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House of Commons

Monday 1 July 1991

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Vale of Glamorgan Railway

1. Mr. John P. Smith : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss the reopening of the Vale of Glamorgan railway line to passenger transport.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin) : It is for British Rail to consider the case foreopening this line to passenger use.

Mr. Smith : The Minister will be pleased to hear that many of my constituents welcomed the recent statement by the Secretary of State for Transport about the new commitment and investment in rail transport and switching transport from road to rail. Is he aware that they welcomed the statement because they have suffered over the past few years from the familiar problems of traffic congestion, noise and pollution? The reopening of the Vale of Glamorgan freight line to passengers would solve that problem and provide a very attractive tourist magnet and a vital link to Cardiff-Wales airport. We welcome the statement and we hope that the Minister will ask the chairman at least to carry out a feasibility study for

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opening the line. I am afraid that some of my constituents are saying that it is all very well for the Government to make a statement, but they should put their money where their mouth is.

Mr. McLoughlin : The Government put their money where their mouth is and that is why last week my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced the increase in funds available to British Rail. We need no lectures from the Labour party about the importance of British Rail. We have presided over a net opening of stations while the previous Labour Government presided over closures.

Mr. Simon Coombs : Does my hon. Friend agree that the chances of reopening the Vale of Glamorgan railway line would be considerably enhanced by the privatisation of British Rail? In that context, can he comment on the Government's progress in considering the possibilities of privatisation?

Mr. McLoughlin : An important part of the speech made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State not so long ago was our intention to end the monopoly under which British Rail runs on the railways. That will bring competition to the railways and it will be better for the future of British Rail and provide opportunities for new lines to be opened.

Freight Transport

2. Ms. Quin : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the implementation of his objective of transferring more freight traffic from road to rail.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : I recently announced an improved environmental grant scheme to help pay for rail freight facilities that will keep lorries off unsuitable roads. I plan in due course to end British Rail's monopoly by opening up the railways to other operators who want to provide rail freight services

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and I am giving full support to BR's plans for channel tunnel rail freight services which will remove some 400,000 lorry journeys from our roads each year.

I am pleased today to announce that I have approved British Rail's investment in a further seven new locomotives for channel tunnel freight services, costing some £20 million.

Ms. Quin : Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government's objective of moving freight from road to rail will be meaningless without increased funding? Does he deplore British Rail's decision to refuse to allow a channel tunnel freight facility in the north-east of England? Will he take this opportunity publicly to express regret for the 12 years of wasted opportunity when the Government could have promoted the cause of the railways, but singularly failed to do so?

Mr. Rifkind : British Rail is authorising some £300 million of expenditure on freight services to service the channel tunnel. It is for BR to decide whether a particular freight terminal in the north-east is necessary. On the latter part of the hon. Lady's question, one recalls that investment in the railways fell during the previous Labour Government while it is higher today than at any time since Dr. Beeching.

Mr. Adley : While wholeheartedly welcoming the recent policy change announced by my right hon. and learned Friend and hoping that the thought is father unto the deed in respect of new investment in the railways, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to contemplate the proposition that our industrial competitors in the Community are running new stock on new railways while our investment goes into providing new stock for Victorian railways? Will my right hon. and learned Friend therefore look at what the west Germans are doing, particularly the government railway commission which was set up by Chancellor Kohl, and examine infrastructure and investment so that we can begin to get a level playing field for investment in roads compared with rail?

Mr. Rikfind : I am most interested in what is happening elsewhere in the European Community. I was particularly delighted that, at the previous meeting of the Council of Transport Ministers, the European Community accepted a British-inspired initiative which, for the first time, will ensure the opportunity for competition in the provision of international freight services throughout the Community. For the first time in our history it will be possible for British Rail operators to provide international freight services to other countries of the Community as a matter of right. I hope that the Opposition, who until now have preserved and been enamoured of British Rail's monopoly, will realise that Europe as a whole has rejected monopoly and is welcoming competition.

