Mr. Deputy Speaker:
It will be convenient to consider at the same time the following amendments:
No. 28, in page 14, line 25, at end insert
'and in respect of safety, it shall be the duty of the Concessionaires to submit to the Safety Authority detailed proposals for the transport of vehicles through the tunnel system both involving drivers and passenger being aggregated from vehicles, and drivers and passengers remaining within their vehicles, so that the Safety Authority may reach a decision as to which affords the most effective safeguards against fire and other accidents and best protects the safety of persons travelling through the tunnel system'.
No. 8, in page 14, line 29, at end insert—
'(5A) Notwithstanding anything in the international arrangements a supervisory body may give such directions as may be necessary for the purpose of enabling that body to consider whether the interests of safety would be enhanced by ensuring that on shuttle trains road vehicles are conveyed separately from their occupants.'.
I raise here one aspect of the broad issue of security. Strong fears have been expressed by the Fire Brigades Union and others about the safety implications of tunnel operations. I trust that the Minister will study with care the papers that have been carefully prepared by the Fire Brigades Union.
Would the Government consider it reasonable to take powers to require the operation of procedures of inspection of vehicles entering the tunnel to ensure the safety of the tunnel and persons in it? In an effort to obtain information on this issue, I wrote to Lord Pennock, chairman of Eurotunnel, about the checking of vehicles entering the tunnel. I took the view before writing that if every vehicle was to be carefully searched—or X-rayed in the same way as happens to luggage at airports—the operation of the tunnel would be a slow business indeed. How could trains move quickly if each vehicle had to be inspected carefully?
On the other hand, if every vehicle was not to be inspected carefully, it seemed there would be an appalling risk of a dreadful disaster. The right hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) has talked about the tunnel becoming the longest crematorium in Europe. The Minister will be aware of what could happen if one mad person, representing some terrorist organisation and anxious to draw attention to his cause, caused an explosion in the tunnel. There are other problems, such as gas appliances in caravans. Does the Minister think that every vehicle should be inspected? If so, how could that be done consistent with a reasonable flow of traffic?
Lord Pennock sent me a speedy and courteous reply. I wrote saying that I had received a great deal of information—he had issued it to the press—about the comprehensive measures that would be taken to ensure the maximum security and how, to that end, no stone would be left unturned. But I pointed out that I was still in the dark about what would happen to vehicles.
He replied that there was a possibility of a machine being devised into which a car could be placed, rather in the way cases are examined at airports. Sadly, he told me, such a machine had not yet been invented. He thought the operation of the tunnel would encourage manufacturers to invent such a device. In short, at present there is no such device available, although we are going ahead with the tunnel.
I appreciate that the Minister cannot go into the full details of security and that in any case he would not wish to reveal such information to people who might contrive to abuse admission to the tunnel. But the general public are entitled to an answer to the simple question whether every vehicle will be inspected thoroughly. If not, would there not be a terrible danger, as a result of perhaps one or two people wishing to draw attention to their cause, of it being blown up? If the Minister says that every vehicle will be inspected how will that be done when no machine or mechanism has yet been invented to do the job? It is a cause for public concern.
I know that the Minister is an enthusiast for the tunnel and I know that he is well aware that there are some people who do not mind going in a tunnel under a mountain but who are worried about going in a tunnel under the sea. Undoubtedly, there will be some consumer resistance although it may be of a limited nature.
Before the Government proceed with the project the public would like an answer to the basic question. Will every vehicle be X-rayed and searched? If so how? If that is not done how will the Government ensure there is proper security?
I do not think that there will be many people in Liverpool sitting up, sleepless, worrying about the Channel tunnel. The figure of £750 million has been bandied about, and that would assist Liverpool city council to continue with its house building programme for the next 12 years and thus keep jobs and services in the city of Liverpool.
I do not wish to make a contribution from a constituency angle but rather as someone who has spent 26 years in the fire service. For most of that period I was active in the Fire Brigades Union as a member of the National Joint Council of Local Authority Fire Brigades and a member of the central Fire Brigades Advisory Council for England and Wales. I am not sponsored by the Fire Brigades Union, but with that background and experience and the fact that I am still a member of that union, I have a duty and responsibility, in the absence of a forum for firemen to raise objections—they have a long, heroic history of preserving and protecting life in Britain—to raise objections on behalf of that organisation.
The Fire Brigades Union, along with other organisations, wish to object to the building of the tunnel. However, be that as it may, I am sure that the Bill will go through tonight. In that event, the union wishes to express concern about the tremendous lack of safety for people using the tunnel. In the event of some catastrophe, it is the fire fighters who will have to go into the tunnel to protect people.
The role of the Fire Brigades Union with regard to legislation covering health, safety and protection of the public goes back a long way. It has contributed to legislation dealing with fire protection and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963. But how did such legislation get on the statute book? It takes a tragedy, such as the James Watt whisky warehouse fire in Glasgow or the Bradford City football ground fire, involving the loss of lives including those of firemen, before Parliament acts in the interests of the public.
