Railway Safety Bill: Second Stage

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:15 am on 26 February 2002.

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Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP 11:15, 26 February 2002

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Railway Safety Bill (NIA Bill 3/01) be agreed.

Legislation governing the railways goes back to the 1840s, and much of the legislation still in force today was in place by 1871. Although there have been additions, amendments and repeals, the basic legislation remains Victorian, both in content and concept. Its primary focus is on operation and not on safety. It is concerned mainly with the licensing and empowerment of railway operations. Railway legislation in Northern Ireland was recognised as outdated, but, for many years, the introduction of replacement legislation was not deemed of sufficiently high priority to attract the resources necessary to address it. Presumably it was felt that as railways were under the control of a responsible public sector body they would be operated in a safe manner, irrespective of the legislation’s shortcomings. In general, railways in Northern Ireland have had a good safety record. However, following three minor incidents in Northern Ireland in 1998, Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) commissioned a report on rail safety — the A D Little review. A key recommendation of the report, issued in March 2000, was that the legislation should be updated to meet the needs of twenty-first century rail travel in Northern Ireland.

Major rail traffic accidents in England, namely those at Southall, Paddington and, more recently, Hatfield, significantly contributed to a heightened public awareness of rail safety issues. Therefore, I decided to introduce new safety-focused legislation in Northern Ireland.

My objective is to provide a legislative basis for modern, safe travel by railways. The Bill will accomplish that primarily by applying existing health and safety at work legislation to railway operations. It will also introduce new powers to approve new infrastructure and rolling stock, to limit speeds and loads and to improve control over private crossings of railway lines.

Access to general powers in the Health and Safety at Work (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 will also allow us to give effect to future EC Directives that relate to railway safety. Members will be aware that NIR is in the process of ordering 23 new trains, on the assumption that under that legislation the operational safety of that rolling stock must be approved by the Department for Regional Development before it can be introduced to services.

The application of the health and safety at work legislation will introduce the safety case regime for railways, following the Great Britain model. A safety case is a formal written document that includes information on the operator’s activities, organisation, safety management systems and safety measures. The control of railway safety in Great Britain has been criticised. However, no criticism has been directed at the safety case concept. All have related to the failure to implement the system properly. Many critics suggested that such failures were due in part to the fragmented nature of the railway industry in Great Britain. I assure Members that I have no plans to change the integrated nature of our much smaller industry.

The development of a safety case will be heavily dependent on risk assessment, which will identify areas of concern and importance and allow for the provision of detailed information on the extent of identified risks, their quantification and how they will be managed. Risk assessment will also determine any exemptions that may be granted; for example, to heritage operators on the basis of a clear statement of the risks that they face and how they will deal with them.

My officials will work closely with their counterparts in HM Railway Inspectorate (HMRI), which is an agency of the Health and Safety Executive in Great Britain, and the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland. I am glad to report that we have reached an agreement with the Health and Safety Executive whereby the experts in HMRI will act as agents of my Department to ensure that each risk assessment and safety case receives full and independent scrutiny before approval.

At present, the authorities in the Republic of Ireland work in adherence to the same nineteenth century legislation we observe. They are also introducing new railway safety legislation. To facilitate existing cross- border services, my Department is co-operating with the Department of Public Enterprise in Dublin to ensure that legislation in both jurisdictions is compatible. We must be satisfied with the safety of their trains that operate on our track and vice versa.

The Bill will also provide for my Department to make a series of Regulations to deal with private crossings, safety critical works, the approval of works, plant and equipment and safety cases. I intend to introduce most of those Regulations following public consultation as soon as possible after the Bill becomes law. However, the safety case Regulations will require railway operators to prepare, and obtain acceptance of, a detailed safety case before being allowed to operate, or, in most cases, to continue to operate.

The timing of the introduction of the Regulations must be agreed with Northern Ireland Railways (NIR). It will have a great deal of work to do on the preparation of audited safety cases for all its activities and operations. I assure Members that the Department will continue to urge NIR to complete that work as quickly as is necessary, to deal with the serious issues.

