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Selby Rail Crash

Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2001

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7.58 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister in another place about the tragic accident at Selby at about 6.20 this morning. The Statement is as follows:

"I am grateful to the House and in particular the Opposition for giving me the opportunity to make this Statement at this time, which has allowed me to visit the scene this afternoon.

"The latest casualty figures are 13 killed. We believe at present that these include two train drivers. There are 75 other casualties, 10 of whom are in a serious or critical condition. I am sure that all Members of the House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the injured and to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in this tragic and horrific accident.

"When I visited the scene I saw for myself the tremendous efforts of our emergency services and the many agencies involved in dealing with the accident. As always, they showed true professionalism, courage and efficiency in yet again the most difficult circumstances.

"The House will want to join me in paying tribute to the North Yorkshire Police, working with the British Transport Police and other forces, the local lire brigades and ambulance services, the Royal Air Force's air sea rescue helicopters, and the local hospitals which treated the injured.

"My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Health is visiting hospitals this evening and will be thanking hospital staff for their work today. I also want to pay tribute to the way in which members of the local community responded so quickly with help and comfort to the passengers.

"Let me turn to the facts of the tragedy in so far as they are known. At approximately 6.20 a.m. this morning a Land Rover was travelling west along the M62 motorway, pulling a trailer carrying another car. It left the motorway as it approached a bridge which crosses over the East Coast Main Line. The bridge is protected by crash barriers. But the vehicle left the road some 30 metres before the beginning of the crash barrier. It then travelled along and down the embankment behind the safety barrier before falling down the railway cutting and onto the railway track. In all, on present information, it is estimated that the vehicle travelled more than 100 metres from leaving the main carriageway before reaching the railway line.

"The driver got out of his vehicle and phoned the North Yorkshire Police. As he was speaking to them the 4.45 a.m. GNER Newcastle to London train, carrying more than 100 passengers, collided with the vehicle on the track.

"The passenger train left the rails as a result of the collision but remained upright. Almost immediately it then collided with an oncoming freight train. The time between the emergency call and the first collision was some 40 seconds, and the two trains crashed within seconds after that.

"It is essential that this appalling tragedy is subject to the fullest investigation. There are a number of agencies involved in this—the Health and Safety Executive's railway inspectorate, the British Transport and North Yorkshire police, and the Highways Agency. I have asked the Health and Safety Executive, therefore, to provide me with an interim report within the next few days. I shall then make a decision as to what further steps may be appropriate. I shall ensure that the report is made public".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement that was made by the Deputy Prime Minister in another place earlier this evening.

8.2 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement this evening. On behalf of all noble Lords on these Benches, I join with the Minister in expressing our grief and sympathy for those who died or who were involved in the accident. At this time we feel for their families, we feel for those who cannot be sure that their loved ones are safe, and we also feel for those who might not yet have found out that their loved ones are involved.

On these occasions we rightly praise the sterling efforts of our emergency services. Successful handling of these disasters is derived from two factors. The first is the courage, determination, resourcefulness and skill of those involved on the scene. However, we should not forget the second factor; namely, the emergency planning carried out a long time in advance just in case. Mercifully, it does not get tested too often.

This accident occurred as a result of an unbelievably unfortunate chain of events. If any one of them had not taken place, the accident—if it had happened at all—would not have been nearly so serious. There will, of course, be public and media concern over the safety crash barriers. I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that much research has taken place over many years. As a result, hundreds or even thousands of lives have been saved by the barriers. Noble Lords will be aware that the Highways Agency and local authorities are constantly installing more crash barriers to protect high-risk features. Of course, there are a few which are more high-risk than railway crossings. Indeed, there was a similar accident in Germany a while ago.

I have no intention of asking any technical questions tonight. We shall find out more tomorrow, and the preliminary results of the official investigation will no doubt be available within a few days. I am also confident that the Minister has taken all the appropriate steps following this most tragic disaster.

8.4 p.m.

My Lords, I associate these Benches with the expression of sympathy that has been made to the injured and to the friends and families of those who were killed in this astonishing and catastrophic accident. Indeed, I believe that it is the worst accident on the railways for several years. When the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Health, and others, are talking with people who were involved in the accident, I hope that they will ensure that those involved do understand that Parliament as a whole—not just this House, but also the other place—is deeply sympathetic as regards what happened today.

As the noble Earl just said, it was an extraordinary collection of events all happening within seconds, as the Statement makes plain. In all the confusion, and considering the terrible things that happened, it was a mercy that the engine of the train, which I understand was derailed, actually stopped short of hitting the nearest houses. Had it not stopped, that would have added yet another horrendous aspect to this already terrible accident.

There are questions that could be asked, but can the Minister assure me that the North Yorkshire Police will be carrying out the usual investigations that apply to any road incident? I ask that because, at the bottom of this, we are talking about an incident on a motorway. It is not for us to judge what happened or, indeed, what caused that accident. But that was the cause of the rail accident.

Further, can the Minister say whether the investigation of the Health and Safety Executive's railway inspectorate will cover all the other rail-oriented factors that might have made a difference one way or the other? Bridges have a natural vulnerability when they are involved in accidents with cars. That may sound a silly way of putting it, but not only is the car vulnerable in such circumstances but so, too, is the bridge. The Statement explained what seemed to me as I watched the events unfolding this morning to be an impossibility; namely, a car going over the barrier of a motorway bridge and ending up on a track. But, of course, it did not go over the barrier; it went behind the barrier, which is quite different.

