Railways (Higham Tunnel)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th April 1967.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McBride.]

11.55 a.m.

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

I wish to raise the matter of conditions in Higham Tunnel, which has been causing considerable concern to many people using the South-Eastern Region of British Rail. It has not only affected their convenience on several occasions but might well affect their safety.

On 28th November last, a Gillingham to Chatham train ran into a heap of chalk which had fallen on to the line in Higham Tunnel. I understand—this has not been denied by British Rail—that this was one of at least four major falls of chalk in the last 10 or 12 years. Both the track and the train suffered minor damage, and the train was delayed for about three hours. A British Rail spokesman later said, "This tunnel is safe." But, as a result of the incident, newspapers in the Medway Towns and other Kent towns expressed grave concern for the safety of trains using the tunnel, as did many people who travel on the line. I have representations from many people in my constituency. Railmen questioned about the tunnel are alleged to have said that, unless improvements are made, there will be a major disaster.

Even if we assume to be correct, the view of the railway spokesman that the tunnel is safe, it cannot be denied that travellers on this and other trains suffered gross inconvenience as the result of the fall of chalk. The train was delayed for about three hours. British Railways have said nothing to suggest that there will be no such delays in future. Surely they cannot just sit back and adopt the attitude of "So what? Let us wait and see what happens."

Is there only a threat of delay to passengers, or is there a threat to their safety? I submit that there is a grave and real danger, which is why I have pressed for this debate. On 23rd December last, I wrote to the Minister of Transport: I think I should bring to your attention the condition of the Higham railway tunnel on the South Eastern region of British Railways.About two weeks ago I gather there was a fall at the tunnel and as a result a considerable disruption of traffic.Since then, a statement has been made that it is now 'completely safe', but at the same time it is understood that a 24-hour watch is being kept in case of any falls of rubble. This, say British Rail, is because of 'the nature of its construction.' A very old tunnel, it is, apparently, 'less supported' than modern tunnels.All of which, I think you will agree, implies an inherent danger. I cannot see how if the tunnel is really safe it is necessary to keep a 24-hour watch. What a waste of manpower! If it is safe surely there is no need for such a watch, and if it is unsafe something should be done about it before there is a serious accident. I should be grateful if you will look into the matter. On 8th February, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, whom I am grateful to see on the Government Front Bench to reply, wrote to me: As promised by my Private Secretary on 9th January"— I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having let me know that the delay was due to investigations which were going on— I am now able to reply to your letter of 23rd December about Higham Tunnel on the South Eastern Region of British Railways.I have now received a report from the British Railways Board about the recent accident in the tunnel and its condition.On 28th November, at approximately 4.38 p m., a train from Gillingham to Charing Cross ran into a heap of chalk which had fallen from the roof of the tunnel. The chalk was removed and the line reopened to traffic at 7.10 p.m. No one was hurt and only minor damage was done to the train and track.The Board say that this tunnel was constructed about 150 years ago for the Gravesend-Strood canal but it was taken over for railway purposes in the 1850s. Parts of the tunnel are unlined and in these places the chalk is exposed to the atmosphere. Because of these circumstances, it has been the practice since before the memory of the present engineering staff to carry out a 24-hour patrol. This is in addition to the annual inspections and special inspections which are made when there are any signs of deterioration in the chalk surface.Proposals for erecting protective works in the more vulnerable parts of the tunnel are being considered by the railway officials but the costs ale likely to be very high. The Minister went on to say—and this is an extremely significant paragraph: Perhaps I should add that 24-hour patrols are carried out in places where rock falls"— I repeat that, "where rock falls"— might constitute a hazard, even though these occurrences are fairly infrequent. Our officials are satisfied that the Board are taking all reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of traffic on this line. Let us consider the Minister's letter. It makes it clear that there is danger not only of further falls of chalk, but of falls of rock, in unlined parts of the tunnel and that because of this danger it is the established practice to carry out annual investigations of the tunnel—I should certainly hope that every tunnel on British Railways is examined at least once a year, whatever its condition and however new it might be—and, in addition, a 24-hour patrol is maintained at Higham tunnel. That action alone is surely the real measure of the danger of falls and the necessity to maintain a round-the-clock patrol.

