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London Underground

9. Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): When he expects Transport for London to assume responsibility for the underground. [94219]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): Transport for London will be established in July 2000 under the control of the mayor. It will assume responsibility for the underground following implementation of the public-private partnership.

Mr. Wilkinson: Is not Labour keener on having a crony as its candidate for mayor than on implementing its manifesto promise to have Transport for London operational, including the London underground operating under a public-private partnership? The Government should admit that they have failed Londoners, who had an appalling summer of chaos. The taxpayer is having to pick up the tab to the tune of £500 million of unanticipated Treasury expenditure as a result of that catastrophic failure.

Mr. Prescott: I understand the hon. Gentleman's comments, as he failed in his bid to be the Tory candidate for mayor. The London transport system will be improved by our £7 billion investment, not in a public-private partnership in the sense that he refers to, but in a publicly owned, publicly accountable facility. The assets will be developed and improved by private capital, but they will all be returned to the public sector. For the first time, London's transport system will have desperately needed sustained planning and resource investment.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Is my right hon. Friend aware that last week I was on a Central line train that was held up because somebody was taken ill on the train behind us? It was decided to hold up the trains in front to pace the rate at which they went through stations. Is it not absurd that people are held up in hot, sweltering, overcrowded conditions because of such incidents? Is it not time that we had democratic accountability for London transport and the underground system; and is it not good news that the Labour Government are bringing about such accountability by establishing a mayor and elected authority for London?

Mr. Prescott: I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government are returning London transport and accountability to Londoners after consultation and a referendum, even though the Tories took accountability off Londoners with no consultation.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in pressing for the Central line to be

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extended as far as Uxbridge? That could be done at relatively little cost and would be a great benefit to many in west London--not to mention the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes).

Mr. Prescott: I well understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is a lot easier said than done. That was one of the first projects that I looked at when I came to office. I was advised against investing in it and concentrated instead on the main project of finding £7 billion to re-equip our London underground system.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch): Does my right hon. Friend still intend to hand over responsibility for the sub-surface tube lines to Railtrack? If so, why?

Mr. Prescott: We have made it clear that Railtrack can make a bid for the sub-surface lines so that we can achieve the integration that we want. We have to wait until the spring to see whether we can reach an agreement, but the intention is to integrate the national rail service with the underground. That integration is part of the manifesto that my hon. Friend and I fought on. We intend to implement that policy.

Drivers (Drug Tests)

11. Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): If he will make a statement on drug-testing for drivers. [94221]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): It is already an offence to drive while unfit through medicinal or illicit drugs, but the problem for the police is to recognise that a driver is drug-impaired. We are working with the police and the Home Office on the development of techniques and screening devices so that the law can be enforced effectively.

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister will be aware of the growing number of fatal accidents blamed on drivers who have taken a cocktail of hard drugs. Does he believe that the police should be given the same powers to tackle drug driving as they have to deal with drink driving? Does he further believe that it is a matter of urgency that a drugsalyser test should be developed to act as a deterrent for those who might be tempted to drive while under the influence of drugs?

Mr. Mullin: The hon. Lady makes an important point. There has been a large increase in the number of fatalities caused by people who have taken illicit--or in some cases medicinal--drugs. The problem is that we have to develop the technology to enable the misuse of drugs to be detected. The technology thus far is not sufficiently reliable. Work is under way and we are hopeful that the technology will be better in the fairly near future. We shall not shrink from legislating at that point, but we must develop the technology first.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): This is a difficult area, is it not? For example, will we prosecute drivers taking prescription drugs that affect the central nervous system? Bearing in mind the fact that cannabis can be detected in the body for up to 30 days after

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someone has smoked a spliff, will the charge against a person who has smoked only one spliff be possession, or driving under the influence?

Mr. Mullin: My hon. Friend is more conversant with the terminology than I am, but he is right, in that there are one or two other serious difficulties as well as the problems with the technology. The offence will have to be driving while impaired through drugs, and we shall have to be able to demonstrate that before a court of law. There are a couple of complex issues; one is the technology, and my hon. Friend has mentioned the other--but we are on the case.

