RAILWAYS (DERAILMENT, CASTLE CARY)
Mr. Edward M. Taylor (by Private Notice)
asked the Minister of Transport whether he will make a statement on the accident which took place on Friday last, involving the derailment of a passenger train.[column 35]
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Richard Marsh)
Yes, Sir, I much regret to inform the House that at 16.35 on Friday afternoon the 14.45 diesel-hauled nine-coach express passenger train from Paignton to Paddington was derailed on the up main line at a point about 6 miles west of Castle Cary.
Reported casualties are that 53 passengers were taken to hospital, 12 of whom were detained—one of the latter has since died.
I know that the House will join with me in expressing sincere sympathy with the relatives of the passenger who lost his life and with the injured. Emergency services were called within 10 minutes of the derailment and arrived on the scene without delay.
An inspecting officer of Railways visited the scene of the accident on the evening that it happened and made a detailed examination of the track on the following morning. The derailment occurred on a curve where the track was laid with continuously welded rail. The inspecting officer found a distortion of the track of some 2 ft. 9 ins. towards the outside of the curve at the point of initial derailment.
Early reports that part of the train caught fire after the accident are untrue. The down line was reopened to traffic at midnight on Saturday and the up line at 19.12 yesterday. This was a commendable achievement.
A public inquiry into this accident will be held as soon as possible.
In view of the fact that, in his last report, the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways called for more continuous welded track as a means of safety, is it not worrying that this accident took place on continuous track? In view of the substantial and steady rise in derailments over the past four years, and the multitude of reasons which have been advanced for them, would the right hon. Gentleman consider harnessing the best brains at the excellent research centre at Derby with the best experts outside the industry to probe further into the increase in derailments, particularly in view of the superb record of safety which British Railways have always enjoyed?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's last remarks. There is no [column 36]evidence to show that continuous welded rail is other than a distinct improvement on jointed rail. It is widely used in Europe and other countries, and all the evidence indicates that it is safer than jointed rail.
The hon. Gentleman will know that a considerable programme of research takes place at the Derby Research Centre of British Railways, which is regarded as probably the leading research centre in the world in terms of safety.
Mr. Peter Mills
Is the Minister aware that some of us are very concerned about the speeding up of the time table to the South-West, particularly in view of the speeds at which that means the trains have to run? Is he further aware that most of us would rather arrive safe and on time rather than five minutes early as a result of a speeded-up service?
Obviously, nothing that I say is designed to deal with this specific immediate accident, which is open to an inquiry at present. It should be borne in mind that, while these accidents are always tragic, they should be kept in proportion. We have about one derailment per million miles. We have about one passenger death per 100 million passenger journeys. While these accidents are very unfortunate, they represent a very good safety record.
A number of measures have been taken to deal with derailments. One is the reduction of speed of freight trains, and that includes short-wheelbase wagons. We are also doing a great deal in terms of improved training for drivers and the modification of braking systems of certain locomotives to achieve smoother braking.
Mr. Geoffrey Wilson
Although the Minister has said that longer track is perfectly safe, in view of the disquiet caused by statements in the Press in connection with this accident, when the inquiry is completed will it be possible to publish the evidence with regard to the safety factors of the longer track?
The inquiry will be public. The important point is that all the evidence that I know of both in this country and overseas points to a considerable safety bonus with continuous welded rail as opposed to jointed track.
Mr. Hector Hughes
In framing the terms of reference of the inquiry, will [column 37]my right hon. Friend make them sufficiently wide as to include the many sad and disastrous accidents which have occurred recently, with a view to realising that this is not only a technical but a humanitarian matter affecting the whole of Britain?
The other accidents to which my hon. and learned Friend refers have been the subject of public inquiries. There is not a common cause through all accidents. Before drawing any conclusions from this one, I think that it would be as well to wait for the outcome of the public inquiry.
Is the Minister aware that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House share his expressions of sympathy to the relatives and thanks to those who helped so much. In the Western Region, during the past 10 days of hot weather, how many instances have there been of lines buckling as a result of the heat?
I could not say without notice.
Would the Minister see fit to send his congratulations to the emergency services in Somerset—police, fire and ambulance—whose prompt attention ensured the safety of survivors?
In paying tribute to the services that they rendered, it was my purpose to place this on public record, and I know that British Railways, as is always the case, will express their gratitude to them.
While recognising that the pending inquiry into this case renders the matter sub judice, so to speak, will my right hon. Friend pay meticulous attention to the evidence which is likely to come out, including any representations from within the industry, particularly the trade union side, possibly complaining about the frequency of and methods used in modern track inspection?
I think that my hon. Friend's question begins to touch upon the subjects for the inquiry, and I would rather leave it at that.
While accepting what Richard Marshthe right hon. Gentleman said about the excellent safety record of British Railways, would he not agree that a situation [column 38]in which we have an increasing number of derailments on less track, the reasons for which we do not know, is a very alarming one? Will he endeavour to widen the inquiry to see that it goes more generally into the question of derailments, in fairness both to those who use and to those who operate the railways?
I do not think that it would be wise to widen the inquiry. There is no evidence at the moment that the lessons to be learned from this accident are necessarily applicable to other accidents. We are getting a greater degree of knowledge about some of the causes. Some undoubtedly stem from the switch from steam to diesel locomotives, with more difficult braking systems and higher speeds. We are taking measures to meet that change.
What terms of reference are given to the Derby Research Centre?
The centre carries out part of the railways' research and development programme which is approved by the Minister each year. It carries out research into any matters affecting the railways and railway safety. In terms of railway safety, I do not think that anyone would question that the Derby Research Centre is probably as well endowed as any other establishment in the world.
Several Hon. Members
Order. Mr. Healey. Statement.