I am sure that there are questions to consider and decisions to be taken as a result of the accident. Despite the fact that I agree with what has been said about the great care that is taken with bridges, I hope that the vulnerability of bridges will, nevertheless, be borne in mind. We look forward to the publication of the results of the inquiry. In closing my remarks, I repeat our sympathy for those who have been injured and for those who have lost loved ones today.

8.8 p.m.

My Lords, the House will share my appreciation of the sincere tribute made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, to the emergency services and their careful contingency planning of even the most unexpected of accidents. The Highways Agency is constantly concerned about its standards in relation to crash barriers. I thank the noble Earl for his remarks, with which I associate myself completely.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, is right to stress the exceptional and awful coincidences at work in this morning's accident. As I said, the railway inspectorate will produce an interim report, which I hope we shall receive at an early stage. This will be made public. Like noble Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware of the professionalism that is inherent in the inspectorate. I am sure that it will consider every aspect of this tragedy.

As the noble Baroness said, bridges are, indeed, vulnerable. One of the primary functions of the crash barriers erected around bridges is that they should offer protection above railway lines. They are built to agreed standards. My understanding is that the crash barriers on this bridge were in fact longer than the required standard for such barriers. However, as the noble Baroness rightly pointed out, in these circumstances we have a vehicle that seems to have gone off the road before the barrier and then travelled a hundred metres or so on to the track. Those circumstance will be inquired into by North Yorkshire Police and other agencies. The Transport Research Laboratory has a team now at work assisting the Highways Agency. It, too, will make a report and, where appropriate, I shall bring those reports to the attention of your Lordships' House.

8.10 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to add words of sympathy from these Benches after this terrible tragedy. I do so as a bishop from Yorkshire although my diocese is on one side of the boundary where this accident took place.

When I heard the news this morning, I was with a choir and readers ready to broadcast the Radio 4 service on the BBC. We were able to do in that service what I know many others will have done during the day; that is, to remember in our prayers those who have been killed, those who were injured, and those who rescued them.

As I thought more about this terrible event, it is only during the latter part of the day that I realised that some sympathy also needs to be shown to GNER. This is the second tragedy that that rail company has had to face. Naturally, our deepest sympathy must go to those whom we have already mentioned but I should like to put down that little marker of sadness for the rail company.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate draws our attention to the two tragedies which have now struck the GNER company. I echo with real sympathy his concerns. Many of us who today heard Mr Christopher Garnett, the Chief Executive of GNER, would have been clearly affected by the way in which he spoke so movingly of the terribly tragedy which has happened and of his sympathy for the injured and bereaved.

I add my admiration for the work of GNER in these difficult circumstances. All day it has been working to ensure that every assistance is given not only to the injured but also to relatives. It is arranging travel, accommodation and counselling for relatives, staff and those involved in the accident and those profoundly affected by it.

My Lords, I live in North Yorkshire and use this railway line every week when attending your Lordships' House. However, I wish to comment as the chairman of the North Yorkshire Police Authority. I thank the Minister for his generous remarks about the help that North Yorkshire Police have given in this tragic accident. I have been in close contact all day with the deputy chief constable in North Yorkshire who wishes your Lordships to know that he has been touched by the enormous amount of help and assistance that has been given all day. He will be grateful for your Lordships' recognition of that. He has been in liaison with other agencies and forces. He wished me to convey his gratitude to your Lordships' House; and I do so.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has much to be proud of in the way that the North Yorkshire Police Force has worked today along with the other emergency services. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister made clear at the scene of the accident how impressed he was with the way in which it had taken command of the situation in an effective but sensitive way. All of us who have watched as the tragedy has unfolded over the day would echo the noble Baroness's sentiments and praise the police force and other emergency services for their outstanding work.

My Lords, as have other noble Lords, I express my sympathy and extend thanks to the emergency services.

I am sorry to introduce this issue but matters will go on. No one knows how long the line will be closed; it may be for a short or a long period. If it is to be closed for any length of time there will need to be additional services on the West Coast Main Line. At present that line suffers from great restrictions. I hope that there will be liaison between the two railways to ensure that there is adequate provision of additional services for people travelling to the north, over the Pennines to York, and so on.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that question. GNER is the main operator on the East Coast Main Line. Its services north of Doncaster are currently suspended but its Leeds services are unaffected. It is too early to tell when those services can be resumed. All concerned are keen to reopen this important link as soon as possible. I take the noble Lord's point about the need for cooperation between companies in these circumstances. The rail recovery action group will meet tomorrow. That will give the industry an opportunity to share its views. At this stage it is too early to say when the service will reopen. I do not think that it would be proper for me to speculate on such matters before we have established the facts.

My Lords, at this time we think about this awful tragedy. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Blackburn, said, we have to look forward. The Minister will be aware that there has been considerable criticism about the length of time taken to get services running again through Hatfield, and to resume services when there are accidents, small and large. I understand what the Minister says, but can he assure us that once the necessary investigations have taken place and the wreckage cleared—clearly that is a sensitive matter because there may be more bodies—as a priority every effort will be made to get the line repaired and back into service, if possible within days rather than the 17 days involved with regard to Hatfield?

If services are to be diverted to Leeds—that is clearly a possibility—is consideration being given to suspending the work at Leeds Station?

My Lords, I spoke earlier of the close liaison between the British Transport Police and the North Yorkshire Police. I understand that the police are treating this as an accident investigation. It has not been identified as the scene of a crime, as was the case at Hatfield. From talking to the parties today, I know that there is a shared belief that the line should be opened as soon as is practical given the fact that agencies have to carry out proper inquiries. The rail recovery action group will meet tomorrow. Operational matters of the kind to which the noble Lord referred can no doubt be on the agenda of that meeting.