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House of Commons

Monday 9 May 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Railway Safety --

1. Mr. Gunnell : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what changes in operational practice on matters affecting railway safety have taken place since 1 April as a result of the Railways Act 1993.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman) : Railtrack has operational responsibility for a new safety regime which will ensure that the already high standard of safety on the railways is maintained and improved.

Mr. Gunnell : Have not there already been changes ? Before privatisation, drivers went to a training school and the central fund that provided that training has now been abolished. Before privatisation, when an incident occurred, the focus of the investigation was on finding the cause of the accident and learning from it. Trade union observers were present. Now the focus of the inquiry will be on how to apportion blame and costs among the different companies involved--Railtrack, the station owners and the operating companies. Is not it inevitable that increased bureaucracy will lead to less safety ?

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Mr. Freeman : Absolutely not. The safety of the railways, which has been the pre-eminent concern of the British Railways Board in recent years, will continue. A privatised railway will be as safe as, if not safer than, a publicly owned railway. As for the investigation of accidents, there will be no change. Her Majesty's inspectorate will continue to focus on the cause of each accident, not initially on seeking to apportion blame.

Mr. Forman : Is my right hon. Friend aware that my rail-travelling constituents will expect nothing less than that the interests of safety will be paramount in the new arrangements of British Rail ? Can he assure me and my constituents that sufficient provision will be made for infrastructure investment in British Rail once Railtrack is really operational ? It is important that we deal with the problems of signal failure and the like in a manner that enables people to travel to and from work reliably.

Mr. Freeman : As a result of the reforms, Railtrack's investment budget, which will be higher this year than for comparable types of investment last year by British Rail, will be protected by its own depreciation flow. Therefore, it will generate sufficient funds to maintain a high level of investment in the infrastructure. We expect that to be £500 million in the existing railway this year, £600 million next year and £750 million the year after.

Mr. Wilson : Does the Minister accept that Opposition Members welcome hearing his Back Benchers already begging for mercy from the implications of rail privatisation, which, of course, played a significant part in the humilation of the Tory party last Thursday ? Does he accept that the biggest threat to rail safety is the wanton breaking up of experienced teams of railway personnel ? How does he defend the fact that £303 million of taxpayers' money--almost half the amount needed for the refurbishment of the entire west coast main line--has been spent not on railways but on redundancy and early retirement payments to more than 13,000 railway workers ? Instead of breaking up, contractorising and fragmenting the railways, will the Minister put that kind of money into

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investment in the railways, which is threatened and undermined by the procedure that he is going through at the moment ?

Mr. Freeman : The hon. Gentleman has never understood the difference between the wisdom of investing in infrastructure and improving the productivity of the railways. The reduction of 13,000 in the staff of British Railways, with no effect at all on the operational efficiency of the railways, is a good investment.

Air Agreements --

5. Mr. Matthew Banks : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received concerning the United States/United Kingdom bilateral air agreements relating to the separation of negotiations for routes into London Heathrow and regional gateways.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John MacGregor) : I have received representations on a number of issues relating to the bilateral negotiations and continue to try to get the talks restarted.

Mr. Banks : While congratulating my right hon. Friend on his patience--never mind his tenacity--in the difficult negotiations between the two countries, may I ask him to assure the House that, given the environmental and other reasons why it will be difficult to find many extra take-off and landing slots at London's Heathrow airport, he will set about trying to agree an open skies policy with the United States Government to allow more flights across the Atlantic to regional airports in the United Kingdom ?

Mr. MacGregor : I agree with my hon. Friend. I am keen to get the talks restarted--it was not us who broke them off. I agree that there are real constraints at Heathrow. We are trying to persuade the United States Government--with increasing success, because the arguments are being recognised--that there is not unlimited access to Heathrow. I am also keen to encourage the expansion of regional airports and that is why last December we proposed to the United States Government opening all our regional airports at the first stage.

Mr. Olner : The Secretary of State's record seems to have stuck. I remember that question being asked time and again at Question Time. It is of vital importance to the regional airports, such as Birmingham, that more transatlantic routes to America are provided. Will he please take action quickly and stop stalling on Heathrow and Gatwick, because they are the main reason why the talks, which are very important for regional airports, are being blocked ?

Mr. MacGregor : I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not stuck and I am not just repeating the arguments. I am trying to get the talks restarted and have been seeking a number of ways to do so. I made further proposals to the United States Government in relation to the recent Delta- Virgin code-sharing arrangement, suggesting that we should take advantage of that deal to have some interim agreements to get the talks going again and I included proposals for the regional airports.

