Rail and fire unions unite to defend safety regulations 18 years after King's Cross fire

18 November 2005

Exactly eighteen years after the King's Cross fire, Britain's rail and fire-fighting unions have launched a joint campaign to keep in place essential fire-safety regulations for sub-surface stations that were introduced after the 1987 disaster that claimed 31 lives.

 

ASLEF, RMT and the Fire Brigades Union have called a national demonstration at King's Cross on November 26 to highlight the threat to public safety posed by plans to abolish the ‘Section 12' regulations that prescribe safety standards for sub-surface stations all over Britain

 

The regulations stipulate minimum safe staffing levels, means of detecting and warning of fires and means of escape and fire-fighting, as well as standards of fire-resistant construction, training and various other precautions, which are not specified in the Fire Safety Order the government wants to replace them with.

 

Keith Norman said, ‘Without these enforceable minimum standards operators will be invited to cut corners and compromise fire-safety. It is simply not good enough for them to be replaced with what amount to discretionary measures.

 

‘We are asking the government to step back once and for all from this ill-thought-out plan, and not simply postpone it once more. The fact that they are considering it at all shows an appalling lack of respect to the victims of King's Cross.'

 

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack added, ‘The government must not replace the current regulations until they can guarantee the same level of safety for the public, rail staff and emergency services. If they cannot it would be a serious blow to public safety.

“The essential elements of the current regulations must be maintained. We need guarantees there would be effective enforcement to underpin any safety regime.'

 

The RMT's Bob Crow was insistent that, ‘The Fennell report into the 1987 Kings Cross fire found that these minimum standards were necessary, and in today's climate they are even more essential.

 

‘We have already beaten off one attempt to abolish the ‘Section 12' regulations and we are now seeking a simple, unequivocal commitment from the government that these sensible and effective measures will be kept in place.'

 

Further backing came from the TUC's Southern and Eastern region (SERTUC) and from John McDonnell MP. SERTUC secretary Mick Connolly says, ‘These regulations are there to protect passengers and rail staff alike, and it is in all our interests to support the campaign to keep them in place.

 

‘Everyone who cares about fire-safety on our rail networks should support next Saturday's demonstration at King's Cross.'

 

And John McDonnell has undertaken to raise the issue in the House of Commons. ‘We will be using every parliamentary device again to highlight the risk to the travelling public and workers in underground stations.

 

‘After July nobody in their right minds would be seeking to reduce safety measures on the Tube. We shall be demanding an early debate on the floor of the House to ensure that the Government addresses these serious concerns,' he said.

 

 

 

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Background notes

 

The 1989 Regulations make up Section 12 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971, and were added on the recommendation of the Fennell Report into the 1987 King's Cross fire. They cover ‘sub-surface stations' throughout Britain, including those on underground systems in Glasgow, Tyne and Wear and London, but also national rail stations which are ‘sub-surface', including Birmingham New Street, London's Charing Cross and several in Liverpool. The government's Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2004, as originally drafted, would have repealed the 1971 Act, and with it the Section 12 regulations.

 

 

 

The government's first move to scrap the 1989 regulations – which lay down minimum staffing levels and other safety standards for sub-surface stations – was opposed by the House of Commons' Regulatory Reform Committee in October 2004, following an intervention by RMT parliamentary group convenor John McDonnell. The relevant part of the committee's report is attached.

 

 

 

The government has subsequently said it would repeal the regulations in April 2006, but most recently indicated that it would do so six to 12 months after the Fire Safety Order comes into force. However, the Fire Safety Order and guidance do not give the same statutory protections as in the 1989 Regulations, specifically on:

 

 

 

·                    Means of escape

 

·                    Means of fighting fire

 

·                    Means of detection and giving warning

 

·                    Fire-resistant construction

 

·                    Instruction and training

 

·                    Keeping of records

 

·                    Additional precautions including practicable steps to prevent smoking, and staffing levels.

 

 

 

Parliamentary Early Day Motion 549, tabled by John MacDonnell after the London bombings and signed to date by 45 MPs, also follows:

 

 

 

EDM 549 - Fire Precautions Regulations

 

In the name of John McDonnell and 45 others:

 

 

 

That this House condemns the terrorist attacks on London's public transport network and commends the bravery and professionalism of the emergency services, London Underground, national rail network and London bus service workers who were on hand to provide assistance and support in the immediate aftermath of the attacks; notes that the Government is set to review the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989, introduced following the Fennell Report into the 1987 King's Cross Fire disaster; further notes that the Regulations set out minimum standards for fire precautions in sub-surface railway stations including means of escape, means of fighting fire, minimum staffing levels and staff instruction and training; believes that these minimum standards are even more essential in light of the recent terrorist attacks; and calls on the Government to retain in full the 1989 Regulations.

