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House of Commons

Monday 16 January 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Train Passengers

1. Mr. Dunnachie : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will publish the figures for British Rail of passenger train miles and passenger seat provision in each of the last five years ; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon) : I have arranged for the available information to be published in the Official Report. Broadly, this shows that passenger train miles increased by 5 per cent. between 1983 and 1987-88. British Rail is trying to match the capacity that it provides to demand.

Mr. Dunnachie : I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that although new stock has been brought in, it will result in fewer seats for passengers? Will this not lead to excessive overcrowding and a lowering of safety standards?

Mr. Channon : I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that he will be pleased to know about the large amount of railway investment that is going ahead. In real terms it is at its highest level for over 25 years, and by the

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end of the decade British Rail will have renewed over 85 per cent. of its diesel passenger trains and will have electrified 60 per cent. of inter-city routes.

Mr. John Browne : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the standing passenger is more vulnerable to accident and to causing an accident, even to sitting passengers ; and is not getting "fare" value? Will he look at this issue with particular regard to the design of carriages, the separation of standing and sitting passengers and the availability of seats at peak hours on main lines? Will he look into the feasibility of the issuance by the guard of part refund vouchers to passengers who have had to stand during specified stages of the journey? Is he prepared to make recommendations to British Rail about these matters?

Mr. Channon : Most of what my hon. Friend says, although not all, is a matter for British Rail. I understand his point about "fare" value. New rolling stock is now needed to meet agreed standards. It has been and will continue to be approved and, as my hon. Friend knows, an enormous investment programme is going ahead in British Rail. I know that my hon. Friend, among others, welcomes that.

Mr. Matthew Taylor : The Department of Transport's publication last week of the study on London transport shows that in 1985-86 there was a 36 per cent. increase in the overloading of trains and that in 1987 there was an 8 per cent. further increase in overloading on the Department of Transport's agreed targets. Is the right hon. Gentleman not also concerned about the safety risks that the existing rolling stock may present to passengers?

Mr. Channon : The House agrees that overcrowding is unsatisfactory and the hon. Gentleman asks about its implications for safety. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the report on that that I received last year from the chief inspector of railways. We are anxious to have a far better quality of service in terms of overcrowding and punctuality. We are setting British Rail very serious and difficult targets and I am determined that they should be reached. As I have said, there is a massive programme of investment to achieve those aims.

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Mr. Adley : The serious and difficult targets to which my right hon. Friend refers are, of course, the targets set by his Department for the investment criteria. Will he seriously reconsider the need completely to evaluate the investment criteria for road versus rail? For example, is he aware that I have failed to obtain from the Home Office--because it does not know the figures--information about the time that the Metropolitan police and other county police forces spend on work connected with roads, such as on accidents, administration, court cases, and so on? That has to be set alongside the fact that British Rail has to provide its own police force. Is it not nonsense to exclude police time, health costs and other matters from these assessments? If they were included does he agree that a completely different pattern would emerge that would enable the Government to provide investment funds to British Rail based on reality and not fiction?

Mr. Channon : My hon. Friend and I have corresponded about this. There is not a great deal of difference between the criteria, or between the bases for deciding on investment in road or in rail. If necessary I shall of course write to my hon. Friend again. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the planned investment, at 1988-89

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prices, in the railways this year is £560 million. That will go up to average about £755 million over the next four years. That is a massive increase, and in real terms it is double what it was in, say, 1970.

Mr. Snape : Why will the Secretary of State not give a proper answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie)? Is is not a fact that while passenger train miles are increasing, the number of seats available is falling? Does that not have an impact on both comfort and safety? What justification is there for the constant round of swingeing price increases in real terms for travelling on British Rail?

Mr. Channon : As I tried to explain to the House, British Rail is achieving much better use of its trains-- [Interruption.] I am surprised that the Opposition do not wish British Rail to be efficient. I am amazed that they think that it would be better for British Rail to be inefficient than efficient. We are getting a far more efficient service out of British Rail, and the level of investment in British Rail under a Labour Government shows that a great deal of what they say is humbug.