The Bill is largely technical, and its provisions are uncontroversial. My officials have met regularly with NIR, which will be directly affected by the legislation, and which has welcomed the proposals. Meetings have also been held with representatives of heritage operators, who come under the scope of the legislation.

The Bill will not result in substantial costs for NIR. Railway running costs will increase marginally, and, under the current subsidy arrangements, my Department will bear those costs out of resources allocated to it by the Assembly.

In addition to regular consultation with NIR and other local railway operators during the preparation of the Bill, my Department carried out a full public consultation. Last summer, some 600 organisations, interest groups and individuals were consulted. There were relatively few responses — 27 in total — and fewer than half of the comments raised substantive issues.

As a result of the consultation exercise, and at the request of NIR, I made one change to the Bill to improve safety at private crossings of railway lines. Schedule 1, which deals with signs and barriers at private crossings, has been added to the Bill.

In general, those who responded welcomed the Bill, and I trust that it will receive a similarly warm response from Members.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Bill. As the Minister stated, the Railway Safety Bill is technical. Nonetheless, it is an important piece of legislation, and it has major safety implications for our railway network. Recent rail accidents in Great Britain, and none more so than the fatal accident at the weekend on the track at Sydenham, only serve to reinforce the need for exacting standards of railway safety in Northern Ireland.

I offer the Committee’s sympathy to the bereaved family of the construction worker and wish those who were injured a speedy recovery.

Although we have a small railway infrastructure — approximately 240 miles in total — it is critical that our safety standards be as rigorous as those in Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and the rest of Europe. The legislation is timely. We are in the middle of the public consultation process on the regional transportation strategy. It is important that we provide adequate support for the public transport system, including the railway network. The legislation helps to reinforce the message that we are committed to improving the rail network, not simply by purchasing new trains, but through rigorous safety standards in which we can all have confidence.

The Regional Development Committee is looking forward to considering the legislation and examining in detail the clauses of the Bill. It is committed to conducting a detailed scrutiny, and it intends to consult widely and take evidence from all interested parties. This is the first piece of primary legislation that the Committee will have considered.

The Minister explained that the Bill makes provision for the introduction of secondary legislation on a range of railway safety issues. That is welcome, but was consideration given to drafting a single prescriptive Bill? That approach has been adopted in the Republic of Ireland, and it might be helpful to look at that model. Irrespective of that, I welcome the Minister’s commitment to introducing subordinate legislation that will include a public consultation process.

I am aware that the subordinate Regulations will be subject to negative resolution procedures, as prescribed by the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. If this is the case — and I hope that the Regional Development Committee will have the opportunity to consider this more closely during the Committee Stage of the Bill — I seek reassurance from the Minister that consultation on the Regulations will be rigorous and transparent.

I also hope that the Committee will be kept fully informed throughout each stage of the consultation process. I am sure that that will be the case, as the Department for Regional Development must be commended for the manner in which it has co-operated with, and assisted, the Committee with all secondary legislation to date.

To return to the Minister’s comments, I welcome the fact that the Minister recognises the importance of ensuring that all trains, including those of Iarnród Éireann, satisfy safety standards on Northern Ireland railways, and vice versa. We expect Northern Ireland safety standards to be at least comparable to those of Iarnród Éireann. Will the Minister reassure me that that is the case, and that he will continue to monitor standards in the future?

I welcome the Minister’s statement that he has no plans to change the integrated nature of the railways. In Northern Ireland we have an integrated public transport system, which ensures that we do not face the structural problems that have materialised in Great Britain following privatisation. The added difficulty of providing an integrated system when several competing operators are responsible for providing and maintaining the public transport network was particularly noticeable during the Regional Development Committee’s recent visit to Europe to look at best practice in public transport.

With the regional development transportation strategy nearing completion, we have the potential to create a much more integrated public transportation network. As the Minister explained, this Bill will require each railway operator to prepare a safety case. The Regional Development Committee looks forward to examining the content and nature of those safety cases in detail.

However, I seek clarification from the Minister on one specific point. In Great Britain, that same approach is already used, but problems arose because the system was not implemented properly. Can the Minister outline how similar problems will be avoided in Northern Ireland?

