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Transport: Road and Rail Accidents

Volume 711: debated on Monday 22 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what guidance is given to the police and transport authorities on the reopening of routes after road and rail accidents.

My Lords, incident management is an operational matter for the emergency services and transport authorities. Restoring transport services is important to everyone, but the priorities must be to preserve life and public safety, to deal sensitively with any fatalities, and to collect evidence. The Government do not issue operational guidance, but we encourage emergency services and transport authorities to work together on how to deal with accidents and minimise disruption.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord to the Dispatch Box for the first time.

In an accident, no one objects to traffic being held up to rescue the injured. However, where there is a clear fatality—say a suicide on the railways, however tragic that may be in personal terms—should not the emphasis be on restarting traffic to enable those affected to continue their travel and their lives, as it were, rather than having a lengthy and laborious scene-of-crime investigation?

Life is full of surprises, my Lords. I thank the noble Lord very much for his kind words.

I have great sympathy with the point that the noble Lord makes. The British Transport Police, which is primarily responsible for dealing with the sort of incident on the railway to which he refers, has a remarkably good record in getting lines open again. It has a target of 90 minutes; last year it exceeded that and achieved a reopening time of 76 minutes, and I am told that it hopes to do better again this year.

The police have to be absolutely certain that no crime has been committed before they can reopen the roads, and have to work with the other emergency services. It is important, particularly in the hours of darkness, that evidence is not lost because of a too hasty opening of the operation. If it is possible to improve co-ordination between the emergency services, we should look at that, and we can always do better.

My Lords, last year not a single passenger or workforce fatality was caused by a train accident, for the third time in the last four years. Can my noble friend—I, too, congratulate him on his well merited appointment—tell the House why, when deaths occur regularly on our roads, there appears to be no equivalent independent investigation to that which would follow a train accident death to see what lessons can be learnt and what remedial action can be taken to avoid a recurrence? Is it not in the interests of safety that we put an end to the culture that road deaths are somehow an inevitable aspect of that form of transport?

My Lords, I have great sympathy with the point of view expressed by my noble friend. He is absolutely right: as a country, we accept all too unthinkingly the 3,000 deaths a year that occur on our roads, but when an incident occurs on our railway—it would obviously be a much higher profile incident—there is enormous media attention. The emphasis must be on reducing the number of road casualties and getting the country much less used to believing that it is acceptable to kill and injure the number of people who currently suffer from road accidents.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, when it comes to a railway accident, there are at least four organisations involved—the local police, British Transport Police, the Health and Safety Executive, now part of the Office of Rail Regulation, and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch—all of them looking for evidence? Does he not agree that there would be a lot of benefit in rationalising the roles of some of those organisations so that the work was done more quickly? Is he aware that there was a suspected fatality between Didcot and Reading recently, where a man was seen lying beside the track and trains were delayed for many hours? It turned out that the man was asleep and drunk and then just walked away.

My Lords, I can correct my noble friend on the incident he refers to. It occurred on 20 May alongside the track at Pangbourne. A gentleman had, indeed, had too much drink at lunchtime and lay down to sleep alongside the line. The driver of a passing train thought that he had seen a body and quite rightly the line was closed and the police investigated. As the police arrived, he got up and staggered away. On that occasion, the line was reopened, not many hours later, as my noble friend said, but 45 minutes later. But I accept his point that there were 3,000 minutes of delay to other trains. The police acted expeditiously and it is important that we encourage them to do so in such cases. As far as co-ordination between the various bodies is concerned, it is important that the blue-light services, the county police and the other forces are brought in and work together in as co-operative a manner as possible.

My Lords, may I join in welcoming the Minister to the world of the Whips’ Offices? The Minister will be aware of the availability of laser surveying equipment for road traffic accidents. Is he convinced that the police have enough of it and what requirements do the Home Office and the Department for Transport impose on the police in this regard?

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his welcome, and I hope there will be other occasions when we shall be exchanging ideas across the Dispatch Box. I have been extraordinarily well briefed for this Question, and I asked some further questions of the department over the weekend and again this morning. I have to confess, however, that the question that he has raised is not in the briefing, so I hope he will permit me on this occasion to write to him with the answer.

My Lords, it is quite often the case that the British Transport Police is not the first force to arrive on the site of a fatality. Can the noble Lord say why it is that the local police forces take so much longer than the British Transport Police to get the line working again and what is being done to make sure that the techniques they use are spread to local police forces?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a good point. The force which has the real expertise for dealing with the railway is the British Transport Police. The record that it has achieved over recent years under Chief Constable Sir Ian Johnston, who is about to retire, has been remarkable. It is always preferable if it is able to get to an incident on the railway before the county police, but it has no priority and it is required to work together with the county force. Whether it is necessary for us to be talking to both organisations to see whether greater co-operation can be achieved is something I would like to go away and think about.