Mr. Prescott : How can the Secretary of State justify his recent statement about being enthusiastically and unequivocally in favour of the movement of freight from road to rail when this week he will be responsible for closing Speedlink to save £30 million, thereby putting many thousands of loads on to the roads, particularly the A1, and when he is about to spend £800 million to widen the A1 to deal with extra loads?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman is characteristically wrong both in his facts and his interpretation. First,

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Speedlink is a decision for British Rail. Secondly, this year, it expects, on a total turnover of £45 million, a loss of about £40 million. If the hon. Gentleman would maintain a business with that sort of loss, it shows why he is unfit to be put in charge of the affairs of this country. Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman seems to be completely unaware that British Rail has already negotiated for more than half its Speedlink traffic to continue to be carried by rail by other means.

Mr. Harris : Although I accept my right hon. and learned Friend's latter point about Speedlink, does he agree that it seems to many of us that British Rail has almost deliberately run down its freight services, particularly in areas like mine in Cornwall? Over the weekend, for example, a haulier rang me about the closure of the Speedlink depot in Truro which serves a large part of Cornwall. Is not the British Rail approach to business summed up by the train on which I travelled from the west country today? It set off from Plymouth with only eight sandwiches in the refreshment car. Is not exactly that approach being applied in some other parts of British Rail's business, not least freight?

Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is correct in emphasising that there seem to be occasionally missed opportunities for British Rail, particularly in the west country which he represents. It is for such reasons that we are committed to ending British Rail's statutory monopoly in order that new rail operators, including Foster Yeoman in the west country, can provide the rail services, particularly rail freight services, that they believe to be necessary. It is a matter of great sadness that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and Mr. Jimmy Knapp appear to be the last two petrified fossils in Europe seeking to preserve that monopoly when all of Europe is now rejecting it.

Channel Tunnel Freight Terminal

4. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the case for a channel tunnel freight terminal in Greater Manchester.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman) : British Rail plans a channel tunnel freight terminal for 1992 in Greater Manchester, either at Trafford Park or Guide Bridge. A decision will be made shortly. For the longer term, British Rail is examining the feasibility of establishing a freight terminal on a greenfield site in the north-west, with good motorway connections.

Mr. Bennett : May I urge the Minister to use his offices to persuade British Rail to pick the Guide Bridge site on the edge of my constituency? It is an extremely large site and it would be very good for picking up freight in Greater Manchester and transferring it to rail to go across Europe. British Rail has examined the site, but has taken a long time to decide on it ; and it is a matter of great regret that it has not announced a decision to go ahead at Guide Bridge straight away so that hauliers in Greater Manchester can start to plan for that. It will also have excellent motorway links by the time it opens.

Mr. Freeman : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for supporting British Rail's concept of trying to develop combined

transport--freight delivered by road within a fairly narrowly defined area to a rail terminal for onward

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shipping to other parts of the country and through the channel tunnel. I shall pass on his concerns to British Rail and tell it of his support for the idea of a new freight terminal.

Mr. Hind : Will my hon. Friend speed up British Rail's granting of freight terminals in Greater Manchester and the rest of the north-west? Inward and various other north-west industrial organisations urged the previous Secretary of State for Transport to use his good offices to get the chairman of British Rail to make a decision. We must plan for the future ; the tunnel will be open in 1993 and we have not reached the starting point for our freight. For areas on the periphery of the tunnel, connection to the continent is important so that we can deliver our exports quickly and speedily.

Mr. Freeman : As my hon. Friend knows, of the nine sites for channel tunnel freight terminal business, six have already been announced and three have yet to be specified--Merseyside, Manchester and the Strathclyde- Glasgow area. I intend to visit the north-west shortly and I am confident that British Rail will have made a decision before I go.

Pedestrian Accidents

5. Mr. French : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how many pedestrians are killed or injured each day ; and what steps he is taking to reduce the numbers.