I am pleased that officials from the Department for Regional Development have reached an agreement with the Health and Safety Executive whereby HM Railway Inspectorate will act as agent to scrutinise and approve each risk assessment and safety case. I seek reassurance from the Minister that that process will be totally independent and that operators will have no right of appeal to the Department. Given that the basis of this legislation is the requirement for railway operators to provide safety cases, it is important that the safety case Regulations be swiftly implemented.

I note the Minister’s comments that the safety case Regulations will require Northern Ireland Railways, in particular, to undertake significant work before it prepares a detailed safety case. It is reassuring to note that the Department for Regional Development will be urging Northern Ireland Railways to complete this work as quickly as possible. However, does the Minister have any idea at this stage as to how long that preparatory work will take? Of course, the recent rail accident makes the Northern Ireland Railways safety case even more pressing, and the Regional Development Committee will lend whatever support it can to the speedy introduction of the safety case Regulations.

Photo of Alan McFarland Alan McFarland UUP 11:30, 26 February 2002

I welcome the Railway Safety Bill. As Members are aware, it is a result of the A D Little report and the work of the Railways Task Force, which identified several fairly serious safety issues in the railway system in Northern Ireland. I am glad that the Department is starting to address those issues.

However, I wonder why we have not taken this opportunity to completely re-examine the legislation. I understand that this Bill tinkers with the existing legislation, rather than taking a completely fresh view of it. In the Republic, the opportunity was taken to completely re-examine the relevant legislation, and some fairly new elements were introduced to it.

As I understand it, Translink has expressed concern about elements of the Bill. The Department has indicated that it will deal with those elements through Regulations. However, I suspect that when the Committee gets the opportunity to examine them in more detail, it may want to introduce proper amendments to the primary legislation as it goes through, rather than rely on Regulations to cover those points.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Alliance

I too welcome the Railway Safety Bill, not only as an Assembly Member, but also as a part-time and regular commuter on the railways. It has always been a real concern for passengers, staff and management that safety has been undermined by low-grade material, both on the lines and in the rolling stock. In the light of the A D Little report, as Mr McFarland said, we hoped that legislation would be introduced to address that — hence this Bill.

We must quickly eradicate all concerns by upgrading the railways after the long years of insufficient attention. I am more than pleased that the Bill is focused on safety, but, like the Committee Chairperson, I would like more information on the secondary legislation. I am not a member of that Committee, but I am sure we will be able to have access to the information.

We are lucky that we have not had the major disasters that have happened in England and in other places. According to the explanatory and financial memorandum, safety cases serve two main purposes:

"to give confidence that the operator has the ability, commitment and resources to properly assess and effectively control risk to the health and safety of staff and the general public: and to provide comprehensive working documents to provide evidence that the accepted risk control measures and safety management systems have been properly put into place, and continue to operate in the way they were intended."

Those are both worthy and necessary.

The Bangor to Belfast railway line is one of the most successful projects. However, you would be surprised at the state of the line. Travelling at speed is unsafe, and one of the recent accidents was caused by a train travelling at speed on a deficient part of the line. The carriages are not ideal. The old carriages, which are being replaced as quickly as possible, have unsafe doors. Some of the new carriages also have unsafe doors. Although the doors are deemed to be automatic, they do not always open. The windows in the older carriages are dreadful. The issue of alighting from both types of carriage at stations must be examined. Those are small but important safety measures, and they must be addressed. It is hoped that running and enforcement costs will be met.

Our railway safety record is good, but it should not make us complacent. It is to be hoped that the general concerns will be addressed, and that health and safety at work; new trains; new rolling stock; and signs and barriers at private crossings will be upgraded to twenty- first century standards. We need to keep our railways. I, therefore, support the Bill, and I hope it will be implemented quickly.

In conclusion, I want to take this opportunity to convey my sympathy and that of my party to the family of the young construction worker who died, and to the others who were injured, during the improvement of the Belfast to Bangor railway line.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I too welcome the debate, and I commend the Minister on his recent announcement of an £80 million investment in Northern Ireland Railways to purchase modern rolling stock to replace the existing stock, some of which has been in use for the past 30 years. The Department and the Minister have made a significant start to the modernisation of the Northern Ireland rail network, as proposed in the draft regional transportation strategy. That network has suffered considerably from critical underinvestment during the 30 years of direct rule.

