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Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: Not for the moment.

The public must wonder why, during the past fortnight, whole swathes of our rail network had to be closed at short notice, and whether benefits would result from an approach that fragmented the service into hundreds of parts, which competed against rather than co-operated with each other. They must also wonder how, in recent years, there has been a significant reduction in the number of people employed to check the safety of tracks, a reduction described by Railtrack as an efficiency gain. The public must wonder how Railtrack could put out to contract the safety checking and maintenance of the track and the supervision of that work. It appears that Railtrack wants to distance itself from any responsibility. The public will begin to wonder why the many different contractors, who are all busy trying to out-do each other, do not talk to each other about the crucial issue of rail safety.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Does my hon. Friend find it bizarre that Railtrack's first action was to invest heavily in tarting up Britain's stations rather than in improving outmoded track and signalling systems? In other words, safety was compromised in order to create nice stations at Paddington, York or Leeds.

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, although I should go further. The Government recently introduced a safe stations award. We want stations not only to look pretty but also to be safe and to provide adequate protection to the people who use them. However, after two years, only 63 of 2,500 stations have reached the relevant standards.

Hon. Members may be particularly surprised by the fact that privatisation of the railways means that Railtrack is fined if it closes track to carry out safety work and fined if it keeps the track open and does not carry out safety work. One might say, "Heads, you lose and tails, you lose."

The public would be most surprised of all by a report in The Daily Telegraph on Friday, which stated that a busy commuter train had been deliberately driven over a broken track. Railtrack said that it was "standard practice" to pass a train over a suspected break at low speed to assess the defect's seriousness. I find that horrific. Surely Railtrack has more sophisticated testing equipment and does not need to roll a train with 200 passengers on board over damaged rail to assess whether it would be derailed. That is an appalling indictment.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend's speech. Does he agree that the situation is partly due to the incompetence of the contractors chosen by Railtrack to do that work,

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which has often allowed the track to get into that condition? Does he also agree that we need a major investigation into the way in which the railway system was privatised and into the involvement of people who are connected with the Conservative party and with companies that benefited from that privatisation?

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend makes his point extremely well. He may not be aware of the full details about the current contractual arrangements between Railtrack and its contractors. If hon. Members studied them, they might be very surprised. Some contractors are given the task of ensuring the safety of the track, and of determining how much work should be done on the track, but they are provided with the same amount of money regardless of how much work is done on the track. Clearly, there is at least a temptation for contractors to minimise the amount of work that is done.

The public's concerns about rail privatisation make them worried about the Government's proposals for public-private partnerships for the tube.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I sense that the hon. Gentleman is about to discuss air traffic. The central thrust of his remarks so far has been to suggest, in a slightly snide way, that somehow or other privatisation has led to a decrease in safety on the railways. If so, how does he account for the fact that the number of signals passed at danger are half what they were before privatisation and that the number of fatal accidents has been cut massively? Of course, we all have the recent tragedy in our minds. None the less, there has been a great improvement in rail safety since privatisation. How does he account for that?

Mr. Foster: I explain it by asking the hon. Gentleman to look again at some of the statistics. The number of broken rails is greater and the overall state of the track is worse than at privatisation. Those are the official figures and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept them.

Mr. Gray: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: No, because we shall end up by batting statistics--

Mr. Gray rose--

Mr. Foster: Very well, I will give way.

Mr. Gray: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, as it is most important to correct the point that he made. He must have listened carefully to the evidence given by Mr. Gerald Corbett to the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, last Wednesday. Mr. Corbett pointed out that Railtrack was checking 1,800 individual sites and that not one was in anything like the same condition as the broken rail at Hatfield. He said that the state of the railways was vastly better than it was before privatisation. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) is wrong to say that the railways are worse.

Mr. Foster: This could become a rather silly argument between the hon. Gentleman and me. I hope that he will

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agree that merely to judge the matter on whether bits of track are in an identical condition to that found at Hatfield is not a fair way to assess the overall quality of the track. It is generally accepted that, overall, the track is in worse condition than at privatisation.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to get technical, it is more difficult to understand why gauge-corner cracking appears in the new high-stress, steel rails that did not exist at the time of privatisation--[Hon. Members: "Ah."] The installation of those new rails may be leading to greater difficulties than occurred with the old rails. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) looks surprised, but he should be aware that, in the current programme of work, Railtrack is replacing the more modern rails with the softer type that was used previously. I hope that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) will not pursue the matter.

Because of the public's concern about safety as a result of the way in which the railway was privatised, they are understandably anxious about the Government's proposals for the privatisation of National Air Traffic Services and of the London underground. All hon. Members agree that the underground desperately needs urgent attention. Hon. Members may have heard an item on the "Today" programme this morning, which referred to a District line driver who, yesterday, told passengers in his train that

It is certainly true that there is overcrowding, delay, unreliability, dirt and discomfort. Decades of neglect have built up a huge backlog of faults and structural failings. We are all aware that at least £1.5 billion is needed to return the tube to a worthwhile condition.

Mrs. Laing rose--

Mr. Foster: I want to make some progress.

How can we deal with the problems? The Liberal Democrat proposal was clear and was well publicised during the London mayoral elections: to allow Transport for London to raise money through a bond issue. We envisaged Transport for London having access to the market at a far cheaper rate--at less expense--than the Government's proposed private sector borrowing arrangement. Under our proposals, the money could be raised more cheaply, with the additional benefit that it would remain under democratic control.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions agrees that the majority of candidates who stood at that election supported our proposals--including the present Mayor of London. Indeed, the only candidate who supported the Government's public-private partnership obtained only 13 per cent. of the votes--such was the popularity of the Government's proposal.

Yet again, the Government are making a proposal that would lead to the fragmentation of a service--in this case, the tube--allowing different people to buy the various fragments. It is somewhat worrying that the Health and Safety Executive notes that some of the potential purchasers are bodies and organisations which were implicated in some of the safety problems with the

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national rail network. We are deeply concerned about the Government's approach for London underground and equally worried about their proposals for NATS.

I hope that we all agree that the only purpose of NATS is safety. The Deputy Prime Minister said:

In London and the south-east, at any time of day, thousands of aircraft are circling overhead, waiting to land. The demands on air traffic controllers increase monthly. There is little room for manoeuvre.

Despite all those pressures, NATS has an excellent safety record under its current arrangements. There can be no justification for anything that puts that record at risk. The PPP would provide an unnecessary and dangerous distraction and would put safety in conflict with profit--the same conflict that was so disastrous for our railways.

The Government claim that they have to adopt that arrangement, but they do not have to do so; it is not even necessary. We agree with the Government that it will be necessary to raise about £1 billion for investment in NATS over the next 10 years. Their proposal is to sell off 51 per cent. of NATS, possibly selling off more at a later date. The new partner will be expected to raise the money for that investment.

Our argument on raising money for the tube also applies to NATS. It would be cheaper for the Treasury to raise the money than if it were raised by a private sector borrower. Such a borrower would want a return of between 10 and 20 per cent. compared with the 8 per cent. needed by the Treasury. Something will have to go. Our concern is that the something will be safety.

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