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Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield) : For six weeks the British public endured the inconvenience of a national rail strike. Tonight, we learned that, at long last, the end is in sight, and the the National Union of Railwaymen has decided to accept the 8.8 per cent. offer that has been on the table for two weeks or more and to resume normal working. We can be grateful for that, but the dispute revealed for all to see the sheer incompetence of British Rail's management and the bone-headed stupidity of the NUR.
The malaise that affects that once great industry is clear to see--a constant struggle between employers and employees to extract the last ounce of concession, with the innocent public left as the victims. The irony of the latest dispute is that the other two rail unions settled earlier for a not unreasonable 8.8 per cent. pay increase, which is the same figure that now has the NUR's agreement. Rumour has it that Jimmy Knapp, the NUR's general secretary, would have done a deal earlier if his union had allowed him, but that he had a little local difficulty. In making known their view that the union should settle, the Opposition did so in as quiet a voice as possible, lest anyone should hear, and made no impact on the parties involved reaching agreement. No one in the NUR believed the Leader of the Opposition. If they had, a settlement would have been reached sooner.
Meanwhile, British Rail's management procrastinated in a ritualistic way, promising a service on a strikebound day, only to find that the system had to be totally shut down, Yesterday, some semblance of a service was provided, and perhaps that showed the unions involved that they could not continue the dispute with any credibility.
The general public were forced to endure unbelievable discomfort, struggling to and from work stuck in a coagulated traffic jam in record temperatures. Our newspapers have been full of traffic jams on the M25 and the main arterial roads into London, as elsewhere throughout the land in many of our cities.
In essence, apart from a basic pay increase, the NUR's desire to maintain a national wage structure, as opposed to a regional one, can be understood in terms of union influence and power, but hardly at all in terms of common sense. The NUR concedes that it is some 7,000 staff short in the south- east, yet it is not prepared to get round the table and discuss regional pay in order to encourage people to join the railway industry in an area where they are desperately needed.
This nonsense of a dispute need never have arisen in the first place. Talks broke off when one party, the NUR, wanted to go to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service and the other wished to use British Rail's tribunal. The result was a complete impasse--absolutely unbelievable. I make no distinction between the behaviour of the management and the behaviour of the unions. Blame can be attached to both in equal measure.
Britain's workers, certainly those employed in the public sector, need what I would describe as a contract of negotiation ; a legal document which clearly sets out the negotiating procedure to be adopted by both parties. The failure of those parties to agree to negotiate in the set legal way could lead to court action. It would be incumbent on
Column 1297the union to ensure that it had fulfilled that legal contract of negotiation before it could conduct a ballot for strike action. Then we could avoid the nonsense whereby, in the final act of arbitration, there is a dispute over which body the parties should go to. I accept that the NUR viewed British Rail's wage tribunal as unacceptable for the purpose of discussing an alteration in pay structure. It is a tribunal which exists to negotiate pay terms, and its reason for not wishing to go to the tribunal could be understood, since it preferred to go to ACAS, where the method of payment within the railway industry could have been discussed.
For its part, the management may not have made itself too obviously available to negotiate a settlement with ACAS, believing that the tribunal could resolve matters. A legal document such as the contract of negotiation that I have described would have left no grey area for dispute between management or unions. Only in that way can we eliminate the sort of nonsense that we have recently witnessed. Only after that could a strike ballot be legally called.
During the recent one-day stoppages the commuter has either had to stay at home or struggle, often for hours, to his place of work. I can vouch for the fact that roads into London are now becoming jammed with traffic before 6 o'clock. A short five-mile journey into the House of Commons at 6 o'clock can land one in a very long tailback, negotiating difficult junctions.
The Government have exacerbated the problem by providing more parking spaces for cars when it could be argued that we really need fewer parking spaces. We need not extra parking spaces in Hyde park or Battersea park but the removal of existing parking spaces in order to deter a massive influx of cars into the capital which end up in hours and hours of jammed traffic with practically no business being conducted. That would encourage the concept of car sharing. I hope that we shall not have to experience this annual charade again and that a formula can be found to ensure that we do not. However, having settled on pay, in a few weeks' time we may well witness further disruption if the pay structure that the British Rail Board wants to alter is not agreed with the unions, and we shall be back to one- day stoppages again. We should encourage further steps to keep our cities moving.
