HL Deb 01 December 1926 vol 65 cc1060-72

EARL RUSSELL had given Notice to call attention to the accident at Naworth level crossing, and to ask the Ministry of Transport what steps, if any, it is proposed to take with regard to railway level crossings in this country. The noble Earl said: My Lords, although I have been interested for some time in the question of level crossings and have considered the matter, the immediate circumstance that caused me to put it down upon your Lordships' Order Paper and call attention to it to-night was the terrible and fatal accident at Naworth level crossing. No doubt your Lordships are familiar with that incident. I will, therefore, only recall the details of it very shortly. This is a level crossing upon an important branch line from Carlisle to Newcastle and the crossing is on a somewhat unimportant road. On this occasion it happened that a local omnibus carrying passengers who, I think, had been to some local holiday-making, arrived at the crossing gates and the person in charge, who appeared to be only a porter (and at that a porter who had not been pro- perly instructed in his duties either by the railway company or anybody else) opened the gate to allow the omnibus to proceed, although at that moment an express train was approaching. The omnibus failed to clear the line, and what happened was that the back half of the omnibus was struck by the train and practically sliced off and a number of people were killed, I forget exactly how many, but four or five at least.


Nine people were killed and six injured.


I know it was a considerable number. Then, curiously enough, since I put this Question on the Paper, there seem to have been a very large number of accidents at level crossings—it would be safe to say at the very least one a week—and about a, fortnight ago, on three successive mornings, a serious accident at a level crossings was reported in the newspapers. What I am going to suggest to your Lordships is that in this settled, civilised country and at this date level crossings are an anachronism and should no longer be tolerated. It may well he asked why it is that railway companies were allowed, for their own convenience, to run their trains across our public roads, which is what, in fact, a level crossing means? I think the answer to that probably is that at the time most of these powers were obtained railway companies were the pets of Parliament and could get almost anything they liked out of Parliament.

It may be thought that these level crossings are not so very prevalent in this country, but those who travel a good deal by road, as I do, will know that that view is mistaken. To take the south coast alone, which is a very populous place, it is simply sprinkled with level crossings. At Havant there are certainly three, if not four; Littlehampton there is one; I think there is one at Bognor; there is one at Chichester, and one of those at Havant is across the main road. And so it goes on. You find them practically universal. I also find they have a very bad and dangerous system by which in a slovenly way indeed the gate is opened. This is a thing that ought not to be encouraged. Then there are level crossings of a still more obstructive character. I am acquainted with one on Watling Street, somewhere near High Cross, where the gates are kept permanently shut and are only opened when a vehicle appears. That may have been changed in recent years, but it was so for ten or fifteen years. Possibly your Lordships do not realise that quite near London there is a level crossing on the main Bath Road at Colnbrook. Fortunately that happens to be a branch line on which there are rarely any trains, otherwise the obstruction would be intolerable.

Let us suppose that level crossings are perfectly managed, perfectly signalled, and perfectly staffed, there is still this about them that they mean traffic is constantly held up. It is an extremely common thing in the South of England to have a level crossing at a great many of the small stations which is worked by the station staff. While the train is approaching road traffic is stationary and is held up for some time. There is a level crossing which I dare say is familiar to some of your Lordships at Sunningdale, on the Ascot road, where that frequently happens. Quite apart from the inconvenience that is caused the question of the very great danger of these crossings has to be considered. I am going to suggest to your Lordships that the time has come when this can no longer be tolerated. Railway traffic has grown in speed and in quantity beyond what it was when these crossings were instituted and road traffic, as your Lordships know, has grown out of all knowledge. It is quite impossible, I venture to suggest, that Parliament should allow these things to remain any longer.

Then there comes the question: Who is to pay for their abolition—an abolition which must take place and can only take place by the constriction of a bridge over or a road under the railway and which may involve a lowering or raising of the railway line. I think it is obvious that the people who are running their concern for profit and are using the public roads must pay to take their line away from the public roads when it has become a nuisance and a danger. It may be said that railway companies at the moment are very poor. I am not quite so sure whether they are so poor as they make our. But I should be prepared to give them time to make this alteration. I am going to ask to-night that the Ministry of Transport should consider this question in all its bearings and should consider in particular the suggestions I will make in a moment. I shall be inclined to call attention to the subject again, say in six months or so, to know whether any definite step is likely to be taken. If no definite step were taken, I am bound to say that personally I feel so strongly upon the subject that I should be inclined to introduce a Bill adding a clause to the Railway Clauses Consolidation Act which would prevent railway companies continuing level crossings indefinitely in this country.

