people should not trespass on the railway, and of course people should not act foolishly, but, sadly, some do. We all suffer to some extent as a result, but in this instance the massive inconvenience simply is not justified. Anyone who is determined to trespass on that stretch of railway can go along to Cleethorpes station at any time of the day or night and wander down the platform and on to the track.

I urge Network Rail to do the right thing: to admit that it has not fully appreciated the strength of local feeling, that full, proper and meaningful consultation should take place, and that while those discussions happen, it should reopen Suggitt’s Lane crossing. My plea to the Minister is that he uses his good offices to find a solution.

I am pleased to call Melanie Onn, but I will need to call the Minister no later than 20 minutes past 1 o’clock.

I thank the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) for generously allowing me a few minutes to add my voice to those of the campaigners who crowdfunded to get here to participate in the debate, such is the strength of their feeling.

It is really important to acknowledge that any death on our railways is a tragedy. Of course that must be avoided, so I completely understand the desire to close dangerous level crossings, particularly where there is a real risk to life. However, this issue is not about a genuine risk; it is about a perceived risk. It is about an attempt to solve a problem that does not exist—an attempt that has caused huge disruption and upset to residents across north-east Lincolnshire.

The risk is actually worse now that people with bicycles and people with mobility problems have to cross a bridge that is not really suitable for that. In fact, young William, who has joined us in the Gallery, recently fell down that bridge trying to take his bicycle across it. Has Network Rail given that any consideration? I suspect not, because now it has displaced the risk, it has become somebody else’s problem.

Having been asked about risk assessments, Network Rail conveniently says there is no need for it to do them because this is not a public access route. However, it drafted factually incorrect risk assessments to support the decision to close the crossing, as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes said. Network Rail says there is no public right of way, but it has previously written to members of the public and local authority planners in support of Suggitt’s Lane crossing becoming a right of way.

As recently as September 2018, Network Rail confirmed in writing that there were no plans to close the crossing, yet within just three months, without providing any details or timeframe to the public, and without even responding to the former council leader’s concerns, it closed it. After 150 years, despite the fact that more than 500 people a day use the crossing, Network Rail has walked away, saying it has no need to take any account of the impact it has caused to the local community.

We heard about the RAIB’s assessment. Is there something in that that we need to consider? If there have been so many near misses that Network Rail considered to be so important, why did it not report them to the RAIB? Network Rail has published various documents about the risk of the crossing, which are completely inconsistent. One gives the crossing a risk status of D2, but another puts it in the extremely low M13 category. The recent risk assessment was produced and published just four days before the closure, but that was months after the hon. Member for Cleethorpes, the leader of the council and I were notified in writing of the decision. What on earth was the point of doing that assessment if Network Rail had no need to do risk assessments in the first place?

Network Rail says it has given safety talks to schools. It can provide no evidence of that. It says it participated in local safety events. It holds no records of those. It says it has communicated with local residents and businesses about safety issues. It has no evidence of those letters. How is it possible that a public body can be so utterly incompetent, seek embarrassingly and obviously to pull the wool over the eyes of members of the public, and be in a situation where it not only ignores its own mission statements about accountability but has no transparency whatsoever in its decision making? It has left campaigners, such as those in the Gallery, with just the very expensive route of a judicial review.

There is a similar situation with the Angerstein Wharf crossing in Greenwich. Network Rail has had the good grace to listen to the leader of the council, the MP and the community, and to delay the closure of that crossing. If that is possible for Greenwich residents, why is it not possible for Grimsby and Cleethorpes residents? I think Network Rail hopes to get away with this, but this is a warning. The campaigners, who are here today, are dogged and tenacious. They will not give in. Network Rail might hope for an easy exit, but that will not happen.

I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Cleethorpes. I urge the Minister to use his considerable influence on Network Rail to insist on a proper consultation, and to recognise the hard work of campaigners such as Lynn Sayles, Robert Palmer and Councillor Debbie Rodwell, among others, as well as the impact on local businesses, disabled people, families and the elderly, who all rely on this crossing.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on securing this important debate. We should also recognise and thank the local residents who have come down to observe the debate for their perseverance in raising this important issue—and their perseverance in getting into the building when it is pretty lively outside. I will talk briefly about the railway more broadly and level crossings in general before addressing Suggitt’s Lane.

We must recognise that rail is a critical part of our national economic infrastructure, offering safe journeys to work and facilitating business and leisure travel. It also moves millions of tonnes of freight around our country, relieving congestion on our roads. We are seeing a real boom time in the rail industry, with passenger numbers having doubled since privatisation in the mid-1990s.

I want to see more progress made, with that success built on by improving and extending services wherever viable, as well as ensuring that we see more frequent and better services to places such as Cleethorpes, which is a point my hon. Friend has made to me many times. He is a champion of this issue, particularly on a direct service to London, which was the subject of our last meeting. However, the growth in rail and rail freight comes at a cost: a more heavily used network can bring greater safety risks to passengers and the public, particularly at stations and level crossings, and that leads to difficult choices for Network Rail to make as it seeks to deliver faster and more frequent services; of course, it must not compromise on safety while doing so.

