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Level Crossings

1 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of level crossings. As so often happens, I started to deal with a specific local problem, but have become aware of a wider issue that should be drawn to the attention of hon. Members and the Minister.

The specific problem relates to a Railtrack proposal to change the method of operation of a level crossing at Pooley Green, Egham. Egham is in the north of my constituency and is immediately next to the M25 motorway. The general point that has arisen from my investigation is that there appear to be no constraints on Railtrack's ability to close level crossings, to increase barrier down time or to disrupt road traffic considerably in an area. That is no basis for a genuinely integrated transport policy, and that is why it was important to raise the matter in this debate. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments.

On 4 October 2000—coincidentally the same day as the Hatfield train crash—an accident occurred on the level crossing at Pooley Green where traffic is frequently backed up on both sides. There is, of course, a yellow box junction on the crossing, and no motorist should enter it until his exit is clear. However, motorists sadly often ignore those regulations. A bus was trapped on the level crossing by the barriers. Fortunately, the bus driver had the presence of mind to get his passengers off the bus and no one was injured. However, the accident could have been serious. Railtrack responded immediately by imposing a 20 mph temporary down line restriction across the level crossing. There are different forward visibility curves if one approaches the level crossing from different directions, and it was not considered necessary to impose a temporary speed restriction on the up line.

Her Majesty's railway inspectorate issued a notice to Railtrack that required it to propose long-term mitigation measures by 27 April 2001. The level crossing is an automatic half-barrier level crossing, and it looks like state-of-the-art technology to my untrained eye. The train activates the barriers as it approaches the crossing, the half-barriers drop and then rise again as soon as the train passes. Currently, the barriers are down for approximately 10 minutes an hour at peak periods, and traffic tails back substantially.

Railtrack unveiled its proposal for the level crossing at a meeting on 12 April 2001. The proposal suggested replacing the automatic half-barriers with manually operated full barriers that would be covered by closed circuit television controlled from the Feltham signal box some miles away. A ringing bell would alert the signalman to an approaching train, and the signalman would look at the CCTV coverage of the crossing as he lowered the barriers. He would then set the signal to clear for the approaching train only when he was sure that the barriers were closed and the crossing was clear. As Railtrack said at the time, the effect would be to increase the peak-hour barrier closure period from 10 minutes to 40 to 45 minutes per hour.

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Railtrack announced that it was going to cut off Egham from its hinterland at peak hours for a substantial part of each hour, effectively paralysing commerce and traffic in the town. Considerable concern has been expressed about the proposal, as one might expect. The ambulance and fire services have concerns about emergency response times. The local chamber of commerce is greatly concerned about both the direct economic cost to businesses and the broader cost of road traffic congestion.

Borough and county councillors are concerned about the impact on the town and adjoining communities of traffic avoiding the bottleneck. Bus operators have expressed doubts about their ability to continue the frequency and perhaps even the route of some services if the proposal goes ahead. The Highways Agency has expressed concern that traffic will tail back on to the M25 slip road, and perhaps on to the motorway itself, with significant consequences. There are also environmental concerns about the air pollution resulting from the extra standing traffic.

Railtrack says that it needs to make the changes to lift the temporarily imposed 20 mph limit. That would increase the capacity of the line and allow new train paths to be generated in response to the pressure from train operating companies to lay on more services. Railtrack's view of the world is entirely railway-centric. It does not take into account the external costs that the railway solution imposes on other transport users. Even if a bridge or a tunnel were an affordable solution—and it probably is not—it is unlikely to be technically feasible in that location because of the immediate proximity of the M25, which is on a substantial embankment.

Railtrack held a workshop on 17 April 2001. The borough council was invited, but no one from the highway authority—the county council—was present. Perhaps that is indicative of the problem. During the discussions, no consideration was given to the possibility of maintaining the 20 mph temporary speed limit. I am not suggesting that that is an ideal or optimal solution, but if all transport modes, not just railways, were debated under Railtrack's approach, we would at least have considered the possibility of maintaining the 20 mph limit.

