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House of Commons

Monday 12 June 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Rail Services (Report)

1. Mr. Matthew Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will obtain a copy of the National Economic Research Association's report on the quality of rail services for his departmental library.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon) : It already has one.

Mr. Taylor : I hope that the Secretary of State has a copy of the report sitting on a shelf at home and that he has had an opportunity to read it. If he has, he will be aware that it highlights fewer seats on trains, despite more traffic on the railways and the sort of overcrowding that I experienced travelling from Cornwall to London last night. Many people had to stand from well before Plymouth until they reached London. I experienced, together with many other people, the difficulties of travelling on British Rail at a time when it is underfunded. The report highlights all those problems and calls on the Government to invest in rail, get traffic off the roads, reduce lorry traffic through towns and villages and do something about congestion. Will the Minister act on the report and proceed quickly to ensure safe public transport in this country?

Mr. Channon : I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman had a difficult journey, and I understand the problems that he raised. Not only do I have a copy of the report at home but I have read it with care and have had a meeting with the trade unions about it. It contains much good stuff ; I do not agree with all of it, but I agree with much of it. We are acting on many of the report's recommendations. The hon. Gentleman mentioned overcrowding, which I accept sometimes is a problem on some InterCity lines. He will be pleased to learn that I have today approved investment by InterCity in 31 extra mark IV coaches, at a cost of £8.5 million, which will allow electrified trains to run on the east coast main line with more coaches, which will relieve congestion and cascade on to other lines.

Mr. Adley : As the report to which the question refers relates investment to service, and as we have just finished praying, may I ask my right hon. Friend to consider the following matters? The statement that he made a few days ago in the House has given road builders a bonanza, with the minimum of research, while British Rail must climb a high hurdle every time it wants to present proposals to my

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right hon. Friend. Will he consider the fact that France builds railways in the prospect of doing business, whereas British Rail must prove in advance--sometimes against all the odds--that it can do the business before it is given investment approval?

Mr. Channon : Although I have had many talks with my hon. Friend, I have yet to convince him that, whatever the height of the hurdle, British Rail always manages to climb it. [Interruption.] I am looking forward to debating the amount of investment made in British Rail, which we shall deal with in a later question, when I shall show that in real terms investment is considerably larger than at any time under a Labour Government.

Mr. Anderson : If progress is to be made, is it not important that those who take the key decisions have personal experience of the quality of British Rail? It is said that over the past decade the Prime Minister has travelled on it only once--and only for a short distance. Will the Secretary of State therefore try to persuade her to use British Rail from time to time?

Mr. Channon : That is all very well. The Prime Minister is keen to support British Rail and has supported its investment programmes, as have the Government collectively. In contrast to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), I had an excellent journey on British Rail this morning.

London Transport

2. Mr. John Marshall : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he last met the chairman of London Transport ; and what was discussed.

Mr. Channon : On Thursday 8 June, at a meeting of my London passenger transport group, which discussed the central and east London rail studies.

Mr. Marshall : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the long- suffering commuters of London will have no sympathy for a strike over the retention of a promotion system based on Buggins' turn rather than ability? Does he agree that a wage claim of £3,000 a year is quite extraordinary and unjustified? Does he agree that common sense rather than greed and avarice should be the guiding light of London Transport?

Mr. Channon : I agree that prolonged industrial troubles on the London Underground are extremely damaging to travellers. They will not help to resolve the problems, and the House should urge that there should not be such industrial action.

Mrs. Dunwoody : Is the Secretary of State aware that a sad lack of common sense is being displayed by the management of London Underground, who seem to believe that the way to improve the service is to price as many passengers off it as possible? Is that sensible or far-seeing management? What plans does the Secretary of State have to encourage management to improve the service?

Mr. Channon : The hon. Lady knows that a question on the central London rail study has been tabled, and we shall deal with it soon.

Mr. Prescott : That is nothing to do with it.

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Mr. Channon : The hon. Gentleman says that it has nothing to do with it. I am about to answer the hon. Lady's question.

Mr. Snape : Get on with it, then.

Mr. Channon : It is not easy with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) sitting there. I have received no proposals on fares from LRT. I understand that it is concerned, rightly, about safety and congestion. I have already approved more than £200 million investment in safety measures and £700 million investment to improve the Central and Northern lines. I would have to hear convincing arguments from LUL before I agreed to pricing people off the Underground.

Mr. Higgins : Will my right hon. Friend have discussions with the chairman of London Regional Transport about the way in which traffic cones seem to be breeding in central London as well as on motorways? Yesterday, they were fouling up the approaches to the A40. Will my right hon. Friend open a hotline so that members of the public can point out where traffic cones have been left in places unnecessarily, simply because someone has been too lazy to move them out of the way?