Rail safety is central to the modernisation of Northern Ireland’s rail network, and it has an important bearing on the successful implementation of the Department’s regional transportation strategy. If we are to increase the use of the railways, then the level of public confidence in the network must be raised, particularly given the prospect of the utilisation of private sector investment. People must be reassured that the network is efficient, safe and comfortable, and that all procedures are transparent. I am thankful that Northern Ireland has not experienced rail accidents on the scale of those in Britain, which involved such tragic loss of life, and which prompted the debate on rail safety. There is already a high degree of safety awareness in Northern Ireland Railways. However, the Bill provides us with the opportunity to introduce standardised safety reporting mechanisms.

The Railway Safety Bill does not address many of the safety issues. At this stage it cannot be regarded as a comprehensive piece of legislation that will safeguard passengers and Northern Ireland Railways staff with the necessary statutory safety mechanisms. Translink and Transport 2000 have reservations relating to the legislation, and they have legitimately highlighted shortcomings on key safety issues. Translink and Transport 2000 have used the A D Little report and Lord Cullen’s report as benchmarks to judge the contents of the Bill, and the Assembly must do the same.

The A D Little review, with its specific focus on Northern Ireland, conducted a rigorous analysis of rail safety, separating the issue into four main components — safety management assessment, technical assessment, risk assessment and safety culture assessment.

Under these four headings, the report examined a range of competencies and practices within Northern Ireland Railways. It made eight key recommendations with regard to safety management, safety culture, operations, track, signalling, level crossings, structures and so forth, based on shortfalls in the rail network.

Some of those recommendations are reflected in the clauses of the Bill, but many are not addressed. Translink and Transport 2000 have pointed out that this piece of legislation can be viewed only as a framework that must be built on. For example, there is no mention of a safety audit, and there is no proposal for the establishment of standards and how they are to be monitored. Furthermore, the draft Bill does not outline the proposed role of HM Railway Inspectorate, nor does it address safety concerns with regard to the employment of subcontractors or licences for drivers and signalmen.

I also wish to convey my condolences to the family of the man who was killed at the weekend on the Sydenham section of the railway.

Although the Bill is a step in the right direction, there is room for further amendments that would improve the Bill and make it more comprehensive. I also urge the Department for Regional Development to examine the safety legislation in the Republic. Translink have commented on the more substantive nature of railway safety legislation in the South, which provides a regulatory code as opposed to the mere framework proposed in the Bill. The Bill should take greater account of legislation in the Republic, so that we can have, as far as possible, greater co-ordination and consistency of services between Northern Ireland Railways and Iarnród Éireann. I welcome the Minister’s comments regarding this matter.

Although I appreciate the Department’s intention to address those shortcomings, there is an obvious need for further consideration of the Bill’s provision, so that it reflects more fully the recommendations by Lord Cullen and the A D Little report and incorporates the best elements of rail safety in Britain and the Republic. I look forward to addressing those issues during the Bill’s Committee Stage, along with my Colleagues in the Committee for Regional Development.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP 11:45, 26 February 2002

I am grateful to Members for their constructive contributions to the debate, the brevity of which perhaps indicates the non-controversial nature of the legislation. The Assembly and members of the Committee are eager to have safety legislation of the kind that is proposed on the statute book, in order to provide a higher standard of safety for rail users.

Several Members referred to the tragic loss of a young construction worker at the weekend. I wish to express my sympathy to the family of the deceased and express my best wishes for a speedy recovery to the injured workman. I understand that the accident came about when engineering equipment, operated by the construction firm Mowlem’s, collided on the track with a stationary piece of equipment owned by Northern Ireland Railways but leased to the firm. This occurred at 4.00 am on Sunday morning. The track had been handed over to Mowlem’s on Friday evening to allow full access for workers at the weekend. No services operated over the weekend. Under the terms of their contract, Mowlem’s is responsible for the line during the period that control is handed to the firm, and, as part of the contract, Mowlem’s submitted a safety plan covering all aspects of its operation.