Railtrack is not motivated solely by safety, although that is an important consideration. It is also motivated by the desire to maximise capacity. I held a series of meetings with Railtrack and took a delegation of councillors to see the Feltham signalling centre in operation. From our discussions, I learned that Railtrack could impose a solution without the requirement for consultation and without having to take into account in any structured way the requirements of other road users. I learned that there is no mechanism for determining how to share fairly a scarce resource—in this case the little patch of road that forms the road-rail interface at the level crossing. Once the Secretary of State has approved an order proposed by Railtrack, there is no appeal mechanism.

The switch from automatic half-barriers to manually controlled full-barrier crossings covered by CCTV is a step backwards in terms of technology. Some hon. Members will have been to France, where half-barriers seem to be ubiquitous. They drop at a moment's notice, and a few seconds later a TGV hurtles past at 120 or 130 mph. I find it slightly embarrassing to think that the

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British solution to the problem is to remove the advanced automatic barriers and go back to a more primitive manually controlled solution. It is bizarre that Railtrack is not required to consider road traffic in the design of level crossings. Apparently, the railway has priority and there is no requirement to balance the needs of road and rail users. Perhaps that leads to a cavalier attitude.

At the outset of this debate, it was suggested that Railtrack would increase the barrier down time to 40 or 45 minutes. Doubt is being cast on that figure—perhaps it will be only 35 minutes. The fact that no detailed analysis has been done, and no definitive figure is available, underlines the lack of any requirement on Railtrack to argue its case. The real problem is that Railtrack is not independent. It has a clear financial interest in enhancing the capacity of the railway and is responding to pressure from train operating companies in dealing with such matters.

Until this issue arose, I was always extremely supportive, as were my constituents, of attempts to improve and increase rail services on the branch line that serves Egham. I have also supported the air track proposal that would bring a rail link into Heathrow from the south-west, possibly using that line. The Minister should be aware that community and political support for improved and enhanced rail services will soon melt away if their introduction will result in disruption.

Representations and responses must be made to the Secretary of State by 24 March. My local authority has just made its response and, in due course, I will urge the Secretary of State to send the proposal back to Railtrack. It must examine the benefits achieved versus the burdens imposed on road traffic and seek alternative methods to reduce the maximum down time at peak hours. However, work is scheduled to proceed in April and I imagine that contracts have already been let. I am sceptical about whether anything can be done at this stage.

The issues that I raise today were mentioned by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) in a Westminster Hall debate in February 2000. The situation has changed little since then. Railtrack has effectively been nationalised and is a quasi state-run body, rather than the private company that it was in 2000. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the element of direct Government responsibility.

The hon. Member for Lincoln found herself in a similar situation to the one that I described. She received a vague response from the Minister then responsible for this issue, now the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), who said:


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Those are fine words, but it will take more than a bit of waffle about partnership to resolve a situation in which a cash-strapped, quasi state-owned monopoly with a financial incentive to provide more train paths proposes a change that will impose a considerable burden on a community that has no voice at all. Local transport plans and integrated transport strategies have not contributed very much to the debate in Egham.

The Minister should also give some thought to the effect of the Human Rights Act 1998. Now that Railtrack is effectively a state-controlled organisation, is the lack of ability to appeal entirely consistent with the spirit, if not the letter, of that Act?

Clearly, there are no proper mechanisms in place for resolving conflicts of interest between road and rail use, or for evaluating the costs and benefits of proposals—at least, there is no publicly accessible mechanism. The process appears to be unilateral and controlled by a body with a financial interest. There is no mechanism for forcing Railtrack to recognise and take into account the external costs imposed by a course of action. Although the railway was for many years in decline, that may not have been a major problem in this case. Although what happened recently has not been helpful, I am pleased, taking the medium-term view, that the railway is in a period of renaissance and that we can anticipate that road and rail traffic will to continue to grow. Although the issue that I have raised relates to a change in operating procedure because of safety concerns, the same issues will arise whenever Railtrack seeks to establish additional train paths to accommodate growth in rail traffic. I was genuinely shocked, and so were the councillors involved, to discover that Railtrack could theoretically close a level crossing barrier for 60 minutes in the hour and that there is no formal mechanism by which the other parties interested in that transaction could bring their concerns to the table.