The population in general would request the Government to do a little more than they have done over the past six weeks of one-day stoppages. I have already mentioned restrictions on parking places--a perfectly reasonable concept. We should go further, and perhaps, if necessary, issue an order to restrict car usage--when appropriate--to those sporting odd numbers on their number plates one week and those sporting even numbers the next. I know that some people have two cars and could use their odd-numbered car one week and their even-numbered car the next, but they are the exceptions, and such a system would, by the law of averages, reduce traffic considerably. It would free the city's traffic and enable us to combat the effects of an industrial dispute far more successfully than we have over the past six weeks.
Such a policy would place greater emphasis on other public transport systems--buses and coaches in particular. With traffic congestion roughly halved and bus journey
Column 1298times greatly reduced, it ought to be possible to cater for most people's needs. It must surely be beyond dispute that commuting conditions would improve as a consequence. If we are to stand up to disputes such as this, we must use all the weapons at our disposal to ensure that the life of our cities continues with as little interruption as possible.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to talk to all interested parties, especially the Bus and Coach Council about how best to keep our cities moving in the event of a repetition of the rail strike. I do not think that it helps to cancel bus lanes, only to accommodate more cars--a policy that the Department has tried in the past few weeks. On the contrary--we need more dedicated bus routes, and we should certainly keep the bus lanes open to enable buses and coaches to bring passengers in with as much haste as they possibly can. The present rail dispute has brought our rail system under the microscope. It was built when there was no alternative and has since been subjected to intense competition, especially from road vehicles. Nevertheless, some say that a new railway age is about to dawn. I would not dispute that. There is much sense in the assertion, but only if we can accept the challenge of new policies.
British Rail has a monopoly. Some of its resources are grossly under-used while others are near saturation point. A monopoly brings with it monopoly union power and the ability to hold everyone to ransom.
We should explore the possibility of breaking up the monopoly. That would need a great deal of courage on the Government's part, but the time is ripe. We can thank Jimmy Knapp, the NUR and the British Railways Board for bringing this item on to the agenda. The dispute has brought into focus the challenge of how to make our railway system more efficient and more answerable to the country. There are a number of options open to us. Privatising the whole system at one go would solve absolutely nothing, and it could even make matters worse, so that idea can be disposed of very quickly. We should still be left with a monopoly rail system. For many people, rail is the only available mode of transport and for them, the monopoly remains.
Privatising by operating sector has its attractions, and I used to favour it, but it is fatally flawed. One would need a track authority, separate from the operating companies, and that could lead to signalmen and others holding operators to ransom if they wished to do so. There is no indication that they would, but the opportunity would be there for them to do so, very much as air traffic controllers can hold airlines to ransom, as we have seen over the past few months. I believe that privatising along the lines of the old regional companies--still present under the existing regime but now known as regions--wins on points and has many advantages. As an initial exercise, I would favour the creation of three operating divisions, which would have to be big enough to generate sufficient business that avoids too many complications of cross-regional traffic. The old railway companies suffered problems with the amount of cross-border traffic. That caused problems in accounting as revenues were transferred, sometimes between two,
Column 1299three or four different regions and the system became horrendously complicated. We have a national railway system at present and it would be extremely difficult to unscramble it back to the system that existed in the days of the railway companies.
If the system is broken up into three companies, one would be based in the west of the United Kingdom and another in the east. Both would contain elements of the Scottish railway system. The third company would be located in the south and south-east, comprising, generally speaking, Network SouthEast. The southern network, because of its essentially radial trackwork, may well lend itself to individual line privatisation. Individual companies used to radiate out of London, and a few years ago the Southend line was considered a candidate for a self-contained private system.
It would not be necessary to privatise all three systems at the same time. One might be privatised initially, with the others following at intervals. The new companies would be free to develop their services as they wished. The social obligations would remain as they are at present, so that they provided the services that people wish them to provide as was the case under the old metropolitan transport authorities.
It may make good sense to convert some of the little-used secondary lines into busways. Experiments to that end have been most successful in other countries. We must remember that railways are particularly expensive to provide.
Before a train has travelled a line, the standing costs are extremely high. In many parts of the country the system is used for only 3 per cent. of the time--it stands idle for the other 97 per cent. The opportunities to simplify the system by converting many of our little-used railway lines into dedicated busways must be considered. The idea has much merit and it has worked in some cities, in particular in Canada.
During the Beeching era, 60 miles of the great central railway from Rugby to High Wycombe were closed. That track was built for high-speed running and the trackway has lain derelict ever since. Much of it has now been built on and it would be far too difficult to reconvert the trackway to transport use. However, it could have been converted to a bus or coach way which would have enabled operators to gain access to central London while avoiding the present heavy traffic. We could weep for the loss of that marvelous asset. The opportunity of using that trackway as an alternative to the railways has probably been lost for ever.