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Christopher Chope) : The provisional figures for the first three months of this year show that the average number of pedestrians killed or injured each day was 142, a reduction of about one fifth compared with the same period in 1990.

Mr. French : Does my hon. Friend accept that a group of pedestrians who put themselves at unnecessary risk are those who weave in and out of traffic at major crossroads plying their services as washers of windscreens? Is not there something that my hon. Friend could do to stop it?

Mr. Chope : The best solution is for drivers of vehicles to wash their windscreens before they embark on their journeys--that would put those people out of business. But there is a more serious issue to do with pedestrian safety--

Mr. Prescott : It is free enterprise.

Mr. Chope : The hon. Gentleman may say that, but this is indeed what free enterprise is all about. If there is no demand for a service there will be no opportunity to make money from it. I suggest that if people cleaned their windscreens before setting out on their journeys there would be no business for those who obstruct traffic in this way.

Mr. Fearn : Is the Minister aware that the number of child deaths and injuries is causing great concern to many road safety organisations? Will he launch a nationwide campaign to get the figures down?

Mr. Chope : I am pleased to say that in the first three months of this year the number of child fatalities among pedestrians fell by one third. That is jolly good progress.

Mr. Gregory : Will my hon. Friend hold urgent discussions with the Home Secretary about the

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prosecution of cyclists who cycle on pavements, especially taking into account the case of four-year-old Abbie- Gail Copley, who came out of her house last week in Chapelfields road, York, and was knocked down by a cyclist, following which she required more than 20 stitches in her face? Sad to say, North Yorkshire police have taken no action. Will my hon. Friend discuss such cases urgently with the Home Secretary so that cyclists know the state of the law?

Mr. Chope : I doubt whether there is any dispute about the state of the law. It is not ignorance of the law that is causing a number of cyclists to behave in an anti-social and dangerous manner. Enforcement of the law must be a matter for the police.

Miss Hoey : Although I welcome the reduction in the number of pedestrian deaths, does the Minister accept that many of these deaths are due to fast driving, particularly in built-up city areas? Does he also accept that something more should be done to reduce the speed of cars in our inner cities and, where drivers are going faster than they should, to ensure that they are prosecuted so that elderly people in particular are able to walk about, feeling safe on the pavements?

Mr. Chope : There is much sense in what the hon. Lady says. The Government are in favour of traffic-calming measures in urban areas and we have introduced a power for local authorities to impose 20 mph zones. All that is lacking is the will on the part of some local authorities to take the necessary action.

Humber Bridge

6. Mr. Cran : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what is the latest estimate he has as to the current level of debt being carried by the Humber bridge board.

Mr. Chope : The debt on the Humber bridge at 31 March this year was just over £400 million. Since 1986, we have accepted that the bridge is an exceptional case. My right hon. and learned Friend is writing to the chairman of the bridge board to propose a package for writing off and suspending those parts of the debt that cannot be financed from toll charges. Some debt will remain to be serviced from toll revenues. I shall introduce at an early opportunity the necessary legislative measures to give effect to the arrangements.

Mr. Cran : Has not this saga gone on long enough? As my hon. Friend has admitted that this is a special case, will he be reasonably clear about when the Government will make an announcement about a partial debt write- off? I say that reluctantly, but I have had to reach that conclusion because my hon. Friend knows as well as I do that the income from the bridge does not even meet the interest payments, let alone the amount necessary to write off capital.

Mr. Chope : I accept that that is the problem and that is why I have just made my announcement. I cannot be more specific until we know exactly when we can bring in the legislative measures. It will then be necessary to calculate what amount of debt has to be written off to make sure that the toll charges are bearable.

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High-speed Rail Link

8. Mr. Jacques Arnold : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on British Rail's proposals for a high-speed rail link through Kent.

Mr. Rifkind : The Government are considering British Rail's report on the options for the rail link.

