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House of Commons

Monday 21 March 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]


British Railways Order Confirmation Bill

Read the Third time, and passed.

Oral Answers to Questions


Freight --

1. Mr. Hawkins : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what steps he is taking to encourage freight to be moved by rail rather than by road.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John MacGregor) : From April, we are introducing an enhanced rail freight grant regime. This, together with privatisation, open access for new operators and substantial investment in the infrastructure, freight terminals and rolling stock for the channel tunnel service, amounting to some £450 million, will provide a significant boost for the rail freight industry.

Mr. Hawkins : I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. He may know that my constituents and I had the great good fortune to hear our right hon. Friend the Minister of State make an excellent speech covering the issue on Friday night. After that, I spent some time talking

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to some of the senior management at Preston station. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me--and with them--that the opening of the channel tunnel will provide one of the great opportunities to put more freight on rail ?

Mr. MacGregor : Very much so. I think that it will be a big market opportunity, not least for the north-west. As my hon. Friend may know, the opening of the tunnel will greatly reduce the travelling times from, say, Manchester or Liverpool to places on the continent, particularly in Mediterranean areas ; travel will also be much quicker than by road. I agree with my hon. Friend that the channel tunnel offers a big opportunity for switching freight from road to rail.

Mrs. Dunwoody : How does the Secretary of State manage to keep a straight face while he says that ? How can he seriously imagine that the imposition of astronomical charges on rolling stock and Railtrack can improve any form of transport, let alone encourage anyone to use it ?

Mr. MacGregor : I think the hon. Lady will find that Railtrack will seek commercial contracts for freight. As for passenger transport, as the hon. Lady knows, the passenger franchisees will receive a subsidy to meet the Railtrack costs. I am absolutely clear about this ; I think that the opening of the channel tunnel offers a major marketing opportunity. If the hon. Lady examines the times involved in travelling from the north-west to major continental centres, she will see that, with the channel tunnel, carrying freight on rail gives just that hope.

Mr. Nigel Evans : As my right hon. Friend knows, Castle Cement is in my constituency. It used to transport much of its freight by rail ; now, unfortunately, it has switched to the roads, because they are more competitive. Will my right hon. Friend give the people of the Ribble valley some assurance that, when the new system is in operation in 1995, there will be greater incentives for firms such as Castle Cement to switch their freight transport back on to the railways ?

Mr. MacGregor : Indeed ; in fact, there are some recent examples of freight going back on to rail. I believe that opportunities for open access, coupled with the rail freight

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grant regime, which will allow the provision of subsidies to meet Railtrack costs where there is an environmental benefit to be gained--I might have made that point to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)--will encourage the switch back to rail.

Mr. Wilson : Will the Secretary of State convey our regret that Question 8, concerning the choice of rail privatisation, has been prudently withdrawn ?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is pure nonsense to talk about benefits to Railfreight, or any other rail services, against the present background ? From 1 April, railway subsidy will have to be doubled to maintain existing services, solely because of the artificially inflated access charges that the Treasury has forced on Railtrack. Does the Secretary of State accept

Mr. MacGregor : A third question ?

Mr. Wilson : Well, there are many things to accept before anyone can believe this nonsense.

In the light of that settlement, the rate of subsidy may be doubled. The Government are seeking to create the impression of a highly subsidised railway--twice as highly subsidised after 1 April as before that date. Is not the scene being set for the rundown of our railways ?

Mr. MacGregor : I expressed surprise only because I understood that I was not expected to answer a large number of questions. I regret more than the hon. Gentleman that Question 8 is not to be asked. I was looking forward to it, and to demonstrating what privatisations have achieved. The hon. Gentleman, by his questions, showed that he does not understand how the new grant and access charging regimes will work.

International Station, Stratford --

2. Mr. Tony Banks : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he last met representatives of Union Railways to discuss the case for an international station at Stratford.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman) : I look forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman and representatives of the Stratford promoter group on 24 March to discuss their revised proposals for a Stratford station.