Mr. Channon : I shall certainly consider my right hon. Friend's comment. I am not sure that it is a matter for the chairman of London Regional Transport, but I shall certainly get in touch with my right hon. Friend about those cones.

Mr. Prescott : Does the Secretary of State accept, as no doubt the chief secretary will do in the future, that the fare increases on the Underground system, which, since 1980, have been three times higher than inflation, result directly from his policy that all costs should be covered by fares? That is the opposite of the position in Europe which, with a public subsidy system, has produced the better quality service and cheaper fares that are so different from the London system, which is a shame to us.

Mr. Channon : I do not agree with anything that the hon. Gentleman said. Investment in London Underground is increasing continually and is running at historically high levels--[ Hon. Members :-- "Answer the question."]. I am entitled to answer in the way that I want. I do not agree that the fares are higher in real terms than they were some years ago. The hon. Gentleman's question is based upon a misapprehension.

Mr. Hanley : The majority of people in London believe that the answer to London's traffic problems lies mainly in improved services, and the Underground plays a large part in that. In his discussions with the chairman of London Regional Transport, will my right hon. Friend ensure that, because of the great demand on services, London Underground will provide more and longer trains as soon as possible?

Mr. Channon : I agree with all that my hon. Friend has said. He will be extremely pleased to know of the enormous increase in investment in London Underground, which is running, in 1988-89 prices, at £284 million a year. When the Labour party and the GLC had control of it, investment was less than half that level.

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London Underground (Automatic Barriers)

3. Mr. Tony Banks : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a further statement about ticket barriers on the London Underground system.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo) : I understand that a report from the independent consultants on the working of the Underground ticketing system is expected shortly.

Mr. Banks : Will the young and up-and-coming Minister please explain to me how London Underground Limited can carry on installing ticket gates when virtually no one in London approves of them? Has the hon. Gentleman seen the chaos at, for example, Westminster Underground station, where the authorities have to lock the gates open because of the pressure of people? Will he please call in London Underground to tell it to stop this ridiculous scheme which, I remind him, would never have been allowed under the good old GLC?

Mr. Portillo : I have considered the problems of congestion in a number of our stations. I do not think that the ticketing system is the main contributor. There are other reasons for the congestion. The railway inspectorate and the fire brigade have looked at the gates. We have asked consultants to look at them, and their report will be available shortly. The hon. Gentleman often urges us to adopt the systems that operate abroad. I point out that gates at exits are to be found in Hong Kong, Singapore, Washington, San Francisco, Seoul, Philadelphia, Illinois, Tokyo, Osaka and on the Paris RER.

Mr. Harry Greenway : Will my hon. Friend undertake not to return to the old days of the GLC, which doubled the fares and doubled the rates in 1981? Will he give Londoners an assurance on the effect of these gates in a fire?

Mr. Portillo : That has been the subject of the study by the railway inspectorate and the London fire brigade. Emergency buttons are positioned in various places where the staff can operate them, so that all the gates fly open. Recently, the Underground has checked that in the event of a power failure--even a single-phase power failure--the gates would open automatically. That is the basis on which the railway inspectorate and the London fire brigade have felt confident in approving those systems.

Mrs. Clwyd : Will the Minister look a the chaos that all too frequently occurs at Gatwick airport, where passengers from airlines find it almost impossible to purchase a ticket? Is the Minister aware that late at night, only one window out of eight--

Mr. Speaker : Does the hon. Lady mean Gatwick underground?

Mrs. Clwyd : I am talking about passengers attempting to get on to the Underground from the airlines.

Mr. Speaker : Order. This is very wide of the question.

Central London Rail Study

4. Mr. Livingstone : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he has made a decision about the options contained in the central London rail study ; and if he will make a statement.

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Mr. Channon : Not yet, but I hope to do so later in the year.

Mr. Livingstone : The Secretary of State expressed regret that the rail study did not make reference to the north London line, a vital part of the London transport network. Will he exert whatever pressure he can on British Rail to prevent the closure of Primrose Hill station, which will throw further pressure on to London Transport because it is British Rail's clear intention now to reduce the number of trains running on the Watford line to Liverpool Street, from five an hour to one an hour? How can the Secretary of State justify that, given the present congestion on the Tube?