The Fire Brigades Union is seeking to bring to the notice of Parliament and the public some of the problems that will arise in the event of a fire within the tunnel. I do so in the absence of a public inquiry and the refusal of the House to consider the safety implications.
I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, but as a member of the Committee, may I say that it did not refuse to hear safety evidence? At the insistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) and myself, the Committee heard evidence from the chief inspecting officer of railways. The Committee thought that he was competent to talk about railway safety.
I will discuss the matter with my hon. Friend afterwards.
The Fire Brigades Union has no vested interest in the Bill save the preservation of life. It has a proud record of service, devotion and sacrifice to the public. It will not make millions out of the project; it is not a speculator.
Safety considerations raise the question of cost, and perhaps with that in mind the Government are reticent about involving themselves in safety legislation. Government cuts have already affected fire service jobs and standards of cover. After the tragedy of the Brighton hotel, when Conservative Members were dragged out of the hotel, they paid lip service to the fire brigade. In the aftermath they launched upon a series of cuts that has affected jobs and service to the public. That is hypocrisy second to none. The legislation provides that much of the safety aspect will be left to the concessionaires. That is rather like leaving the City of London to self-regulation—and we have witnessed the results of that decision. The union does not represent a handful of people; it represents about 90 per cent. of all serving officers in the fire service. I have grave reservations about the safety of those members of the public who will travel through the tunnel and of those fire crews who will have to deal with an emergency. The Minister should consider the serious topics that are raised. Accidents will be inevitable, whether we like it or not, if the project gets off the ground.
Certain questions must be posed. Who will provide the fire fighters and the emergency services to combat fires in the tunnel? The Home Office provides for a predetermined attendance by such bodies at high-risk places such as airports and docks. Why is there no information about the procedures to be followed in the tunnel? If the Kent fire authority has a legal obligation under the Fire Services Acts of 1947 and 1959 and is to provide the fire fighters, are the Government willing to offer increased rate support grant to assist the authority? If the concessionaires are to provide fire cover, to what standards will officers be trained and who will train them? Are there any allocated premises on site for fire appliances and fire equipment—in fact, a fire station—to deal with an emergency? What detailed discussions have taken place, or are planned, to ensure that safe working practices in the tunnel meet our French counterparts' arrangements on equipment and safety procedures?
A simple experience in 1974, with the reorganisation of the fire service, led to a great deal of co-ordination because of the different appliances and equipment used by the brigades that came into the metropolitan areas. We need that type of co-ordination for the tunnel. The obvious differences in training and equipment between the British and the French fire services need to be considered. What happens if an incident occurs at the halfway mark or on either side of the dividing line? Who will deal with it? What procedures will be followed? If an emergency occurs, there will be chaos, and firemen and the general public will lose their lives.
There will be other dangers. The smoking rules will be flaunted in vehicles on the trains. Reference has been made to the danger caused by gas appliances in caravans. Legislation provides that people who travel on car ferries must leave their cars below deck and go up on deck, for safety reasons. Why cannot there be such a provision for this project? There is a distinct possibility of a large loss of life on a train in a fire. Narrow aisles will be blocked by persons trying to escape in a vehicle. Perhaps hon. Members have seen on television the panic that ensues among people in a fire, but it is something else to be there. The panic will be exacerbated by the claustrophobic atmosphere in the tunnel and by the darkness.
The Mersey tunnel was built 50 years ago and people are still afraid to go through it in case the walls will cave in and the Mersey will flood in and drown them. To expect train drivers and guards without training—the Bill makes no provision for training—to deal with emergencies is the height of Government irresponsibility. Chemicals transported through the tunnel could become involved in a catastrophe. Drivers on British roads have been conditioned by the Hazchem code, which was brought in by the Fire Brigades Union. Experts are needed.
The Government, through their lack of reference to safety standards or a lack of legal commitment, have shown scant regard for the public interest. The Bill's failure to state precisely who will cover the obligations of the 1947 and 1959 fire services legislation shows that insufficient thought has been given to fire fighting and rescue in the tunnel or its complex.
I could go on telling horror stories about prospects for the tunnel. The Fire Brigades Union and I ask the Government: what value do they put on human life? What provision will be made to ensure that firemen who will have to deal with incidents in the tunnel and the general public will be looked after properly and sensibly? We cannot leave this matter to market forces and to concessionaires. Expert attention is needed. The Government have a major responsibility to ensure that legislation covers the safety factors to which I have referred.
There is an immense responsibility on Government to ensure that safety standards are achieved. I have no doubt that the Government will accept that responsibility and that the highest possible standards will be written into the legislation. However, the fact remains that the Channel tunnel will he a remarkably potentially hazardous project. [Interruption] Hon. Members are a little glib. We must recognise the potential danger. We would be irresponsible if all possible steps were not taken to counter it.
