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Railways: Bridge Strikes

Volume 814: debated on Tuesday 7 September 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to reduce the risk of vehicles hitting railway bridges in order to improve rail passenger safety and reduce disruption.

My Lords, reducing bridge strikes involves interventions from the owners of bridges—usually Network Rail—highways authorities and the owners and operators of vehicles. Network Rail raises driver awareness and offers advice on avoiding low bridges. It has published Prevention of Bridge Strikes: A Good Practice Guide on GOV.UK.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that Answer and I commend the work that Network Rail has done, but my Question arises from an incident in Plymouth, on bank holiday Monday, which closed the west of England line for three days and affected tens of thousands of passengers, when a Tesco lorry hit a bridge. According to Network Rail, 43% of drivers do not know the height of their lorries. That is pretty frightening. According to Network Rail again, there are something like five bridge bashes every day, and clearly there will be occasions when there could be very serious accidents. Will the Minister, in addition to supporting Network Rail’s work, encourage it to claim all the costs from every bridge bash, including the cost of delays to trains, the cost of rebuilding and of course the cost of the delays to passengers? At the moment, it is costing the taxpayer £23 million a year, which seems rather a lot of money.

I am not wholly sure where the noble Lord got the figure of £23 million a year, but I would point out that costs are not necessarily met by the taxpayer; it depends on the circumstances. If liability rests with a vehicle driver, the costs will be recovered through insurance, and Network Rail has been successful in recovering large amounts for both infrastructure repair and compensation in the past.

The Road Haulage Association promotes the use of specialised lorry satellite navigation devices, which give bridge heights. Do the Government plan to take any steps to help promote their use more widely, or even make it a requirement that they be fitted and used in a similar way to tachographs? If they do not do so already, could such devices not also be adapted to give a warning to drivers approaching bridges that are lower than the height of their truck and trailer?

I agree with the noble Lord that technology will provide at least some of the answers to the problems we currently face. As he will know, Network Rail often installs special technology on some of the more bashed bridges that measures the height of the approaching vehicle and then flashes up “Turn Back” signs. Of course, we are very happy to work with the freight associations—and indeed we do—on ensuring that HGV drivers are fully aware of the technology available to them both in their cab and on the roads.

My Lords, without the quick-acting response of a local resident calling the emergency phone number by the bridge in Plymouth in the incident referred to earlier, a high-speed derailment was highly likely. I went to visit the site the day after it happened. As Plymouth had just had a very severe event associated with a fire alarm, I am delighted that nobody was hurt in this incident. However, there must be more that we can do. The south-west rail network has been significantly under-invested in; there are only two lines, one going one way and one the other, from Plymouth to Cornwall. This results in overcrowded trains, resulting—particularly with Covid—in the risk of cross-infection, as we have recently seen in Devon and Cornwall. So I ask the Minister not only about the safety of bridges but about safe and sufficient trains.

The noble Baroness has taken the Question a little more broadly than the brief, and I am afraid I will not be able to comment on the capacity of trains in the south-west. However, I agree that bridge strikes are dangerous, disruptive and costly. The solution does not lie in any single intervention; we must maintain our focus on getting bridge owners to put up the relevant signage and getting highways authorities to put up warning signs ahead of these bridges, and of course we must double down on our efforts to communicate with HGV drivers and bus drivers to ensure that they know exactly how high their vehicle is—indeed, by law they must know this, and it must also be displayed in the cab.

My Lords, the Minister has already noted that the Government support Network Rail in recovering costs from operators of HGVs involved in avoidable crashes. Network Rail also said that it will report bridge strikes to the Traffic Commissioners for Great Britain, the regulator responsible for licensing professional drivers, who have the power to suspend or revoke licences. Will Her Majesty’s Government support Network Rail in its pursuance of the suspension or revocation of HGV licences in this situation?

Absolutely, and I can reassure the noble Baroness that I have already been on the case in this matter. Bridge strikes have not suddenly arrived on our doorstep recently, although I am pleased to say they seem to be coming down in number, which is a relief. I wrote to the Traffic Commissioners on 17 September last year, after a terrible bus crash—noble Lords may remember it—where the top of the bus, which had children on board, went into the bridge. It was a very serious matter. I asked the commissioner to remind all operators of their obligations, and he wrote me a very helpful response just a week later setting out a range of measures he would take, not only communicating with the drivers and operators but setting out what steps must happen when an event has occurred—there is usually a public inquiry, the driver may face suspension or revocation in more serious cases, and the operator can face sanctions relating to their licensing. So the Government do take this matter very seriously.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Berkeley has highlighted a very important issue. Is the noble Baroness satisfied that the signage as set out in the Highway Code is as clear as it should be? I lived in the east Midlands, in Derbyshire, where there are a number of bridges. It is about not only the height of the vehicle but its width; sometimes the lorry arrives and the signage has not been put out properly for it to see the problem in advance. Can we look at that? If the noble Baroness is going to tell me that the signage is correct, what procedures are there to review the advice from time to time to ensure that the prevailing view is actually correct?

The regulations setting out what signs are needed are actually set out in chapter 4 of the Traffic Signs Manual, which is published by the DfT. We set out comprehensive advice on signage approaching a bridge to make sure that reduced height clearances are clearly set out in advance. It is up to the highways authority, under Section 41 of the Highways Act 1980, to make sure that the signage is appropriate. If noble Lords are aware of signs which they feel are insufficient, they should get in touch with the local highways authority, which has a responsibility to make sure the signage is correct. We feel confident that the Traffic Signs Manual sets out exactly what is required.