The incident of 28th November clearly emphasises and highlights, as the Minister must agree, that the existing arrangements are completely inadequate, because, whatever other precautions might be taken, the patrol procedure failed com- pletely to prevent the train from running into a heap of chalk of considerable size which brought it to a standstill at 4.38 in the afternoon.

It is indeed fortunate that on that occasion there was no loss of life or injury to passengers and that neither train nor track suffered much damage; but this was not due to any precautions taken by British Rail, because the train actually ran into the pile of chalk despite the precautions. Presumably, there was no great accident because the chalk was soft and the train either ploughed through it or brushed it aside. But what if it had been a fall of rock, which the Minister in his letter to me says is a danger? The result then might have been not merely a three-hour delay, but death or injury for many people.

In the circumstances, it was not surprising that I again wrote to the Minister on 13th February, when I said: Thank you for your letter of 8th February about the safety of Higham Tunnel. I am sure that a little reflection will convince you of the complete inadequacy of your reply. Those are rather strong words but I felt them to be justified. In view of the fact that the precautions did not stop the train running into the pile of chalk, perhaps the Minister will today recast his thoughts about the matter.

I went on to say: It is perfectly clear that if the '24-hour patrol' of the tunnel is to have any real value, it must ensure that the whole length of the tunnel is kept permanently under observation. This is because it is clear that a fall of chalk could take place at any time and without warning.You have stated in your letter that proposals for erecting protective works in the more vulnerable parts of the tunnel are being considered but the cost would be very high. This may be so, but so, too, must it be very costly to maintain a constant 24-hour watch on the tunnel. Above all, the safety of the travellers on the South-Eastern line of British Railways must be the first consideration. Your letter makes it perfectly clear that the tunnel at present constitutes a hazard, and I trust you will look at the position from that point of view. The Minister replied to that letter in his usual courteous if rather frank terms. He disagreed with some of the points I had made, no doubt on the advice of British Rail. He replied on 28th February, when he said: Thank you for your letter of 13th February … My letter of 8th February was written after due consideration of all the relevant factors and I could not agree that it was completely inadequate. He went on to say: There is a hazard here, as there is at many other places on the railway. The Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways, Colonel McMullen, has at my request considered the case carefully. He tells me that the only way of eliminating chalk falls entirely in the unlined part of the tunnel, which is less than half its full length, would be to line it throughout. This would, however, be an extremely costly business and he does not consider that the expense, which might approach £½ million, would be justified. When one considers that Government expenditure is going up this year by over £600 million, £½ million is not a great deal to ensure the safety of a train in a tunnel which is suspect.

The Minister went on to say: He considers that the Board are taking all reasonable steps, by inspection, to anticipate chalk falls and, by regular patrolling, to ensure that if a fall does occur, it does not endanger trains. We are, therefore, satisfied that the hazard is an acceptable one. Must I go all through the analysis again? Must I point out that the patrols did not anticipate the fall in question, that despite the patrol the train actually collided with the chalk which had fallen on to the line, that it was delayed for about three hours and that there was minor damage—thank God that it was only minor damage—to the train and to the track?

We are, therefore, satisfied that the hazard is an acceptable one", says the Minister. I very much doubt whether the hazard is acceptable.

My final letter on the subject went to the Minister on 20th March. I am sure that the fact that he has not replied was due to our having this debate today. He will, no doubt, deal with my letter in general context and, perhaps, particularise on some of the points I made.

This is a very busy tunnel. I am informed that about 160 passenger and goods trains pass through Higham Tunnel during every 24 hours. Trains passing through the tunnel during the rush-hour periods in the morning and evening can carry as many as 1,000 passengers. The danger to such a train is the ultimate extent of what is described by British Railways and the hon. Gentleman as an "acceptable hazard." Quite apart from the main incident to which I have referred and the other major falls of chalk, British Railways' spokesmen have admitted that patrolmen are constantly clearing minor falls along the track.