There seem to me two methods that might be taken. I dare say there are many other methods that will occur to the ingenious advisers of the Ministry of Transport, but two methods have occurred to me. One would be to say that at the end of a definite period, say five years, or if you like, a little longer in the case of unimportant crossings, all level crossings must have come to an end and be replaced by bridges. Another method which, I think, would be equally effective would be to adopt that principle which has worked so well in the case of redundant public houses and to make a railway company pay an annual sum into a fund for every level crossing, a sum which would be larger if the crossing were on an important road than if it were on an unimportant one, and a sum which would increase and, indeed, even be doubled if you like, with every successive year. By that means, I think, you would very soon accumulate a fund which would enable county councils and the Road Fund between them to substitute bridges for these level crossings.

I suggest to your Lordships to-night that not only are these things an obstruction to traffic, which, on main roads, is important, although on by-roads it may be less so, but that experience shows they are a real danger to the public. They must cost the railway companies a good deal as it is, because they require staffing with a man and with signals and gates have to be worked. There is very little doubt, as railway companies are finding out, that it pays them to remove every possible obstruction to the passage of their trains and there is also little doubt that the abolition of these level crossings would pay the railway companies themselves. But I do suggest that they are things that can no longer be tolerated in so thickly populated and settled a country as this with its road traffic, and I would ask the Minister of Transport to take that view into consideration and perhaps be prepared with some suggestion at a later date.


My Lords, before the noble Viscount replies, may I support the noble Earl opposite, and say that I entirely concur with what he said In regard to the expense of level crossings, perhaps the House does not realise that each level crossing costs about £600 a year. That is made up in this way: Signalmen must be kept at every level crossing to work the gates, the whole twenty-four hours, which means employing three men. Averaging their wages at about £3 per week, and adding to that the cost of keeping up the roadway within the limits of the property of the railway company and the maintenance of the gates and their repair, that comes out at about £600 a year. Sometimes that is not the end of the matter, because it entails two signal boxes—the regular signal box for block working some distance away and, it may be, an additional signal box, which it is impossible to cut out. Railway companies, therefore, have a direct pecuniary interest in doing away with level crossings.

It may not be known also that lately the Ministry of Transport and many county councils have been working at the problem of getting rid of these level crossings on the basis of the railway companies subscribing so much of the expense, the county councils so much, and the Ministry of Transport so much. I always think it is rather hard that county councils should be asked to find anything because, after all, the road was there in some cases hundreds of years before the railway, and although it is quite true that certain of the residents in the county which is affected are benefited by getting across that crossing rather more quickly it is the road-using public in general that really benefits. Therefore the balance of the cost should in my opinion fall on the Ministry of Transport, in other words on the Road Fund.

To show how serious is the delay caused by these level crossings I may quote some figures from the road census taken in August, 1925. They are mentioned in the Road Fund Report for 1925–26, page 13. There is a list of eight level crossings in Leicestershire, Stirlingshire, Cambridge, Peterborough, Surrey, Hants, Sussex and East Sussex. In Leicestershire, for instance, the gates were closed to vehicular traffic for 12 hours 9 minutes between six a.m. and ten p.m., in other words two-thirds of the whole time. Even on so important a crossing as Milton crossing in Cambridgeshire the gates were closed 9 hours 14 minutes during that time. I will not trouble the House with all the figures, but they vary between 12 hours 9 minutes and 1 hour 29 minutes. Most of these crossings happen to be over class 1 or class 2 roads, in other words over roads with a very large amount of traffic. As the noble Earl rightly said, it is an absolute anachronism that within a few miles of London there should be level crossings over great main arteries of traffic.

It has always seemed to me that the Ministry of Transport would spend money far better if it concentrated on getting rid of level crossings near London on main roads than by some of the work dope in regard to the extension of arterial roads and widening. Not only is a level crossing a great hindrance to traffic it has been proved by statistics given by the Minister of Transport in the House of Commons yesterday to be a very serious danger to the public. In the House of Commons yesterday the Minister of Transport gave a Report for the twelve months ending September 30 last, in which he showed there were thirty accidents at level crossings, public road crossings, and that 31 people were killed and 33 injured. If that is happening to-day, what is going to happen in a few years time when the road traffic is very much heavier and the number of trains will probably also have increased? It is a very urgent question to deal with.


Your figures were not fatal accidents, were they?


I will hand the noble Viscount a copy of the Report. Let us envisage the position, say, a year hence, In December, 1927, there will be roughly two million motor vehicles, including motor cycles, in this country. We have 182,000 miles of road. That means eleven ears for every mile of road throughout the country, or one for every 160 yards. That may bring home to the House what road traffic will be even on the basis of two million cars, and that is by no means the limit to which the number of cars will grow in this country. Supposing each car runs 50 miles a week, which is a very small allowance: that means 5,200,000,000 miles will be run in a year and the cars on main and secondary roads, on A and B roads, can be estimated to do at least half that, mileage. That means 2,000,000,000 miles over these roads in which are many level crossings. These figures may appear almost unbelievable, but I have worked them out carefully and that is the result. It is quite clear, therefore, that as regards road traffic we must get rid of the obstruction and danger of these level crossings.