Immense cost will be incurred in terms of policing, antiterrorist measures and fire precautions. Will my hon. Friend the Minister assure the House that the cost of those measures will be underwritten in some way by the operators of the tunnel and will not fall on the public purse?
I am sure that one can take anti-terrorist measures to ensure that bombs are not put into the tunnel. It will not only be a terrorist target but, more particularly, a target for bomb hoaxers. Will it not be relatively simple for any lunatic hoaxer, or whatever, almost daily to say that there is a bomb in the tunnel and thereby cause operations to be brought to a halt? What checks will be utilised to deal with matters such as that? Will a thorough search be made every time a bomb threat or hoax call is made? There is a fundamental problem in that respect.
It is unfortunate that a debate on what is perhaps the most important of all the issues that we shall consider in relation to the Bill should be taken at around half past 12 o'clock. The issue deserves the most serious and thorough scrutiny and should have been considered at an earlier hour, if possible. This matter arouses a great deal of public concern. There is no question that the public, who look at decisions reached in the House, will seek evidence that we have taken seriously our obligation to ensure the safest possible standards applicable to transport through the Channel tunnel system. This matter is also in the interests of Eurotunnel. Quite simply, if the project is to succeed, the British public must be convinced that it will be safe. Far too many people say—many of them state this in letters to me—that in no circumstances would they take their vehicles and travel on the shuttle containers because they do not believe that the system is inherently safe.
If that view is widespread—I have every reason to believe that there is grave scepticism among the British public about the safety of the scheme at the moment—Eurotunnel's proposals will fail. Without public confidence, the chance of operating the scheme successfully, let alone of raising the finance at the stage of the third equity, rapidly will evaporate.
The reason safety is critical is that, inevitably, the tunnel configuration is vulnerable to many possibilities. It is vulnerable to a serious accident. It is vulnerable, as the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) pointed out, to terrorist attack or, indeed, to a simulated terrorist attack, or a hoax attack, which could lead to an interruption of service and to a potential problem. The reason why such an attack would be so serious is that the tunnel will be a very long structure through which a large number of people and vehicles will be passing at any one point in time. If anything goes wrong, an enormous number of lives will be in danger.
Quantities of potentially inflammable material being transported through the tunnel add to the risk. Experts also rightly point to the wind forces that will be generated by the transit through the tunnel at high speed of shuttle, freight and passenger trains, which could create a flash fire that would pass at great speed through the tunnel. In the event of an explosion, the safety air locks between the travelling and the safety tunnels could be breached, thereby leading to smoke and poisonous fumes reaching the service tunnel which is the principal means of escape, if passengers have to evacuate the shuttle trains.
Because such serious risks could potentially affect a very large number of people who would be in close proximity to a large quantity of inflammable material and who would be affected by poisonous fumes if a fire were to break out, it is absolutely essential that every possible precaution should be taken to guard against such risks. Those who looked into this question, in the Select Committee, the Standing Committee and elsewhere, heard from highly responsible experts who suggested that risks are involved because of the configuration of the tunnel. The Minister referred to the Alpine tunnels, but they are
several thousand feet above sea level and cannot be compared with a tunnel that will be under the sea. One of the safety experts dealt with this point. I refer to Dr. Eisner, the former director of the Health and Safety Executive's explosion and flame laboratory. [Interruption.] Dr. Eisner has a great deal more experience of these matters than most of the hon. Members who are braying on the Conservative Benches. He pointed to the specific issues that relate to an underwater tunnel and said:
Once started, a tunnel fire can spread very rapidly; most of the heat goes into raising the temperature of the air that passes through it, and downwind temperature of 1,000 degC are common. This is passed on to any flammable material in its path, and in this way a fire can 'jump' considerable tunnel lengths. Moreover, in the peculiar vertical configuration of the Tunnel, which runs about 100 metres below its entries, a fire would exert a powerful 'chimney' effect on the ventilation and could cause it to increase, reduce and even reverse."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 13 January 1987; c. 357.]
Other distinguished experts gave evidence, including Mr. Blackburn, the president of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers' Association. He pointed to the very real risks that would be run if a fire were to break out in the tunnel.
For all these reasons, it is essential that we should be satisfied that every possible step has been taken to ensure that the tunnel is as safe as possible. Eurotunnel never ceases to assure us that its system is inherently safe. That is part of its propaganda about the tunnel, in the belief that if it repeats the phrase often enough we shall all come to believe that its system is inherently safe. The problem about that is that it begs the question whether the system can be made safer.
There is one way in which a number of experts have suggested that it could be made safer. That is the key issue of the segregation of passengers from vehicles. I am not alleging or claiming that I know for sure that that would be safer. However, along with many other hon. Members I have heard quite substantial evidence from experts who have good grounds for putting forward their view that it may be safer and that there may be considerable safety advantages in achieving the segregation of passengers from vehicles.