I understand that there is only one patrol man on duty at any time. I do not intend any reflection on those patrolmen, but it may be that, on the occasion which has given rise to this debate, the man on duty was off having a cup of tea or was away for a moment when the fall occurred. That could happen if there is only one man on duty at any time. In any case, he could be two miles away from a fall, but, even if he was near the spot at the time, according to railwaymen, he has only about three minutes to raise the alarm, and it is obvious that no adequate alarm was raised on 28th November.

Railwaymen on the job feel that a part solution would be to install floodlights, so that motormen do not have to drive blind through the tunnel. Undoubtedly that would be an improvement on the present arrangements. They also suggest that klaxon horns could be installed on trains so that warning could be given to signalmen if a fall was struck, although it might be too late for that train and the passengers. The value of a klaxon would be difficult to determine if the train had ploughed into a pile of rubble and there was great damage, injury and perhaps loss of life. Railwaymen using the tunnel have suggested that corrugated sheets could be laid inside the walls and reinforced with concrete. I gather that that was done at Sevenoaks Tunnel some years ago.

If there is a crash in this tunnel, it does not need very much imagination to get a view of the chaos which could be created and the difficulty which would arise in treating and removing the injured and, in extreme cases, the dead. Do British Railways dare to say that that is not a possibility, in view of the fact that, despite all their present arrangements and precautions, on 28th November last a train actually ran into a major fall of chalk in the tunnel?

Early last February, a British Railways spokesman said that engineers are actively aware of the present conditions, which are being closely watched. He declared that the safety aspect is fully covered. That is just not true. He went on to say that patrolmen, are carrying out a 24-hour watch, and so they were in November of last year. But what guarantee is there? Nothing else can be accepted than a complete guarantee from British Railways that no such incident will occur in future and that the precautions that they take will be such that there cannot be a recurrence of an incident similar to that which took place on 28th November.

In view of the very grave concern which exists and in the interests of rail travellers, British Railways and the hon. Gentleman's Ministry, I hope that he will agree this morning to appoint a highly-qualified and completely independent engineer to examine and report on the position with the utmost speed. I hope also that he will give an undertaking that any proposals for improving the safety of the tunnel which he might suggest will be put in hand without delay, even if the cost is £500,000. Better still, perhaps he will give an undertaking that British Railways will at once proceed to carry out any action which may be necessary to remove the hazard which exists at the moment to all trains using the tunnel. I should be happy to accept that even in preference to asking a highly-qualified independent engineer to examine the position.

It may be that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I should have examined the tunnel, as did the hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mrs. Anne Kerr). In the circumstances, if time permits, I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to say a word about this. The hon. Gentleman may consider that I should have looked myself, but I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I say that I set my face firmly against that, because I could see no great value in examining Higham Tunnel with a lamp. I am not a highly-qualified engineer, and I could not give a qualified opinion of the conditions in that tunnel. I felt that it was far better to raise the matter on the Adjournment, produce the facts, and let the highly-qualified people get down to discussion and action to put matters right.

I believe that the facts speak sufficiently clearly, because neither I nor any other unqualified person could discount the mass of evidence which emphasises the danger which has caused me to raise the matter this morning.

May I make this observation? Cars have to be examined every three years to ensure that they are roadworthy. The Minister of Transport quite properly has now laid down that every car manufacturer shall install safety belts on all new cars. These are quite proper regulations to improve the safety of passengers and others. Then there are the most elaborate and exacting regulations to ensure that aircraft are safe. However, a train crash can involve many more people than are likely to be carried by other means of transport, and I submit that the same standards of safety must be enforced on our railways. Where there is a hazard such as exists in Higham Tunnel which can be removed even at the cost of £500,000, it is far better that it should be done than that there should be any danger to trains running through that tunnel.

12.20 p.m.