Mr. Banks : The Minister knows that the promoter group intends to make a bid for an intermediate international station at Stratford. Will he give a guarantee that no decision will be taken on the disposal of railway lines at Stratford that would prejudice the group's ability to make that bid to the Minister ? Will the right hon. Gentleman also explain the likely disposition of the lands around Stratford in terms of ownership after the channel tunnel fast rail link has been constructed ?

Mr. Freeman : It is important that the railway lands at Stratford-- from the southern extremities, close to the existing Stratford station, all the way to Temple Mills--are retained in public sector ownership and available to help progress that great project.

Mr. Jacques Arnold : When my right hon. Friend meets Union Railways, will he bear in mind the possibility of an international railway station at Ebbsfleet in Kent, which would be very much more convenient ?

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Madam Speaker : Order. I try to be tolerant, but the question relates to a station at Stratford.

Mr. Dobson : Does the Minister agree that it would contribute immeasurably to the economic regeneration of east London and the east London corridor if there were an international station on the channel tunnel link at Stratford ? Does he further accept that it would add immeasurably to the value of crossrail if that project also had a connection with the channel tunnel link at Stratford ?

Mr. Freeman : We have not ruled out a connection between crossrail and the channel tunnel rail link--there are powerful arguments in favour. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State merely ruled out one particular intersection. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman laughs, but my right hon. Friend's announcement was welcomed by Opposition Members representing the area ruled out, so that statement was helpful. As to the importance of a station at Stratford, there is a difference between an international station and a domestic station. I hope that the promoter group will argue the case for both.

Mile End Road --

3. Mrs. Gorman : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on progress in improving traffic conditions along the Mile End road.

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris) : The proposed red route measures for Mile End road will bring improvements for all road users in traffic and environmental conditions.

Mrs. Gorman : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital for the progress of his excellent plans for the Mile End road, which is on the way to my constituency, that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary should fight to retain the veto over Brussels bureaucracy, which might otherwise overrule my hon. Friend's excellent plans--as happened when Brussels introduced 44-tonne lorries to the United Kingdom ? That caused enormous congestion throughout the country, as bridges had to be strengthened.

Mr. Norris : I admit that I had not covered that part of my background briefing. In so far as I understood the portent of my hon. Friend's question, I am sure that she is right. If I did not understand it, I instantly withdraw that remark. More to the point, the measures being taken on the principal route to my hon. Friend's constituency will add considerably to her ability to reach it quickly.

Ms Glenda Jackson : What is the point of making improvements to the Mile End road or any other in London, when the Minister intends to lift the current London lorry ban, which will allow 44-tonne lorries to use virtually any road in the capital ?

Mr. Norris : The hon. Lady knows that the Government have no intention whatever of lifting the London lorry ban, but we have every intention of lifting the weight of GLC-inspired bureaucracy--the mountain of utterly needless and pointless paperwork that currently surrounds the ban--and in that respect we shall earn the gratitude of every business in London.

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Traffic Calming --

4. Mr. Legg : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what evidence he has that traffic calming schemes have reduced accidents in urban areas.

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Key) : Preliminary research indications are that traffic calming reduces accidents by an average of 70 per cent. There have also been small reductions on surrounding roads. Such measures seem to be especially effective in reducing accidents to child pedestrians and child cyclists.

Mr. Legg : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that response. Has he any idea what the effect on road accidents would be if motorists in built- up areas voluntarily reduced their speed below 30 mph ?

Mr. Key : If average speeds were voluntarily reduced below about 20 mph in appropriate residential streets, it is likely that we would save some 500 lives a year.

Mr. Bennett : Does the Minister accept that, although traffic calming measures have been extremely successful--certainly in Tameside and Stockport in my constituency--the key is to reduce the number of cars on the road ? Does he accept that, particularly in Greater Manchester, the decision to take staff off the stations has frightened a large number of passengers away from those stations ? Would not it be far better to ensure that public transport was effective in the area ?

Mr. Key : Public transport already receives 40 per cent. of the Department's budget for only 10 per cent. of the journeys, and the massive investment in the Manchester metro has been widely welcomed. More significant than the number of cars on the road is the number of journeys that they make. That is something which local authorities have the power to influence through the traffic calming schemes that have been described.