I want to make four specific points. First, I urge the Minister to take a critical look at the application of the 2002 order for the Pooley Green level crossing, which he is about to receive, and to consider asking Railtrack to look again at the proposal. Secondly, I ask him to consider whether it is general practice to retreat, in technological terms, when faced with such problems. It cannot be in the interests of UK plc that Railtrack's response to a problem with automatic half-barriers is to retreat to manually controlled full barriers, thus significantly increasing the down time of the barrier per train crossing. I therefore ask the Minister to consider the possibility of authorising the siting of infringement cameras similar to those used at road traffic lights. Railtrack would install the cameras and keep the revenue generated by the prosecution of drivers or the imposition of fixed penalties to encourage drivers' behaviour to become more compliant with Railtrack's railway safety requirements. I hope that the Minister will seriously consider that proposal.

Thirdly, will the Minister consider the establishment of a proper forum for consultation on procedural change or increased barrier down time? There should be a formal mechanism for Railtrack or the responsible highway authority to come to an agreed position rather than Railtrack simply imposing its requirements.

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Fourthly, to inform the process that I have just described, I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of providing a publicly available, independent cost-benefit analysis to review proposals made for changes in level crossing operating procedures, so that the external costs can be fully taken into account. At the same time, I ask him to consider delivering a mechanism for an independent element and a right of appeal in the event of such changes taking place. I emphasise my support for the rail renaissance, but I am worried that in my constituency at least, public support will decline sharply if burdens are placed on communities apparently without a proper process taking place.

1.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) on securing this important debate, on conducting it with his usual forensic attention to detail and on his courteous manner in doing so.

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said, although he lost the plot at one stage and said that Railtrack had been nationalised, which it certainly has not been. I can see from the rueful smile on his face that he does not really believe that, but he made a good point. I am pleased that he agrees with us that the railways are in a period of renaissance and that, perhaps for the first time in 100 years, there has been an improvement in their performance. I thought that I heard him say that a crossing could be closed for 160 minutes in an hour, although the Hansard reporter may have heard something different. We may return to that point later.

I am sure that we all agree on the importance of ensuring the safety of road and rail passengers at points where the two modes of transport intersect. The hon. Gentleman spoke graphically about that. Sadly, wherever railway and road cross on the level, mishaps are possible. Each year, a number of people are killed on level crossings, often in vehicles. In 2000-01, 10 people were killed on them.

We must do everything possible to contain that risk. The public has the right to expect that risks will be properly assessed and appropriate action taken. The type of protection that is provided depends on the prevailing road and rail traffic levels at the crossing, which of course can change from time to time.

The Level Crossings Act 1983 enables my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make an order that may specify in detail the protection to be provided, be it a full or half-barrier, lights or road markings and the railway signalling or other means whereby the train is given the right to proceed over the crossing. The order-making procedure can be used to alter the protection at a crossing in the light of changed circumstances or experience. I think that this is what has happened in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

The safety of a level crossing, particularly a half-barrier crossing, depends partly on the road user using the crossing correctly. A determined or impatient driver may skirt round a half-barrier, sometimes with disastrous results. If a crossing is regularly misused or for some reason more than usually prone to incidents,

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Railtrack, the legal operator of the crossing in the great majority of cases, may need to examine the reasons for the problem and how it can be minimised.

In 1997, the Level Crossings Act was amended to increase the circumstances in which the Secretary of State could make a new order in relation to a crossing. Previously, an order could be made only if the crossing operator—in this case, Railtrack—agreed. Now, the Secretary of State has the power to make an order with or without Railtrack's agreement.

Mr. Hammond : Can orders specify a maximum barrier down time? In other words, can the Secretary of State secure the protection for road users that I am concerned about?

Mr. Jamieson : When the Secretary of State takes a decision, the rail and road issues are given equal weight. He weighs the matter up, considering the views of Railtrack, the highway authority and any other authority that is involved. In most cases, level crossing orders are made on the Secretary of State's behalf by the Health and Safety Executive's railway inspectorate. It examines all the circumstances and consults the relevant local authorities, including the highway authority. I think that, on highway matters, Runnymede council is the agent for Surrey county council. The inspectorate generally holds a local meeting to hear the views of local residents, businesses and rail users.