Photo of Mrs Anne Kerr Mrs Anne Kerr , Rochester and Chatham

I asked the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) whether he would be able to give me time to take part in this debate. He felt that he would not, with the result that I have not the full notes which I would have liked in order to put before the House my view of this rather worrying situation.

I was told that there was a hazard in the Higham Tunnel, and that it was an acceptable one. Like the hon. Gentleman, I was worried about this, and I asked for permission to see the situation for myself. I thought that if, accompanied by senior officials of British Railways, I saw the tunnel I would get a clearer idea of just what the danger was to the thousands of people who use this line every day. As a result of my visit, I was a little happier in my mind, but not altogether content.

One of the things which struck me was that the patrolman whom I met on my strange night journey through the tunnel was the man who had been on duty on the night that the chalk fell; I think that it was on 25th November last. He told me that he did not think his job dealt adequately with the problem, if there was one. The correspondence which I have since had with British Railways has to some extent quietened my fears on this problem, but not altogether, and I support the hon. Gentleman's claim that there should either be an independent inquiry into this tunnel, or that British Railways should give an assurance that there is no danger of any more major falls of chalk.

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, because there is an important point to remember here, and I would like to know whether she agrees with me. Is it not the fact that despite all the precautions which were in evidence, and which were taken, on 28th November the train to which I have referred struck a major fall of chalk, proving that the precautions were not adequate to prevent this occurrence?

Photo of Mrs Anne Kerr Mrs Anne Kerr , Rochester and Chatham

That is true, and the patrolman whom I met had passed the point of a fall of chalk 10 minutes before it occurred. Obviously, the patrol of itself is not adequate to spot likely falls of chalk.

There was a danger of a derailment, although this is something about which the engineers know far more than I do. They say that the rail which was displaced could not have been displaced if the train was on it; that it was the electric conductor rail which was displaced. I find this disturbing, and so do the people who use this line. They remember the Lewisham train disaster, and wonder whether a similar tragedy might occur in this tunnel. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to examine this closely and to give the assurance for which both the hon. Gentleman and I ask.

12.24 p.m.

Photo of Sir John Morris Sir John Morris Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to this debate, and I hope that what I say this morning will remove the anxieties of the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden). During the last few months I have been under attack on two fronts—by the hon. Gentleman, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mrs. Anne Kerr). They have been most assiduous in pursuing what they regard as the interests of their constituents. I make no complaint about it, because this is an important matter, but Higham Tunnel has taken up a great deal of Ministerial time during the last few months. What I say today can, therefore, be regarded as a considered statement, made after a great deal of thought.

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

This tunnel does not affect only my constituents. It affects a considerable number of people who travel through it every day. About 160 trains a day, including freight trains, use this stretch of line. The passengers are not all Gillingham or Chatham people.

Photo of Sir John Morris Sir John Morris Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

I thought that I was paying both hon. Members a compliment for the assiduous way in which they had pursued what they regarded as the interests of their constituents and others. I know that my hon. Friend has been to the tunnel to investigate the situation for herself. She has also been to see me, and has written to me, as has the hon. Gentleman.

I want to say quite clearly where responsibility lies. I think it important that we should understand the Minister's responsibility, and the Board's responsibility. It may be that the hon. Friend will not agree with what I say, but nothing could be worse than to cloud the responsibilities of the Minister responsible for transport and those of the head of a publicly-owned industry whose responsibilities are laid down in a Statute.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the tunnel was constructed during the early part of the last century, and rail traffic began to use it in 1845. It is 1,531 yards long, and ends in an open lay-by about 200 yards long which separates it from the Strood tunnel. About half the tunnel is lined, the remainder is virgin rock chalk. I emphasise this because I am advised—and the hon. Gentleman referred to the difference between chalk and rock—that in geological terms chalk is a form of rock, and there is no valid distinction between the two. This accounts for my letter to the hon. Gentleman being drafted in the way it was.

The tunnel lies in upper chalk, which is reinforced by layers of flint. The Geological Survey of Great Britain has been consulted, and informs us that when undisturbed upper chalk can be expected to stand well on its own, though lining may be required at certain places where faults, and so on, occur.

