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Tram Safety

Volume 701: debated on Monday 20 September 2021

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

At about 6.7 am on 9 November 2016, a tram travelling from New Addington in my constituency towards East Croydon station overturned as it approached the Sandilands tram stop. The tram was travelling too fast as it approached a notoriously sharp bend on the track. Sixty-nine people were in the tram, most on their way to work. They had no idea what was about to happen, although many people have subsequently said they felt trams often went round that corner too fast.

The Rail Accident Investigation Branch report sets out what happened: the tram

“reached the maximum permitted speed of 80 km/h as it entered the first of three closely spaced tunnels, which together extended for about 500 metres. When leaving the tunnels, the tram should have been reducing speed significantly as it was approaching the sharp curve round to Sandilands junction, where there is a 20 km/h limit. This was marked by a speed limit sign at the start of the curve. On the day of the accident, the tram was travelling at 73 kilometres per hour when it reached this sign.

The excessive speed caused the tram to overturn as it passed through the curve. Passengers were thrown around inside the tram and the tram slid along the ground on its side.”

The horrific crash took the lives of seven people: Dane Chinnery, Donald Collett, Robert Huxley, Phil Logan, Dorota Rynkiewicz, Phil Seary and Mark Smith. They were mothers, daughters, fathers and sons, and the loss to their families is insurmountable.

The tram crash at Sandilands junction was the worst tram accident in a century and the worst rail tragedy in 17 years.

I commend the hon. Lady on securing this debate. In this staycation year when many people from across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are having holidays here, it is important that the trams are safe for both the hon. Lady’s constituents and all the tourists; does she agree that there is an onus on Government to make sure they are safe for everyone?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One lesson from the tram crash is that we must make sure that all tram networks across the country are safe. Trams are an in-between mode of transport; they are not quite railway and not quite road, so they often miss out on national safeguarding measures that might exist for other forms of transport.

Our community was completely devastated by the accident, and Croydon will forever mourn the loss of our loved ones. I want to pay tribute to the families, who have been so strong in the face of such pain. I want to pay tribute to all those who were the first responders on the scene—the British Transport police, the police, the firefighters, the paramedics and the ambulance service—and I want to pay tribute to those in the Rail Accident Investigation Branch who arrived on the scene that morning to start their investigation. I also pay tribute to the legal team that has worked hand in hand with the families throughout the process of the inquest, some of whom are here tonight.

On 7 December 2017, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch published a detailed 180-page report into the crash, which made 15 important recommendations to improve tram safety across the country’s tram networks. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch was established 15 years ago following the terrible accident at Ladbroke Grove in 1999 that led to the deaths of 31 people. Its job is to independently investigate accidents, improve railway safety, and inform the industry and the public. Its investigations are focused solely on improving safety. As its website says:

“We are not a prosecuting body and do not apportion blame or liability. Possible breaches of legislation are dealt with by other organisations, usually the police and safety authorities.”

The RAIB investigations were very thorough. Among many other things, it talked to everyone who was on the train and survived, and surveyed the 146 drivers who work on the Croydon trams. Recommendations were broad and included the following measures. One was having technology such as automatic braking, which no tram system had—the Croydon tram now does—and systems to improve driver alertness. It also recommended having a better understanding of the risks associated with tramway operations; there was a woeful lack of a proper risk approach to when accidents might occur and how to prevent them. It recommended improving the strength of doors and windows—one of the horrific outcomes in the crash was that the windows all shattered so people were literally dragged under the tram because the windows were not as strong as those on trains. It recommended improving safety management systems, particularly encouraging a culture in which everyone feels able to report their own mistakes—if someone feels tired or has done something wrong, there is a culture that encourages reporting that. It recommended improvements to the tram operator safety management arrangements to encourage staff to bring up safety measures, and a dedicated safety body for UK tramways. The Government have set that up, to their credit, and it is funded, but there is not enough funding and we would like to make sure it is long term. That is a really important body to make sure the lessons apply in Blackpool and all the other places around the country, as well as in Croydon. So I am extremely grateful to RAIB for its investigation and thank it for its work.

There has been significant progress, as I have outlined, and changes continue to be made. In the year ending March 2020, there were 28 injuries on trams, metros and other non-Network Rail networks in the UK, compared with 45 injuries in the year ending March 2019. That is the lowest number of injuries since the first data were published in the year ending March 2006. All the Transport for London-specific recommendations have now been completed, including better signage and warning systems, additional speed restrictions, and the automated braking system that I talked about. An in-cab driver protection device has also been fitted. That sounds peculiar, but basically it monitors the driver’s eyes and if they close them, they get a jolt to make sure they do not fall asleep. That sounds slightly alarming when we first hear about it, but it has worked in the system and is helping. The only question I have for the Government on the RAIB recommendations is to ask them to commit to continuing the work RAIB is doing and to ensure that those improvements carry on across the country, not just in Croydon.

