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Dartford Tunnel

Volume 84: debated on Monday 21 October 1985

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

10.36 pm

I am grateful to have this opportunity, on the first day that the House is back from the long summer recess, to raise an issue of considerable interest and importance to my constituents in Bexleyheath, Barrehurst and Welling, and to the travelling public—the Dartford tunnel. To be more precise, there are two deep-bored tunnels between Dartford and Purfleet, just to the east of my constituency. The first was opened in 1963, the second in 1980. They are the joint responsibility of Kent and Essex county councils, which built them and operate the toll booths. The Dartford tunnel joint committee acts in a proper and prudent financial manner.

Technically, the two-lane tunnels are part of the A282, which runs from the M25/A13 junction to the M25/A2 junction. They are not part of the new, and yet to be completed, M25, which is a Department of Transport responsibility. They have a unique position in the national motorway network, and one that is clearly ludicrous and should have been tackled years ago by a Secretary of State for Transport.

Rightly, the M25 is the Government's motorway priority—the jewel in the motorway crown. The delays in its construction—a regular subject for Adjournment debates over the years—are a national disgrace, but we all hope that by Christmas next year we in Greater London will at last have a bypass. When it is complete, there will be much trumpeting by Transport Ministers, both male and female, and much joy among Britain's ever-expanding army of drivers. However, that army will soon become painfully aware that the jewel is flawed, and that while the motorway may be splendid, the growing queues at Dartford are certainly not.

The success of the M25 in attracting traffic, and each year more traffic is attracted, is far beyond that originally envisaged. The density at the Dartford tunnels is becoming similar to that on parts of the M1 and the M4. Inevitably, breakdowns in the tunnels are becoming more frequent. The highest recorded figure so far for vehicles travelling through the tunnels was 83,379 on 25 August this year, a bank holiday weekend, when traffic, involving many of my constituents, queued for five miles north of the tunnels. Regularly, the Department's forecasts of traffic flows have been absurdly low. A Government-commissioned traffic forecast study was published in July. It predicts long delays at Dartford by the late 1980s and the early 1990s. After making some sensible assumptions the report suggests that about 85,000 vehicles per day will want to use the tunnels on an average day in six years' time. The study states:
"By the end of this decade excess demand is likely to be causing summertime delays of between one and two hours."
This is on a major motorway. It claims that when the annual average weekday traffic reaches 70,000, public complaints about the traffic delays will become fierce because drivers will have become accustomed to fast and free-flowing progress along the M25. The report thinks that when the annual average weekday traffic reaches 75,000
"conditions will be unacceptable through the summer months."
"Unacceptable". Exactly so. Already the Government have foolishly left it too late to avoid these problems, because it would take about seven years to construct another deep bored tunnel. Last week The Economist said 10 years. The Department has blundered and people know it. We debate tonight bad Government administration. The motorist and lorry driver will pay the price for years ahead—and British industry, too.

The Dartford tunnel began life as a purely local crossing. The planners should have seen the clear need for the M25 to have its own crossing. The Dartford tunnel is Britain's biggest planned bottleneck. Future queues may be 10 miles long. Time won by the £1 billion M25 will be turned into time lost at Dartford. It is futile for the Department to go on talking about median flows and isolated peaks. At this late hour the Minister of State must carefully consider all the possible new ways of improving the M25 crossing at Dartford, and some of them are most interesting. A bridge at Dartford, either suspension or stayed girder, might be constructed. This might take less time and money than a tunnel. The local topography would make it difficult to align the bridge approach roads with the A282 in Kent. Perhaps the private sector could take up the challenge and fund and build a new crossing, using the very latest technology. The great need is for action. That is what I call for tonight.

In a recent letter to the British Road Federation the Minister of State wrote:
"We are well aware that time is not on our side in the Dartford tunnel and we do not intend to let more of it slip past without taking action in this matter."
With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend — I am grateful to her for coming along tonight to reply to this debate—that is exactly what my constituents fear will happen.

The Minister will remember that I led a delegation from Movement for London, which has done excellent work on this subject, to raise this matter in November 1984. I have had lengthy correspondence with her Department. She has taken the trouble to visit the tunnels but I do not need to tell her that the Government's response to this long-contemplated congestion has been ridiculously inadequate, presumably because she has not had the support of the Treasury.