Roads (Planning) --

5. Mr. David Shaw : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what steps he is taking to speed up the planning process for new and improved roads.

Mr. MacGregor : We are making good progress with the package of measures that I announced last summer. We are setting up the new Highways Agency in April and I hope to make an announcement about the review of the road programme soon. We are also consulting on changes to the inquiry rule ; and two trial planning conferences have been held.

Mr. Shaw : May I express the grateful thanks of my constituents for the fantastic new road--the A20--which is dual carriageway all the way between Dover and Perth ? It has been of tremendous benefit to those working at the port, on the ferries and in the hovercraft industry. As that road has been so good to Dover, could not we speed up the process of making the A2 a dual carriageway as well ?

Mr. MacGregor : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the A20 and the effect of the A20, the M20 and the motorways thereafter, which benefit not only Dover, through its port, but businesses and individuals throughout the country. As to the A2, my hon. Friend may have in mind the Lydden to Dover improvement. The public consultation plan for 1993 was delayed, as the

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traffic and engineering issues proved more complex than anticipated. Consultants are continuing their work to identify a scheme that is acceptable in acceptable in environmental, engineering and economic terms.

Mr. Flynn : Has the Secretary of State seen the reports that there are 10,000 deaths every year from a previously unidentified source-- particulate emission, known as PM10, from motor vehicle exhausts ? That is in addition to the suffering caused by asthma and other health problems. Is not the insane rush for new roads being paid for by our children in premature deaths ?

Mr. MacGregor : There is no insane rush for new roads. There is a determination to ensure that our road network enables businesses to be fully competitive and individuals to exercise their choice in sensible ways. One of the ways that is not sensible is for traffic to be constantly congested and almost at a halt, which is certainly environmentally unattractive. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing everything that we can to improve emissions from vehicles to offset any adverse effects.

Road Building --

6. Mr. Burns : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the future of road building in England.

Mr. Key : My right hon. Friend intends to announce the results of his review of the road programme shortly.

Mr. Burns : As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has given such joy and pleasure to the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw), will my hon. Friend the Minister give equal joy to my constituents ? Will he ensure that a statement is made before we rise for Easter so that my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) can discover whether the unloved--indeed, the hated--proposed M12 from the M25 to Chelmsford will be ditched, thus ending the uncertainty and the blight of the green belt around that area ?

Mr. Key : It is not surprising that my hon. Friend is so much loved in his constituency given that he makes such powerful

representations. I must not pre-empt the outcome of the review by commenting on individual schemes. I hope that we shall be able to announce the result of the review before Easter.

Mr. Harvey : Does the Minister agree with the Secretary of State for the Environment that we cannot continue to see the number of motor cars increasing so that life becomes dominated by them ? Does he agree also that the car should be our servant and not our master ? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that building roads leads to increased traffic ? Will he introduce a comprehensive White Paper on all aspects of transport policy and use it as the foundation for a concerted transport policy ?

Mr. Key : It goes without saying that there is not a chink of light between us on these issues. That was demonstrated last week by our announcement in planning policy guidance note 13. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman has missed the point. The problems lie not with the stock of cars but with the journeys that they make, the times of day when those journeys are made, their purpose and the

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standards of emissions. Those are the important matters. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Transport Report of 1994, which was published 10 days ago, he will learn that there is no need for us to publish yet another paper to make that point.

Mr. Haselhurst : Does my hon. Friend accept that there is an urgent need to clarify whether an outer orbital road leading west from the A120 through Essex and Hertfordshire will be built as there is considerable apprehension in villages in my constituency and others in west Essex and Hertfordshire about the destruction that such a road could cause ?

Mr. Key : Yes, I do.

Mr. Dobson : Will the Minister say now what proportion of the present road building plans will be abandoned and how many will be deferred ?

Mr. Key : No. I cannot pre-empt the review that my right hon. Friend will seek to conclude before Easter.

Road Crashes --

7. Mr. Peter Bottomley : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will repeat the research into the comparative contributions to injury road crashes of the road environment, road user behaviour and vehicle condition.

Mr. Key : No. There is no reason to believe that such a project would produce significantly different results from the earlier research. It would not, therefore, be the most effective use of road safety research funds.

