New clause 8 - POWER TO IMPOSE REQUIREMENTS ON TRAFFIC AUTHORITIES AS REGARDS PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT AT LEVEL CROSSINGS

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 3rd February 2005.

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'(1) Section 1 of the Level Crossing Act 1983 (which enables the Secretary of State to make orders as to safety arrangements at level crossings) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (2), after paragraph (a), omit ''and'' and insert—  

''(aa) may impose requirements on any relevant traffic authority as to the provision, maintenance or operation of any such barriers or other protective equipment, including the maintenance or operation of equipment provided before the making of the order; and.''

(3) In subsection (6)—

(a) for ''the operator and to each local authority in whose area the level crossing is situated'' substitute—

''(a) the operator;

(b) each local authority in whose area the level crossing is situated; and

(c) in the case of a proposed order which includes a provision under subsection (2)(aa) above, the relevant traffic authority concerned,''; and

(b) for ''or local authority'' substitute '', local authority or relevant traffic authority''.

(4) In subsection (8)—

(a) after ''situated'' insert ''and, in the case of a proposed order which includes a provision under subsection (2)(aa) above, the relevant traffic authority concerned''; and

(b) in paragraph (b), after ''local authority'' insert ''or the relevant traffic authority concerned''.

(5) In subsection (11) (interpretation)—

(a) in the definition of ''protective equipment'', after ''television equipment'', insert '', prescribed device within the meaning of section 20 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (devices for detection of road traffic offences),''

(b) after the definition of ''protective equipment'' insert—'' 'relevant traffic authority' means a traffic authority in whose area all or part of the level crossing in question is or is proposed to be situated or any barriers or other protective equipment in question is or are situated or is or are proposed to be situated;'' and

(c) after the definition of ''road'' insert—'' 'road traffic authority' has the same meaning as in the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984''.

(6) This section applies in relation to barriers and other protective equipment provided before, as well as after, this section comes into force.'.

—[John Thurso]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

With this, it will be convenient to take the following: New clause 10—Increase of penalties for failure to comply with traffic lights at level crossings—

'(1) A person guilty of an offence under section 36(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 consisting of a failure to comply with a traffic sign placed at or near a level crossing indicating that vehicular traffic is not to proceed over the level crossing shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine of level 5 on the standard scale or to both and shall have his licence endorsed with six penalty points.

(2) This section applies in relation to offences committed after the date on which this Act comes into force.'.

New clause 11—Increase of penalties for careless or inconsiderate driving causing damage to a railway or other bridge over a road—

'(1) A person who causes damage to a railway or other bridge over a road by driving a motor vehicle on a road or other public place without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road or place, shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to both and shall have his licence endorsed with not fewer than six penalty points.  

(2) This section applies in relation to offences committed after the date on which this Act comes into force.'.

New clause 12—Measures to promote road safety at railway and other bridges—

'In section 122(2) of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 (which sets out the matters to which local authorities must have regard in exercising their functions under that Act), after paragraph (c) insert—

''(ca) the need to remove the risk of heavy commercial and other vehicles from colliding with railway and other bridges crossing highways by installing warning devices and physical barriers on the highways approaching such bridges;''.'.

Amendment No. 40, in title, line 2, at end insert—

'and for related purposes concerning road safety.'.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

We now move curiously from the road to the rail, and, more exactly, the interface between rail and road. We all remember the tragedy that took place at Ufton Nervet rail crossing, which was one of many incidents that take place at level crossings each year, the vast majority of which do not end up with the tragic loss of life that occurred in that incident.

I was approached by Network Rail. The new clauses and the amendment have been drafted by Network Rail, so they have a competence way beyond that to which I could ever aspire. I hope that instils some confidence in Committee members about the quality of the proposals. The principles are complex. I could spend time going through the detail, but I should like to address them so that we can make progress.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

On the confidence that we may have in Network Rail, it sent me comments that it received from the Health and Safety Executive, suggesting that the new clauses should be amended. Hon. Members should be aware that we cannot rely on them.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

The hon. Gentleman pre-empts me because I have the exact same letter. Network Rail sent all members of the Committee comments on the proposals. The HSE would like some amendments, not because of the technical quality of the proposals, but because of how it wants them to work. If, by some miracle of legislation, the Committee were to accept the new clauses, another place would have to tidy them up, as it tends to do from time to time.

The principles revolve around two matters. First, level crossings are safe when used properly. However, the new clauses suggest several changes that could enhance their safety. We always think of accidents at rail crossing as being entirely a rail matter, but they are not. They are very often a road matter, and most certainly an interface matter. It is appropriate that some duties be placed on traffic authorities. Secondly, some of the proposals also deal with what are known in the trade as ''bridge bashes''. There are significant problems for the railway system when most vehicles strike railway bridges because, each time a bridge is struck, a hazard is created and passengers are delayed, as trains have to be slowed or halted until engineers have checked the safety of the bridge.

New clause 8 would give the power to impose requirements on traffic authorities regarding   protective equipment at level crossings. The critical point is made in subsection (2), which introduces ''relevant traffic authority'', instead of the local authority and Network Rail, and that is repeated throughout the new clause, putting a duty on traffic authorities to become involved.