The Government gave a grant of about £7 million to build 12 extra toll booths, making 24 in total, which opened in July, and to widen the approach roads. This temporarily relieved the pressure, but it was like thickening the walls of a sandcastle as the tide comes in. Six lanes of motorway cannot go into four lanes of tunnel, and sometimes one tunnel is blocked for repairs.

I should be grateful if the Minister of State could answer the following questions. If she cannot do so immediately, perhaps I could have a written reply in due course. The Minister has announced that she will commission an engineering feasibility study into how a new crossing could be built. Who are the consultants to be, when will she receive the results of the study, what is the earliest date when we can expect a Government decision, and exactly how will the new crossing be provided? Is it possible to bring the date forward? What measures are her Department taking to warn motorists of delays next summer so that they can divert from Dartford if necessary? Where are motorists supposed to go instead of Dartford? Will they have to go into the London borough of Bexley? Will EEC funding be available for the new crossing?

It is wrong to argue that a third crossing at Dartford will remove the need for the east London river crossing, which is long overdue and essential for dockland. The routes serve entirely different functions. When it is built, the Bexleyheath constituency will have protection on all sides from strategic traffic crossing it.

Current predictions are that, with the increasing flow of traffic, existing debts for the Dartford tunnels will be repaid before the end of the century. I hope that my hon. Friend will not argue tonight that the imposition of tolls is appropriate because the tunnels provide a local service to road users with the need to travel between Essex and Kent. Believe it or not, that has been the Department's line until recently.

We are discussing a national asset. It is located on the country's motorway network and provides direct access between the M1, M11 and the Dover ports. Tolls are not paid where the M25 crosses the Thames to the west of London.

Bexley council fears that if the tolls continue, traffic travelling from or to the Dover ports and the other eastern and southern locations, once on the A2, will continue through to Falconwood and use the east London river crossing to travel northwards.

My constituents who face ever-increasing costs to travel through the tunnels, would like tolls to be abolished before too long. Bexley council has said:
"no bridges within London are tolled; the Rotherhithe and Blackwall tunnels are not tolled; the Woolwich Ferry is the "Woolwich free ferry" and it has been made clear that it is not proposed to charge tolls on the proposed East London River Crossing. It is unlikely that any of these crossings of the Thames have the national significance of the Dartford Tunnels. Kt is apparent, therefore, that the imposition of toll charges only at the Dartford Tunnel is inconsistent."
If we are to have such tolls, far more sophisticated thinking must go into their collection. I have in mind a range of possible reductions and easy ways to pay for special users and the latest electronic aids to cut out delays.

Some of my hon. Friends may believe that all that can be done at this stage is damage limitation, after too little has been done too late for too long. But problems have their possibilities. If the Government can summon courage and imagination, bring into play the skills and enthusiasm of free enterprise and, above all, act decisively, the problem could be solved in a manner that will be of lasting benefit to the people living in the locality and to the country's transport needs.

10.49 pm

I intervene for only 30 seconds to express my whole-hearted support for what my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) has said. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of the extreme concern felt by my constituents and by all those who use the M25 or live within the vicinity of the Dartford tunnel about the clear inadequacy of the present administrative system. I hope that the Department will do something to enable a toll-free crossing to be established and to ensure that the enormous increase in M25 traffic which will occur when the system is completed is properly accommodated. My hon. Friend the Minister knows well the concern of my constituents and myself. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath for raising the matter tonight.

10.50 pm

I welcome the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), which gives us the opportunity to emphasise the Government's commitment to ensuring that the Dartford tunnel plays its full part as a vital link in the M25 and as an essential component in the local economies of Kent, Essex and further afield.

Before I deal with my hon. Friend's remarks and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), I wish to take issue with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath about the M25. I ask him to put the matter in context and to face the facts of the M25. There has been a problem with one contract out of very many. We now have well over 80 out of the 120 miles of orbital motorway open. There have been problems and delay with one contract, but much of the remainder has been completed ahead of time, to high specification and without problem. It has been a real feat of engineering. We hope to overcome the problems following the building of the motorway, and it does not behove anyone to pour cold water on the achievements of the British civil engineering industry, which has done so well in building over some very difficult territory.