Some time ago the Automobile Association, which is one of the two great associations which watched over road matters, drew up a list of 237 level crossings which they considered of more than ordinary importance. That list has now been before the Ministry of Transport two whole years and so far as I can make out very little has been done. I am not blaming the Ministry of Transport for that because they have many other things to do and are overworked. They will be still more overworked when the Bill which we were discussing last night comes into operation and takes part of their attention. The Board of Trade which formerly had these duties to look after still retains the right of looking after level crossings. That is a point I had not really assured myself about until to-day. The Board of Trade also have the right in respect of level crossings to call upon a railway company at its own expense to provide a bridge. That power was given in the special Acts authorising railways before 1863, and in the case of all level crossings authorised since the power has been given by Section 7 of the Railway Clauses Act, 1863. Perhaps the noble Earl, who I know is very good at legal points and I believe specialises in researches into law, will consider that point if he desires to bring anything forward in the nature of a Bill. In addition to that, the Ministry of Transport has given pledges on various occasions that these level crossings should be done away with, but, so far those pledges have not been carried out to any large extent.

In conclusion I will give particulars, taken a very few months ago, of the delays at level crossings in Hampshire. I obtained them from the county council and they relate to the time lost at level crossings between the 9th and 15th August this year between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., a period of sixteen hours. At the Blackwater crossing, which no doubt the noble Earl knows well, between Camberley and Hartford Bridge Flats, the gates were closed 17.7 per cent of the whole time between those hours; in the case of Bedhampton, near Portsmouth, for 24.1 per cent of the time; at Lyndhurst Road Station, on the main Southampton-to-Bournemouth road, 25.8 per cent.; and at Totton outside Southampton, on the main road between Southampton and the West of England, 28.6 per cent. That is to say that the level crossing was closed to traffic for nearly one-third of the time between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. I think that this is more than an anachronism; it is a scandal, and it has come to such a pass at Totton that the Minister of Transport the railway company and the county council have joined together and are going to build a great new causeway over the head of Southampton Water.

I do not think that we ought to blame the railway companies altogether. They have done much in the past and their feeling is that it is not their fault that the traffic has grown. They have been hardly hit by depression and cannot afford to do a thing which will not bring in direct revenue. The Ministry of Transport can help in this direction, and I do criticise the Ministry to this extent that I do not think they have been as insistent as they should have been on the removal of these level crossings. I hope that the noble Viscount who is going to reply will give us some hope that they will pay more attention to the matter in the future.


My Lords, I do not think that I need deal with the details of the Naworth crossing disaster, because they have already been very clearly stated by the noble Earl opposite. I will only say that the Report of the Inquiry is in the hands of the printers, and, I understand, will shortly be published. The Report calls attention to the fact that the arrangements and lay out of the level crossing in question, which is situated on a line of railway that was constructed when railways were in their infancy, are exceptional, and recommends that, notwithstanding the fact that this is the only accident that is known to have occurred at this crossing, the gates should be altered and interlocked with the signals in accordance with the arrangements now obtaining at many other similar level crossings in the country. When the Report is laid before him, the Minister of Transport will call the attention of the railway company to it.

In the general questions raised by the noble Earl and by my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu I must distinguish the element of danger from the element of delay in transport. Certainly these level crossings are a very considerable source of delay and inconvenience. They seem very largely to exist in order to test the quality of patience in motorists and others who have to cross over those roads. The noble Lord gave some figures of the accidents at these crossings. I understand that they come to rather less than twenty fatal accidents a year on the average for the last ten or eleven years. The figures sound a little worse as given by my noble friend, because he took a year running from September to September. I think that if he took each year he would find that the average worked out at the figure that I have mentioned.


The figures are those of the Ministry of Transport.


Ten years is going back a little too far for the present traffic.




Can the noble Viscount give the number of people killed by motor cars during the last ten months?


I do not know that I can off-hand give the figures, but, as my noble friend knows, they are very substantial. A large number of these accidents were due, I understand, to a certain amount of carelessness on the part of the public, and they could hardly have been prevented by any precautionary measures. The Minister favours the elimination of level crossings as far as possible. That is his aim. He was criticised to some extent, I think, by the noble Lord because he had done nothing, but that is so usual a complaint brought against Ministers and is so often without any foundation that I hope that your Lordships will take it with the necessary deduction and discount. He has done certain things, as in the case of Totton, which I think is within a small distance of the residence of my noble friend and is therefore, no doubt, a great public work. On a few important main roads, notably at Blackwater in Hampshire, which the noble Lord mentioned, at Barnby Moor, Crow Park and North Muskham in Nottinghamshire, the allocation of grants from the Road Fund has made it possible for the local authorities concerned to face the expense of erecting bridges over level crossings, and in other cases, as on the London-Tilbury road at Purfleet and on the Bath road at Colnbrook, the construction of new by-pass roads has been undertaken to afford alternative and shorter routes free from level crossings.