New clause 10 would increase the penalties to a term not exceeding six months or a fine at level 5 for failure to comply with traffic lights at level crossings. I particularly support that because, during the summer recess, I spent some time with the British Transport police at one of the level crossings in Dingwall in the highlands and observed at first hand the operation of the camera. It was frightening to discover that the assessment made prior to the camera being installed was, if I recall correctly—although I may have got the numbers slightly wrong—an estimated 70 incidents of cars crossing on red throughout the highland area. Following the introduction of cameras, that number has been revised to something like 700. The problem is that people know there are around 23 seconds between the light changing and the train coming, and locals who know that tend to take more risks when crossing. There is a need for greater enforcement.

New clause 11 would increase the penalties for inconsiderate careless driving that causes damage to a railway bridge. New clause 12 would introduce measures to promote road safety at rail, and other, bridges.

The new clauses, while long and a little complex, are straightforward in principle. I am realistic. I am aware that the Government will not welcome them with open arms, but I hope that they would at least consider what they contain, together with the suggested changes put forward by the Health and Safety Executive, which is broadly content with the new clauses. Perhaps the Government will consider adopting some or all of them at a later stage.

The last in the group is amendment No. 40, with which I need not detain the Committee for long. It just so happened that, when I sought to table an amendment on another matter, the Clerks pointed out to me that the long title of the Bill did not include the words ''road safety''. I could not, therefore, table that amendment. So I now hope to amend the long title to include:

''and for related purposes concerning road safety''.

Funnily enough, the new clauses relating to the rail network would need that stipulation. No doubt the Minister can say why the Road Safety Bill's long title does not contain its short title.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I applaud and support the motive of the hon. Gentleman in tabling the new clauses, but I am afraid, as in the previous debate, he has not convinced me that it is necessary to put his proposals on the face of the Bill or to make the changes in the way he has suggested.

It is worth repeating that safety on our railways is among the highest in the world. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged as much when he said that, when there is an interface between road and rail, more often than not it is a road accident that involves a railway vehicle, and not the other way around. We need to ensure that   motorists are constantly reminded of the danger of crossing a rail track when warning lights are flashing, and most authorities are alert to the need for action with road markings and signage. My local authority certainly is. At most, if not all, level crossings with a traffic light system, there are cameras as well. The authorities, quite rightly, regularly prosecute motorists who skip through the lights and over a junction.

I am not sure that what the hon. Gentleman seeks to do is either necessary or the correct way forward. He seeks to increase penalties for failing to comply with traffic lights at level crossings. I am unsure why he wants to elevate the offence of disobeying a traffic signal at a level crossing above that of disobeying any other traffic signal. To me, those are serious offences. If someone is injured as a result of a driver skipping a light at a level crossing, why should he be dealt with more severely than he would be if he injured the same person when they happened to be driving home in a car rather than being on a train? I do not support new clause 10.

With new clause 11, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman again failed to take me with him. There are many other cases where one could perhaps argue that the penalty should be increased if a motorist falls below the duty of care and the standards of driving that we expect. What about a motorist who hit a listed building, or the wall of a dwelling when it was occupied, or the side of a courthouse when a court case was in progress? I do not see the logic of singling out particular circumstances as he has done.

Turning to new clause 12, I can tell the Committee of a fairly recent case in East Yorkshire where two HGVs—both, on the face of it, travelling too fast—collided at the top of a road bridge going over a railway near the town of Howden. Luckily, no trains were involved in the incident. However, the authorities felt so concerned that the two vehicles had crashed at the top of that narrow, steeply inclined bridge that they immediately placed concrete blocks on either side of the carriageway and reduced the traffic to a single flow, controlled by temporary traffic lights. I accordingly made representations to the Government that it was a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. It was causing massive delays in summer for people seeking to take their holiday in Bridlington. That is the main route into Bridlington—I encourage anyone wishing to holiday in the UK to do so in that marvellous seaside resort.

That action was clearly causing unnecessary delays, and I am grateful to the Government for listening to representations; those were made by the local authority, not just by myself. The Government have decided to remove the risk of heavy commercial or other vehicles from colliding, as mentioned in new clause 12, by providing the money to widen the bridge. The carriageway is now safe for two heavy goods vehicles to cross the bridge, without the risk of them colliding being as great as it was.

Although I applaud the sentiment behind these new clauses, I am not convinced that they are necessary or desirable.  

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 4:00 pm, 3rd February 2005

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, but I will not be recommending that the Committee accept the new clauses. Taking new clause 8 first, I can tell hon. Members that the Secretary of State already has powers under the Level Crossings Act 1983 to provide for the protection of those using a level crossing, and to specify the protective equipment to be provided. That would include traffic lights, television equipment and so on. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman has alerted us to something that we may already have been aware of, but it is important to debate it. There is clearly a lack of interface between the traffic authorities and the railway. Despite the fact that Network Rail has direct access to the Department for Transport, it felt that, for some reason, it had to draft the new clauses.