I want to focus the rest of my remarks on two key issues. They are entirely non-political and quite complicated, so I hope that the House will forgive me. I will try to be as brief as I can. The first is about the legal precedent set by the inquest into the tram crash, which the legal team, the families and I believe will have far-reaching policy implications for inquests in the future. The second is the loophole in the law that restricts what the British Transport police were able to consider when it came to charging anybody in their investigations.

Let me turn to the inquest first. After the RAIB review and the British Transport police investigation that concluded that a charge of manslaughter could not be brought, a date for the inquest into the tram crash was set. It was delayed several times, largely because of covid, which caused more trauma for the families as they expected it to start only for it not to do so. They felt that as the Grenfell inquiry went ahead during the covid period, theirs should have too.

In July this year, the inquest into the crash ruled that the deaths of seven passengers in the Croydon tram crash were accidental. I want to set out what happened. The inquest took evidence at length from RAIB, and it also took three days of evidence from the British Transport police. As Members know, an inquest has a coroner and a jury, and I am grateful to the jury of people of Croydon who gave their time to this very difficult inquest.

None of the evidence in the first few weeks, from RAIB or the British Transport police, involved hearing from anyone who was there at the crash, or from anyone who was involved—witnesses, people who train tram drivers, the people who ran the tram operating company or TfL, which is responsible for the tracks. RAIB did a brilliant job and had spoken to many people as part of its investigation, but no one was named. The way that the body is set up means that it does not name who has said what; it just publishes its conclusions. Everything was at second hand. The same applies to the British Transport police—everything reported in the inquest was at second hand.

The coroner then adjourned for three weeks to consider whether or not to take any further evidence, which they would normally be expected to do. The coroner concluded that no further evidence would be taken, based on what is called the Norfolk ruling. The Norfolk ruling concerns the inquest into the deaths of four men killed in a helicopter crash in Norfolk in 2014. There was a dispute as to whether the Air Accidents Investigation Branch should reveal the contents of the black box. The judge added three paragraphs to the end of the ruling, saying:

“Unless there is credible evidence that the independent investigation”—

in this case by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, and in our case by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch—

“is ‘incomplete, flawed or deficient’, the better approach is”,

and it goes through a series of options. They include:

“To treat the findings and conclusions of the independent body as ‘the evidence as to the cause of the accident’ supplemented, if necessary by, short additional evidence from the inspector.”

The ruling is effectively saying that unless what RAIB or the AAIB had concluded was “incomplete, flawed or deficient”, the inquest should just take its evidence and no one else’s.

After three weeks of talking to people, the coroner decided to apply the ruling to the Croydon tram inquest, so the accident investigating body was the only one, apart from the British Transport police, to give evidence. This took away the opportunity for the jury to hear from people who were there, or people who worked for Tram Operations Limited, which runs the trams, or TfL, which runs the network.

After three weeks of being away, the jury were brought back and told they had to retire to make a verdict. The implications in a policy sense are very significant. There is now case law, given Norfolk and its interpretation by Croydon, that in any similar inquest into significant accidents where we see deaths—on trains, or on aeroplanes, helicopters, buses, or trams—a jury of ordinary people will never get to hear evidence from people who have first-hand experience or are experts in their field and can help the jury come to a sensible rounded decision based on their conclusions of the facts.

Ben Posford from Osbornes Law, who is here today, is lead solicitor for five of the seven families. After the verdict, Ben said that the ruling was “far too broad,” meaning future inquests into public transport accidents will be

“rubber-stamping exercises...which renders the inquest an expensive farce...The families feel deeply let down by the inquest process and can see no point in having such an inquiry and then calling none of those responsible to give evidence to the jury.”

Jean Smith, the mother of Mark Smith, who died in the crash, said after the verdict:

“I am bitterly disappointed as justice has not been done today. It has been a total farce as we have only heard half of the evidence and no one who could potentially have been responsible for the crash has been called as a witness.

It’s morally wrong that we haven’t been able to hear from anybody from TfL, TOL or the driver during the proceedings…It feels like they have been able to hide from giving evidence and it simply isn’t fair or just.”

It is really important to say that we do not know whether the outcome would have been any different if evidence had been taken from other people, but the principle is crucial when we look at our legal system. Inquests are a vital public function. When something so horrific happens, people want to know how it happened, and they want to hear directly from those involved. If the accident investigation branch gives evidence but the families and the jury do not get to hear from the individuals involved, they do not get the same sense of what actually happened.