Mr. Haselhurst : Even if my right hon. Friend made his offer of unrestricted access to the regional airports and Stansted unconditional, has he any cause for believing that the United States Administration would accept that offer ?

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Mr. MacGregor : The problem is the United States Government have not accepted our offers in relation to Stansted and the regional airports, as my hon. Friend knows. It is important that all interests--the airlines and the airports--are involved in the negotiations. We would not fulfil our liberal objectives if we agreed to a deal that would allow United States airlines to exploit their unfair competitive advantage, while giving United Kingdom airlines nothing in return and driving them out of the market. That is the problem and that is why I wanted a balanced deal. I assure my hon. Friend that that deal very much includes giving open access to the regional airports and Stansted as quickly as we can get a positive and constructive response from the other side.

Rev. Martin Smyth : I welcome the Minister's commitment to diversification through regional airports and the fact that Belfast international airport was one of those that recently got an add-on licence from America, through to Riga. May we urge the right hon. Gentleman to continue his efforts--we will back him--to ensure that British companies have the same rights as American companies ?

Mr. MacGregor : I am grateful to have the hon. Gentleman's support.

Escalators (London Underground) --

6. Mrs. Roche : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects the recommendation of the Fennell inquiry to replace all the wooden escalators on the London underground to be implemented.

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris) : London Underground has replaced the timber skirtings, balustrades and advertisement panels on all its escalators with non-combustible materials. Its programme for replacing wooden treads and risers is still in progress and, with the support of the fire authority, London Underground has asked the Home Secretary to amend the relevant regulations in order to permit fire authorities to grant exemptions in respect of wooden treads and risers beyond 1 January 1996.

Mrs. Roche : Does the Minister agree that, given that the Fennell inquiry found out that a lit cigarette on a wooden escalator started the King's Cross fire and recommended that wooden treads be urgently removed, the Government's attitude is one of utter complacency towards the travelling public in London ?

Mr. Norris : No. The installation of sprinkler systems, fire detection equipment and improved escalator cleaning and inspection procedures are the important elements in ensuring that a tragedy like King's Cross does not recur. I stress that the relevant fire authorities have supported London Underground in its application to the Home Office to ensure that the programme is carried out, but in an appropriate time scale.

Mr. John Marshall : How much has London Underground spent on safety since the publication of the Fennell report ? How many

recommendations were in that report and how many of them have been implemented by London Underground since the report was published ?

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Mr. Norris : London Underground has spent £250 million on safety since King's Cross. There were 127 recommendations in the Fennell report, of which 114 have already been implemented.

Mr. Simon Hughes : Given that London transport is the subject which most exercises Londoners--according to replies sent to the Secretary of State for the Environment--and given that Ministers share the concern to maximise investment, the number of users, and safety, will the Minister seriously consider consulting the using public of London before fixing the amount of money to be raised next year, so that choices about investment can be made by the people rather than just by the Government ?

Mr. Norris : No. It is appropriate that the investment priorities for the underground should be determined by London Underground in consultation with my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Harry Greenway : I welcome the money that has been spent on safety. Indeed, together with my hon. Friend I have been to see the safety measures implemented at Greenford station and elsewhere. We are grateful for them. Will my hon. Friend consider a down escalator--no, I mean an up escalator--at Greenford station, as that is greatly needed ?

Mr. Norris : Up or down, I will certainly consider my hon. Friend's suggestion.

Mr. Raynsford : Does the Minister accept that 38 escalators still have wooden treads and risers ? Does he recall that one of the important recommendations in the Fennell report was that replacement of wooden risers should be urgently sought because of the discovery of the trench effect ? Did not the former Secretary of State for Transport promise in November 1988 that London Transport had been asked to implement that recommendation urgently ? Why, five and a half years later, is the Department trying to renege on that undertaking ? Is not it purely because the Government have cut London Transport's investment programme by £1 billion compared with what was promised at the last election ? When will the Government recognise that they cannot jeopardise public safety in order to make cuts in London Transport's funding ?

Mr. Norris : That is not good enough. First, the rate of replacement for escalators should be about six a year. If the rate were increased, it would impose intolerable congestion on the whole system--not something which would commend itself to the hon. Gentleman. Secondly, independent analysis has concluded that replacing the treads and risers in advance of their normal replacement would be very bad value for money and would offer very little compared with the other items that I mentioned, such as sprinkler systems, fire detection equipment, better inspection under escalators and so on. That is the way to do these things. It is typical of the hon. Gentleman to try to spread fear and alarm where there is absolutely no cause for them.