I wish now to deal with the main part of my hon. Friend's remarks. We must get the reasons for the delays clear in our minds. I do not disagree with him about the delays—I am well aware of the strength of feeling. I suffer from the delays myself—perhaps my hon. Friend does not realise that—and so do many of my staff.

It is important that we emphasise what has caused the delays, which were due to the limited capacity of the toll booths. Once all the new toll booths are open, delays will be due to the limited capacity of the tunnel. Motorists may regard that distinction as academic; they are interested only in the reasons why and in getting through the tunnel. But it is important to understand the position.

The theoretical capacity of the toll booths is 65,000 vehicles per day, but 80,000 have actually gone through them. The theoretical capacity of the tunnel is 80,000 vehicles per day, but 100,000 will go through. Therefore, it is not true to say, as my hon. Friend has said tonight and previously, that the capacity of the tunnel is limited to 60,000 vehicles per day.

Of course, the Government have always recognised that the M25 would bring increasing traffic to the tunnel. That was why we agreed to pay the 100 per cent. grants to Kent and Essex to double the number of toll booths to 12 in each direction. That work will cost £7 million, and when completed will ensure that the capacity of the toll booths matches that of the tunnel. As my hon. Friend said, the first new booths were opened in July. The final work on the booths will be completed next spring, and then there will be 12 in each direction. At present 20 booths are in action, 12 for southbound traffic and eight for northbound traffic.

The effect of the new booths is bound to be complicated by other work that needs to be done. As I am sure my hon. Friend will readily agree, the approach roads to the Dartford tunnel are not adequate, which is why we have embarked on 100 per cent. grant, costing £14 million, to improve them. Work on the northern approaches is complete, while work on the southern approaches will be finished early in 1987. Meanwhile, I fear that the work will have some effect on traffic using the tunnel. We regret that, but the tunnel manager has told us quite clearly that serious delays tend to be due to accidents, emergencies or the approaches which are not complete. None of those things could be planned for. We cannot plan for the bumps and troubles that occur. We can seek to avoid them in future where it is reasonable to do so, and that. I assure my hon. Friend, we shall do.

As for the the traffic study to which my hon. Friend referred, the tunnel manager's report for 1984–85 said that the traffic rose from 12·5 million vehicles in 1982–83 to 20·2 million in 1984–85, an increase of 60 per cent. That occurred in the period during which the north-east quadrant of the M25 was opened and which is now taking a significant proportion of the increased traffic that will use that quadrant of the motorway. That helped the tunnel revenue, increasing it by £5 million in the last financial year, enabling the tunnel debt to be reduced by £4·5 million.

The study has also prompted a debate on tunnel capacity. I dismiss suggestions that traffic will continue to increase by 60 per cent. every two years. Apart from the fact that the rest of the M25 is gradually being opened and that some of the traffic that goes to the north-west will inevitably go along the southern corridor of the M25 and up the west side in due course, we cannot expect the traffic to go on growing in that quadrant, using the tunnel as fast as it has in the crucial period about which my hon. Friend was talking.

The present volumes on the north-east quadrant which join the tunnel to the A1(M) are largely complete, though there may be some further growth, perhaps of 10 to 20 per cent. The current increase is running at the rate of 7·16 per cent., even after the summer peak. I agree with my hon. Friend, therefore—and I have never doubted this since I first came to the Department—that, on traffic grounds, there is need for additional capacity, and that has already been amply demonstrated.

That is why we announced in June the results of the traffic study commissioned from Colquhoun's and Mott Hay and Anderson. The consultants found that traffic would exceed road capacity at the tunnel in a few years. That came as no surprise to my hon. Friend, to me or to anybody else. They found that by the end of the decade the excess demand would cause delays at peak times during average months, and that at peak summer periods delays could be of an hour or more. They also found that with the east London river crossing in the early 1990s, the delays would still increase. That tells me that we are right to get on with the work that we are now doing, about which my hon. Friend asked some questions.

The press notice issued by the Movement for London in the summer, which said that the traffic study had shown that delays of 50 to 109 minutes would occur in August 1989, was misleading. The figure of 109 minutes was the maximum delay that the consultants projected for any August Friday when traffic reached that level, namely, of 109,000 vehicles. The level was not likely to be reached until the average annual weekday traffic was 80,000 vehicles, 40 per cent. above the 1984 level, and above the consultants' high forecast for 1989. Even in those extreme circumstances, the delays predicted on other days in August would be less than half that figure, and at other times of the year would be much less still. I agree with my hon. Friend that no time should be lost in increasing the capacity at Dartford, but I ask him not continue to repeat figures which are unduly alarmist, because to do that does not do anything to solve the problem.