Scaling takes place fairly frequently. This is a skin about half an inch thick, over an area of 1 to 2 sq. ft., due to the delayed action of smoke fumes on the chalk. As steam traffic has been withdrawn, this, I am told, should cease soon. Recently, some flaking occurred at the Higham end of the tunnel due to the effect of frost during an exceptionally cold period.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a figure of £500,000 as the cost of lining the tunnel. Apart from the cost, such an undertaking would cause severe dislocation to traffic for a considerable period. As the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend know, trains use this line for a greater part of the day and night. This is why it was possible for my hon. Friend to visit the tunnel only during the early hours of the morning. This was the only time at which permission could be obtained for her visit. If, in the interests of safety, the Board were minded to carry out an extensive lining operation, this could take place oily over a very substantial period because of the limitations in obtaining possession of the tunnel due to the large number of services which operate on this line.

British Railways are concerned with safety generally, and perhaps I might tell the House the safety measures which are applied at this tunnel. A patrol with a powerful light traverses the tunnel every two hours throughout the 24. In addition to the annual inspection, special inspections are made if any signs of deterioration are observed, and, if necessary, protective ribbing or lagging is erected. As an indication of the extent of the problem, perhaps I might point out that this has been done three times during the last 25 years.

I come now to the Board's statutory responsibility under the 1962 Transport Act, for which, presumably, the hon. Gentleman voted, but for which I did not. The Railways Board is responsible for the safety of operations under the Transport Act, 1962. I want to emphasise that so as to make it clear where the Minister's responsibility lies. The Minister has certain powers of inspection. Under Section 41 of the Road and Rail Traffic Act, 1933, she has power to inspect new work on passenger railways, but she has no power to inspect the maintenance of works.

The hon. Member referred to the question of ordering an inquiry. The Minister has discretionary power to order a formal inquiry into such accidents as the Board is obliged to report. This power is usually exercised only in cases of accidents involving passenger fatalities, the indication of serious or repeated irregularities, of evidence of a pattern in the cause of accidents.

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. This point raises a great issue. The 1962 Act is not sacrosanct, if it is found to have shortcomings. If there is a question of safety in respect of air travel the Minister can order aircraft to be grounded until they have been properly inspected and repairs or modifications have been carried out. The emphasis is on avoiding accidents.

In the case of the railways it seems unfortunate that the Minister has no power until after an accident has occurred. When such a case as this is brought to the notice of the Minister it is surely in the interests of everybody, including herself, that she should make representations to ensure that proper measures are carried out. I am sure that the hon. Member will agree that in the final issue the Minister of Transport would get a great deal of blame if anything happened in this case.

Photo of Sir John Morris Sir John Morris Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

The hon. Member must be fair to my right hon. Friend. It is quite unfair of him to put the responsibility directly or indirectly upon her shoulders. I have tried to spell out her powers. I am sure that neither the hon. Member nor I wants to cloud the question of responsibility as between the Railways Board and the Minister.

We must be clear where my right hon. Friend stands. I have gone into this matter closely because of the representations made by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member, and I have tried to sort out the powers of the Minister. I have asked about the statutory position, and have discovered what it is. I have told the hon. Gentleman that responsibility for maintenance and for action in this matter lies with the Railways Board.

The incident was caused by a fall of about two tons of chalk in the latter part of November. The incident was reportable to the Minister because a passenger train came into contact with the obstruction. The train was not derailed, and there were no personal injuries. A formal inquiry was not ordered, and would have been quite inappropriate. Local inquiries were made, and it was considered that the Board was taking all reasonable safety precautions.

This incident should be considered in perspective, and taken in the context of similar incidents on the railway system as a whole. It would be convenient to look at the picture of accidents and incidents throughout the railway system. Included in the category of accidents due to landslides, snow and floods, there were 29 in 1962, including two derailments; 17 in 1963, with nine derailments; seven in 1964, with one derailment; and 13 in 1965, and a derailment followed by a collision in which a driver and secondman were killed. That was the incident at Bridgend on 17th December, 1965. I am advised that derailments in tunnels are not so potentially dangerous to passengers as are derailments in open country.