Let us consider some of those possible advantages. First, by taking passengers out of their vehicles, the risk of a fire being created by human error, by people smoking and their cigarettes falling into bedding and other flammable material in the car, is minimised. It would also remove the risk of people fiddling with electrical equipment in or adjoining their car or, as an extreme example, being foolish enough to try to brew up a cup of tea on the calor gas equipment in their car, Dormobile or caravan.
Secondly, segregation would certainly ensure that in the event of a fire breaking out people would not be in close proximity to inflammable material and to petrol tanks where they would be at an obvious risk. If passengers are segregated from vehicles and placed in an environment that has been carefully designed to achieve the optimum safety, in other words, passenger wagons constructed of non-flammable materials and with the maximum fire resistance, without being close to petrol tanks or to materials such as bed clothes and camping materials which might cause poisonous fumes if they were to ignite, it is arguable that the potential for safety will be increased.
Thirdly, by segregating passengers from vehicles, if it is necessary to separate the two quickly and to evacuate the passengers from the tunnel, that is easier to do if the passengers are not in the immediate vicinity of the vehicles where a fire may be taking place. Of course, another aspect of this is that if the two are together, there is less scope for deploying more effective measures to tackle the fire that has broken out. Clearly, one cannot use sprinkler or gas systems to put out a fire if there are people sitting in the cars who could be gassed or drowned by the use of those systems. If there are no people in the vicinity there is some potential advantage in terms of the automatic fire-fighting equipment that could be applied with great effect.
In all those cases, there appear to be grounds for believing that it would be safer to segregate passengers from vehicles. The experts who have given evidence have suggested that there may be considerable advantages in that. That gives rise to a critical question. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may scoff, but we are talking about the lives of thousands of our fellow citizens and that should not be treated lightly, even by hon. Members whose sole concern is to support the Government line, whatever the result of doing so may be.
The truth of the matter is that most sensible commentators considering this matter would ask: "Why is the possibility of segregating passengers from vehicles not being examined to see whether that would be safer?" Anybody coming to this country from Mars, or from abroad, without any prior knowledge of this would say, "Surely the sensible thing to do would be to evaluate the alternatives and see which would be the safest option". Early on, that seemed a sensible proposal to me. Indeed, I put it to Lord Pennock in a private meeting that I had with him before Christmas. Not surprisingly—I felt that he was acting reasonably—Lord Pennock said that he thought that that was a sensible proposal. He went on to make a broadcast on Radio Kent, in which he said:
under the concession, there is an independent Government Authority that has a responsibility for looking into safety, and deciding what measures we should take, and I am absolutely certain that that independent Government authority will consider … what are the pros and cons of the various methods of having passengers in cars or not, as the case may be, and that we will have a first-class authority of experts to go into that, and decide what they think is the best."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 13 January 1987; c. 375.]
Clearly, he thought that that was happening. Unfortunately, I have news for Lord Pennock and for Conservative Members. That is not happening because the present rules, under which the safety authority operates, will preclude the safety authority from looking at this question. Can that be sensible? Can it be sensible for the safety authority's terms of reference to be limited so that it cannot perform the sensible evaluation that Lord Pennock, the chairman of Eurotunnel, says that he expects it to do? Any reasonable person who comes to this issue with an open and unprejudiced mind would say that the right thing to do would be to see whether significant advantages can be achieved from the segregation of passengers from vehicles.
Why is that not happening? Why is the great Eurotunnel machine, despite the protestations of its chairman, who I suspect may not be its chairman for much longer, not prepared to take this commonsense path? The answer comes down to one simple and rather sordid consideration, and that is cash. Eurotunnel has the idea that it will cost it more to establish a system that involves segregating passengers and vehicles. It does not know how much more because tests have not been carried out. It is not possible to carry out a proper evaluation to determine the extra cost and balance that against the potential gains and advantages to be derived from enhanced safety. That would be a rational and logical approach but we are not allowed to take it.
Undoubtedly, Eurotunnel's fear and anxiety is related to its shaky financial position. It had difficulty in raising the second tranche of equity and it has fears about whether it will be able to raise sufficient equity for the third. Against that background it is trying to push the segregation issue under the carpet in the hope that it will go away. I have news for Eurotunnel; the issue will not disappear. The British public will not allow themselves to have a scheme foisted on them without being satisfied that every possible action has been taken to ensure that it will be safe. They will not travel through the tunnel if they do not believe that that approach has been adopted.
It is a gross dereliction of duty for Ministers to allow the national interest and the interests of the British travelling public and their safety to be subordinated to the purely financial interests of Eurotunnel. It is a further illustration of the failure of Ministers, who are so desperate to get the Bill on the statute book, to consider the national interest and the safety of passengers. It is a dreadful indictment of Ministers that it can be said that they are so desperate to pursue this private enterprise venture that they are not prepared to countenance the possibility of imposing even a modest additional cost on it to achieve greater safety.