The information is as follows :

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                       |1983       |1984-85    |1985-86    |1986-87    |1987-88                

                                   |(15 months)                                                


passenger train miles  |202.6m     |251m       |200.9m     |202.8m     |212.6m                 

passenger miles        |18,350m    |22,610m    |18,780m    |19,328m    |20,593m                

average passengers per                                                                         

   passenger train     |95         |95         |98         |100        |102                    

The number of seats on a train ranges from 65 on one-car class 121s on the Paddington-Greenford service, 161 on a 2-coach Sprinter, 317 on a class 319 4-car suburban multiple unit, and 486 on HSTs on the east coast main line, up to 1,212 on some slam door trains operating from Charing Cross.

BR does not compile statistics of aggregate passenger seat mile provision as the result would be misleading. Instead, it undertakes sample counts of the number of passengers on timetabled services, and the information is used in planning the timetable to match the capacity provision to demand so far as practicable.

Roads East Anglia

2. Mr. Yeo : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received regarding trunk roads in East Anglia.

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley) : We receive a wide variety of representations, both in the context of the statutory procedures for trunk road proposals and otherwise.

Mr. Yeo : Is my hon. Friend aware that East Anglia is one of the fastest growing regions of the country and consequently has been experiencing great pressure on its road system? Is he aware in particular that the A12, which passes through my constituency and links the east coast towns of Felixstowe and Ispwich with London, the M25 and the Dartford tunnel, is in urgent need of a third lane in each direction and the completion of the central safety crash barrier? Will my hon. Friend give sympathetic consideration to these possibilities?

Mr. Bottomley : Yes, yes and yes.

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Mr. Haselhurst : When will a final decision be made on the A120 project, which links the M11 with the A12, and which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo)? Will my hon. Friend take into account the fact that the line of route suggested by Essex county council has almost unanimous support from all the parties, such as the parish councils and the environmentalists? Surely it would be folly to depart from it.

Mr. Bottomley : It is encouraging when local people and local authorities work together with the Department. There is not much point in us agreeing on something that they do not like because it would then take much time to resolve differences. My hon. Friend asks about when we can solve the problems of the A120. That will take time as it is a long road, but we are dedicated, both in this region and others, to ensuring that our roads eliminate congestion, provide environmental relief and cut casualties.

Roads (Bristol)

3. Mr. Stern : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to announce proposals to improve road links between Bristol and the south coast ports.

Mr. Peter Bottomley : The published trunk road programme contains 10 schemes to the value of over £45 million for the improvement of the A36/A46 route between the M4 and M27 motorways. Dorset and Wiltshire county councils have also included several schemes in their transport policies and programmes on the A350 from Poole to connect with this trunk route.

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Mr. Stern : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that full reply. Has not the need and desire for a fully upgraded link between Bristol and the south coast ports been around for some time, as this will, not least, enable shipping lines to consider again the port of Bristol? Will my right hon. Friend have early discussions with the county authorities in order to develop this idea further?

Mr. Bottomley : Yes, Sir. I shall be meeting representatives of Dorset and Wiltshire county councils later this afternoon. It is an example of the Department working with local highway authorities that we are having discussions not only today, but have had them over the past year or so, to see whether we can upgrade this route. I can say to the regional CBI that now that the Warminster bypass is open, the bicycle will not beat the lorry in future.

Mr. Simon Coombs : Does my hon. Friend accept that the traffic that requires access to the midlands from the south coast ports does not want to travel via Bristol? Will he consider favourably a further improvement of the A417/A419 link between Swindon and the M5 at Gloucester?

Mr. Bottomley : Yes, but I think that it is better to try to get some of the routes upgraded as a whole so that strategic considerations can be completed and we can pick the routes that do not involve villages and unsuitable towns. My hon. Friend is right to say that, without sacrificing the countryside, we need links that can spread employment and provide environmental relief and casualty reductions throughout the country.

Motor Cycle Casualties

4. Mr. Riddick : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how many motor cycle casualties there were in 1986 and 1987.

Mr. Peter Bottomley : Too many. In 1987, there were 45,807 casualties among users of two-wheeled motor vehicles, 12 per cent. fewer than the 52,280 casualties in 1986. It is encouraging that the casualty rate is falling. The numbers are also influenced by the reduced level of motor cycling.