Mr. Channon : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that we are considering carefully all the options contained in the central London rail study, which presents some imaginative and important proposals for improving London's transport in the future. The question of the north London line is being considered carefully, as it relates also to the east London rail study. I will consider the hon. Gentleman's later points. In general, we are now engaged in some of the most important and radical suggestions to try to solve London's traffic and Underground problems over the next couple of decades.

Mr. Dykes : Does my right hon. Friend agree that these massive plans will be vulnerable to excessive delays because of their complexity? Will he reassure the House that we shall proceed rapidly with the proposals, because we could have endless arguments about all the different options? Can we get digging as soon as possible?

Mr. Channon : I note my hon. Friend's support for the proposals. My aim is to come to conclusions in the very near future--or nearish future-- and to come to the House, as I said in answer to the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), with definite proposals later this year.

Ms. Ruddock : May we assume from the right hon. Gentleman's reply, therefore, that he is denying the reports which have already appeared in the press that he has made decisions? Will he tell the House about the shape and finance of London's new rail links? Will he tell us whether he has authorised British Rail and LRT to prepare a private Bill? Most important of all, will he give us some idea of the cost of the Paddington to Liverpool Street line and the level of fares increases that will be necessary if he continues to insist that the passengers must pay?

Mr. Channon : As I have told the House on a number of occasions, no decisions have been taken. It will be very nice if it is possible--and I hope that it will be--to have a Bill in November dealing with one of the solutions to the problem, although it is impossible to be certain at this stage. No decisions have been taken, so I cannot instruct people on these matters. The hon. Lady mentioned fares. The question of financing whatever proposals come forward has to be studied. Fares will have to play their part. There is also the option of Government grants and of contributions from developers.


5. Mr. Arbuthnot : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what further plans he has for tackling the problem of drinking and driving.

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The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley) : We have today launched a new campaign, with the help and co-operation of the medical services, the police, the insurance industry and the brewers and retailers. Two new television commercials will be shown. New posters and publicity material are available for use by road safety officers throughout the country. The basic message continues to be that drinking and driving wrecks lives and that it is unnecessary and unacceptable.

Mr. Arbuthnot : Will my hon. Friend confirm that if other insurance companies follow the line recently taken by Pearl Assurance, motorists who insist on continuing to drink before they drive will find that they are likely to face a nasty financial shock, even if they do not kill or disable somebody?

Mr. Bottomley : My hon. Friend has a good point. At the moment an insurance company does not need to pay out for those who drive unroadworthy vehicles. Pearl Assurance has simply applied the same principle to those who are not roadworthy drivers. The company will not necessarily pay out to mend such a driver's car and may claim back any third party payments that it has to make. I do not see any reason why the 19 out of 20 of us who do not drink and drive should have to continue to subsidise those who do. We are sufficiently at risk of our lives as innocent victims and I do not see why we should pay out money as well.

Sir Dudley Smith : While every sensible person must be against drinking and driving, is it not correct that we have a good record compared with other European countries, thanks largely to the efforts of my hon. Friend's Department?

Mr. Bottomley : It is certainly true that the campaigns initiated over the years by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have paid off tremendously in saving lives. The death trend in Britain is very much better than, for example, in Finland or even New South Wales, which go in for other strategies.

We must change people's understanding and their behaviour, using allies in the drinks trade, so that wherever people go to drink, they can have alcohol-free drinks if they are driving. That is the host's responsibility. It is the passenger's responsibility to pick an alcohol-free driver and it is primarily the driver's responsibility to decide between the throttle and the bottle. The trouble is that even at the present reduced levels, the killing season is now with us.

Public Inquiries

6. Mr. Baldry : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he has any proposals to improve the system of transport public inquiries.

Mr. Peter Bottomley : The public inquiry system is kept under review. All suggestions for change are given careful consideration. We are satisfied that for the great majority of road proposals the present inquiry system works well. We need to safeguard the rights of those affected by our proposals.

Mr. Baldry : Is my hon. Friend aware that I am somewhat disappointed by that reply because, as my hon. Friend must be aware, it took some 30 years from Ernest

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Marples promising that the Banbury bypass would be built as a matter of priority for substantial construction on the M40 to begin? Will my hon. Friend take a Genghis Khan approach to the public inquiry system to simplify it substantially, to shorten it and to shut up those professional objectors who are in the vanguard in calling for infrastructure investment in general but who seem to oppose every infrastructure investment in particular?

Mr. Bottomley : The answer is that I am not sure. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we need to save time before we get to the inquiry stage. Three quarters of inquiries take two weeks or less and consider people's legitimate interests. However, time is wasted by the Department in trying to find an acceptable route. Where there is controversy--with the exception of Worthing--perhaps one way would be for people to decide whether they want the bypass--if there is to be one--to run east, west, north or south before the Department commits too much time to fighting fruitless battles. We need to fight for people's interests in a safer environment, with safer roads, and better industrial access. Perhaps then, as my hon. Friend wants, we could save a great deal of time.