A12 --

7. Mr. Whittingdale : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what measures his Department is intending to take to improve safety on the A12.

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The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Key) : Work will start on the Witham bypass section at the end of June. I have asked the Highways Agency to bring forward work on the Feering to Marks Tey safety fence improvements, which will now start this year.

Mr. Whittingdale : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, but is he aware that it is now nine months since my constituent, Cheryl Franklin, a 27-year-old bride on her way to her honeymoon, was killed as a result of her car crossing the central reservation ? Does he accept that it is essential that that work should go ahead as soon as possible if we are to avoid similar tragedies ?

Mr. Key : Yes, I am aware of that case due to the diligence of my hon. Friend, who has made representations to me, the campaign of the Colchester Evening Gazette and the letter sent to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State from Her Majesty's coroner for the county of Essex. It has taken a number of months to commission work from our agents, Essex county council. It has completed its work, which had to be evaluated, and, as I have just announced, we are proceeding with all speed.

Ms Walley : When will the Government realise that if they talk about safety, they must talk about safety with integrity ? We have just heard the Government's response to the Fennell report and now we have heard the Government's response to road safety, exactly at the same time as they are privatising the Transport Research Laboratory. Where is the Government's long-term vision and when

Madam Speaker : Order. I think that the hon. Lady is on the wrong question, but it appears that the Minister is able to give a reply.

Mr. Key : In relation to safety on the A12 and safety policy, we do not count the pennies when it comes to safety. That is exactly why our road safety scheme budget was effectively ring-fenced in this financial year, so there was no reduction in it. That, too, is why we shall continue to improve road safety by engineering better roads.

Roads Programme --

8. Mr. Mike O'Brien : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what are his priorities in the roads programme for the west midlands.

Mr. MacGregor : The priorities are outlined in "Trunk Roads in England 1994 Review", which I announced to the House on 30 March.

Mr. O'Brien : Is the Secretary of State aware that there is widespread opposition not only in north Warwickshire but throughout Staffordshire to the proposed Birmingham northern relief road ? It is regarded as unnecessary, because it will not cure the congestion problems on the M6, and environmentally destructive because such orbital roads generate more traffic, which further damage the environment. That is why the proposal is opposed by large sections of the community throughout my area.

Mr. MacGregor : I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's views. The forthcoming public inquiry will allow all representations to be heard by an independent inspector. That is the way to proceed with the scheme. The hon.

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Gentleman will also know that a comprehensive assessment of the environmental effects of the proposed scheme is described in the environmental statement.

Mr. Anthony Coombs : Although I recognise the importance of prioritising the road programme, is my right hon. Friend aware of the great concern that has been expressed in my constituency, in particular about the decision to make the Kidderminster-Blakedown and Hagley bypass one of the lowest priorities ? Is he aware that it is supported by the local district councils and the chambers of commerce ? Is he also aware that my constituents would like him to reconsider his decision and give that scheme the priority that it deserves ?

Mr. MacGregor : Contrary to what Opposition Members may say, I know that there is a great demand for our road programme and that is why we are continuing with a major programme. Alas, there are so many requests from around the country that it is necessary to prioritise. Despite the high level of road building in which we are engaged, it is not possible to build all the roads at once or even within the next five or six years. That is why it has been necessary to say that some schemes will be delayed. The scheme to which my hon. Friend referred is connected with the western orbital route. I assure him that all schemes in the longer-term programme are secure and will go ahead as we continue to complete the schemes ahead of them.

Rail Reforms --

9. Mr. Stephen : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what opportunity for non-transport industries will be created by the rail reforms.

Mr. Freeman : A wide spectrum of opportunities for non-transport industries will be created by the Government's rail reforms, including, for example, bidding for the infrastructure service units and British Rail Telecoms and developing the commercial potential at some of our larger stations.

Mr. Stephen : As my hon. Friend knows, I have had the good fortune to be a Industry and Parliament Trust fellow with British Rail for the past year. Will he accept from me that a positive attitude exists throughout the industry to the introduction of private sector capital and management techniques, not least among the men and women who maintain the track and signal infrastructure ? Can he give a suggestion of the timetable for the restructuring of British Rail infrastructure services ?

Mr. Freeman : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There is a widespread enthusiasm among the staff of British Rail--

[Interruption.] There is a widespread enthusiasm for our reforms among those people who look forward positively to developing a better rail system. If hon. Gentlemen are not aware of that, I will introduce them to some of the management of British Rail. Therefore, I agree with my hon. Friend.

On the infrastructure units, I expect that the process of sale will commence at the beginning of the next financial year and will be concluded by Easter 1996.