Mr. Riddick : I commend my hon. Friend on those figures which show a continued downward trend in the number of motor cycle casualties. Does he still intend to introduce the statutory fitting of leg protectors? Is he aware that some members of the motor cycling fraternity are worried that such protectors could be

counter-productive as they might, for example, restrict the ability of a rider involved in an accident to jump clear?

Mr. Bottomley : Perhaps it would have been better if I had found ways of making the issues more relevant during the past two years. We intend to work with the motor cycle industry on the development of leg protectors and research, but it is worth emphasising that 90 per cent. of motor cycle injuries occur in crashes at speeds of less than 40 miles per hour and normally involve hitting another vehicle. In those cases, throwing oneself away from a motor cycle does not help ; it is too late.

It is critical that motor cyclists obtain training, that other road users look out for motor cyclists, rather than

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ignoring two-wheelers, whether motor bikes or bicycles, and that we get down the relative risks of motor cycling, which are far too high.

Mr. Higgins : Does my hon. Friend agree that there is perhaps further scope for legislation in this field, not least in respect of motor cycles weaving in and out of moving vehicles with very short distances between them? Is it not absurd that firms operating courier services should be allowed to employ people who have passed no test whatsoever?

Mr. Bottomley : The answer to my right hon. Friend's second question is yes ; it is absurd. The idea that someone who has not demonstrated basic competence should be paid money for riding around on a motor bike with L plates strikes me as ludicrous and I hope that anyone employing such people will stop doing so.

The basic issue of motor cyclists weaving in and out is covered by the highway code and probably also by the law. My advice, especially to parents and people approaching motor cycling and moped age, is to make sure that they join the 30 per cent. who take training, rather than the 70 per cent. who do not, and to take advice from their motor cycle dealers, who are keen to give it.

Channel Tunnel

5. Mr. McFall : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the progress of the Channel tunnel.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo) : Construction progress is a matter for Eurotunnel. I understand that, following some early delays, better progress is being maintained.

Mr. McFall : The Minister will be aware of the comments on 11 January of the construction director of Transmanche Link who said that, at the English end alone, the project is running two months behind after its first year. Although we are mindful that conditions at the French end are much more severe and have been compounded by the collapse of a sub- contracting firm and late deliveries, what chance is there now for the Government to meet the advertised date of 15 May 1993 for completion of the tunnel?

Mr. Portillo : It is not for me to comment on that, but the hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the tunnelling is only one aspect of the project. There is also the work at either end on the major construction sites. He will know that progress at the Cheriton terminal and at the BR freight inspection facility at Dollands Moor, Castle Hill tunnel portal and Holywell Coombe cut and cover tunnel is satisfactory.

Seven kilometres of the service tunnel have been completed on the British side and the rates per month are at a satisfactory level. On the French side, the service tunnel is also now in much better ground.

Mr. Sumberg : If the Channel tunnel is to succeed, the benefits must be nationwide. Does my hon. Friend accept that there is concern in the north of England that its development will increase the south-east drift? What can my hon. Friend say to my constituents who have expressed concern about that?

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Mr. Portillo : I am aware of that concern and I am as concerned as my hon. Friend to ensure that every region of the country benefits from the Channel tunnel. That is why the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 contains a section that requires British Rail to prepare a plan by the end of next year for its freight and passenger services to every region and why consultation on that is proceeding.

Mr. Tony Banks : Is the Minister aware of the strategic significance of the location of the second terminal for the Channel tunnel? There is much regret on both sides of the House that British Rail has decided that it will be at King's Cross and not at Stratford in the East End. Is he further aware that there is considerable support for Stratford and, therefore, opposition to King's Cross by Camden, Islington and the London borough of Newham? Is it not appropriate for the Minister, as I know that he is a reasonable young fellow, to call in British Rail's decision and to hold a proper inquiry, both with regard to the location of the second London terminal and the route through Kent?

Mr. Portillo : There are divided councils, both Conservative and Labour-controlled, and some Labour Members as well as some of my hon. Friends have been lobbying in favour of King's Cross, having taken the view that it provides better facilities for the north of England. I do not intend to hold an inquiry. British Rail's proposal that King's Cross should be the second terminal is subject to the approval of Ministers and to that of Parliament because of the requirement that a private Bill be put into effect.