Mr. Arnold : My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that four of the proposed routes for the high-speed rail link go across my constituency. For three years, local residents have had to put up with agony and anxiety as British Rail has blundered forward with its plans. In coming to a conclusion, will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind the fact that we in north-west Kent have nothing to gain in transport terms from a high-speed rail link and everything to lose in terms of our environment?

Mr. Rifkind : I understand my hon. Friend's concerns and they will be taken into account in considering the recommendations of British Rail which I received just over four weeks ago. I emphasise that not only has British Rail already commissioned considerable environmental assessment studies of the various route options, but that whichever option might be chosen as the preferred route will be subject to a full environmental impact assessment with the proper opportunity for public consultation and comment.

Mr. Prescott : As the Secretary of State is aware, the London channel tunnel group, which wishes to pressure him to make a decision, is here to lobby Parliament. Therefore, will he tell us whether he will make a statement before the House rises for the summer recess? Will the Secretary of State make a decision on the Government's view before the full environmental assessment study on one or both routes?

Mr. Rifkind : I cannot give the precise timing of any Government decision on the preferred route. British Rail has asked us to say whether we can agree what the preferred route should be, so that it can go ahead with a full environmental impact assessment of whichever route might be chosen. That is the basis on which we are approaching these matters.

Mr. Sims : My right hon. and learned Friend said that he received the report four weeks ago, but he answered the question to the effect that he received it on 3 May, nearly two months ago. [Interruption.] That is what he said in reply to the question. Does he appreciate that although he said that early publication would cause blight to properties along the route, such blight has existed for some years and continues? Bearing in mind the fact that, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said, the London channel tunnel group is here lobbying the House today, urging for publication of the proposals so as to remove uncertainty, speculation and rumours, will he seriously consider publishing the proposals? My right hon. and learned Friend has already said that he will not show a preference, but only publish them. Will he please do it so that we all know where we stand?

Mr. Rifkind : I shall clarify the position to ensure that my hon. Friend is not misled. If we were to publish all four routes now that would cause considerable unnecessary concern to many people. The preferable course of action is

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for the Government to consider the recommendations that British Rail has put to us and to come to a judgment on the preferred route--the route on which a proper environmental impact assessment should take place. That is what we are working on at the moment and I intend to report to the House on those matters as soon as I can.

Fishing Vessels (Safety)

9. Dr. Godman : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he has any plans to meet representatives of the catching sector of the fishing industry in order to discuss matters relating to the occupational safety of the crews of United Kingdom-registered fishing vessels ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. McLoughlin : My right hon. and learned Friend met representatives of the Scottish fishing industry on 24 April. There is a regular dialogue with the fishing industry on all aspects of safety, including the occupational safety of crews, at the twice-yearly meetings of the fishing industry safety group.

Dr. Godman : The circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Antares aroused deep distress and considerable anger throughout Scotland's fishing communities. I believe that the Minister is aware that the Royal Navy has published its report into the sinking of that vessel. When will his Department publish its report? Has the Minister received any suggestion from the Lord Advocate's office that a fatal accident inquiry will be held? Does he agree that the families of the four men who were drowned in that tragic collision between the submarine and the fishing boat deserve substantial compensation? Presumably that compensation will not be paid until his Department has published its report and a fatal accident inquiry has been held. Has the Minister any information about that inquiry?

Mr. McLoughlin : As the hon. Gentleman said, the question whether there should be a fatal accident inquiry is a matter for the Lord Advocate and specific questions about establishing such an inquiry should properly be directed to him.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, last week my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces announced a major extension of the monitoring scheme, operated through the coastguard, which records where submarines are operating. That extension was warmly welcomed by the fishing industry. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must do all that we can to ensure that accidents such as that involving the Antares do not happen again.

Mr. Quentin Davies : Does my hon. Friend accept that there is considerable relief in the United Kingdom fishing community at the retention of the Decca navigation system? That community would have faced substantially increased costs had the Loran C system been adopted in place of the Decca system.

