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Railways: Trees

Volume 689: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure the removal of trees liable to fall on railway lines in high winds.

My Lords, tree and vegetation management is an operational matter for Network Rail, which clears trees and other vegetation from the line-side where there is a safety or operational need to ensure that the network continues to run reliably. Network Rail and the train operators have measures in place to address the operational risks presented by severe weather, including high winds.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and, in passing, say that I regret what happened at Lambrigg. I was one of the many passengers of at least nine trains who were unable to leave London for Scotland with GNER on 18 January because a tree fell on to the overhead power line and hit the train preceding mine. That was a predictable incident.

When I recall the ever widening swathes of forest cut down by Scottish Power to protect its power lines and the requirements on landowners to remove vulnerable trees from the vicinity of footpaths, I am disappointed by how Network Rail approaches this much more dangerous situation. A tree could obviously derail a whole train. Does Network Rail have sufficient parliamentary powers to deal with this situation?

My Lords, before coming to that point I should express our deepest sympathy to those who have been bereaved or seriously injured—and to friends or relatives—by being caught up in the derailment at Grayrigg. I also praise all those involved in the emergency services for doing such a splendid job in mounting the rescue.

Network Rail has more than adequate powers to deal with the issue that the noble Earl raised. Its first priority is, of course, to operate a safe and reliable railway service, and since its setting-up it has made great strides toward that objective; tree clearance is an important part of achieving it.

My Lords, given that the National Trust was reported as wanting to cut down all its trees that could fall on the public on the advice of the Health and Safety Executive, is that executive giving similar advice to the railways and, for that matter, to the highways authorities?

My Lords, it may well give advice but Network Rail has to take a balanced view. Clearly, we want a pleasant environment surrounding rail lines, whether coming into major conurbations or across the nation, but we and Network Rail also have to ensure that it takes safety issues into careful consideration. It is a balance between environmental management and ensuring the safety of the travelling public.

My Lords, the basic issue is not about trees. It seems to be about the management of the railway, although it is not right to lay any particular claims about other people. Has the time not now come when it would be worth having another examination of the effects of the former Government’s decision on the structure of British Rail?

My Lords, I sympathise in general with that point of view, but I simply say that the structure that we have is the right one; it is beginning to settle down. There have been vast improvements in how the rail network operates in the last few years, and until the recent sad and tragic accident one could fairly have said that Network Rail had taken great strides toward ensuring that we have a safe, secure and well run rail network.

My Lords, we all want to commend the emergency services and show regret and tremendous sympathy for all those involved in the recent accident. I know that this is an operational matter for Network Rail, but how are faults reported? There is obviously public concern about that. I hope that the Minister can inform the House whether he knows if they are reported by the lines or track being given an all-clear, and whether they are reported manually or by mechanical IT devices, so that people are aware of problems. Can he enlighten the House about some of those issues?

My Lords, there is of course a proper system in place for the accurate recording of faults on the track, and Network Rail is responsible for it. I am more than happy to furnish details to the noble Lord about fault-recording processes, and to other noble Lords who are interested.

My Lords, may I return to the question from my noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie? Can the Minister be quite specific on whether Network Rail’s powers extend to items outside the railway fence that may fall on to the railway and cause damage, trees being among them, or whether its powers are limited to those areas within the fence along the railway lines?

My Lords, I understand that it has the authority to talk to other, adjacent landowners to try and secure the safe passage of trains through the rail system. I know that it works closely and consults other land users and owners, which it clearly has to do to ensure that it can properly provide a safe path and passage for the rail system.

My Lords, does my noble friend appreciate that the Forestry Commission, in which I must declare an interest as chairman, inspects all its trees alongside all public highways for safety and then takes remedial action? Could that course of action not sensibly be followed by Network Rail?

My Lords, I am aware of the Forestry Commission’s work in that regard, and I congratulate the noble Lord on his work on its behalf. As I understand it, Network Rail does exactly that.