Mr. Gale : My hon. Friend will be aware of the considerable concern expressed by Kent Members over the failure of British Rail to provide for the future of an adequate rail link between the Channel tunnel and the rest of the country. The rail service to north Kent is depressingly slow, dirty and expensive, and the prospect facing commuters from north-east Kent of an additional four trains per hour coming into an already overloaded south- London system is quite frightening. When my hon. Friend next meets the chairman of British Rail, will he impress upon him the need for investment in the north Kent line, and especially for proper provision of a link to the tunnel?

Mr. Portillo : I understand fully the point that my hon. Friend makes. It is one that has been considered extremely carefully by Kent county council, which understands the risk of proceeding with a Channel tunnel service without improvements to the existing lines or without the provision of a new line. I say to my hon. Friend that the darkest hour is just before dawn--

Mr. Tony Banks : I wish that I had thought of that.

Mr. Portillo : I believe that British Rail has some important plans affecting the north Kent line.

6. Mrs. Golding : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what steps he is taking to ensure that freight traffic from non-south-eastern regions has competitive access to the Channel tunnel.

Mr. Portillo : I expect British Rail to address this question in the plan which it will be publishing later this year in compliance with section 40 of the Channel Tunnel Act.

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Mrs. Golding : Will the Minister assure the people of north Staffordshire that they will not be neglected? There are fears in Stoke-on- Trent about problems affecting the railway. Many of my constituents complain about the inadequacies of the service. These include having to stand while travelling from Stoke to London and from London to Stoke. They fear that the rundown in the passenger service signals a rundown of other services that run through Stoke. There are fears for the future and I ask the Minister to address himself to the issue.

Mr. Portillo : The hon. Lady's original question was directed to what will happen once the Channel tunnel comes into operation. I ask her to address herself to that, and I say again that section 40 of the Channel Tunnel Act requires British Rail to consult in every region so that by the end of the year it can produce its exact plans for freight services to the regions and for passenger services. British Rail is involved in working parties in every region, including the one which the hon. Lady represents in part.

Mr. Fry : Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the ways of assisting the regions to benefit from the Channel tunnel is the establishment of freight trans-shipment centres? In the event of any proposals being put to him, will he bear in mind that

Northamptonshire is especially well placed, being well set with rail communications and being on the main route across the country to Felixstowe by road?

Mr. Portillo : My hon. Friend is right to say that the provision of freight terminals and inland clearance depots needs to be examined in the consultation process to which I have referred. I hope that my hon. Friend will involve himself in the consultations and make the good point that he has made to me to British Rail so that it can include it in its report by the end of the year.

Mr. Foulkes : Has the Minister seen the representations by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) and myself to his distinguished predecessor that the ideal site for a freight trans- shipment centre for the Strathclyde region would be Kilmarnock? If he has seen the representation, he will recall that his predecessor promised that he would discuss the matter with British Rail. Have discussions taken place? If so, what is the outcome?

Mr. Portillo : If my predecessor gave such an assurance, I am sure that it would have been put into effect. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry), if the hon. Gentleman has a strong case in favour of a certain site, he must ensure that it is taken into account by British Rail by making representations or by ensuring that local authorities and others make representations.

British Rail (Chairman)

7. Mr. Teddy Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next plans to meet the chairman of British Rail : and what matters will be discussed.

Mr. Channon : I shall be meeting the chairman of British Rail on 23 January to discuss a variety of rail matters.

Mr. Taylor : If there is time, could my right hon. Friend tell the chairman how honoured Southend-on-Sea is that one of its Members is now Secretary of State for Transport? Will he explain that we feel that this might

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provide an appropriate opportunity for early action to be taken on the modernisation of the Fenchurch street line, which has been neglected for such a long time?

Mr. Channon : I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and it is a great treat to answer his question, especially as it concerns something about which I feel very strongly and with which I completely agree. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) and I are very pleased that British Rail already has in hand a large programme of resignalling, new rolling stock and new electrical equipment. I am determined that there should be progress on the Fenchurch street line and I am glad to say that the chairman of British Rail agrees with me.