The noble Earl had some rather drastic suggestions to make regarding the duties of the railway companies. He suggested, I think, that in a fixed number of years they should replace these crossings by bridges. He wanted to follow the analogy—it was only an analogy—of the Licensing Acts and make the railway companies (there are only four of them now) contribute towards a fund for this purpose. I may say that in the case of the Licensing Act other licensees were supposed to benefit from an increase of custom through the shutting up of other public houses, and therefore the analogy must not be pressed too far. Certainly these are rather drastic methods in the present conditions in which the railways find themselves, suffering as they do from the competition of road traffic and in other ways. I think that part of the argument of my noble friend behind me went to prove that it would really pay the railway companies to do away with these cross- ings. If that is the case, it seems hardly necessary to put upon them the drastic compulsion which the noble Earl suggests, because we know that even in Acts of Parliament and administration it is very often assumed that intelligent people can look after their own interests in financial matters.

The view, I think, of the Ministry is that in many cases the cost of constructing these bridges would hardly be warranted by the reduction of danger and inconvenience. These cases are continually being looked after by the officers of the Ministry of Transport, either when newly constructed lines are inspected or on other occasions, and I understand that the publication entitled "Requirements for Passenger Lines and Recommendations for Goods Lines" contains a description of the precautions necessary under different circumstances. I am empowered by the Minister of Transport to offer to present the noble Earl opposite with a copy of this work if he so desires. I have said that the Minister is generally in favour of the substitution of bridges for level crossings, and his experience so far is that the powers which he has are sufficient to secure the necessary arrangements for safety and for meeting the additional risk which has been alluded to by my noble friend in case of much increased traffic on the roads; but if he finds his present powers are inadequate he is quite ready, and would not hesitate, to come to Parliament to provide him with additional powers. Therefore, although I am threatened with the risk of this matter being brought up again six months hence, and with the further danger hanging over our heads that the noble Earl may himself introduce a Bill to deal with the matter if no improvement takes place within the next six months, I think the Minister is really doing all he can, although, if necessity arises, he will not hesitate, as I have said, to ask for further powers.


My Lords, it is certainly satisfactory to hear from the noble Viscount that the Minister of Transport is moving effectively in regard to what everyone knows is a great nuisanee—namely, the matter of level crossings; but there is one factor to which I would like to call the attention of the noble Viscount, as it may be of importance. The principle is to be found in the Rail- ways Clauses Act of 1845—I think Section 46. The principle there laid down is that the obligation is upon all railway companies either to carry their railway over the road or the road over the railway. That is the existing obligation, and wherever there is departure from that, although it is no doubt sanctioned under special Parliamentary provision, at the same time I think the Minister of Transport should have it in his mind that the whole obligation is intended to be upon the railway companies. That ought to be borne in mind when the question arises of getting rid of these nuisances.

There is one other point, on the question of expense. It happened in the old days that I had certain experience of these matters on the question of expense. It is only in rather exceptional circumstances that the railway company would save enough, in saving the cost of a level crossing, to provide sufficient funds for carrying the line under or over the road. There can be no doubt about that, but it was often settled on this basis, that the railway company having made a substantial contribution, the further necessary funds were found by the local authority. I think, however, that the difficulty of finance ought not to stand in the way, and I have only raised the matter in order that the noble Viscount, as representing the Ministry of Transport, might bear in mind that after all, when the railways were generally laid down, the intention was that the obligation should be placed upon all railways, under Section 46 of the Act of 1845, to pass either under or over the road.


The noble Viscount at the end of his speech endeavoured to placate me by the generous offer of a Christmas Gift booklet. I think he will probably hardly think that sufficient, if only for the "Pooh-Bah" reason that the insult is too light a one. He did not tell us that any contributions were made by the railway company where crossings had been abolished. What I hoped to hear from him was that the Ministry considered that the obligation was primarily upon the railway company to pay the whole cost. I would also point out to him that it is stated that these level crossings cost the railway company£600 a year. If that be so, at least they might capitalise them and contribute £12,000. That would cost them nothing. Lord Montagu has handed me one report which he did not read to your Lordships, but which I think is worthy of mention. In 1924–25 there was an average of 140 occasions a year in which trains ran into gates and vehicles at level crossings. That does not look as if they were so very safe. I do urge that the primary obligation is on the railway company, and if they have been allowed to use our roads for their purposes, when the time comes that a change is required, Parliament should put upon them the obligation to meet changing conditions.