There are many ways in which a railway system can be converted satisfactorily for road use. Not so very long ago in the west midlands we developed a bus system called Trac Line. That was a guided bus which ran along a small narrow track way. It had small wheels on either side of the vehicle for steering. The experiment ran only for about a quarter of a mile and it is no longer in use because it could not be adapted immediately for a city environment. However, there are opportunities to build on that system to provide an alternative transport system to the railways.
Road coach travel in the United Kingdom has proved very successful in providing some competition to the rail system in whatever format we may choose to develop it. We could leave the system in its present state guise in which the dangers of a continuing monopoly will mean that we can expect periodic stoppages and disruptions. We may decide to privatise sectors. That would create
Column 1300competition and allow railwaymen to participate in their own business ; we know from previous privatisation that that has proven to be a very effective spur to the work force to invest in its own business and to produce profits with an expectation of wage increases.
That would provide a great spur for those businesses to respond to customers' needs in the way that only privatisation can. Even in the privatised form that I described, they would not have the necessary competition to provide the extra efficiency that we desperately need. According to newspaper reports, last year about 60,000 passenger trains failed to start. That is a considerable number, but as a percentage it is not very high. I am sure that all hon. Members have experienced great inconvenience through trains being cancelled. Obviously, we deplore that and would wish to introduce a system to reduce the increasing number of trains that do not start on time. The trouble with road passenger coach operations trying to compete with the railways is that they have great difficulty fighting their way through the traffic of London. That problem would be eased considerably if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would take the concept of bus lanes a stage further and ensure that, instead of operating in rush hours, they were freely available for use by buses and coaches throughout the day. Both those modes of travel are extremely energy-efficient. It is a great shame that we expect them to bash their way through heavy traffic, mixing their paths with those of cars, lorries and so on on the roads. There are opportunities for route swapping with the railways. Not long ago, British Airways was obliged to give some of its routes to British Midland to provide the internal competition that we desperately wanted. Hon. Members have seen the high quality of service that both airlines provide and, of course, the generation of traffic that greater competition and efficiency have provided for both operators. British Midland and British Airways have done and are doing exceedingly well. If we could dedicate a route for coaches to get into the centre of London with the minimum of disruption, we could provide the sort of competition with which the railways can compete. At the moment there is a complacent take-it-or-leave-it attitude, and we must fight it.
Not so long ago, there was much talk about Marylebone station being converted into a coach station, with access to the city centre via the old central rail system from near High Wycombe. The opportunity now presents itself for that proposal to be re-examined so that we can provide an alternative for the customer--the person who wants to travel from A to B-- who, so far, is largely condemned to travel by British Rail. Time and again we have found that privatisation with employee participation spells a better deal for the consumer, but the opportunity to create competition for the railways, in whatever guise they adopt, should not be lost.
I have mentioned that the rail dispute has thrown into perspective the opportunities that the railways must exploit over the next few years to provide the service that the community demands. That service cannot be provided under the present structure, with the intransigence of the trade unions and the poor quality of the management presently operating the railway system.
A privatised system along the lines that I have described would make the various railway companies compete with each other. The railway system has no substantial competition other than fairly realistic competition from
Column 1301coaches. It will not have a real substantial alternative until we can resolve some of the problems that other modes of travel experience in gaining access to our major cities. If the Minister for Public Transport can offer some hope that he will take on board the initiative of allowing the coach industry a greater opportunity to compete with railways through the maintenance of busways and through the provision of new routes into our city centres, which may utilise existing redundant railway routes, he will be well on the way to providing us with an efficient and highly effective form of public transport.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King). I thought that he would talk about railway policy, but I suppose that coming from Northfield and a motor manufacturing area, it was appropriate for him to comment on coaches and roads. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is typical of the new theology, which is so common on the Conservative Benches, especially among newer hon. Members.
Mr. Spearing : It may be an old theology, but it is spatchcocked into conditions that do not pertain, as they might have done--I am not sure that they ever did--in the 19th century. It is competition by compulsion, privatisation of public assets and conning the public by asking them to buy what they already own. There is a concern--it may be a proper one--for competition for the railways, but over the past 10 years we all know that long-distance coach travel, with usherettes, television, coffee, deep seats and, above all, the use of the motorways has provided that competition in a way which would hardly have seemed credible a few years ago, even with respect to speed, which is, of course, sometimes above the legal limits.