Mr. Spearing : When the Secretary of State next sees the chairman of British Rail, will he convey to him the strong feelings on both sides of the House about the access of freight from the Channel tunnel to the north of London? Will he ask the chairman of British Rail whether the existing links across London, namely the west London line and recently re-opened Thames link line, which will have to go through the proposed King's Cross terminal, will be adequate for that traffic? Would it not be wise to consider a tunnel under the Thames further east, connecting the proposed freight traffic interchange at Stratford to the Channel tunnel as an additional link across London?

Mr. Channon : I have no doubt about the widespread feeling in the House about that matter. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman's suggestion will be the final solution to the problem, but I will draw the attention of the chairman of British Rail to his remarks.

Mr. Gregory : As the Government have invested £3,000 million in British Rail since 1979, and I understand have plans for the same sum for the next three years, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State next meets the chairman of British Rail will he raise the point that with such sums behind it, British Rail should at least keep accurate timetables? Should we not be informed how many trains arrive on time? My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport has been unable to give that information to the House.

Mr. Channon : I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend about that. Of course, we have standards for quality of service. Punctuality and reliability, particularly on Network SouthEast, have improved during the past year. Quality varies between lines. It is excellent on some lines, but on othe lines there is still a considerable way to go. I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing : Will the Secretary of State also ensure that some of his discussion is devoted to vital questions surrounding the continuation of services in the northern region? Is he aware of the widespread concern in my area about proposals to close the Aberdeen to Inverness rail line in preference to bus routes? That is a totally unacceptable development in our area. Will he assure us that he will discuss those matters and the need to electrify the lines north of Edinburgh and Glasgow?

Mr. Channon : I have seen no such proposals. I have an awful feeling that this may be a case of self-inflicted rumour.

Mr. Bowis : Will my right hon. Friend impress on the chairman of British Rail the urgency, for reasons of

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comfort and safety, of providing longer trains and therefore longer platforms? Will he also stress the fact that if there are good reasons for having rules about the number of standing passengers in excess of the number of seats for people travelling beyond 20 miles, there are equally good reasons for such rules for people travelling less than 20 miles?

Mr. Channon : We must make progress in that matter. I hope that the large investment programme in British Rail will enable improvements to be made on inter-city lines, provincial lines and Network SouthEast. My hon. Friend has raised some very important points, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor). The large investment programme, at record levels since the 1960s in real terms, will lead to major improvements in British Rail as time passes.

Mr. Prescott : When the Secretary of State meets the chairman of British Rail, will he discuss the conclusion of the report produced by the central transport consultative committee that the Government's policy of reducing the public service obligation by £270 million has reduced the quality of rail service? Will he reconsider further cuts of £200 million in the PSO which will mean a railway system with the highest fares and the lowest quality in Europe? Is it not time that the fare structure met the needs of the travelling public and not the Treasury?

Mr. Channon : As usual, the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. I have explained to the House that major improvements are being made to British Rail and that massive investment is being undertaken. Right hon. and hon. Members who are reasonable know that great steps are being taken to improve British Rail. The PSO is being reduced because British Rail is more efficient-- [Interruption.] It is the level of investment that is important. The hon. Gentleman never questions me about the investment level --and I am not surprised, because he has good reason to be ashamed of his party's record.

London Taxis

8. Mr. Carrington : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what further proposals he has to facilitate the transport of the disabled in London taxi cabs.

Mr. Portillo : As I announced on 13 December, following discussions with the Metropolitan police, who are responsible for day-to-day taxi licensing questions, from 1 February 1989, all newly licensed London taxis will need to be able to carry a passenger in a wheelchair, and from 1 January 2000, every taxi operating in London will be required to take wheelchairs.

Mr. Carrington : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He must know how grateful the disabled people of London will be for that news. Will he confirm that London is the first capital city in the world to have wheelchair-accessible taxis? Will he encourage our EC partners to move towards better access for the disabled to taxis in their cities?

Mr. Portillo : I believe that ours is the first city in the world, capital or otherwise, to require that taxis must be

wheelchair-accessible. I am proud of that. Encouraging other European countries to follow suit would be a suitable topic to raise. Certaintly I intend including it on

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the agenda of the European Council of Transport Ministers, of which the United Kingdom is President this year.

Motorways (Delays)

9. Mr. Lofthouse : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the cost to industry of traffic delays on the motorway system.

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