The hon. Gentleman will remember that this debate was pursued at great length in Committee, and that I pressed my hon. Friend the Minister of State to say whether the safety authority would consider the possibility that the hon. Gentleman has raised. My hon. Friend gave me a reasonable assurance, as I understood it, that the authority would undoubtedly be considering segregation.
The hon. 'Gentleman's recollection of the debate in Committee is rather different from mine. It was in Committee that we sought, moderately and reasonably, to achieve two objectives. The first objective was to require Eurotunnel to submit alternative proposals to the safety authority that would involve an evaluation of the segregation of passengers from vehicles in the shuttle containers. Secondly, we asked that the authority should assess the safest system and that its decision should be based primarily on safety. That was the nature of the amendments that were tabled in Committee. The hon. Gentleman spoke initially with some sympathy for them but voted against them in Divisions, as he did when we debated and voted on a number of other issues. The amendment that related directly to segregation was defeated by only one vote. That defeat was a tragedy and accordingly we have tabled an amendment that is even more modest than its predecessor. It will be interesting to learn whether, once again, the Government find it impossible to accept the proposition.
The amendment would not require Eurotunnel to advance alternative proposals. It merely makes it clear that the safety authority will have the opportunity to issue such directions as may be necessary for the purpose of enabling it to consider whether the interests of safety would be enhanced by ensuring that on shuttle trains vehicles and their occupants travel separately. The amendment is designed to ensure that the authority will be in a position to probe if it wishes to do so and to require extra information to enable it to carry out a proper appraisal.
I shall be interested to hear the Government's response. The amendment is designed to make it possible for a proper evaluation to be undertaken and I hope sincerely that we shall not hear the feeble and rather lame excuse that the Minister of State offered in Committee, when he said that the scheme would be acceptably safe and that there was no need for any alternative to be considered. It is in Eurotunnel's financial interests to say that the scheme is acceptably safe, but a similar claim was made by the constructors of the Titanic. Many people regretted the arrogance of those who believed that their projects were acceptably safe and who were not prepared to admit that there was a possibility of something going wrong. I hope that it will not take a comparable fiasco affecting the Channel tunnel to make people realise that the shortsighted approach of cheese-paring on policy to allow the financial interests of the Eurotunnel consortium to overrule concerns for people's safety is wrong.
The present position is unsatisfactory. Under current provisions, the safety authority will not be able to make a proper appraisal of the alternatives, including passenger vehicle segregation. The Opposition amendment will make it possible for the safety authority to determine that. This is a commonsense amendment which should be accepted by anyone who is concerned about the safety of passengers and the viability of the project.
This matter was discussed at great length in Standing Committee. Anyone who came close to the grim horrors of the Moorgate tube disaster will understand why there is so much concern. This matter will, I suspect, be discussed again at equal length in another place and I want to make only a brief point tonight.
One of the objections to the project from north-east Kent has been over the effect that the whole project might have on the economy. The reason for that, as my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, is that the economy is so dependent upon the Channel ports.
We firmly believe that the Channel ports can compete on equal terms with the Channel tunnel—but I stress "on equal terms". The cross-Channel ferries are covered by very stringent safety regulations, as my hon. Friend the Minister is aware. He said that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) was trying to do a hatchet job on the finance. The advertisement in yesterday's newspapers suggested that we would be better off under the weather. I suggest that that advertisement was seeking to do a hatchet job on the Channel ferries. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South does not need me to remind him that the new Sally cross-Channel ferry is as safe and calm in January and February as it is at any other time of the year. Particular care has been taken with stabilisation and with lashing down vehicles on board. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister does not need me to tell him that passengers are separated from their cars.
I have only one question to ask my hon. Friend the Minister. Can he give us an assurance that, in order to allow the Channel tunnel to have a competitive advantage over the cross-Channel ferries, there will be no suggestion that the Channel tunnel operators will be allowed to cut corners on safety and that tunnel trains will be subject to the same very high and stringent safety standards as the cross-Channel ferries so that they compete on equal terms and the travelling public are as safe?
I want to say a few words about the contribution from the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale). It is difficult to compare safety operations in different modes of transport. It is nonsense to say that because people are necessarily segregated on a cross-Channel ferry for obvious reasons—for example, it might be necessary for people to take to lifeboats or to muster at a specific place on the deck of a ferry—it must necessarily be correct for them to be segregated on every other form of transport.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) will acknowledge that while I readily concede that he has valuable expertise in firefighting, I have some experience in railway safety. With no Eurotunnel axe to grind, I must say that there is nothing inherently unsafe about travelling by train through a tunnel. If there were, Britain's main lines would be much less used than they are. When my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen goes to Liverpool by train—as I hope he does fairly frequently—if he stays on the fast lines, the usual route through Roade junction means that he passes through Kilsby tunnel just south of Rugby, which is more than two miles long. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) also passes through that tunnel on occasion. However, that tunnel is considerably shorter than the distance involved in crossing under the Channel. I suggest to my hon. Friends the Members for Broadgreen and for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) that the principle is pretty much the same. A tunnel is a tunnel.