There is also the denial of the proper role of unions. A Birmingham Member speaking about London problems, I suppose, is just about legitimate, but I remind the hon. Member for Northfield that privatisation of some of the major roads of Birmingham for a few days in a year, which he may have supported, denies those roads to the public of Birmingham--even the motor coaches on which he is so keen. The public have been sympathetic to the cause of railway workers, because they understand far better than many Conservative Members the difficulties and problems of working on the railways. The railway for a professional railway worker is a dangerous place. The public see them, of course, in their workplace, which is extended over hundreds of miles. Without the necessary training, discipline and experience, the safety of the public is at risk, as we have unhappily seen in the past few years.
Experience, loyalty and morale, all of which are essential to the running of a railway, together with teamwork, do not show on the balance sheet. I put it strongly to Conservative Members that, in their obsession with the annual balance sheet, they lose out on human factors that cannot be bought and sold and will not show even on a capital balance sheet.
Column 1302been the extent to which over the years the railway work force has been undervalued in terms of low pay, and that part of the reason for the Clapham incident, for example, was the enormous amount of overtime that railway workers had been forced to work to make a decent wage?
Mr. Spearing : My hon. Friend puts it correctly. The southern region has been existing for several years on its drivers doing forced overtime. I made that point in the House at the time of the Clapham disaster. Overtime is forced by management on an unwilling work force because of the Government's edict about such things as efficiency. I do not consider that efficient at all. That is where competition of the worst sort gets us. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Northfield would agree on that. In the 1930s, Conservatives passed Acts on the road coach industry to prevent men and machines from competing each other into the ground. Some new Conservative Members do not understand the mistakes that were made in the past and introduce new schemes without realising the dangers involved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) mentioned morale. The railway will run only if the rule book is both kept and ignored. The railway is a family concern, literally and metaphorically, which requires teamwork and loyalty. If management is stupid enough not to recognise loyalty and teamwork as first desiderata, things will go wrong. I agree with the hon. Member for Northfield that higher management has been inefficient, but it has been forced into taking stupid action by Government requirements. Tonight, an 8.5 per cent. pay increase was provisionally agreed. Presumably the hon. Member for Northfield has not agreed with the action taken so far by the railwaymen, but is it not a fact that if they had not taken such action they would have been accepting a cut in pay? I ask the Minister for Public Transport to reply to that question later. Would he expect people who work shifts and unsocial hours and who are being increasingly ground down by difficult conditions to take a pay cut? I do not believe that he would. Conservative Members have talked so much twaddle over the past few weeks that the anger in my voice is forgivable. Does the hon. Member for Northfield agree that if railwaymen had not taken action they would have been accepting a pay cut?
I spoke earlier of unsocial conditions, morale and loyalty. A feature of the railway system over the past 30 years has been national conciliation and pay bargaining. Conservative Members believe that the labour problem on the railway will be solved by regional pay structures. Local incentives have been available in the Civil Service and public service for various reasons, but workers in the water industry, teachers, doctors or anyone else who is in dispute with this wretched Government--
Mr. Spearing : Yes, or NALGO. All those people are in dispute not only about pay but about conditions. Labour Members are aware of that only too well, but ignorant Conservative Members know nothing about it. The hon. Member for Northfield may smile, but what counts are the conditions of work --hours, time off, arrangements with the foreman, and so on. Railway drivers on southern region, who are at the peak of their profession, have begun to resign. Who would believe that people who have
Column 1303climbed the ladder in the railway profession would resign to take up a job in industry because the conditions there are easier and more congenial?
As part of their grand scheme for all industries and trades, the Government are trying to get rid of national pay bargaining. That is a retrograde step. That is why the agreement that has been reached today is only provisional. The bargaining currently going on is about national conditions. If national conditions are removed, workers can be undermined. I hope that this is a civilised society. The Prime Minister talks frequently about the need for the family. Good conditions of work, safety and all the other matters that I mentioned are fundamental.
I commend to Conservative Members the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) at business questions today, when he told us that some of his constituents took home less than £90 a week on which to keep a family. The Prime Minister was present and for once heard the facts. We hear that sometimes she listens and learns. I hope that she learned something during her uncustomarily lengthy stay at business questions today. Bad industrial relations in the motor industry did not start with public ownership. The problem was endemic. The hon. Member for Northfield may know about this. It is most intriguing and unfortunate that a gentleman from the motor industry has been involved in the recent railways dispute. I do not blame him personally. He is a professional man with a career. He has been the chief arbitration negotiator. The psychological needs of employees and employers in the two industries could not be more different. The history of the one is markedly different from the other. How far has that been at least a contributory factor in the unhappy few weeks that the country has been going through?