Mrs. Dunwoody : Is the Minister aware that there is every reason why private consultants should be delighted with the opportunities offered by British Rail, because they are costing the taxpayer £344 million and not one single

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penny is going to improving either the rail structure or jobs ? What is happening with those people who are flying round in helicopters, and how can we obtain some value for money from those people who are publishing articles calling it a "gravy train" ?

Mr. Freeman : On privatisation costs, the Government do not recognise the type of figures that the Opposition have been speaking about- -£300 million, £400 million, £500 million and £600 million. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has been including the cost of redundancies of more than £300 million. That would have occurred anyway and improved the efficiency of British railways.

Mr. Hawkins : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the opportunities provided by the rail reforms will be enormously enhanced by the success of the channel tunnel, which he, the Secretary of State and many other Conservative colleagues enjoyed, which was built as a result of the success of private sector finance, and which would never have been built had we followed the transport policies of the Labour party ?

Mr. Freeman : It was the Labour party which cancelled the channel tunnel project in the 1970s. It is under the present Government that private sector capital has brought off a major engineering feat.

Mr. Dobson : Is not the Minister being a trifle modest in his list of non-transport industries that have benefited from rail privatisation ? Has not between £250 million and £300 million of taxpayers' and passengers' money been paid out by his Department or British Rail to merchant bankers, management consultants, lawyers, accountants, public relations advisers and even--God help us--parliamentary consultants ?

Mr. Freeman : The truth is that British Rail and Railtrack, the Department of Transport, the Office of Rail Passenger Franchising and the regulator have spent money well on preparing the railway industry for privatisation. Last year, British Rail and Railtrack spent about £50 million together. That is 1.5 per cent. of the turnover of British Rail and it is money well spent.

A66 --

10. Mr. Devlin : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has to upgrade the A66.

Mr. Key : There are nine schemes in the road programme to improve the A66, with an estimated value of £40 million.

Mr. Devlin : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and also for the replies to my written questions showing that more than half the movements along the A66 are those of commercial traffic. Is he aware of the high priority that is attached to the modernisation and improvement of the A66 trans-Pennine route by the Teesside chamber of commerce and other commercial organisations in the north-east of England, which regard it as one of the components of enormous economic expansion in the future ? In that light, will he give the further improvement of the road his greater consideration in the future ?

Mr. Key : I am second to none in my admiration for the progress on Teesside and my hon. Friend has kept me well

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informed of that and lobbied hard on behalf of the business community in his constituency. There is, however, another side to the argument. From my position, with a national perspective, I have also to bear in mind the pressures from elsewhere in the north--for example, to upgrade the A69.

Traffic Calming --

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

Mr. Key : Traffic calming has reduced accidents in 20 mph zones by as much as 70 per cent. and has been particularly effective in reducing accidents to child pedestrians and cyclists.

Mr. Garnier : The most effective and popular traffic-calming scheme in Market Harborough is the completion of the A1-M1 link, but the benefits of the traffic-calming scheme currently being undertaken within Market Harborough are not widely understood. Will my hon. Friend use all his powers to ensure that the disadvantages of the scheme are fully mitigated by its benefits ?

Mr. Key : Yes. I shall also bear in mind the fact that work starts today on a traffic-calming scheme on a length of wide road--Fairfield road- -in my hon. Friend's constituency. Vociferous opposition has been expressed in respect of work in zone 3--Fairfield road, Logan street--so we have modified the scheme in consultation with the local highway authority. As my hon. Friend rightly said, the best future for traffic calming in Market Harborough lies in the completion of the A14--the A1-M1 link--which will be opened next month, and in the successful completion of the bypass demonstration project. Market Harborough is one of only six towns that have been part of an experiment to ensure that, when towns are bypassed and traffic flows reduced by up to 70 per cent., the towns' centres return to the life that they knew in the past, and that wide, unattractive roads do not go through the middle of our cities.

Mr. Enright : Is the Minister aware that, precisely when he was praising sleeping policemen, the Minister for Transport in London was busy denigrating them ? Will he hold a referendum on the matter ?

Mr. Key : No. I have no intention of having a referendum on that matter. Good heavens, if we had a referendum those in favour of road improvement might win the argument!

Mr. Dunn : Does the Minister agree that, in addition to traffic- calming measures, the proper working and maintenance of motor cars is essential ? Does he agree that many of our constituents could not afford to maintain their motor cars if they faced a 50p increase in the price of petrol as suggested by the Liberal Democrats ?