Mr. Bottomley : I would not dispute that, but if we have managed virtually to halve the number of fatalities on our roads over the years, it would surely be worth while moving on to consider the interrelationship between the vehicle, the road environment and the road user. Will we continue to undertake detailed research to assertain what further measures can be taken that will have a practical effect ? One reason why we have done so well is that we have based various measures on research findings.

Mr. Key : Yes. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done over many years on road safety. He is right to stress that what matters is solid research and the basing of policies on the statistical evidence that is provided. My hon. Friend is right to suggest that there could be some merit in further research, especially on vehicle standards, in which substantial improvements have taken place over the past 20 years. We might expect those improvements to be reflected in the percentage of accidents that are due to vehicle defects. That is why my Department will continue to spend a substantial sum on road research.

Mr. Barnes : Could such research tell us which are the responsibilities of the European Union and which are those of the United Kingdom ? Transport obviously goes throughout Europe and we need clearly determined divisions. Such research could be disseminated throughout Europe. The results of research undertaken in other parts of Europe could be made available to us so that we know what action needs to be taken.

Mr. Key : Only last Thursday, I opened a conference in the Methodist central hall in London on access to European research by more than 200 British research institutes,

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university departments and private sector researchers as well as local authorities. There is no difficulty in defining what is European and what is British in many areas of research. The issue is straightforward. If the hon. Gentleman would like to know more about that, I am sure that I could help him.

Mr. Mans : In answer to Question 4 on traffic calming, my hon. Friend said that calming measures have substantially reduced pedestrian and cyclist deaths. Will he consider again the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) that further research be undertaken to ascertain whether specific sums could be allocated to schemes that have clearly been successful in the past and would be more successful in future if there were more of them ?

Mr. Key : It was my hon. Friend's Bill that brought in traffic calming measures, so we all have a great deal for which to thank him. I give my hon. Friend my word that there is a substantial amount of ongoing research in these areas which will continue to be undertaken. By the expenditure of modest sums, many lives can be saved--that is a fact we cannot ignore.

Ms Walley : If the Minister is telling the House that research is so important, why can we not have a real commitment to independent research ? Why is he going ahead with the proposal to privatise the Transport Research Laboratory in Crowthorne ? Will he tell us that he will do exactly what he has done with the Vehicle Inspectorate ? Do we not owe it to all those families who have had people injured or killed in road accidents to do everything possible in terms of transport research ?

Mr. Key : Yes, but it is a matter not just of research but of driver behaviour. That is why we are undertaking a whole range of measures which will ensure that there are safer drivers on our roads. Those measures include the theory test, the engineering of better roads and the manufacture of safer cars. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it quite clear what he is minded to do about the future of that excellent organisation, the Transport Research Laboratory, and he will be announcing the way forward shortly.

Sir Anthony Grant : As most motor vehicle accidents are caused by the lunatic practice of vehicles driving too close to each other, and as research in other countries has shown that technologically it is perfectly possible to put a stop to that practice, what are the Government doing about this matter ?

Mr. Key : I pay tribute to my hon. Friend as an acknowledged member of the Guild of Experienced Motorists. Such research has been done not only overseas but in this country at the Transport Research Laboratory as a joint European research project. I have been in vehicles at the research laboratory and it is perfectly possible to do as my hon. Friend suggests, but it is quite expensive and the research is in its early stages. That does not mean that we should stop now, and we will not stop. We will continue the research because it can save lives and lead to better management of traffic, which means better use of the roads that we have.

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Station Staffing --

9. Mrs. Bridget Prentice : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how many stations within the Network SouthEast operating region are unstaffed after 6 pm and at weekends ; and if he will provide comparable figures for 1979.

Mr. Freeman : There are approximately 1,000 stations in the Network SouthEast operational area. British Rail management informs me that approximately 80 per cent. of Network SouthEast stations are unstaffed after 6 pm, approximately 30 per cent. are unstaffed on Saturdays, and 50 per cent. are unstaffed on Sundays.