I well recall the equivalent gentleman, Mr. Rose, who took part in the discussions on flexible rostering. He was a good man. I believe that that episode helped to hasten his death. He knew that what he was being asked to do was not in line with experience, safety, morale and the family spirit which alone makes the railways operate properly.
It is a great pity that this new broom attitude is coming into London Regional Transport. I shall not dwell on the question of safety on the deep tubes, as I have already mentioned it and the Minister wrote to me about it, but he should consider carefully matters on which he has taken a provisional decision. In the past two or three weeks I have been going through King's Cross. On Sunday night an escalator there was screaming blue murder. It sounded as though an animal was being murdered. It has been juddering and screaming like that for at least three weeks. When I inquired about it, I was told, "Oh, yes, we have sent for the engineers, but nothing has been done." I should have thought that King's Cross was the last station at which LRT could keep an escalator running in that condition, but I understand that the escalator service and engineering in LRT is still in difficulties.
The Select Committee on Transport issued a little known report which I have quoted before, but it is worth
Column 1304quoting again. I refer to HC 44 of the current Session, and the Minister is directly involved. The concluding paragraph reads : "On 12 June the Secretary of State, in answer to a Parliamentary Question, said I would have to hear convincing arguments from London Underground Limited before I agreed to pricing people off the Underground.' "
Peak hour pricing has been proposed to reduce overcrowding. The paragraph concludes :
"We hope that the arguments would have to be more convincing than those presented to us by London Regional Transport on 7 June. We intend to keep the matter under review."
That was the view of an all-party Select Committee after hearing the evidence of Mr. Wilfred Newton, chairman of London Regional Transport.
It is curious to think that LRT is responsible for the planning of all passenger rail traffic in London. That was news to me when I was told it in a written answer by the former Secretary of State for Transport. Statutorily that is correct. There is now no strategic planning in London, but as that issue will be debated later tonight I shall not dwell on it now, save to say that such planning as we have is the summation of borough plans, and LRT is responsible for co-ordinating all passenger transport by rail and bus in London. But LRT is not in a position to do that. The result is that the Minister issues advice--he commissions reports and comes up with advice, and I will cite a few instances of that later.
British Rail and its imaginative management in the early 1980s had plans for transport in London. In November 1980, the then chairman wrote in a book entitled "Cross-London Rail Link" :
"We are publishing this during difficult economic times for the country. But it is essential to maintain the impetus of forward thinking as part of BR's strategy for changing our services to meet new demands. Moreover, it is necessary that we consider now what sort of railway services the nation will require in the 1990s and at the dawn of the new century because major developments in transport systems and infrastructure involve long lead times."
The management of BR was certainly looking forward at that time. It said that its cross-London rail link scheme would take three years to plan and six years to complete. Had the Government implemented that scheme, we would not have the present overcrowding. But the Government said that they did not want it. They probably said that as it would not pay 7 per cent. it could not be done. That was a narrow, confined, non-public and, in the end, stupid and unsustainable attitude on the part of the Government.
Earlier, Conservative attitudes had been different. The famous Mr. Marples- -who had nothing to do with the equally famous lady of that name--had the wisdom to approve the Victoria line, even though it was known that it would lose money. He was a Conservative with a civic attitude to life.
Conservative Members are entitled to believe that today we need enterprise and efficiency and people with dynamism and vision to use private capital to provide services and goods for customers. They do not appreciate, however, that for that strategy to work properly, there must be within society not only abstract but absolute physical provision which is common to all. Without that commonality of service, the activities that people can do best in an enterprise will not flourish and cannot operate on any basis of fundamental consistency and expectation.
Column 1305Railways--particularly in and around London --come into that type of public service expectation, with efficiency of course.
Instead of that, we have the central London rail study, and the Government say that, in respect of the cross-rail link, they will agree to have it for Paddington to Liverpool street if the developers pay something. As for the east London rail study, the Government say that the developers must pay some money, and the provisional document relating to the east London study, published yesterday, is nothing more than an Olympia and York benefit. Because there has been no real strategic study in London, Olympia and York get partly conned in that they go to the Isle of Dogs and find that the only transport there is the docklands light railway, which is not big enough, and that the only approved road, at least until recently, was one planned in the post-Napoleonic war era and four carts wide. That was planning, up to a point. Olympia and York has now approached the Government saying, "To make it viable and to make east London worthy, let us have an east London rail study." But it is not for east Londoners--it is for the shareholders and brothers who run Olympia and York.