Mr. McLoughlin : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right that strong representations were made by the Scottish fishing industry to my right hon. and learned Friend at the meeting to which I referred. We took account of those representations as well as of the fact that, in the end, we received a far better offer from Decca which made us able to switch back to that system. It is worth pointing

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out that it is only in the United Kingdom where the user pays. It is important that, when we agree on negotiations, the user pays as little as possible, but gets a good system.

Ms. Walley : Is the Minister also aware that there is widespread growing alarm at the number of tragic accidents involving the loss of fishing vessels and their crew? I am talking particularly about the Pescado and the Wilhelmina J. When will the Minister give me a full answer to my letter to him of 30 April? When will he give us the real details that were exposed in an article in the Daily Mirror last Thursday? The Minister must tell the House when we can expect the full Department of Transport report into the Wilhelmina J tragedy to be made public. Why will not the Minister agree to our demand for a public inquiry about shipping safety and for tougher safety regulations to cover flag of convenience shipping?

Mr. McLoughlin : It seems that in response to the hon. Lady's supplementary question we must go over ground that has been trodden in the past. Losses of fishing vessels between 1975 and 1979 were far in excess of the losses of the past five years. I am sure that no one in this place disagrees that safety is extremely important. The sinking of the Wilhelmina J is still being considered by the Department's legal advisers. I should like to be able publicly to issue a bulletin, but I am unable to do so because an injunction has been served against the Department. The document was given to various relatives and others involved and it has now fallen into the hands of the press. The situation is not acceptable and I am considering the way in which the regulations are framed to ascertain whether an amendment is necessary to enable me to publish the document.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing : Given the important responsibilities of the Department of Transport to ensure the safety of fishermen, has the Department undertaken any review of its system of discussing with the Department of Energy and the Ministry of Defence such matters as the Antares disaster and the difficulties that fishermen face as a result of debris being left in the North sea by those engaged in the oil industry? Is any specific mechanism being established, or does the Department of Transport just wait for other Departments to initiate discussions?

Mr. McLoughlin : Not at all. There are regular discussions between all Departments on matters that concern fishermen. Today my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces announced an increase in the area that is covered by the submarine notice. I think that that announcement was warmly welcomed by the fishing industry in Scotland.

Freight Transport

10. Mr. Gerald Bowden : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will take steps to ensure that plans for freight movement on the channel tunnel rail link will be on United Kingdom wagons which are compatible with the gauge of continental tracks.

Mr. Freeman : British Rail plans to use freight wagons on channel tunnel services which will be compatible with both United Kingdom and continental loading gauges.

Mr. Bowden : Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the alternative proposals to that of British Rail is to make

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provision for a dedicated freight route with a track and wagon gauge that would be fully compatible with European gauges, which I think British Rail's are not?

Mr. Freeman : My hon. Friend is well aware that the Ove Arup proposal includes some facility for freight to pass along its railway lines. I can assure my hon. Friend that in deciding upon a preferred route and then making an announcement on the route for the new rail link, both British Rail and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will consider whether the existing arrangements--small- wheeled bogies, special wagons and the use of the existing railway lines-- are consistent with a proper international freight service by the end of the decade.

Dr. Marek : Will the Minister pay careful attention to what the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) said, which was absolutely right? No amount of waffle from the Government Front Bench will compensate for what the Government are not doing for the railway system. If the Minister wants freight to be moved on our railways instead of on our roads, he should announce that continental loading gauges and freight wagons will be able to come into the United Kingdom on a dedicated track from Folkestone to Dover and then up to the midlands and on to the north-east and the north-west. Anything less from the Minister will not do.

Mr. Freeman : To convert British Rail's tracks to continental gauge throughout the country would cost many billions of pounds, and there is no prospect of that happening. From 1993, when the channel tunnel opens, onwards, British Rail and the other railway operators are planning to use special wagons--low-wheeled bogied wagons--that will be able to travel on both European and British gauges. That will provide a freight service that will meet demand from 1993 onwards. In the longer term, as I made clear in answer to the supplementary question by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), we shall consider whether these arrangements are adequate for the services needed for international freight at the end of the decade.