The traffic authorities already have powers under the Highways Act 1980 to provide structures and equipment for the detection of traffic offences. That would obviously include cameras to detect motorists who jump red lights. I am absolutely appalled that someone would risk their life by jumping a red light to save 23 seconds. I am flabbergasted that anyone would do that. I believe that we have video or photographic evidence of someone doing that with two children in the back of the car. I cannot believe that anyone would want to do that, but people do. The problem is that it is difficult to legislate for people who do what would, in most people's eyes, be completely mad.

As I said, traffic authorities can put up traffic signs. They can convey all sorts of warnings and, in general, they do. The existing powers are broad enough to include most of the devices that have been suggested to improve the proper use of level crossings.

The new clause would also transfer responsibility for the level crossing from the railway to the traffic authority. That would make the traffic authority responsible for, and give it control over, the highway across the level crossing. It would require it to be responsible for the effects of the operation of a system over which it has no control, because it is the railway signalling system that instigates the operation of warning devices and barriers, and the traffic authority has no control over that. I appreciate that there may be a problem about sufficient warning devices, but the new clause would create an additional problem.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I mentioned earlier the response of the Health and Safety Executive. It says that something valuable could come out of new clause 8, in that it could extend its powers to make level crossing orders to include highway authorities. It says that that is what happens in Northern Ireland, where each party's responsibility can clearly be specified whereas, in England and Wales, all it can do is ask the operator to seek the co-operation of the highways authority. Some benefit could come from something along those lines.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Some good could come of that, because there is a lack of interface which we need to address. Introducing legislation is not necessarily the way   forward, because it is often ignored, but doing something such as that would make considerable sense.

New clause 10 would raise the penalty in question to up to 6 months' imprisonment and a level 5 fine of £5,000, compared to a level 3 fine of about £1,000. It would also allow an alternative endorsement of six points rather than three. I appreciate the seriousness of the offence, and I understand why people want to underline that seriousness by ensuring that there is a heavier fine and possible imprisonment. However, there are difficulties with picking out the offence for special treatment. Many other offences—for example, ignoring a pedestrian crossing sign—could also lead to dire consequences. Going through a red light at a busy junction could create absolute mayhem. We must consider the issue in the context of other criminal penalties. I do not support the new clause.

New clauses 11 and 12 deal with bridges. An existing offence covers the failure to comply with a mandatory height limit that is placed in advance on a low bridge. The penalty is a level 3 fine of a maximum of £1,000, or a discretionary disqualification and three penalty points. I note that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has included the phrase

''without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration'' in the offence. However, it would be odd to attach a custodial penalty to such careless driving, when one does not apply elsewhere, at least not currently.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the frequency of bridge strikes. The Department is aware of that problem. There are some 2,000 bridge strikes a year by over-height vehicles on Network Rail bridges alone, and even more if one includes other bridges. The Department must consider that seriously. We have done some research; it is worrying that, despite the fact that drivers are encouraged to carry advisory documents and, since 1997, have been required to measure the load and height of their loaded vehicle for every trip and carry the figures in their cab, that does not appear to be working as well as it should. Sometimes it is because the load may not have been accurately measured, or because each journey is not sufficiently regulated and the height is not measured for each trip. There are clearly many factors affecting the load. In normal circumstances, that may make no difference at all, but when it is a matter of a few centimetres of clearance, it could mean the difference between good luck and disaster. The Department will continue to look at that: a committee is monitoring it and working with the industry to ensure that we consider the situation. A recent survey, completed but not yet published, demonstrates that much work must be done in that field.

The only other issue that I ought to mention relates to advance barriers. Section 92 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 provides a power

''to place obstructions . . . to prohibit the passage of vehicles'' where such prohibitions have been imposed by the traffic regulation order. Many vulnerable bridges are already equipped with integral collision protection beams, which are designed to reduce the impact of any collision. We would not support the construction of height barriers over highways in advance of low bridges, because they could themselves cause significant damage and could be a hazard. However, we accept that much work must be done on bridge strikes, and a departmental committee is working on it. I am sure that, because of today's debate, we shall consider the matter even more closely.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, and, as ever, for the sympathy, if not total support, of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire. To pick up on his first point, I repeat what I said when I responded to the Secretary of State's announcement following the crash in Berkshire: we must not lose sight of the fact that our railways are extremely safe. Nobody should be discouraged, but that need not stop us trying to make them safer, and I am sure that that is the spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman made his remarks. He asked why the punishment for jumping a red light on a level crossing should be greater than that for jumping any other red light. I shall not labour the point, but it could be argued that when someone is endangering an entire train and all the people on it, that is more serious than other circumstances. I fully accept that that is open to argument, and we will not go into that today.

I simply say to the Minister that I am grateful that she accepts that there is a lack of interface between the rail and traffic authorities, which is one of the problems that we all recognise. There is work to be done. She made a point, with which I concur, that if an organisation such as Network Rail feels so moved as to seek amendments, the matter is clearly troubling it and deserves to be considered. I am grateful that she did give that undertaking.

Unfortunately, new clause 5 did not find favour with the Chairman, so I was unable to describe the problems of planning contained therein, but when the Minister discusses the issues with Network Rail will she include that item as well? With that I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.