Mr. Allen : What is the Minister's view on the circumventing of public inquiries into major transport matters by the use of the private Bill procedure in this House? Will he make representations to his right hon. Friends to ensure that in future all major transport issues are examined publicly so that all witnesses can give the evidence that they feel is appropriate?

Mr. Bottomley : It is odd that the hon. Gentleman has suggested that having a matter considered by the House of Commons is in some way to get away from a public inquiry. That is the way in which most of the railways have been built in this country and it is the way in which most people would like them to continue to be built.

Mr. Madel : Does the White Paper on roads take account of the expenditure implications of any delays in the construction of bypasses caused by lengthy controversial public inquiries, because every month of delay has an inflationary effect on the final bill?

Mr. Bottomley : It should not, as inflation comes down again. The important point is that we do not want to lose any time unnecessarily. Each pound spent on the roads brings a £2 return and we are getting a return of about £160 million per year from the present road programme in road casualty reductions alone. Therefore, as my hon. Friend has said, it is important that we get on with the programme.

Mr. Prescott : Will the Minister confirm that the Government are seriously considering replacing roads public inquiries by the private Bill procedure of this House to avoid giving people the opportunity of having their views heard? As the Minister is concerned about delays, will he confirm that the Birmingham northern relief road has now been delayed directly because of the Green Paper on private financing and that, instead of getting their road, the people of that area now face the possibility of a toll road?

Mr. Bottomley : The answers to the two specific questions on the inquiry are no, and not necessarily. The only person who has suggested the use of Bills for a large number of road schemes is the director of Friends of the

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Earth. I was not persuaded by him and I am not persuaded by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott).

Mr. Charles Wardle : My hon. Friend's announcement later this week of alternative proposals for the Hastings, western and Bexhill bypass will be a welcome sign of further progress on the Dover to Honiton trunk road link. However, if a public inquiry follows the eventual publication of draft orders, when does my hon. Friend imagine the road will be complete?

Mr. Bottomley : The answer to that is NIMTOO--not in my term of office--although we want to make as much progress as we can.

Manchester Airport (Rail Link)

7. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the progress of a rail link to Manchester airport.

Mr. Portillo : We expect to receive a formal investment proposal from British Rail shortly.

Mr. Bennett : Will the Minister confirm that there appears to have been a last-minute financial hiccup in the negotiations between the Department and the Greater Manchester transport authority in the past couple of weeks? Can he confirm that the problems have now been smoothed out and that there is nothing to stop the construction of the rail link going ahead later this year?

Mr. Portillo : I must wait and see what British Rail's investment case is. The hon. Gentleman may have been referring to the question of resource allocation for the PTA share of the cost in the next financial year. I am happy to agree in principle that the allocation should be covered. The hon. Gentleman asked about timing. I am well aware that if the rail link is to be built, it should be phased in carefully with the new terminal, which is due to open in April 1993.

Mr. Eastham : May I impress on the Minister the fact that Manchester airport has been applying for the rail link for the past 10 years? I hope that the Minister will make it clear to British Rail that we want no more unnecessary delays. Given the money that has been spent on Gatwick, Stansted and Heathrow, is it not about time that the north-west had its share of expenditure?

Mr. Portillo : I do not think that the time spent in establishing the case has been wasted in any way. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can take comfort from what I have said--that it is well understood that the important factor in the timing of the rail link is that it should fit in with the new terminal planned for April 1993. If Ministers receive the investment proposal shortly, we shall be in good time to phase the link in with that.

Mr. Favell : Is the Minister aware that the car park at Manchester airport is now immensely expensive, especially for the holiday traveller? Does he agree that a rail link would be a great boon to those who save up to go on holiday once a year?

Mr. Portillo : My hon. Friend makes an interesting additional point. I think that the investment case made to

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me by British Rail will be made in the light of all the circumstances, and of all the extra traffic that can be attracted. I look forward to seeing that proposal shortly.

Midland Rail Electrification

8. Mr. Allen : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss an investment plan for the electrification of the midland main line.

Mr. Portillo : It is for British Rail to propose those electrification schemes which it believes to be worth while.