As regards the issue on which the hon. Member has taken me up, the tunnel may be considered a hazard, but it is considered by British Railways as an acceptable one.

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

I am sorry to keep interrupting the Minister. I hope that he will forgive me, but I feel very strongly about this. He has produced a mass of evidence about accidents that have taken place elsewhere, and has mentioned landslides, and so on. In most cases those incidents could not have been foreseen. But there is a constant hazard in this tunnel. That is the point. It has been admitted that in this length of 2 miles there is a known hazard. That is what I want to put right.

Photo of Sir John Morris Sir John Morris Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

The hon. Member feels strongly about this. I am explaining to him, slowly and painfully, where the responsibility lies. He should make representations to the Railways Board if he is not satisfied with what I am telling him.

I wanted to explain to the hon. Member what I meant by the word "hazard". There are many hazards on the railways, as there are in any form of travel, or in every form of everyday life. Whenever one drives a car or even crosses the road a certain hazard is involved. One can never give a 100 per cent. guarantee. The tunnel is no more of a hazard than the illustrations I have given.

Photo of Mrs Anne Kerr Mrs Anne Kerr , Rochester and Chatham

In that case, why is there this constant 24 hour patrol in the tunnel? It has been going on for many years. I do not believe that the Board knows for how many years it has gone on, but it is still going on. Why?

Photo of Sir John Morris Sir John Morris Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

This question comes directly within the responsibility of British Railways. Questions of the maintenance of the railways system are entirely within their court. If they decide to have a patrol in a tunnel, or in open country, it is a matter for them and not for the Minister.

It would be quite incompatible with the responsibility of my right hon. Friend if she were to be called upon to cause inquiries to be made in the case of the thousands of people whom British Railways place at various points in their system, in the interests of safety. We need only to consider the amount of shunting that goes on to realise the number of safety precautions that British Railways take. The Minister's powers are spelt out under the terms of the Act.

It has been suggested by the hon. Member that an independent expert should examine the tunnel. I have told him what the Minister's responsibility is about an inquiry. British Railways are responsible for their own experts, and they are no mean experts. The tunnel has been examined by the Chief Civil Engineer, Southern Region. He is an expert, and he is satisfied. I stress that responsibility for safety lies fairly and squarely on the shoulders of British Railways, who are fully conscious of their obligations.

Photo of Mr William Molloy Mr William Molloy , Ealing North

I admit that I have not been able to hear the whole debate. I can understand my hon. Friend's argument about responsibility, but surely he could not deny that what we are talking about is the possibility of something disastrous happening. Does he believe that if such a thing should happen the Minister would have the nerve to tell Parliament that it was nothing to do with her? That is what we have to consider.

I would have thought that when Members of Parliament raised such matters as this at least my hon. Friend or his right hon. Friend should be able to say, "While this is the responsibility of British Railways, I must draw their attention to the fact that the possibility of an accident is felt to exist."

Photo of Sir John Morris Sir John Morris Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

I can immediately accede to my hon. Friend's request. One of the first things I did when I had a request from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham was to ask British Railways what its arrangements were. I discovered exactly what she wanted to find out. The Chief Civil Engineer is the expert in this field; I am not, any more than the hon. Gentleman or my hon. Friend was when she visited the tunnel. If I went there, I should be no wiser. I asked the railway experts directly responsible what the situation is.

British Railways told me that the Chief Civil Engineer had visited the tunnel. To be doubly certain, I then asked our own expert who has been referred to in correspondence, Colonel McMullen, the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways. On the basis of his advice, despite the concern on both sides of the House, I come to the House, having asked the experts, to tell hon. Members that they are quite satisfied with the state of affairs in the tunnel.

The debate having been concluded, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER suspended the Sitting till half-past Two o'clock, pursuant to Order.

Sitting resumed at 2.30 p.m.