There are no easy solutions. I recognise the responsibility that Network Rail has in making operational decisions as the duty holder for Britain’s railway infrastructure—indeed, Ministers cannot overrule decisions made on safety issues—but the point raised by Members about accountability was well made. I will take that away from the debate.

There are 7,000 level crossings across our mainland rail network, with different types of crossing based on the different levels of risk. These range from open passive crossings, with no barriers or gates, for where trains are infrequent and speeds are low, to crossings with full barriers monitored by CCTV and with telephones.

Level crossings of whatever type are safe when used correctly. Absolute safety may be an impossible goal—we should aim at it, though—but it is important that the right type of crossing is used at a location to achieve safety with minimum delays to the surrounding community, whether on foot or on wheels. The factors that are taken into account include the speed and number of trains; the volume and type of road traffic; the nature of private use; the number of pedestrians; and the location itself. Clearly decisions have to be made locally, because what is appropriate for a quiet country road is totally different from that for a busy urban area.

Ninety-six per cent of accidents at level crossings are considered to be caused by either driver or pedestrian action, whether intentional or unintentional. Safety, therefore, clearly can be compromised in this area. Statistics show that the safety record of level crossings in this country is among the best in the world, but we always seek ways to improve safety.

Level crossings now represent the single biggest source of risk of train accidents—those with the potential for multiple deaths. I therefore agree with Network Rail’s initiative to minimise the number of level crossings on the network, but that must be done in a proportionate way that takes people with it. Network Rail has to focus on improving the operation and maintenance of level crossings; a risk assessment programme to identify where additional action may be needed, which certainly includes the safety impacts of any diversionary routes; measures to promote the safe use of level crossings; and, where feasible and appropriate, closing crossings altogether if the opportunity arises.

Let us focus on Suggitt’s Lane, which Network Rail told me it decided, with a heavy heart, to close permanently. That is in line with its statutory duties as the managers of our rail infrastructure. On the legal position, Suggitt’s Lane was established as a private level crossing to serve a local fishing business in, I believe, the 1860s. That business has ceased, and there was no public right of way at that crossing; it was just for the business. That position was confirmed in discussion with North East Lincolnshire Council and in Network Rail’s own investigation.

Let me explain what brought Network Rail to its decision. It observed a number of potentially fatal incidents at the level crossing, including young children crossing unattended, people walking on the tracks and motorcyclists using the crossing. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) highlighted the 15 near misses recorded in the past 10 years, which are in addition to those examples. Evidence suggests that other incidents may have gone unreported.

Does the Minister accept that only one incident has been recorded with the RAIB, and that was back in 2005?

I recognise that point. The RAIB records are clear—that is the truth—but we always try to avoid the need for the RAIB to get involved, because its involvement means there has been an accident. This is about trying to ensure that accidents do not happen.

Network Rail has concluded that, having taken action with the British Transport police to improve public awareness and use of that crossing, no infrastructure can be installed to address its concerns. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes will be aware, Network Rail held a public information event on 22 March at which it explained that, in its view, closure was the most effective option for ensuring the safety of the public.

From comments in this place, from media coverage in the local paper, which I have looked at, and from the fact that people have made a great effort to join us at this debate, it is clear how the closure has affected local users, how strongly people feel about that, and how it has also affected some businesses on the promenade. I understand that entirely. To balance against that, I also understand why Network Rail made this difficult decision. It is not a straightforward matter, and there is no ideal alternative.

I am aware of the provision at Fuller Street footbridge and recognise the point, which was well made by my hon. Friend, about the lack of access there for people with reduced mobility. It was interesting to learn that that is a significant concern among his constituents. My hon. Friend chaired a meeting last Friday with Network Rail and North East Lincolnshire Council to discuss the options for that bridge in more detail. I understand that Network Rail has agreed in principle to contribute to enhancing the bridge, should that prove viable, and that it and the council will send engineers to review the bridge in the weeks ahead.

Will he acknowledge that it would be wasteful to spend any public money on that project, because the risks are so minimal? The money should be spent where there is more risk.

We have obligations to keep our rail network as safe as possible. The definition and calculation of risk is a key factor in deciding where money is spent. It is important that we have a dialogue between the local council and Network Rail to look at all the options and come to an effective permanent solution, which can and must be found. That could mean work at Fuller Street or other areas, but I want to ensure that people are talking locally about a local solution to a local problem.

The challenge has been well articulated by Members. Network Rail will have been following the debate, and I will ensure that it picks up the content of our discussions and addresses the concerns that have been expressed. I will write to both hon. Members and, through them, to their constituents.

We have a difficult situation where a local community has been affected by an organisation charged with safety seeking to improve safety. In this case, we are not seeing what an agreement might look like. That is of some regret, but we must work harder to try to reach a solution that all sides will be happy with, keeping the community together and making sure that people can travel safely in and out of Cleethorpes.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.