The speed restriction through Kilsby tunnel, if it is the same as it was when I was a railway guard used to sign for the stretch of the line, is 100 miles per hour. I understand that that is the same speed restriction as that envisaged for trains passing through the Channel tunnel. Therefore, I do not see what relevance the speed restriction has.
Nobody is going to convince the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) about the safety or otherwise of the scheme. He is a convinced anti-tunneller and he regards it as perfectly legitimate—I make no complaint about it—to cast aspersions on the project, whether they are based on safety or other factors. He suggests that it is easy to blow up vehicles on a cross-Channel train. It is easy to blow the bottom off a cross-Channel ferry. Presumably all one would have to do is pack the car boot full of explosive and leave it on the ferry.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) is another convinced anti-tunneller. Nothing I say about railway safety will make any difference to him, because he is completely against the Channel tunnel project. I suggest to him, as I suggest to the hon. Member for Southend, East, that if a fanatic was determined to cause as much loss of life as possible, he would do a worse job or better job, as he might see it, by parking a car beneath the deck of a cross-Channel ferry and walking away. If he stayed on the ferry he might go down himself, but presumably that would not bother fanatics too much. When people have tried to blow up trains, as they have in recent years on the French and Italian railway systems, the loss of life has been comparatively small. I agree that the explosions on the trains have not taken place within the confined space of a tunnel. An explosion in a tunnel might be much more serious. However, in two Committees, as well as during this debate, I have heard many scare stories about what might happen. I must say, redonning my National Union of Railwaymen hat, if I had realised that travelling through tunnels on trains was so dangerous, I would have demanded a pay rise years ago. I do not know why I did it so cheaply if it is so inherently dangerous.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broadgreen rightly reminds us that the Fire Brigades Union has warned about the danger of fires in tunnel. However, I read the last issue of "Firefighter" and I hope that he will concede that many of those views were expressed at a conference where a political decision was taken that the Fire Brigades Union was against the construction of a Channel tunnel. I make no complaint about that. Unlike some Conservative Members, I do not complain about trade unions taking political decisions. However, it was pointed out at the conference that going ahead with the project might lead to job losses among Britain's seamen. It was in the context of that resolution that the question of fire safety was discussed.
We said in Committee—we had a similar debate in Committee, and we seem to have been having similar debates ad infinitum—that the evidence about the likely carnage in any tunnel is lacking. Regrettably it is not unheard of over the years for people to die in train fires. Until about the time of the first world war, when most passenger trains were lit by gas lamps, in the event of a collision the gas pipe in the coaches often fractured and the coaches, in those days predominantly wooden bodied, caught fire and occasionally considerable loss of life occurred. However, that took place 70 or 80 years ago. Modern railway rolling stock—no one has yet suggested that the stock used on cross-Channel services will not be the most modern rolling stock—is known to be fairly fire-resistant and extremely strong.
We heard in Standing Committee that a few months ago at Colwich junction, on the west coast main line of British Rail, a virtual head-on collision took place between two passenger trains. The only loss of life in that collision, tragically and regrettably, was a member of the crew. Not one passenger was killed, despite the fact that those trains were travelling at over 100 miles per hour. The inherent strength of modern-day rolling stock is apparent. On no other mode of transport could such an accident occur with such low loss of life. The evidence is somewhat lacking. As recently as 1975 five people died in the Taunton sleeping car fire when someone left blankets next to a heater causing smoke, flames and fumes.
That accident led directly to the complete redesign and replacement of British Rail's sleeping car fleet. We are not inexperienced in correcting the faults that might lead to deaths. Railway history over the past 150 years has shown that a recommendation has been made by the railway inspectorate after every tragedy, which hopefully has helped to prevent similar tragedies.
My hon. Friend rightly focused on the considerable improvement in railway rolling stock over the years, which now is of greater strength and fire resistance than ever before. Will he agree that, while this is the case for railway rolling stock, it is not quite the same where that rolling stock is full of vehicles with petrol tanks and other flammable materials, and that that makes a case for evaluating the possibility of segregating passengers and vehicles as a means of enhancing safety?
Indeed; that is why my name and the name of my hon. Friend appear on amendment No. 8.
First, let me look at the whole question of the inflammability or otherwise of the average private car which would be taken on a cross-Channel train. If it is true that the average private car is an extremely inflammable object, why are there not more warnings? I gave up smoking about three years ago. I used to be a regular smoker while I was driving my car. I cannot think of an incident where a former regular smoker like me managed to set fire to his car while the car was in motion, yet the car was switched on, the electrical system was working, and petrol was being pumped around the engine.