Rail Freight

12. Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West): What recent discussions he has had with Railtrack on the movement of freight by rail. [94222]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): Following the tragic accident at Ladbroke Grove, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and my noble Friend the Minister for Transport have had several discussions with Railtrack, and in this context have also met the freight operators EWS and Freightliner. Previously, on 14 September, the Minister for Transport had a meeting with the chief executive of Railtrack, at which rail freight was briefly discussed.

Dr. Naysmith: I, too, welcome my hon. Friend to the Front Bench--a much merited promotion--and thank him for the information that he has given. Does he agree that, given the increase in rail traffic, especially rail freight, railway land should be retained for railway development? What are the Government doing to promote that idea?

Mr. Hill: I am overwhelmed by the accolade bestowed on me by my hon. Friend, and I entirely agree with the thrust of his remarks. That is why our new draft PPG13, published on 18 October, draws particular attention to the need to protect sites and routes that could be critical in developing infrastructure, so as to widen choices both for passengers and those who dispatch freight. It is also why we have required the shadow Strategic Rail Authority, in managing the British Rail property portfolio, to give priority to transport users.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I add my congratulations to the Minister on his well deserved elevation to the Front Bench. Will he carefully consider the security aspects of the misuse of freight facilities elsewhere in Europe? He may be aware that when the all-party rail freight group, led by Lord Berkeley, visited freight facilities in northern Italy, members of the group from all parties were shocked at the lack of security. He will certainly know that there is grave concern about the misuse of--welcome--freight facilities for the purpose of illegal immigration. Will he carefully consider the report produced by his noble Friend on the rail freight group visit?

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Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, and I undertake not only to make my own inquiries into the matter, but to write to him with full details of our arrangements in connection with it.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln): May I advise the Minister that plans to increase the amount of rail freight travelling through Lincoln's already busy high street is causing considerable concern about how that can best be managed under existing arrangements, because new arrangements need to be made? Can he assist my constituents by looking into a practical solution, so that a useful way forward can be found?

Mr. Hill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an issue extremely pertinent to her constituency, but heretofore unfamiliar to me. The question she asks is important in the light of the Government's clear commitment to, and outstanding record of, developing rail freight facilities. Opposition Members have been very friendly to me so far, so I do not want to create too much hurt and pain on the Opposition Benches, but I must point out that in 1995-96, under the previous Administration, the total spend on rail freight facilities and rail freight grants was £4 million. In the past two years, under the Labour Government, it has been £29 million and we expect it to increase. Indeed, in recent weeks, the two largest ever rail freight facility grants have been given out by this Government.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Would the Minister agree that in some areas it is lack of track capacity that is the single biggest factor inhibiting the growth of rail freight, such as on the Nith valley line which takes coal from the Ayrshire coalfield to the English power stations? What pressure will he apply to Railtrack to invest in such facilities?

Mr. Hill: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point and he is right. That is why we have made the development of a rail freight strategy a major priority for the Strategic Rail Authority.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): Would my hon. Friend agree that the success of the Government's proposals for freight and for increased passenger use of the railways may lead to a problem in the medium term in allocating freight slots, especially near my constituency between Southampton north and south, and on the east and west lines from London to the west country? Can he give me an assurance that he is actively encouraging Railtrack to develop new rail facilities for freight, including track and new junctions?

Mr. Hill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue and drawing our attention specifically to the situation in his locality. He is right. In the past two years, we have seen a 14 per cent. growth in freight tonne/kilometres on our railways, which is a terrific success. However, success does bring its problems and it will be a major responsibility of the Strategic Rail Authority to examine the issues of track capacity and rail freight facilities for the future.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I join those who have welcomed the Minister to the Front Bench. Does he

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agree that the problem of increasing freight and passengers on the railways is one of capacity and the need to manage safety? I welcome the decision that the Government made in the summer approving the installation as quickly as possible of the train protection warning system, and the outcome of yesterday's safety summit. However, given that collisions such as the one at Southall would not be prevented by the TPWS, what did the Government do when they were first notified about the 25 per cent. increase in serious signals-passed-at-danger incidents in August, which was a dramatic deterioration in safety on the railway by any standards?

Mr. Hill: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations. He raises an important issue, but the answer is that the Government had instituted an inquiry into the increase in signals passed at danger--or SPADs--12 months before the Ladbroke Grove disaster. It is on the basis of the findings of that report that the Government are now engaged in urgent action to address the issue of rail safety.

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