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Transport

Volume 86: debated on Monday 11 November 1985

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Concessionary Fares

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the criteria he intends to use in exercising his power under the Transport Act 1985 with regard to the granting of exemptions from certain requirements in relation to arrangements for concessionary travel schemes and with regard to the form, content and manner of service of certain notices in connection with such schemes; and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. Friend will be laying regulations before the House shortly dealing with the reimbursement of operators for providing transport concessions. His criteria in making the regulations, and in considering applications made under them, will be to safeguard the proper interests of operators and authorities.

May I have an assurance that free travel passes for elderly, blind and disabled people will continue in the Greater London area after the abolition of the GLC in April 1986? May I further be assured that they will continue, and be fully operational, as of now, starting at 9 am? Will my hon. Friend repudiate the wicked lies that have been put about at public expense by the GLC for nearly three years that travel passes will be abolished after the abolition of the GLC?

Concessionary fares in London are currently a matter of GLC policy executed by LRT. After April, either the boroughs will get together and organise their own scheme applying to all boroughs uniformly, or there will be the operation of the fall-back scheme if there is no agreement. That scheme provides statutory provisions which come into play at broadly the existing level of benefit administered by LRT, but billed to the boroughs. I can, therefore, give my hon. Friend the assurance that he is seeking. Indeed, I am very angry, as must be many hon. Members, at the way in which thousands of pensioners have been needlessly worried as the result of a political campaign that they would lose their concessions. Pensioners have been used in the worst sense of that word.

It has taken us a long time to force that concession out of the Government—[Interruption.]—who could have put the mind of pensioners at ease much earlier. At what levels will boroughs be able to charge pensioners for the administration of schemes? That will cost pensioners money, will it not?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about pensioners' minds being set at rest is that if he and some of his colleagues had not flagrantly misled them, their minds would not have been in any state of unease, especially in view of assurances that were given during the passage of the Bill through the House, when the position was made absolutely clear.

Further to my hon. Friend's reply to the main question and his comments about words of reassurance to pensioners having been given on previous occasions, despite suggestions to the contrary, may I nevertheless ask him to say why it was not possible to go as far in the West Midlands metropolitan area as apparently it has been possible to go in the GLC area? Is he aware that similar assurances would be welcomed by the people of the west midlands?

That is entirely a matter for the locally-elected voices, through the PTA, in the west midlands. It is up to them to decide how they wish to spend their resources.

What level of charges does the Minister expect will be levied? Will he intervene in the west midlands and explain to the people there why they should have a second-class service?

There is no reason why people in the west midlands should have a second-class service as a result of the proposals in what is now the Act. The expenditure levels permitted for PTAs are intended to allow for the continuation of concessionary fare schemes at existing levels of provision. The campaign led by some Opposition Members to frighten pensioners into assuming that those resources would not be available has been disgraceful.

I repudiate the Minister's hysterical response, because he must be aware that we have never said that concessionary fares would disappear completely. We have said, as has been pointed out by hon. Members already, that the concessionary fares that our constituents enjoy are seriously at risk as a result of the Government's legislation. Will my constituents in Greater Manchester still enjoy the same level of financial support towards their concessionary rail and bus travel as the constituents of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway)?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there will be sufficient resources for the PTAs to provide the same level of support as in the past. Whether they choose to do so is a matter for them to decide, and not for the Government to dictate.

M25

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he has made of the long-term benefits of the M25 circular motorway around London.

The M25 will provide a more convenient, quicker and safer route round London for through traffic. It will give easier access to ports and airports on motorway class roads, and will relieve communities in London and the south-east of through traffic, noise and congestion. It will yield substantial economic benefits.

Apart from the benefit to millions of M25 users, is my right hon. Friend aware, if a one-day traffic count is anything to go by, that Uxbridge road, Hampton Hill, which is now bypassed by the M25, has already seen a 10 to 15 per cent. drop in volume of traffic since 1983? How much will the roads in Greater London be relieved of heavy lorry traffic?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support, and I can confirm that a recent traffic count in the area that he mentioned showed a reduction of 14 per cent. of total traffic because of the completion of the M25 to the west and south of London. Our estimate is that the M25 will reduce lorry mileage in London by between 20 and 25 per cent.

Is the Secretary of State aware that parts of the M25 near my constituency of Thurrock are still unlit and that this may be dangerous and cause accidents? Is he also aware that providing cable ducting in the course of motorway construction makes it easier and cheaper to provide lighting? Has that cable ducting been provided throughout the M25? If not, will the Secretary of State make sure that it is provided in the construction of the last part of the M25 and other motorways?

Parts of the M5 through my constituency are not lit. The criteria for lighting motorways are whether it adds to safety to do so and whether it is worth the large extra cost. I cannot tell the hon. Lady that I have noticed whether ducting has been installed in the sections to which she referred, and I shall write to let her know. We do not intend to light all motorways, only those parts where lighting increases safety.

I welcome the benefits of the M25, but is my right hon. Friend aware that there are dangers if the motorway becomes used as a race track? Is he further aware that when using it at any time of the week I find myself the only person doing 70 mph, while many cars are doing well over 100? At the very least, will my right hon. Friend speak to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about enforcement and putting up signs that read "70 mph", rather than have just a black bar across them?