I do not know of any case where that happened, yet we are told in this debate that there is some terrible danger in allowing passengers to sit in a car in which the engine is switched off, the electrical system is dead, and smoking is not allowed. There will be attendants, if not on every single coach, passing through the train the whole time to enforce the no-smoking regulations. In addition, there will be a fire-proof curtain at the end of each coach. I would have had great difficulty convincing railway management in my NUR days that they ought to pay danger money to train crews in those circumstances. I may lack the negotiating abilities of some of my hon. Friends but it does not seem to he a tenable proposition.
I appreciate the genuine fears that have been expressed, but most of them are exaggerated. Segregating passengers from their cars would have the effect of slowing down considerably the rate of boarding and leaving the trains. I do not suggest it is our job on this side of the House to worry about the profits of Eurotunnel. I would much rather see this project funded by public money and run as part of British Rail and SNCF, without the terminals and the shuttles, but we do not have that option before us. We should not overlook the fact that the segregation of passengers and vehicles, as demanded by some of the most vociferous opponents to the scheme on the ground of safety, would cripple the project financially. I do not suggest that that motivates anybody in this debate. I am not by nature a particularly suspicious person, but as a member of the Select Committee I saw and heard a prominent member of the management of Sealink giving evidence about the effect of segregation on those trains and alarm bells rang. That was because I thought that perhaps, just perhaps, this prominent member of Sealink's management was not quite the impartial witness I would have liked to hear giving evidence about passengers sitting in their cars and being conveyed by train.
There are just two bodies best qualified to discuss safety. One is the body which has been entrusted for over 150 years with the investigation of every railway accident that takes place in Britain. That is the railways inspectorate. It is now almost 30 years since I had the opportunity to see the inspectorate in action after a minor accident at Slade lane junction just outside Manchester when a driver misread a signal and one train ran into the back of another. No one saw the inspectorate in action at that time—management, railwaymen, signalmen, drivers or anybody else—could have failed to be impressed by the thoroughness with which the investigation was carried out and by the promptness with which the inspectorate's recommendations to prevent a further accident were published and accepted as the right way forward by both management and unions.
The chief inspecting officer of railways was cross-examined by my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) and by others when he gave evidence to the Select Committee. He commented on segregation and said that the last time the project was under discussion, in the mid-1970s, the railways inspectorate was, provided other assurances could be received, quite relaxed about the prospect of rail passengers travelling with their cars.
The other and perhaps equally important body which will be responsible for safety is the intergovernmental commission and safety authority. It will contain the chief inspecting officer of railways about whom I have already spoken, and the chief fire officer of Kent and his French counterpart. The chief inspecting officer of railways gave the Select Committee his assurance that if any of the inspectorate's recommendations about safety were rejected by the Government, the safety commission or anybody else, the members of the inspectorate would resign en bloc. That is a fairly strong view for the chief inspecting officer of railways to express, and surely the most cynical among us would feel that an assurance like that given with the sincerity with which it was given is worth accepting.
I appreciate many of the fears expressed by hon. Members. My own experience in rail matters is somewhat dated because, as some hon. Members might say, I have been here too long. However, no one has come up with a single shred of evidence about dangers to passengers travelling with their vehicles. There is, of course, the good Dr. Eisner about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham spoke. We found in Standing Committee that Dr. Eisner was not quite the impartial person that some of us wanted. He had applied for a job with Eurotunnel as an adviser on safety matters and was not accepted. I do not doubt his expertise.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that even those of us who have opposed this project would prefer, if it goes ahead, to see it succeed. If it is to succeed it must do so with safety. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Transport is in his place. A fortnight ago he visited the scene of a multiple accident on the M2, where three lorries and four cars collided and burned out, leaving one man incinerated. I hope that the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) will accept that petrol surrounded by people is extremely dangerous, and that on impact petrol ignites. There is a genuine fear that if that were to happen in the tunnel the carnage might be appalling.
I accept that there is a genuine fear, and I accept that if it were to happen in the tunnel the carnage would be appalling. I have to repeat to the hon. Gentleman that motorways are dangerous where individual drivers are supposedly responsible for individual vehicles. The cross-Channel link will have the best railway safety devices that are known in any country. The possibility of one train colliding with another—bearing in mind that we have two separate rail tunnels and a separate service tunnel—is so small as to be almost discountable. There are no recorded instances that I am aware of in recent years, given a proper modern signalling system, of such collisions occurring. While I readily concede the dangers that the hon. Gentleman rightly draws to our attention, I have to say that the chances of them happening are minimal. Nevertheless, we on the Opposition Benches feel that nothing should prevent the evaluation of the two modes—that is, passengers travelling with their vehicles and passengers being separated from their vehicles. We want to give the intergovernmental commission and safety authority the right, if that commission so decides, to look at the alternative recommended under amendment No. 7. We want the commission to make that decision. We feel that its members and not Members of the House, are the right people to make that decision.