 

Extract from the Commons Regulatory Reform Committee report on the draft Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2004

 

Regulations under section 12 of the 1971 Act

 

120. The proposed Order would revoke the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989[83] ("the 1989 Regulations"), which set minimum standards for fire precautions to apply at sub-surface stations. The 1989 Regulations are made under section 12 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971, and were brought into force as a result of the Fennell Report on the fire disaster at King's Cross underground station in November 1988. Article 24 of the draft Order would give the Secretary of State a similar power to make regulations to deal with fire safety on particular categories of premises.

 

121. We received a representation expressing concern that the draft Order would remove the minimum safety standards which presently apply to sub-surface railway stations "and instead allow management the freedom to risk assess fire safety measures":

 

It is unclear to . . . London Underground users and employees how such a measure will improve fire safety on the Underground and indeed there are fears that without minimum standards corners will be cut and safety compromised. [84]

 

We therefore asked the Department whether it had plans to make regulations under article 24 of the draft Order to provide for fire safety in sub-surface railway stations, whether such regulations, if any, would replicate the provisions of the 1989 Regulations, and how the recommendations of the Fennell Report would be continued under the proposed Order.

 

122. The Department has stated in response that it has no plans to make separate regulations for fire safety in sub-surface railway stations.[85] As a result of its consultation with enforcing bodies and others, it has come to the view that the provisions of the draft Order, when taken together with the Railway (Safety Case) Regulations 2000 ("the 2000 Regulations"),[86] enforced by the Health and Safety Executive, will continue all necessary protection implemented by the 1989 Regulations. It notes that the 1989 Regulations are "highly prescriptive", although the enforcing authority is allowed some discretion.

 

123. The Department considers that all the necessary protection which is provided by the implementation of the Fennell Report recommendations (by means of the 1989 Regulations) would be continued by the effect of the draft Order and the 2000 Regulations, although it has identified an aspect of the 2000 Regulations which would be limited by the operation of the draft Order and intends to make an appropriate amendment to the Order. The Department has indicated that the requirement in the 1989 Regulations which provides that shifts shall be arranged so that two people are at work at all times when the public are present[87] may be relaxed by the fire authority at its discretion.[88] In addition, the Department considers that the requirement for there to be sufficient staff to implement the fire safety arrangements is carried forward by articles 11, 15 and 18 of the draft Order.

 

Our assessment

 

124. The particular concern over the potential loss of protection from the revocation of the 1989 Regulations was raised with us only after we had taken oral evidence from the Minister. In the limited time available to us, we have not had the opportunity to make a thorough assessment of the 1989 Regulations and the degree to which the protections contained in them are continued in the draft Order and the 2000 Regulations. We are nevertheless concerned that the high level of protection contained in the 1989 Regulations, reflecting the unique nature of fire risks in sub-surface railway stations, should be continued.

 

125. Given the nature of sub-surface railway stations, and the substantial numbers of relevant persons who use them each day, there must be a very strong public interest in ensuring their safety from fire. It does not appear to us that the operation of the Regulations places a disproportionate burden on the management of sub-surface railway stations, and it has not yet been demonstrated that fire safety in such stations would be enhanced by the removal of the 1989 Regulations in favour of the risk-based regime contemplated in the proposed Order. We have also received no indication that any guidance will be issued to indicate what fire safety provisions should be made for sub-surface railway stations under the proposed Order.

 

126. In our view the Department has not yet made a convincing case for the revocation of the 1989 Regulations. The Regulations do impose a prescriptive regime for fire safety in underground stations which we recognise is not in keeping with the goal-based approach which the Department wishes to take in the proposed Order: but the draft Order itself makes provision for the imposition of similar regimes through regulations under article 24.

 

127. We consider that the provisions of the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989 constitute necessary protections. On the evidence presently before us, we are not convinced that the provisions will be adequately carried forward under the general provisions of the draft Order and the Railway (Safety Case) Regulations 2000, as amended. We consider that the provisions of the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989 should remain in force. We therefore recommend that Schedule 5 to the draft Order be amended to remove the references to the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989, the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) (Amendment) Regulations 1991 and the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) (Amendment) Regulations 1994.

 

128. We note that once the Order is in force the Secretary of State may make regulations under article 24 which would revoke the 1989 Regulations. Any decision to keep the 1989 Regulations, as amended, in force beyond the entry into force of the draft Order is therefore by no means irrevocable.

 

129. Another solution might be the provision of guidance by the Secretary of State on the operation of fire safety requirements in sub-surface railway stations. We note that London Underground Limited, in its response to the consultation on the proposal, stressed the need for guidance on implementation of the proposed Order.[89] Such guidance could include all the elements of protection prescribed in the 1989 Regulations.

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