Mrs. Prentice : Is not it an absolute disgrace that four out of five of our stations are unstaffed after 6 o'clock in the evening, given that, as the Minister must be aware, at least two assaults take place every day on Network SouthEast stations ? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, at stations such as Lee in my constituency, women are frightened to travel on trains because there are no station staff and that British Rail is losing money because there are no staff in the booking halls either ?

Mr. Freeman : The hon. Lady is right. I think that British Rail is losing revenue because of the perception of fear. That is the situation in the public sector. Once we begin to franchise railway services, matters will improve because there will be more commercial activity at the stations and because private sector operators will want to see more passengers using the trains and will be likely to have more staff and use the existing staff more flexibly.

Mr. Raynsford : Will the Minister stop trying to run away from his responsibility ? After being in power for 15 years--during which time they have run down the staffing of so many stations--why do the Government not now accept their responsibility in this area and get the staff back to ensure that the public are safe and can pay their fares, that Network SouthEast can increase its revenue and that we can have a better rail service now ?

Mr. Freeman : That will happen if the hon. Gentleman and his supporters back the principle of passenger rail franchising.

Natural Gas Vehicles --

10. Mr. Lidington : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what studies his Department has carried out into the effectiveness as a form of transport of vehicles powered by natural gas.

Mr. Key : Two studies are already in hand. I am announcing a third study today, involving trials of natural gas and other popular alternative fuels.

Mr. Lidington : I am grateful for that reply. Is my hon. Friend aware that gas-powered vehicles produce far fewer noxious emissions than vehicles powered by internal combustion engines ? Will he talk with his right hon. and hon. Friends at the Treasury to see whether the present excessively high rates of duty on natural gas as a vehicle fuel could be reduced to allow those environmentally friendly vehicles to gain in popularity ?

Mr. Key : Rates of fuel duty are a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, Customs and Excise is considering a fresh

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approach by which duty would relate to weight rather than to volume and to unleaded rather than leaded petrol. That would provide a simple and equitable taxation framework as the energy content of compressed natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas are similar when related to weight.

Heavy Lorries --

11. Sir Anthony Durant : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he has made of the relative friendliness to the environment of 44-tonne lorries and 38-tonne lorries.

Mr. MacGregor : I see a positive advantage to the use of 44-tonne lorries for combined road-rail transport. That means fewer lorries, it transfers freight from road to rail and so benefits the environment.

Sir Anthony Durant : Does my right hon. Friend realise that my constituents are concerned about the increasing size of lorries, and are particularly concerned about the way in which lorries use side streets as short cuts ? Should not we be doing more about encouraging rail-road routes ?

Mr. MacGregor : That is precisely what the increase to 44 tonnes for combined road-rail transport will do. It is also important to underline that that does not actually mean larger lorries. Those lorries will, in themselves, get more freight back on to rail and, in so doing, assist the process. However, in themselves, they do not mean larger lorries.

Mr. Cryer : Does the Secretary of State agree that the history of increases in lorry weight and size is one not of a reduced number of lorries, but of an increase in larger lorries on our roads ? Although the increase to 44 tonnes may not involve much greater external dimensions, will not it mean potentially greater axle weights and more damage to our roads ? Does not the Secretary of State realise that, if we do not want those juggernauts going to every nook and corner of our country, we must keep a right of veto in the Common Market because this is about standardisation of lorry weights throughout the Common Market and has nothing to do with the advantage of the United Kingdom ?

Mr. MacGregor : The decision about 44-tonne combined road-rail transport, which was entirely mine, was taken to encourage more freight on to rail. With regard to road wear, a 44-tonne vehicle on six axles has the same effect on a road as a 38-tonne vehicle on five axles. We are insisting that 44-tonne vehicles have six axles.

Lower Thames Crossing --

12. Dr. Spink : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what progress has been made on the lower Thames crossing study.

Mr. Key : Consultants were appointed in May 1992 for a two-year study of the need for, and feasibility of, a lower Thames crossing downstream of Dartford. They are making good progress and their final report is expected this summer.

Dr. Spink : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. The A130 Canvey Island link dualling and the Saddlers Farm roundabout improvements form part of the lower Thames crossing consideration. Is my hon. Friend

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