Mr. Key : My hon. Friend makes an important point. The management of our roads includes creating, as far as possible, a pollution-free environment. That is being achieved because motor cars are becoming much cleaner and because of our commitment to the Rio arrangements and increasing the price of fuel. Given that cars will be much more efficient, that need not bear down on less-affluent members of the community.

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Mr. Pike : I recognise the impact on accidents to which the Minister referred in his original response, and the fact that most traffic-calming schemes cost relatively little. But why does not the Minister provide local authorities such as Lancashire with enough resources to carry out all the traffic-calming schemes that they wish to introduce this year ?

Mr. Key : We have maintained the money for traffic-calming schemes at £50 million and it is entirely open to local authorities to prioritise spending in these areas. This year, we have introduced for the first time a package approach to local authority joint funding with the Department of Transport. That means that local authorities have much more flexibility to design overall transport packages including road, rail, bus, cycle, and pedestrianisation features. That is a sensible and practical way forward.

Airlines (Competition) --

12. Mr. Steen : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will take steps to improve competition among airlines operating (a) within the United Kingdom and (b) within Europe ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. MacGregor : The Government strongly support a liberal market in aviation. The United Kingdom led the way in developing a competitive domestic market and in the creation of the European Union single market and open skies in Europe policy. I hope that that will be extended to the full European Economic Area later this year.

Mr. Steen : I congratulate the Secretary of State on taking on Air France and winning for British airlines in Orly. Will he now correct the balance for the few remaining scheduled British airlines so that they do not go the way of British Caledonian, Dan Air, Brymon, Birmingham Executive and British Island Airways, which have either gone to the wall or have been taken over by British Airways ? Although British Airways has a successful track record, privatisation has given the company an over-dominant position in this country and Europe.

Mr. MacGregor : If the latter part of my hon. Friend's question refers to anti-competitive behaviour, the Office of Fair Trading has powers to investigate such allegations. I am grateful to him for his opening remarks. The outcome of the Commission's deliberations on the London to Paris, Orly air route was crucial because it was one of the first tests of the implementation of the single market. Another is that air fares are coming down. I am pleased about the Commission's response and grateful to my hon. Friend for recognising the part that I played in pressing for that. It will help other airlines and will be a great help to British Midland. My hon. Friend will have noted that, from next Monday, Air UK will operate six flights a day from Stansted to Orly.

Mr. Tony Banks : If the Secretary of State really wants to take on Air France, should not he do so in respect of its monopoly on flights to Strasbourg ? The present position is clearly thoroughly unsatisfactory : the airline charges enormous fares because it knows that most people who go to Strasbourg will not be paying their own fares.

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As for fares coming down, when can we expect to pay fares in Europe that are comparable with those in the United States ?

Mr. MacGregor : Some fares in the European Union are coming down as a result of the single aviation package. In fact, British airlines have led the way in bringing those fares down and others have had to follow suit. The important thing is to have competition on individual routes to ensure that that happens. We are pursuing that objective as well--which is why the question of the London to Orly route is important, as is that of flights from Orly to Toulouse and Marseilles. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to get in touch with me about Strasbourg, I will certainly ensure that it is examined ; but I do not think that it has yet been drawn to the Commission's attention.

Northern Line --

13. Dr. Goodson-Wickes : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what progress he has to report on measures to improve the service offered by the Northern line.

Mr. Norris : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 29 March that London Underground would be holding a competition for the supply of privately financed rolling stock for the Northern line. This competition is now under way, and should be completed by the autumn.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes : My hon. Friend will know of the pressure put on the Government by hon. Members on both sides of the House for an improvement in the Northern line. My constituency contains the Morden depot and two stations. I welcome the initiative for private sector involvement in the line. Will my hon. Friend give me some idea of the timing of the tenders and assure me that our constituents can look forward to a Northern line that can provide a service that is appropriate to the next century ?

Mr. Norris : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for supporting my right hon. Friend's initiative. I hope that we may be in a position to look at the tenders before the end of the year. The initiative will significantly increase the rate at which improvements in the line can be made. As my hon. Friend implied, the station improvements in his constituency are a separate item in the budget ; those stations will undergo a thorough refurbishment in the next two years.

Ms Glenda Jackson : Is the Minister aware that it is the possibility of losing a competition that causes my constituents concern--not least in the light of a recent incident at Hampstead tube station, when the elevator had to be manually winched 181 ft to the surface ? Will he consider sympathetically the call for a safety inquiry from my constituent Mrs. Jenny Woodley, whose son--as he knows--was tragically lost in an accident on the underground ? That is desirable not least because manning levels throughout the system seem to be falling.

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