Mr. Allen : Is the Minister aware that people who travel on the line through the east midlands to Nottingham are heartily cheesed off at the Government's attitude to the electrification of the east midlands line? It is a scandal that the Government are prepared to find perhaps £ billion for environmental improvements where they see electoral advantage and yet cannot allow or encourage British Rail to spend a mere £100 million to electrify the line through the east midlands. Will the Minister look again at the rate of return that he has demanded that British Rail should make on its capital and make it more feasible for British Rail to electrify the line? The east midlands needs the line. It needs electrification. Without that, we shall become an economic backwater. It is not good enough for the Government to keep washing their hands of the issue.

Mr. Portillo : I take it that what the hon. Gentleman really wants is an improved service to Nottingham and Sheffield. We have just had announced an improvement of 10 minutes in the journey time to Nottingham and an increased frequency of service. There is a new 7.30 am train which will doubtless be useful to the hon. Gentleman personally. Following the announcement by my hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the east coast main line, it may now be possible to transfer trains from that line to the east midlands line to give Nottingham and Sheffield an hourly service.

Electrification is a separate matter, and it is not likely to bring much of an improvement in journey time. I believe that the question of electrification will arise at a later date, when the line is due for reinvestment. The rolling stock on the present line is well within its working life at the moment.

Mr. Ashby : My hon. Friend will recall that a long debate on this matter was initiated last year by my hon. Friends the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) and for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) and myself and that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) was notably absent from it. We spoke then of the need for electrification in view of the great changes that had taken place, particularly the Toyota plant. Will my hon. Friend undertake to ask the chairman of British Rail to look again at this matter, in the light of the facts that more investment is being made in the east midlands and there is a crying need for investment to provide a direct link via the Channel to France to bring prosperity to the midlands?

Mr. Portillo : The chairman of British Rail is well aware of my hon. Friend's opinion and those of many of my hon. Friends who have spoken so strongly in favour of electrification. The quality of service is important, not electrification per se. I hope that my hon. Friend is pleased

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both with the current improvements and with those that I announced today, which are the result of my right hon. Friend's statement about additional rolling stock.

British Rail (Privatisation)

9. Mr. Snape : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what recent discussions he has had with the chairman of British Rail about privatisation proposals for British Rail.

Mr. Channon : Privatisation is one of the topics that I discuss from time to time with Sir Robert Reid.

Mr. Snape : That was a terrific answer. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that after years of running the railways on a

Government-sponsored shoestring, to tell British Rail management that privatisation is the only answer to its problems is creating massive uncertainty within the industry? Is not talk of a return to the large regional railway companies simply nostalgic nonsense? Does not the United Kingdom, like other advanced industrialised nations, need a publicly owned, properly funded national railway system?

Mr. Channon : As I have told the House on many occasions, we have not decided about privatisation. I welcome British Rail's recent impressive performance, as do many hon. Members, and privatisation could reinforce that. However, I shall pursue that only if I am convinced that it will lead to an improved service to the customer. That is why I have given the hon. Gentleman this answer, I note his views about large regional companies.

Mr. Gregory : Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a pent- up feeling that British Rail should be privatised for the benefit of both rail users and British Rail employees? Would not the employees welcome the opportunity of a share option scheme, something that has been consistently denied to them by the Opposition, and especially those working on the east coast main line? They will be delighted with today's announcement of 31 new coaches, which will mean even greater improvements. The sooner they have them, the better.

Should not the chairman of British Rail urgently consider the privatisation of certain sectors, including catering and the property board, both of which have been lacklustre?

Mr. Channon : My hon. Friend is right to say that there is a great deal of interest in and support for privatisation. There is no evidence from British Rail's performance to support the view that any uncertainty over that issue is causing any damage--

Mr. Snape : That is why I asked the question.

Mr. Channon : The hon. Gentleman did make that point.

We must decide on the long-term future of the railways without unnecessary delay. I note the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) and will bear them in mind.

Mr. Dalyell : What does Sir Robert Reid say from time to time about the technical feasibility of privatisation?

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Mr. Channon : Sir Robert Reid, not I, should speak for himself on these matters. British Rail is co-operating fully with the work in hand and the board has taken no formal position on privatisation.

Mr. Redwood : When considering privatisation, will my right hon. Friend take into account the need to make the railways more enterprising and more responsive to growth opportunities? I am thinking especially of the Earley power station site development in my constituency, where a nationalised industry appears to be reluctant to install a station that is much needed. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the ability to go for growth and for new passengers is written into the privatisation proposals?

Mr. Channon : I shall study what my hon. Friend has said. Most hon. Members, certainly Conservative Members, know that privatisation in a large number of areas has released the initiative and enterprise of many state industries, has provided growth opportunities and is heartily to be desired.

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