The accident remains under investigation, and we must await the outcome before drawing any conclusions. The investigation will focus on the cause of the accident and how it was not prevented by the safety plan that was put forward by the firm. The system is similar to that which will operate under the safety case regime. However, the Northern Ireland Railways safety case, when it is brought into operation, will not cover this type of situation directly. When external contractors are employed, it is their responsibility to operate a safety plan. I have no doubt that the Assembly, and certainly the Committee, will await the outcome of the investigation and will want to consider the matter more fully at that stage.

In his remarks the Committee Chairperson asked if the Department had considered having a single prescriptive Bill. He rightly recognises that this is an enabling Bill, which will empower the Department to introduce a series of subordinate Regulations that will set out the detailed legislative requirements. The subordinate legislation will be largely technical in nature, and none of its contents is likely to prove controversial. It is a long-standing practice that such matters are dealt with in subordinate legislation. For example, that is the approach adopted by the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978.

There is one particular reason why it is more appropriate to leave the detailed legislation to Regulations made under the Act. We obtained agreement to proceed to this draft Bill in January 2001. Due largely to the need to carry out a formal consultation process, it was not introduced to the Assembly until this month. It is by no means certain that it will be enacted by the summer. Primary legislation is a time-consuming process, and I would not like changes in the legislation that had the potential to improve railway safety to be delayed for the 18 months or so that primary legislation could take. Such amendments could arise from Lord Cullen’s report on railway safety and could be introduced much more speedily by subordinate legislation.

My Department will consult on each set of subordinate Regulations, including the amending regulations as they are made. All interested parties will be consulted, and the Assembly Committee — whose role we find crucial — will be able to scrutinise the Regulations in its usual thorough way. I am not proposing a general public consultation on each set of Regulations. When consulting on this Bill, we received only about a dozen substantive responses from the 600 consultees. That showed that the general public are not that interested in the technicalities of railway safety. They are interested in being assured that rail travel is safe, and that is paramount to us all.

The Chairperson also raised the issue of cross-border enforcement. As I said in my opening remarks, it will be necessary for us to be satisfied about the safety of Irish Rail trains operating on Northern Ireland Railways track. Of course, Irish Rail will be no less eager to ensure the safety of Northern Ireland Railways trains operating on its track. That can be accomplished by mutual recognition of safety certification in accordance with EU legislation.

The Chairperson also asked about the possible timescales for legislation under the Bill. I hope that the Bill will complete its Assembly stages by June or July 2002. Following Royal Assent, it should become law by October or November. Most subordinate legislation will follow almost immediately, subject to public consultation and consultation with the Assembly Committee. The railway (safety case) Regulations will follow as soon as possible, allowing Northern Ireland Railways time to finalise its safety case and have it thoroughly examined.

The Chairperson also raised the issue of the problems encountered in Great Britain due to failure to comply fully with the implementation of the safety case requirements. The safety case system requires independent validation of a case before acceptance and annual auditing of performance. Those will be rigorously enforced. The system provides strong assurances that rail travel will be safe, though I must emphasise that no system can provide absolute certainty in such a complex area.

The Deputy Chairperson asked why we had not gone for completely new legislation. This is, of course, a completely new piece of legislation. It is a new railway regime and does not amend any existing enactment.

I recently visited Jordanstown and spoke with staff and police at the halt and looked at the crossing. The policeman in attendance opened his file to me, and it showed, in the most graphic way, what a railway accident means. That brought home to me the vital importance of safety. We are dealing with very heavy vehicles going at considerable speeds. It is easy to understand the dangers involved, particularly at crossings.

It is incumbent on all elected representatives, and on all of us with responsibility, to ensure that when legislation is introduced, proper procedures are enacted. The responsibility does not stop with me. The Committee and the House have a role. This step that we are taking will considerably add to the safety requirements and ensure that there is a proper focus on safety issues in the railway system in Northern Ireland.

I welcome the comments of Members and look forward to the continuing contact that we will have with the Committee as the legislation moves to the next stage.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Second Stage of the Railway Safety Bill (NIA Bill 3/01) be agreed.