According to the Economist magazine published today, Sir Alastair Morton (Chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority) has privately told the Government that rail passengers would be safer if speed restrictions were removed and trains were allowed to run at their usual speed. Safety experts have estimated that the growth in road traffic, arising from frustrated rail passengers giving up on trains and travelling by road instead, is likely to result in an increased number of 5 deaths and 75 serious injuries.
But in a Commons Hansard Written Answer for Thursday 23 Nov 2000, Keith Hill MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions) gave a different story when answering questions from Michael Fabricant yesterday:
Mr. Fabricant: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what estimate he has made of (a) the increases in road traffic and (b) the change in the number of (i) deaths and (ii) serious injuries arising from road traffic accidents as a result of rail passenger traffic being displaced to road during the work by Railtrack over the next three months to replace cracked rails.
Mr. Hill: The Government recognise that the current disruption to the railways may displace traffic onto the roads, where travellers are on average at greater risk. It is therefore essential that the rail network is returned to a safe working condition as soon as possible. That is the aim of Railtrack’s current rail replacement programme, to which the Government and HSE are giving every possible assistance. I am advised that statistics to quantify any increased risk arising from any consequent displacement of traffic from rail to road are not available.
Mr. Fabricant: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will calculate the probability of (a) death and (b) serious injury to rail travellers per passenger mile if the work planned by Railtrack over the next three months to replace cracked rails is conducted (i) as planned and (ii) over a programmed 12 month period.
Mr. Hill: The primary risk arising from cracked rails is derailment, leading to fatal and serious injuries as occurred tragically at Hatfield. It is for Railtrack, as infrastructure controller, to manage that risk. To mitigate the consequences of such derailments, Railtrack have imposed Emergency Speed Restrictions on the sites most affected by ‘gauge corner cracking’, until the track has been tested and replaced where necessary. Such speed restrictions in themselves may create further risks on the network, for example by increasing overcrowding at stations.
I am informed by the HSE that they have sought from Railtrack risk estimates on the cracked rails situation, and that HSE is working closely with Railtrack so that these Restrictions can be lifted as soon as safety can be adequately assured. Extending the rail replacement programme would prolong the period for which Restrictions are in place.
“Either the Government have been given detailed statistics or they have not”, says Michael Fabricant. “They should come clean and provide some direction. People's lives are at stake here. At the moment, they seem to be in a total muddle”.