Stratford is an excellent place for a Channel tunnel terminal because it now has cross-rail and may also have the other line to which I have referred. Again, this point shows up the Government's lack of planning for the rail needs of London and the Channel tunnel. British Rail has said that Waterloo will be fine--no doubt with Government backing--and certainly without strategic planning. Although it said that Waterloo is all that is needed, it is now saying that King's Cross is needed as well. However, only four platforms at King's Cross are to be used for international traffic. Even if the six planned platforms were used, one cannot stretch the station and increase its size. There has clearly not been very much planning in that regard. In other words, although the Government are now saying that they need more railway infrastructure and better planning, it is being done on a piecemeal basis.
Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether the new railway for Heathrow is to be privatised. Obviously, it should be part of a through rail system for London, perhaps from Stratford where a new Channel tunnel terminal could go straight through to Heathrow and--if some common sense were shown--loop back to Waterloo.
Those are some of the ways in which the Government are not concerning themselves with proper rail planning. Through their theological obsession, they are requiring an input from developers when everybody in our society knows that we should develop wise long-term planning strategies. For the Government, everything is short term. They will not plan ahead.
I contacted the Department of Transport five or six years ago about a matter in my constituency. I can measure the time by the fact that the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) was then Under-Secretary of State. I begged her to put in some DLR extension earthworks to the new roads in the area, but the Department would not do it. There are now plans for a six-lane motorway in east London over a new bridge, the design of which was announced last week. Five or six years ago I asked that that bridge have the facility for an
Column 1306extension of the DLR to Thamesmead, but the Department would not even consider the idea. This week there has been a new east London rail study and--lo and behold--it is proposed that a railway will run not far from that very bridge and that it could also include the DLR. The duplication and lack of forethought is almost mind-boggling and cannot be understood. Even the post-war Conservative Government did better under people such as Mr. Marples.
In conclusion, the ideas of the hon. Member for Northfield about privatisation are totally impractical because of his lack of knowledge of the working lives, aspirations and need for good conditions in relation to both efficiency and safety on the part of those who run and those who work on the railways. We must recognise above all the experience that has been collected over the years. The management must use that experience, as well as new ideas, and match the two together. That is what we all want. I only wish that Conservative Members knew a bit more about the technical and human side of running railways. They would then not say the stupid things that they have been saying in the past few weeks.
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : In recent months I have learnt a little bit about railways--of course, not as much as my hon. Friend the Minister who, in addition to his sharp mind, has the benefit of an assiduous staff. But nevertheless I have learnt something. I know that my hon. Friend sometimes grows impatient with me because, as he told a friend of mine, I get things wrong, but I plead in mitigation that too much of my information comes from British Rail ; and as we all know, what British Rail tells us on Monday is wrong by Wednesday. In that context, it might interest my hon. Friend to inquire why British Rail has changed the permitted gradients on its proposed high-speed rail line from one in 50 to one in 90. However, my hon. Friend will be relieved to learn that I do not intend to spend time tonight on the great British Rail project which is tearing my constituency apart and frightening out of their wits the residents of parts of England's most beautiful countryside. I shall meet the new Secretary of State--I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the former Secretary of State, who I thought was a remarkable Minister in many ways--tomorrow. I shall raise then the many concerns with which my constituents charge me and which I am happy to represent to him.
I propose to apply some of the lessons that I have learnt from this business to a broader argument about the future of the railways in the United Kingdom. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) is sceptical about or sympathetic to the view that I am about to put forward, but I believe that Europe stands on the threshold of an enormous economic and political revolution comparable with the industrial revolution. Just as the latter could not have been achieved without dramatic advances in transportation, nor can the European revolution of 1992. To those of us who are old enough to remember the Beeching axe, the proposition that Europe's future hangs on its railways sounds bizarre. When the chairmen of Europe's railways met the European Community Transport Commissioner recently, they proposed to build
Column 1307no fewer than 19,000 miles of track, two thirds of which would be entirely new. That is $100 billion-worth of railway line.
Mr. Rowe : Why? Because they know that, in the richest trading bloc in the world, there will be a myriad of journeys long enough to carry passengers who would otherwise travel by air and to carry freight which would otherwise go by road. The French experience alone has shown that rail is an effective competitor with air over distances from 125 to 600 miles, and is far quicker than road. It is twice as fast as a car and half the price of an aeroplane. On the Paris to sud-est line, 1.2 million passengers, or 56.5 per cent. of the market, have transferred from air to rail, according to the latest count. Here, all this excitement seems set to pass us by. Not for us the comprehensive planning of a national network that is designed to snatch traffic back from aircraft and lorries. Not for us the prestigious purpose-built stations to welcome visitors to Britain or to speed them into Europe. For us there is to be one hurriedly planned, grudgingly financed, under-protected high-speed line boring its way not to one carefully designed terminus, but two.
