Mr. Speaker, with your permission and that of the House, I will now make a statement.
I have today laid before Parliament the Report made to me by Mr. E. Brian Gibbens, Q.C., following his inquiry into the tragic accident at Hixon, Staffordshire, on 6th January, 1968, in which an express passenger train collided at speed with a heavy transporter carrying a transformer over a level crossing fitted with automatic half-barriers. Copies of the Report are available in the Vote Office.
In setting up the inquiry, my right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State, when she was Minister of Transport, asked Mr. Gibbens not only to investigate the causes and circumstances of the accident, but also to inquire into the general safety of automatic half-barriers and to make recommendations.
Mr. Gibbens finds that the immediate cause of the accident was the failure of the driver of the transporter to comply with the railway notice requiring him to telephone the signalman before crossing, but that a measure of responsibility also falls upon other parties, including the driver's employers, the police, the British Railways Board, and the Ministry of Transport.
I fully accept the Ministry's share of this responsibility: as was freely acknowledged during the public hearings of the inquiry, the Ministry had not sufficiently appreciated the hazard involved in the use of automatic crossings by an abnormal slow-moving vehicle, and insufficient steps had been taken to consider the special provisions necessary.
Officials of the Ministry, in collaboration with British Railways, gave, in the words of the Report,
the most conscientious and careful thought to all questions of safety at these new level crossings, and it is, therefore, tragic that the proper way of dealing with and eliminating the comparatively infrequent hazard of the slow-moving abnormal vehicle escaped them.
On the general question of the safety of automatic half-barriers at level crossings, Mr. Gibbens finds that they are
a valuable answer to the needs of modern transport",
and are reasonably safe, but their safety can be much improved by certain modifications. He does not recommend a system of full or partial protection linked to the railway signalling. A full protection system would not only be extremely costly, but would also involve the loss of almost all the benefits for road traffic flow achieved by automatic crossings.
I accept all Mr. Gibbens' main recommendations. There are a few points of detail which will require further study, in consultation as necessary with the Railways Board, local authority associations and other interested bodies. In particular, Mr. Gibbens suggests a number of ways in which severer penalties can be pro- vided for motorists who endanger both themselves and others by disobeying the traffic signs at automatic level crossings. I accept entirely that stringent penalties are necessary, but the particular suggestions made by Mr. Gibbens for further legislation clearly need more detailed consideration than has so far been possible.
I must also make it clear that many of the additional safeguards proposed involved a great deal of complicated technical work, most of which will fall on the Railways Board. Consultations between my officials and the Board have already started, and the improvements will be emplemented as a matter of urgency, particularly in the case of the modification of the second train time-cycle.
I am sure that the House would wish me to express to Mr. Gibbens and his two assessors our keen appreciation of the work that has gone into this very thorough and penetrating Report.
Will the Minister tell us what steps will be taken with regard to existing crossings prior to the proposed modifications? Can he guarantee that no further crossings will be installed without the new modifications? Finally, is he aware that the public will not be satisfied with a system which is described as "reasonably safe"? They want it to be very safe, and presumably it will be after the modifications.
Yes. The hon. Gentleman will readily appreciate that in any crossing system there is an element of danger. It is certainly intended that we shall proceed with the production of half-barrier crossings, but the Report urges a rapid programme of conversion to secure greater public familiarity, which is one of the big problems with these crossings.
As for the modifications, on the major points, leaving aside some marginal differences, it is intended to proceed with these as early as possible.
While appreciating that all the facts seem to confirm the safety of this type of crossing, particularly now that modifications are to take place for their operation, the trouble is that they look so dangerous to the public. Does the Minister not consider that there is still a need to take further steps to remove the natural public anxiety which arises every time such a crossing is proposed in any area, particularly in the case of parents of young children who happen to live in the vicinity?
The question of familiarity with this type of crossing is very important One of the biggest fears running through all this is the danger of zig-zagging by motorists, who not only endanger themselves but may give rise to serious threats to others. It is the intention to ensure that people are made fully aware of the dangers. Precisely because this is such a very comprehensive and detailed Report, it will go a long way towards removing some people's fears.
Whatever may be the general conclusions of the Report about the operation of these crossings in rural areas, does my right hon. Friend agree that in urban areas the only real answer to the problem is the complete separation of road and rail? Will he ask his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when we shall have an opportunity to debate the Report?
The question of any debate on the Report is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. There are no recommendations in the Report about refraining from installing such crossings in built-up areas. On the contrary, it suggests that this familiarity would add to the safety factor. Each site is considered in great detail by the Railways Board and the Ministry. There are important considerations, in terms of other traffic dangers, which would flow from anything which impeded traffic progress in these built-up areas.
Is the Minister aware, though I regret having to say it, that his statement will not allay public anxiety? Will he undertake that, until the modifications to the half-gate automatic crossings have been made, these crossings will be manned whenever there are trains using the line? This appears to me to be the only way in which safety can be ensured and public disquiet silenced.
Attendants will remain on these crossings, where they are at present, until the modifications of the second train time-cycle have been effected. I give the hon. Gentleman an assurance on that.
May I ask my right hon. Friend two questions? First, can he say whether Mr. Gibbens made any comparison between the safety factors involved in manned crossings and those in automatic ones? Second, would he not agree that the resources of his Department have been so used up by this inquiry as severely to delay other inquiries also involving responsibility for life and limb, such as the Hither Green disaster? Could he look at the possibility of increasing the resources of his Department with a view to producing speedier results on them?
It is always difficult to choose between the delay which is inevitable in a comprehensive inquiry and the natural desire of people to get an answer quickly. This inquiry took six months, and 63 witnesses were heard. The Report is 120 pages long, with 25 appendices. Though I understand that people want to know the results urgently, the important feature in a matter of this sort is to get the most thorough inquiry possible.
On my hon. Friend's first question about conventional manned crossings, this is proof of the point that I made earlier, when I said that any form of crossing has in it an element of danger. Paragraphs 245 and 246 of the Report point out that an average of about eight people a year have been killed in about 130 accidents on manned crossings; so it is important to keep this new development in perspective.
I do not think that there is any reason why not. But it is a relatively new development in this country. There has been a very serious and tragic accident. It is understandable that people should be worried about it. However, as people get more used to using them, and in the knowledge that the Report has gone exhaustively into methods of making them safe, it is my hope that they will come to regard them as being as acceptable in Britain as they are on the Continent.
Following up the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Loveys), may we have an assurance that the consultations between the Ministry and the Railways Board will pay particular attention to the dangers in built-up areas, because it is not the behaviour of vehicles but the behaviour of children which is causing so much anxiety?
In my recollection, the behaviour of children has, fortunately, not been a problem. The problem dealt with here was that of an abnormal load on a very heavy lorry. That was the problem with which the inquiry was concerned. Every site where these crossings are installed will, rightly in my view, be considered in detail by the Board and my Ministry and this will, of course, involve consultations with the local authorities.