Those potentially responsible need to have their say; without that, families are left with a sense of cover-up. It was incredibly important for the families to hear from the company directors, other drivers and trainers. I will give an example. The dashboard in front of the tram driver, as hon. Members might imagine, is very complex, and there is something on it telling him where he is going. For people trying to understand what happened, it would be useful to hear evidence from someone who trains tram drivers about how that dashboard is looked at, how it works, and how likely the driver might have been to have seen it, to understand the context in which the jury are being asked to make a decision.

I want to place on the record, as I have already, my thanks to RAIB. It did a brilliant job, and its witnesses did their best at the inquest. However, the families of the victims do not feel it was sufficient to hear from RAIB instead of the individuals present. Similarly, Detective Superintendent Gary Richardson, the excellent senior investigating officer for the British Transport police who led the investigation, gave evidence for three days, but again, he had to summarise the witness statements that he had received. He did that very well, and he managed to include very many of them, but it was his decision what to include and what not to include; the inquest did not hear directly from the witnesses.

RAIB is prevented by statute from expressing an opinion about wrongdoing. The jury in Croydon were being asked to make a ruling on unlawful killing, which inherently includes wrongdoing, but the RAIB witnesses, the only people the jury heard from, were prevented from expressing an opinion on that. How can a jury possibly ever make a verdict of unlawful killing when they have heard only from a body that is not allowed, by law, to express an opinion? The jury are the arbiter. They clearly needed to be able to go further and ask individuals for other evidence. It is not for human behaviour experts at RAIB, excellent though they are, to determine what is right and wrong.

It is hard for the families to feel a sense of justice. As I said, we do not know whether the outcome would have been different, but the policy implications of this case are significant, and the Government should look at it. The families have a real sense of unease. I know that this is a complex issue, but it is genuinely important. If this decision stands, the accident investigation boards are now all-powerful. They are the all-seeing experts, dispensers of justice, determiners of fact, and curtains behind which defaulters will be kept from the public eye. Inquests and juries are made irrelevant.

I would love for the Minister to agree to meet me and the families, and perhaps the legal team, to talk about this situation. The Norfolk ruling could be overturned by judicial review—that is possibly a route that the families could go down—but it could also be clarified by legislation. We have the power in this place to set this muddle, which I think has wide-ranging implications, straight.

The second point that I want to make, more briefly, is about a loophole in the law that needs changing. The offence of causing death by dangerous driving is committed, under section 1 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, when the suspect’s driving is a cause or factor in the death of another person and the driving was dangerous. By “dangerous” we mean within the meaning of section 2A of the 1988 Act, so the standard of driving

“falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver, and…it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.”

The offence of causing death by careless driving is in section 2B of the 1988 Act, and it is committed when the manner of the suspect’s driving causes the death of another person. The definition of that offence is linked to the provisions of section 3ZA of the Act, which specifies:

“A person is to be regarded as driving without due care and attention”

if the way he or she drives

“falls below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver.”

For causing death by dangerous driving, the standard of driving must fall far below what would be expected of a competent driver, whereas for death by careless driving the standard of driving must merely fall below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver.

This is the key point: the law on death by dangerous driving and death by careless driving does not apply if the tram is off-road. It applies if a tram is going along a road, but it does not apply if a tram is off the road. Some 97% of the Croydon tram network is off-road, on old railway lines. The British Transport police were therefore unable to charge someone in this case, as the charges did not exist. The Road Traffic Act sets out that causing death by reckless driving or death without due care must happen in a mechanically propelled motor vehicle on a road or other public place. Safety legislation relating to roads may sometimes apply to trams, but the stretch of track on which the Croydon tram crash occurred was a dedicated tramway, not a road.

This is a very small but really obvious loophole in the law, and it would apply again if the same thing happened. We therefore want to bring the law on trams in line with the law for other vehicles for which offences of death by dangerous driving apply. I have had positive conversations about this with the British Transport police, who are very keen, as one would imagine, and Transport for London, which wrote to me and said it would in principle support such a law.

I need to stress that if British Transport police had been able to charge someone with death by dangerous driving, it does not mean that they would have done. It does not mean that the tram driver would have been charged with anything at all. It means that the British Transport police would have had that as an option. The only option they had was manslaughter, and the criteria for manslaughter are much higher—the threshold was too high. As I say, we do not know whether it would have applied or not, but that is a loophole in the law. I hope the Minister can meet us to talk about it. We would only need a tiny piece of law—I could draft it—but it would need Government support to get through.

