05 November 2009

S3M-4986 Level Crossings (Fatal Accident Inquiries)

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 5 November 2009

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

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Level Crossings (Fatal Accident Inquiries)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S3M-4986, in the name of Willie Coffey, on conduct of inquiries into fatalities at level crossings. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament regrets the continuing loss of life at railway level crossings, most recently at Halkirk in Caithness and, in January 2009, at Gatehead in Kilmarnock and Loudoun; notes the large number of organisations involved in the investigation of rail accidents and incidents in Scotland, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, the British Transport Police, Scotland's eight police forces and the Office of Rail Regulation, and considers that, following the Review of Fatal Accident Inquiry Legislation being conducted by Lord Cullen, a modernised system of fatal accident inquiries can contribute to greater coordination and scrutiny of any inquiries, including the implementation of any recommendations, by whichever agency, following such tragic incidents.

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The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

Like others, I thank Willie Coffey for lodging the motion that has given us the opportunity to debate the issue. I should also highlight the substantial quality of the research and engagement that he demonstrated in his speech. No one who is here tonight or who reads the debate afterwards will fail to learn something that was not in the ministerial brief or in their own research. In the way that he has dealt with the issue, Willie Coffey has set an example that others should follow.

Like others, I utterly regret that fatal accidents occur. I echo the statements of other members in expressing the sympathies of myself and my colleagues—and of Parliament generally—for the friends and families of those who lost their lives in the fatal accidents at Halkirk recently and at Gatehead in Kilmarnock and Loudon earlier this year. Of course we note that the emergency services responded to those accidents in the professional manner that one would expect.

Willie Coffey mentioned the welcome report of Lord Cullen, who has a track record of producing substantial reports on matters of concern involving safety. It is certainly of interest that such modest submissions were made to Lord Cullen's deliberations from a range of bodies that might be thought to be substantially engaged in such issues.

I am sure that my colleague Kenny MacAskill will examine carefully the issue of FAIs and that action will be taken. The paucity of information that was available to Willie Coffey when he was researching the subject suggests that there is a case for action.

Jamie Stone talked about the recent accident at Halkirk. There was also an accident there in 2002 but, as it is the subject of court action, I will say no more about it. Other court issues may yet be associated with the accidents that have occurred. Jamie Stone asked the fundamental question why there should be barriers and exemplified the problem in saying that. The £1.2 billion profit is, in a sense, merely the public's money coming back round the system. Network Rail is a not-for-profit company, therefore it is difficult to talk about profit in the context of that company, although the balance sheet and the annual reports show it.

Rob Gibson highlighted the issues in Dingwall and asked about speed cameras. I will seek to follow up that question. He also highlighted the trauma that is experienced not just by the families of those who are killed or injured at crossings, but by the people who are employed on the railway. ASLEF has, I think, suggested that there should be a slowdown, which would result in the slowing down of people's journeys. That is an important issue, as one of the key things that we want to see is the speeding up of rail journeys. Anything that slows down journeys is something that I regret.

Charlie Gordon, who is an old railwayman—perhaps I should say a railwayman of long standing—made the clear point that signs and signals should be adhered to. Of course, no one disputes that. However, as part of my modest personal research, I asked my wife, who has been driving for 35 years, whether she had ever driven across a level crossing. She said that she had not. It is not that she has avoided them; she just happens not to have done that. I wonder whether the unfamiliarity with level crossings that some drivers experience contributes to near misses or accidents. The flashing red light is unfamiliar, whereas the steady red light is something with which people are familiar. A range of issues around the psychology of how level crossings are controlled should be considered further.

Charlie Gordon made the particular point that safety should trump finance. I think that we all agree on that. In the Government, "spads" means special advisers, but signals passed at danger are part of railway folklore. I think that I am correct in saying that, following some focus on the issue, the number of signals passed at danger is on the decline, therefore I do not think that train drivers should really come within our sights as contributors to the difficulty. I do not think that there is a culture of train drivers crossing lights perniciously.

Dave Thompson talked about Bunchrew. It was particularly interesting to hear that it took some time to persuade Network Rail that the fault existed. That leads us neatly to the complex mixture of people who are involved. The procurators fiscal, British Transport Police officers, the Office of Rail Regulation and the rail accident investigation branch all have a memorandum of understanding. However, the number of communications that are required in a quadripartite memorandum of understanding is great, with 18 different communication paths between the four organisations, and the complexity increases every time that someone is added to it. There is a high degree of co-ordination, but there is clearly difficulty involved in that.

I very much welcome the review that is currently being undertaken by the rail accident investigation branch, which has a special set of skills in relation to the safety of automatic open level crossings. We will wait and see what it has to say. It will certainly be time to consider then whether there are opportunities for further reviews.

Perhaps we could consider some of the things that happen in the marine and aviation environments. There is an intense focus on safety in aviation. In my flying career, I had to make an emergency landing in a light aircraft because of an equipment failure. It is interesting that, although that was the first failure in that aircraft type around the world—many tens of thousands of that aircraft type were produced—it nonetheless led to a mandatory change in all 20,000 of those aircraft in every country of the world. That was based on a single incident in an aircraft that had not had an incident in 30 years of operation. We should commend to ourselves that approach to safety.

I thank Willie Coffey for lodging the motion. I will continue to engage with members as matters develop. The issue is not subject to party dispute or debate. Railways are the safest part of our transport network, but they are still capable of improvement. We all agree that safety on our railways is vital.

Meeting closed at 17:46.

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