British Rail's view of whether two termini or one is a good idea depends on the date and the audience to which the opinion is being delivered. At present, I think that it is believed to be a good idea. I hope that it is, because Waterloo and King's Cross, on present plans, are to provide the welcome of 21st century Britain to hundreds of thousands of European business men and tourists.
Of course, which stations are available will not matter if there are no staff to man them or if the trains break down mechanically. I rejoice for my constituents in the fact that the National Union of Railwaymen has tonight reached agreement, however provisionally, with British Rail. By the time the tunnel opens, we must have a better system of running our railways. That is why I am speaking in this debate. I believe that 21st century Britain cannot play its full part in the railway revolution while it insists on a 19th century view of railway investment.
I understand precisely why the Government, faced in 1979 with a sluggish, nationalised leviathan that swallowed subsidy in preference to earning income by providing services, subjected BR to the discipline of a 7 per cent. return on its capital projects and have tried to reduce its dependence on subsidy. There have been great benefits from that discipline. Management is tighter--although it is sometimes hard to remember--subsidies are lower and customers are beginning to feature in BR's publicity, its thinking and even occasionally in its services. As a result, investment in BR has never been higher, and the Government deserve great credit for that. I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that that will not do as a long- term strategy. When lines are closing, passenger demand was declining and journey miles were limited by the English channel, the strategy contained the costs of a dwindling asset, but the situation is now reversed. If conditions are right, railways could become as vital a part of United Kingdom infrastructure as roads or airlines. So far, British Rail, constrained by rules set by the Government, has been unwilling to invest in the expectation of creating a demand. Instead it confines itself
Column 1308to investing late to meet a demand that is already there. That is bad enough in a crowded passenger market ; in an intensely competitive freight market it is suicidal. It is time that railways and roads in the United Kingdom were treated on equal terms. Roads, which can use up to four times as much land as railways, are not built and maintained by the owners of the cars and lorries that use they daily ; they are paid for out of general taxation. The Treasury may join the motoring organisations in claiming that the road user pays for the roads through road and petroleum tax, but that is a specious argument. If it were sustainable, four times as much would be spent on the roads programme. User taxes in 1987-88 yielded £14,664,000,000, while roads cost £3,578,000,000. The discrepancy shows clearly that road taxes are no more hypothecated than any other tax, and the hidden costs of congestion, pollution and accidents further distort the comparison.
We need to incorporate the railways fully in our strategic transport planning. It is imperative, for example, that instead of wrenching a new railway to follow haphazardly an existing motorway--as is the case with the M20 and the new Kent line--we should be able to plan new roads and railways in tandem. New technology in transport wagons cries out for coherence in route planning ; intermodal wagons capable of travelling on both road and rail make it essential that we change our systems.
Let us take freight capacity. British Rail believes that, if it tried very hard, it might capture up to 6.1 million tonnes of freight by 1993. Eurotunnel believes that it should be 7.4 million, and SNCF 7.2 million. For 2003, British Rail looks for 7 million, Eurotunnel for 11.4 million and SCNF for 16.4 million. Those are huge differences. I believe that they are explicable only because British Rail is so demoralised by its present financial constraints that it dare not think big.
Hitherto, freight has always been BR's poor relation. "Oops!" it will say, "here comes a passenger train. Shove the freight into a siding." But 21st century Europe looks for time-sensitive deliveries over thousands of miles, guaranted free of traffic jams and hold-ups. Rail could deliver that, but to build a United Kingdom network capable of complementing its thrusting Euro-network on the back of British Rail's unique system of finance, which effectively rules out any cost-benefit calculations comparable with those used in planning roads, is beyond the scope of both the present management and any management likely to emerge. Let the taxpayer pay for the building and maintenance of the tracks, and let British Rail or private contractors run the services on them.
If we want some lines to be toll lines, that could be even more easily arranged than toll roads. Let proposals for new lines be subject to planning procedures. Nothing could be worse than what we in Kent have had to endure during what have been laughably called the consultation procedures. It is not, I think, because British Rail is malicious--I believe that it wants to consult, but does not know how to--but because it is trying to do too much too quickly.
We have a new Secretary of State for Transport. He has an opportunity and, I believe, a duty to provide Britain with a modern railway system able to stand comparison with the great new systems of Europe, and capable of taking massive burdens of freight and massive congestion off the roads and airways of the United Kingdom and the
Column 1309continent. If he wants to do that he can, but he cannot do it if he continues to treat the railways as though they were quite different from all other forms of transport.
