Yes, Sir. I very much regret to inform the House that heavy casualties occurred to passengers when the 19.43 Hastings to Charing Cross 12 coach diesel electric multiple-unit express train became seriously derailed at 21.16 last night as it approached Hither Green, near Lewisham. The latest information available is that 53 passengers were killed and 111 injured; of the latter, 55 are detained in hospital. The whole House will share the sense of shock at this appalling accident.
I have received from Her Majesty the Queen the following telegram:
My husband and I were very shocked to hear of yesterday evening's train crash near Hither Green. We send our deepest sympathy to the relatives of those who lost their lives, to the injured, and to all concerned in British Railways. I also wish to pay tribute to the many people who have worked so magnificently through the night at the scene of the accident. Elizabeth R.
I know that the House will wish to join me in expressing their deepest sympathy with the bereaved and in wishing those who were injured a speedy recovery.
The train concerned was probably travelling at about 70 m.p.h., the maximum speed permitted on that section of the line. The leading coach was not derailed and came to halt in Hither Green station. The next five coaches were all derailed; four were on their sides and one was upside down. The rear six coaches were derailed but remained upright.
The emergency services were alerted immediately and were on the site extremely quickly, the first ambulances arriving only six minutes after the accident. They were followed very rapidly by the other emergency services. In all, 33 ambulances attended; the first casualties were admitted to Lewisham Hospital at 21.34, 18 minutes after the accident. I would like to take this opportunity of paying the warmest possible tribute to the members of all the emergency services, the voluntary organisations and the public, including, I believe, a number of doctors, who did such sterling work in rescuing and attending to the injured.
The main line on which the derailment occurred is still blocked, and it is unlikely that it will be open to traffic until tomorrow.
My Chief Inspecting Officer visited the site of the accident. He informs me that the cause seems to be a fracture, at a joint, of a rail that was laid only last year, but this will have to be established by the formal Inquiry that he will hold.
While thanking the right hon. Lady for her statement and associating myself with its expressions of sympathy, may I ask her if she is aware of the many conflicting rumours about the cause of this serious accident, and whether she will hasten the report of the inquiry so that the maximum reassurance may be restored to the travelling public?
Certainly we will hasten the inquiry commensurate with the thoroughness which I think we should all like it to have. As for the rumours, I have given some indication to the House, and I think that I ought to add, in justice to the men concerned, that the General Manager of the Southern Region has issued a statement to the effect that it seems clear already that no direct blame can be attached to the driver and guard of the train involved, nor to any signalman.
May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend's remarks and expressions of sympathy to the bereaved and the injured persons concerned? May I also associate myself with her remarks about the heroic, indeed, the magnificent work done last night by all concerned in the disaster? However, is she aware that there is widespread concern especially in Lewisham, where this is the second major rail disaster in less than 10 years? May we be assured that the forthcoming inquiry will look carefully into such matters as train speeds, subsidence in the track, track maintenance and all other associated matters?
Certainly all the possible implications of the accident will be examined with the greatest care. As I said in my statement, the cause seems to have been a fracture, at a joint, of a rail, and it is unusual in that the rail was almost new. It is this, I think, that we want to investigate very carefully.
Is the right hon. Lady aware that we on this side of the House would like to be fully associated with the remarks which she has made, particularly her expressions of sympathy to those who lost relatives or who are injured? We should like also to join in her tributes to the emergency services and to the people of Lewisham. One can only say of the people of Lewisham that they acted as one expects Londoners to act in such circumstances, and there is no higher praise than that.
I cannot emphasise too much what I have said and what the hon. Gentleman has said. Sir Stanley Raymond, the Chairman of the Board, was on the scene of the accident as quickly as he could be. He has informed me that the selflessness shown not only by members of the emergency services, but by ordinary members of the public, including a number of teen-agers, was unparalleled in his experience since the days of the blitz.
May we on these benches also be associated with the deep sympathy which the right hon. Lady has offered to the relatives and friends of the deceased and those injured in this tragic accident? Without wishing to prejudge the results of the inquiry, is the Minister aware that, since the new timetable was introduced on the Southern Region, the incidence of mechanical defects has been three times as high as it was in the equivalent period immediately before it? In that connection, will she widen the terms of reference of the inquiry which she has announced so as to include a full investigation of the maintenance of the track and rolling stock in the Southern Region?
Any relevant matter will, of course, be taken into consideration. It is imperative that we get at the cause or any contributory cause of this accident. The British Railways Board is making increasing use of ultrasonic rail testing devices to detect cracks. Last year 600 rails, in which cracks had been detected, were changed. This aspect is being treated very seriously by the British Railways Board, but we certainly would not exclude any relevant considerations.