Mr. Wolfson : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that long- term planning features in the decision that is made on both freight and passenger traffic? Is my hon. Friend aware that if Britain's system is not compatible with the European system, we shall put ourselves at a long-term disadvantage in both the passenger and freight sectors? Does he further agree that there is a danger even now of Britain being described, sometimes in despair, by SNCF people as "branch-line" Britain? That we cannot have.

Mr. Freeman : This Conservative Government believe strongly in long- term planning-- [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) may laugh, but he conveniently forgets that we have a 15-year, long-term construction programme for London Underground and a road building programme stretching over a comparable period.

Following a statement that my right hon. and learned Friend hopes to make in due course about a rail link, we will have a railway building programme that will provide a long-term plan for Britain's railway system. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) is right

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to say that we need a first-class freight system to take freight between this country and the continent, and we shall have it.

Ms. Ruddock : Can the Minister confirm that the Ove Arup proposal studied by British Rail and W. S. Atkins was for a two-tier railway that could be used for both passengers and freight, and which would be built to the higher European standard gauge? Does he accept that the public are aware of the routes that are being considered? As his right hon. and learned Friend refuses to say that he will make up his mind before the summer recess, will the Government acknowledge the public interest in this matter and publish the reports at the end of this parliamentary Session?

Mr. Freeman : Not only is there great public interest in a new rail link, but my right hon. and learned Friend and the Government are paying a great deal of attention to what is a most important project. We need a new rail link between Dover and London primarily to cope with passengers. We must deal with the increase in the expected number of international passengers and the growth in commuter service demand in the south-east. Freight is important, but in the short term, from 1993, it will travel on existing lines and with the new technology, to which I referred earlier.

Sir Anthony Durant : When considering freight movement following the building of the channel tunnel, will my hon. Friend and British Rail reconsider the possibility of a freight terminal at Reading? I assure him that there is a great deal of support for that.

Mr. Freeman : I shall certainly convey my hon. Friend's view to British Rail. It is for BR, rather than for Ministers, to decide where freight terminals should be located. Ministers' responsibility is to ensure that British Rail has a policy and gets on with it.

West Yorkshire Rail Electrification

11. Mr. Madden : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement concerning the future of the West Yorkshire rail electrification scheme.

Mr. McLoughlin : As I said in my reply to the hon. Member on 18 June, credit approvals are reserved for the infrastructure costs of the West Yorkshire rail electrification scheme. We shall consider resources for rolling stock as a matter of urgency when decisions are taken on the allocation of credit approvals for 1992-93.

Mr. Madden : Will the Minister confirm that his Department remains committed to the electrification scheme and recognises the importance of retaining Bradford as part of the InterCity network, the need to encourage more people to use local trains, and the importance of electrification to jobs and the expansion of the local economy? It will be very much regretted that he has been unable today to confirm that the scheme--all parts of it-- will proceed immediately. We recognise the dead hand of the Treasury behind the dither and delay. Will the Minister give an early sign that a green light will be given to the scheme so that it can go ahead without any further delay?

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Mr. McLoughlin : Unlike the Opposition, the Government have to find the money that they commit themselves to spending. However, I hope that the electrification project can go ahead next year.

Mr. Waller : Is my hon. Friend aware of the considerable significance that people, not only in Bradford but Airedale and Wharfedale, attach to that scheme, which would more than better the 8 per cent. return on capital that the Treasury requires? Will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that unless West Yorkshire passenger transport executive can order soon the rolling stock to run on its splendid new electrified lines, its price may rise--which might place that 8 per cent. return in jeopardy?

Mr. McLoughlin : I am well aware of that problem, and I stand by my statement that I hope that the project can get the go-ahead next year.

New Railways

12. Mr. Butler : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has to permit new railway operations.

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