Britain’s tramways have a proud history. The first horse-drawn tram was the Swansea and Mumbles Railways in Wales in 1804. Trams still help to connect our greatest cities and regions. A report out today on how we level up the country calls for more trams, because they are environmentally very clean and they help people to get from A to B very quickly. They are very efficient, and I would love them to be extended in Croydon. Our community in Croydon absolutely loves the trams and we were completely devastated by the crash. Ever since, we have been very keen to make sure that nothing like it can ever happen again. The Government must do everything possible to implement all the safety recommendations for tram systems across the country. They should look to fix the loophole in the law on dangerous driving on tramways and ensure that the families of those who die in any such dreadful situation know they have the justice they need and deserve.

Passengers on our tram networks across the UK deserve to feel safe and to know that the right systems are in place. I hope tonight that the Government will help me to make that a reality.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) on securing this very important debate on tram safety and on her speech this evening. She is absolutely right to pay tribute to those who assisted at the scene and thereafter. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his contribution.

What happened at Sandilands was truly tragic. I know that this accident has particular significance to the hon. Lady and her constituents, as well as to those in the tram sector. The recent inquest must also have bought back painful memories for many people. Our thoughts remain with those who lost their lives or were injured in the tragedy at Sandilands, and with their families and friends. I am absolutely confident that Baroness Vere, the Minister with responsibility for light rail, will be very happy to meet the families.

After the incident, the rail accident investigation branch carried out an independent investigation to establish the causes, making a total of 15 recommendations in December 2017, with an addendum published in October 2018. The recommendations included setting up a new joint industry body to enable UK-wide co-operation on safety matters; developing tram standards and good practice; and providing authoritative, impartial advice for the industry to better understand, identify and foresee risk.

Subsequently, the Government provided funding to set up the Light Rail Safety and Standards Board, which the hon. Member for Croydon Central referred to, to ensure safer journeys for tram passengers and to help implement the recommendations of the RAIB’s investigation report across the industry. To date, the Government have provided more than £3 million of funding to the board to spearhead sustainable improvements in the management of safety risk in the industry and to allow more effective UK-wide co-operation.

I concur with the hon. Member’s comments that the tram industry and the LRSSB have made good progress in implementing the recommendations. I would like to cover several areas of that progress. First, the board set up an industry risk model, as well as the tram accident and incident reporting database, which is now implemented and embedded across the UK tram network. It has developed an assessment tool that helps the sector to understand risks relevant to individual networks and identifies potential gaps in design, processes and people. I am pleased to say that the research and development programmes run by the board have been able to identify potential sector-wide solutions to elements in the Sandilands report, and that those programmes have been recognised internationally.

Importantly, the tramway principles and guidance are now under the custodianship of the board. Previously administered by the Office of Rail and Road, they are now the cornerstone of the new digital reference library and are continually updated online with the latest best practice. Finally, the board continues to explore new and emerging technologies to bolster tram safety, drawing from different industries both nationally and internationally.

I understand that there are some recommendations that need to be fully implemented across the whole system, but I assure the House that the board will continue to update the Office of Rail and Road on its progress and that my Department will continue to monitor that progress and push for the recommendations to be implemented as soon as possible.

To address the specific points that the hon. Member raised, I am desperately sorry to hear that some of the families are distressed by the senior coroner’s verdict, and I have listened carefully to the potential implications of the Norfolk precedent. I know that the hon. Member understands that coroners and inquests are rightly independent of Government, and given that families are preparing for a potential judicial review, it is not appropriate for me to comment any further. However, I reiterate the offer of a meeting with Baroness Vere; it is absolutely right and proper for the hon. Member to call for that, and I am sure that it will happen.

I thank the hon. Member for bringing to my attention the potential loophole in transport legislation. My Department will investigate it thoroughly.

Safety on our tramways is paramount for the Government. That is why we have provided more than £200 million in emergency funding to allow trams to keep running during the pandemic so that key workers could travel, and why we build on the vital work of the independent Office of Rail and Road, the Light Rail Safety and Standards Board and all tram systems across the UK to ensure that we have the very highest standards of public safety on our public transport systems.

Let me end by reiterating that light rail systems have an integral role to play in the economic and social recovery of this country post pandemic. Light rail boosts connectivity, improving access to jobs, healthcare and local services, all while improving air quality, but the tramways should also be as safe as possible. I hope that the actions that I have highlighted today reassure Members across the House that the Government are taking tram safety extremely seriously. The Sandilands incident should never be allowed to happen again.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.