I do not expect my hon. Friend to make a radical commitment late on the last night of a long hot Session. All that I ask is for him to look with a fresh eye at the whole business of building, financing and running railways, which will still be here long after even his youthful countenance has turned to dust.
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea) : I do not know why my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) was so reluctant to ask the Minister to provide answers on the last night of the Session. It is an ideal time, because the Minister can slip away and escape
cross-examination. I have decided to contribute to the debate not least because the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) was so scathing-- perhaps he was crotchety due to the late hour--in his references to new Conservative Members. I thought that, as the hon. Gentleman had not yet heard any new Conservative Members, perhaps he ought to hear one to enable him to judge whether the views expressed about them are correct.
I welcome the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent was quite right to refer to strikes. Both management and workers in British Rail should be told that the one thing that undermines public confidence is strike action such as we have seen. To those of us who want to see confidence return to British Rail and genuine options to road transport, it is rather dispiriting to see public confidence dissipated by strikes.
Mr. Spearing : In my speech I referred in general terms, while understanding that there are exceptions, to the general theology of capitalism that is being propounded. The hon. Gentleman condemns strikes. Does he disagree with me about people who go on strike to defend their general living standards? If the strikers had accepted the offer would that not have meant a reduction in their income?
Mr. Bowis : Their action affects the living standards of others, and in the case of a public service one must be careful about how one uses the strike weapon. I do not deny people the right to strike, but they must ask themselves what effect it will have on others. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) talked about running buses on disused railway tracks. I do not disagree about that, but my hon. Friend must ask himself where the wretched things will park when they get to the inner cities. There are already far too many buses trying to park on the roads, especially in inner London, and we need to take account of that. The hon. Member for Newham, South also spoke about staffing and negotiations. There was an element of truth in what he said, but one must look at the whole question of attracting people to work on the railways. I pay tribute to the many excellent people who work there and I want to see more. One of the reasons for staff shortages is lack of housing or the inability to pay for it.
Column 1310I should like to see British Rail management using its imagination to go for equity-sharing schemes which would enable people to live in London and other cities.
I want to support British Rail, but sometimes it does not make it easy. Aside from strikes, the public would be more willing to use our railway service if they were convinced that it was safe, reliable, regular and comfortable and met its timetables with more accuracy. Quite often those requirements are not fulfilled. There is also the matter of safety, but one must be careful about knocking safety on the railways lest one undermine publ‡ic confidence.
Clapham junction, where the recent accident occurred, is in my constituency. It is the busiest rail junction in the world, but it had never before in living memory sustained an accident in which there were casualties. We must stress the safety record of our railway system time and again so that more people will feel confident about using it. Nevertheless, I still want British Rail to come up with a more comfortable and reliable service. In my part of London, too many trains arrive with too few coaches and they are overfilled. There is no chance of people getting on. If they push, they will probably land back on the platform with bodies on top of them. Why is British Rail so reluctant to extend platforms? It should bring forward a programme for that so that longer trains could be used in our capital city. That matter has been greatly discussed, but there is still no programme for extending platforms. Why is BR so reluctant to reopen old lines and old stations so that the load can be spread for commuters coming into London? Why has British Rail been so reluctant for so many years to do something about the Waterloo and City line, the 50-year-old Drain? Why does it make life so difficult for those who wish to cycle to the train, put their bike on the train and cycle again at the other end? Unless one travels out of the rush hour, one cannot put one's bike on the train. Why is there not more parking for commuters using stations on the fringes of London, so that they can drive to the station and park? There is not the hunger for passengers that one would like to see.
Why is it that, when we want to encourage freight on to the railway lines, British Rail designs a freight service that sends the freight at a slow speed, on long trains, at night, through the urban areas, disturbing everyone? Why is freight not sent cross-country to its destination? When those of us who want the Channel tunnel to succeed offer alternative proposals, why are they not considered properly? The Stratford option in particular should be studied. I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Newham, South about the Stratford option and the route to Heathrow, but my heart sank when he talked about a loop back to Waterloo, as that would undo all that I am trying to achieve. Why do we have to send passengers coming in from the Channel tunnel on a tourist route with a six-mile detour to see Battersea power station on the way to Waterloo? The only reason is that British Rail has a commitment to use existing lines as far as possible.
Why does British Rail not do more about the litter and the graffiti on the trains, so as to make them more attractive? All these whys and wherefores arise out of the frustration of one who wants to support British Rail and to see it winning the battle for passengers, and one who is tired of having to apologise for the service.
I have said to my hon. Friend the Minister before, and I will say it again, that we need an underground link to