The consultants found that the tunnel would be at the very limits of capacity by the mid-1990s. That is why we recommended an engineering study of additional capacity. In the June statement, I accepted its conclusions and recommendations. In July, the Secretary of State told the Transport Select Committee that it was not a question whether we should build the third crossing at Dartford, but what was the best way of doing so. Nevertheless, any commitment to the construction of additional capacity will depend on a sound economic case based on sustained traffic growth.

I deal now with the appointment of consultants and private finance, which my hon. Friend mentioned. As the next step, we are considering the possibility of private finance for additional capacity. The Secretary of State floated the suggestion as a possibility in July, and we need to make progress quickly in the light of the traffic study which I announced in June. My hon. Friend will be well aware that private finance raises new issues and that we must resolve them correctly. The Dartford scheme could be a precedent for other schemes. It is important to start off as we mean to go on.

The tunnel manager's annual report urged an early decision on the increase in tunnel capacity. It stressed also the need for proper engineering and financial evaluations of alternatives. I do not want to see any repeat of past engineering and financial problems encountered with other estuarial crossings. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not wish that either.

I hope shortly to tell the contractors, civil engineers, banks and all those interested in the tunnel scheme the basis on which we may proceed. This has a bearing on the engineering study announced in June. We need to develop guidance, and that has affected the commissioning of the study. I owe it to the prospective promoters to give a reasonable firm idea of what will be expected, and the likely rewards. I hope that that general comment will suffice for the moment. I give my hon. Friend an undertaking that I shall write to him with any detail as it becomes available. I would not want to be drawn on the detail now.

If the idea of privately financed tolled crossing proceeds, legislation will be needed in due course. That is because the Secretary of State has no general powers to toll, and any new crossing provided by the private sector would have to be tolled to give the promoters some sort of return.

I think that my hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and for Upminster will understand that the issues are not straightforward. We must proceed carefully. I can give them both a firm assurance that I have no intention that the Department will drag its heels. I aim to see that traffic needs are met and that the public get, the best value for money that we can give.

It is obvious that tolls constitute a burning issue for many hon. Members, not least myself. During the debate on Second Reading of the Dartford Tunnel Bill I said that tolls at Dartford could not be abolished without paying outstanding debts. The debt has now been reduced from £65 million to £61·7 million, but it is still true that. as the law stands, abolition would mean that outstanding debts would fall on the ratepayers of Kent and Essex, which would be unfair to them.

Successive Governments have taken the view that it is reasonable to expect users to pay for estuarial crossings. I note what my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath said about crossings on the west side of London, but I think he understands that there is no free crossing. Every crossing has to be paid for by somebody. If we enter into debts, we have to repay the moneys. It is as simple and painful as that. We are examining new ways of paying for tolls. We are examining also new technology. These examinations will form part of future studies. I cannot give my hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and for Upminster the assurances that they seek on toll-free systems. As I have said, borrowed money has to be paid for, and the sooner it is paid the better.

I well understand the feelings of hon. Members and toll payers generally. Those who are delayed at Dartford should always remember—I remind myself of this as I sit in the queue—that motorists on other routes who do not have estuarial crossings can similarly be subject to long delays and are looking also for relief. We cannot guarantee that any route, be it tunnel, bridge or ordinary road, will be free from congestion at all times, especially at peak times. We all want to reach our destination as quickly and safely as possible, but it would not be cost effective or provide a real return for the taxpayer or ratepayer if we were to build roads to a standard which meant that they were empty for much of the time and coped easily with every sort of peak that we could imagine.

The Government are fully committed to ensuring that the Dartford tunnel can fulfil its role as a vital link in the M25, not just in 1985 or 1990, but throughout the 1990s to the year 2000 and well beyond. That is why we look forward to accelerating the rate of progress on the provision of additional capacity at Dartford. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath will bear with us while we go through a complicated but interesting and highly necessary process and face one of the problems that we regard as having the highest priority in the Department.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Eleven o'clock.