Early in the debate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) raised the question of the terrorist threat. We are seven years from the opening of the tunnel. One would make an assessment of the threat at that time. It is impossible currently to foretell what the threat may be. It might be less serious than it is now or it might be more serious.
Subsection (3)(a) of clause 16 confers a wide range of powers on persons authorised by the intergovernmental commission and safety authority to carry out
any inspection, examination or investigation with respect to any matter concerning the construction or operation
of the tunnel system. My hon. Friend will agree that that is sufficient power to deal with that point.
If I say it more slowly, my hon. Friend may have the opportunity of ascertaining that it covers the point that he wants:
any inspection, examination or investigation".
I think that that is pretty conclusive.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) asked who will be responsible. The safety authority will be responsible. On that safety authority will serve the chief fire officer of the Kent county fire brigade.
The hon. Gentleman asked what will happen about people who ignore rules on smoking in cars. There will be attendants to check. That would be a breach of the byelaws, and there will be heavy penalties.
The hon. Gentleman asked about people in caravans who light primuses to brew tea. The hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) also raised this point. People will not be allowed to travel in caravans. They will have to travel in their car.
It is very late. This has all been said a dozen times in Committee.
The question of claustrophobia was raised, as it was raised when the London Underground was built. People travel in the Underground without suffering from claustrophobia, but if they suffer from claustrophobia they can travel by ferry if they wish.
I reject the suggestion that fire prevention will not be given proper attention. The Fire Brigades Union is continually asking questions, but it does not seem to listen to the answers which have been repeatedly given.
My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) asked about fire fighting. There are two stages in fire fighting. The first is that Eurotunnel will have fire-fighting equipment and staff trained in its use on the trains. If there should be a more serious incident which requires the attendance of the county fire brigade, it will be called for in the normal way. Since the contribution from the rates made on the tunnel operation will contribute to the Kent county council's finances, that will be the usual way in which the Kent county council's fire brigade's costs will be recovered.
The Minister is no doubt aware that the Home Office sets standards for emergency vehicles covering both ambulances and fire engines. For example, under the 1974 analysis the ambulance service is required to respond to 50 per cent. of all incidents within seven minutes and 90 per cent. of all incidents within 14 minutes. In the fire service there are gradings of five, eight or 10 minutes, depending on the degree of risk. Will the Minister give an assurance that, particularly in the light of his latter remarks about whether further vehicles and assistance would be called to a serious incident, those minimum standards set down for the Home Office operation on the mainland will apply during the construction and operation of the tunnel and will not be breached?
The hon. Gentleman will well know that those standards do not apply to a train moving through the countryside. He is stretching his illustration too far. I shall write to him on the details of his point.
I understood my hon. Friend to say that basically the county council will have to have standby fire-fighting facilities and additional police and security arrangements. I think that he said that the cost of those would have to be met from the ratepayers' funds. Does not that contradict the general undertaking that the project will not be a burden on public funds?
My hon. Friend is forgetting the substantial rate income which will come from the operation. Indeed, the addition to the revenue of Kent and the district council which will come from the rateable value of the project is something that my hon. Friend will find comforting when he looks at the figures involved.
The hon. Member for Fulham raised yet again the risk of fire in a tunnel, although the Swiss experience shows that that is not a genuine risk. He raised the question of wind forcing a fire to extend beyond the vehicle in which it started, but there will be fire doors or fire curtains between one vehicle and another, so that that problem does not arise. He then raised the possibility of the service tunnel doors being blown in. Since the service tunnel will be pressurised, the air will go into the main tunnels, not the smoke from the main tunnels into the service tunnel.
Let me deal with the important point of segregation. I think that I shall carry even the hon. Gentleman with me if I say that the safest way to ensure that any fire which breaks out in any vehicle being carried on a tunnel train is spotted will be if attendants watch each vehicle. A driver sitting in the vehicle will be the best possible attendant watching that vehicle. He will respond immediately if anything happens that is likely to damage it. The idea that because segregation is carried out in vessels at sea it can be transported to the Channel tunnel arena is simply to use a wooden horse to advance an argument which will damage the economics of the Channel tunnel on the pretext that it is a safety improvement. It is nothing of the sort.
Does the Minister accept that, rather than continuing to push ideas or views from one side of the Chamber to the other, it may be right to allow what is suggested in the amendment—that is to leave the safety authority with the freedom to choose to look at the alternative if it thinks it has advantages and let it reach a decision on that?
There seems to be a misunderstanding about the extent of the powers of the intergovernmental commission and the safety authority. There is nothing in any of the international arrangements or in this Bill which prevents them from considering any matter relevant to safety in the tunnel. Therefore, if they need to look at the implications of segregating occupants from their vehicles they already have all the necessary powers to do so. On that ground, I ask the House to reject the amendments.