In the vast majority of cases, a solution that is acceptable to the railway inspectorate, users, local authorities and others can be found. In a small number of cases, it may be difficult to find a solution that is acceptable to all. For example, a high level of protection at a crossing, such as a full-width barrier, may result in the crossing being closed to road traffic for longer periods and that may exacerbate road congestion. In such cases, the parties may consider more radical solutions, such as removing the crossing and replacing it if necessary with a bridge or tunnel, which has the great benefit of eliminating most of the risk inherent at the level crossing. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that alternative is not possible on the site that we are discussing because of the lie of the land.

In the absence of agreement, the Secretary of State may become involved. He would need to take account of the views of the Health and Safety Executive and other interested parties in coming to a decision. I repeat that he must give equal weight to the various views with which he is presented.

Mr. Hammond : The Minister is dealing with a case in which Railtrack has proposed a change in the operation of the level crossing. However, I also want to consider a situation in which an existing level crossing is not being changed, but the barrier down time is being significantly increased because additional train paths are being created. Does the Secretary of State have any power to intervene to set a maximum allowable barrier down time?

Mr. Jamieson : As several intricate issues are involved, it might help to make the position clear if my officials wrote to the hon. Gentleman through me, rather than my making it up on the hoof or giving him an incomplete answer. We will then have a complete understanding of the legal situation.

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The incident at Pooley Green level crossing at Egham on 17 October 2000 did not reach the media because of the dreadful events at Hatfield on the same day. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the incident had the potential to be extremely serious. He said that the bus driver had the presence of mind to get the people off the bus. Unfortunately, he did not have the presence of mind not to enter the box on the crossing in the first place, and he put himself and his passengers at serious risk. His exit was blocked by a queue of rush hour traffic heading towards Egham high street and the M25 slip road at junction 13. Within moments of the bus becoming trapped on the crossing, an approaching train started the sequence for the operation of the level crossing. The bus was completely destroyed, and it was fortunate that no passengers were on the train at the time and therefore no injuries. Loss of life and further damage were avoided only because certain events fortunately came to pass.

The Surrey police charged the bus driver with motoring offences and the prosecution was successful. The level crossing is an automatic half-barrier installation and is fitted with road traffic signals. It is operated automatically by the approach of a train. Once the train has started the sequence of operation, the sequence cannot be stopped. I am advised that the level crossing met the required standards when it was last modernised in the late 1970s. However, the Pooley Green level crossing has a poor safety record, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows. Some 11 serious incidents have been recorded that resulted in a total of four fatalities since 1983. Road traffic has increased substantially over this period. Those incidents did not occur because of any fault in the barriers or any action

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by Railtrack, but because of the way in which road users try to weave through the barriers before the train arrives. That is highly dangerous and puts at serious risk the driver, those on the train and any pedestrians nearby.

As a result of the continuing investigation into the accident, Her Majesty's railway inspectorate discovered that substantial road user indiscipline at the level crossing was causing serious concern for the safety of rail and road users. There was therefore a reasonable likelihood of further collisions. I cannot overstate the importance of motor vehicle drivers acting responsibly and safely. Unfortunately, the drivers who act responsibly and safely on this and some other crossings are in a minority.

Since the accident in October 2000, there has been a temporary 20 mph speed restriction on the down line, as the hon. Gentleman said. The crossing is sufficiently visible to trains on the up line to allow them to operate at the appropriate line speed. A Railtrack employee now staffs the crossing and monitors the flow of traffic. If necessary, he can make an emergency telephone call to the signal box to ensure that preventive action is taken. Under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, Railtrack was asked to take emergency action on 14 February 2001 to minimise risks to the public. That followed an unannounced visit by Her Majesty's railway inspectorate when problems caused by queuing traffic, red traffic light offences and yellow box marking offences were noted on many occasions during the morning peak hour.

I have not had time to cover several issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, and he made some important points. I answered some of the questions that he asked at the end of his speech but, if he feels that I have not covered other matters in sufficient detail, I will write to him.

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