I share my right hon. Friend's concern about excessive speeds on all motorways, not just the M25. My hon. Friend the Minister will be engaging in a debate on this subject soon, so that she can go into it in greater detail. We are in constant touch with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about enforcement, and we are busy considering what to do to alleviate the mounting pressures and concerns that my right hon. Friend has expressed.

London Regional Transport

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if, when he next meets the chairman of London Regional Transport, he will raise the subject of the progress being made by London Regional Transport towards achieving the objectives set by the Government in 1984.

London Regional Transport's excellent progress towards achieving the Government objectives is regularly discussed whenever I meet the chairman. LRT is well on course to achieve all the targets we have set it. In particular, it is forecasting a sustained reduction in real unit costs of at least the target figure of 2·5 per cent. a year and the earlier achievement of its target to halve revenue support. Fares continue to keep broadly in line with inflation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the good news that he has just given. What further steps is LRT considering to improve efficiency and, therefore, to reduce costs to London's travellers and ratepayers? Bearing in mind the many moving services of remembrance throughout London yesterday, when the Secretary of State next meets the chairman will he discuss with him the possibility of LRT buses coming to a halt during the two minutes' silence, as that might set a trend for other road users?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. LRT has embarked on a major programme of cost-cutting investment, including a new Underground ticketing system, new sources of power supply and increasing use of one-person operation on buses and Underground trains. It is pursuing a vigorous programme of putting bus services out to tender, which on current evidence provides the opportunity of savings of up to 20 per cent. As to my hon. Friend's other suggestion, I agree about the moving nature of yesterday's events at 11 o'clock, and I shall certainly bring what he has said to the attention of the chairman of LRT.

Is it the Government's policy to cut the wages of London bus drivers in the outer areas? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a risk of that happening with the contractors of LRT and with LRT itself? If it is not the Government's policy, will he make sure that those contracting for such routes keep to London wages, and that LRT does the same?

The hon. Gentleman knows that these are matters for the management of LRT to work out in consultation with the unions. It is odd to hear him griping at the possibility of less subsidy, possibly even cheaper bus fares, through greater efficiency, but how that is achieved is for negotiation.

None the less, does my right hon. Friend agree that the achievements that he has just detailed have been in the face of campaigns in relation to excessive fare increases which did not take place and in relation to alleged station closures which also did not occur? Will he underline that this is the sort of thing that we in London must put up with?

I shall never forget the nonsense talked during the passage of the London Regional Transport Bill—[HON. MEMBERS: "By the right hon. Gentleman."]—about station closures, a 25 per cent. increase in fares and the ending of concessionary bus passes. The Opposition did not believe that it was possible to achieve the efficiency improvements that LRT has already achieved. That really showed up the Opposition, particularly the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), as wholly ill-informed and ill-briefed.

The right hon. Gentleman has waxed so eloquent about the objectives that he has set that it almost seemed as though he was leading us to the promised land. However, is not the reality one of continuing job losses and an outrageous proposal to cut the wages of some bus men by £40 a week, or 30 per cent.? Would not the right hon. Gentleman do much better to call in LRT and tell it to reverse his costly decentralisation proposals as a far better way of saving money and becoming more efficient?

I first welcome the hon. Gentleman back to transport issues. He had that responsibility in a previous incarnation. We look forward to many attempts at educating him in the coming years. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be careful of other occupations that he undertakes, because we do not want to lose him prematurely.

It seems that the hon. Gentleman does not know a promised land when he sees one. LRTs extraordinary performance improvement not only shows how well managed London's transport is, but how extraordinarily badly managed it was under the GLC.

Road Maintenance

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will make a statement on the level of local authority expenditure on road maintenance.

Provision for local authority expenditure on road maintenance in 1985–86 is £972 million, 15 per cent. more than the level of provision two years earlier. I expect authorities to spend that sum. I shall be announcing the provision for 1986–87 very shortly, at the time of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's autumn statement.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Government on the increase in spending, but do they realise that rural and local roads are, in many cases, more important than motorways to those of us in the backwoods? Will the Government continue to spend more on providing easy access to the motorways for those of us who currently do not have that advantage?

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but regret that I cannot give him the answer that he seeks. I am very well aware that the geography of the south-west means that the relatively few lines of road communication are vital for its economic health. We are increasing the number of those road lines by constructing an entirely new road, the north Devon link. As hon. Members know, we are doing everything that we can to relieve the main bottleneck of the A30.

What is the Minister's response to last July's report of the National Audit Office suggesting that the backlog of motorway maintenance will take seven years to complete, that spending on trunk roads maintenance is less then half of what is needed, and that additional investment now will produce savings in future?

I should be delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will tell him tomorrow, but it is not my job to do so. There has been a 15 per cent. increase during the past few years. If that had been combined with all local and highway authorities producing the efficiency that they are now achieving with our programme, there would have been an even greater benefit.

We have great scope for achieving better value for money from road maintenance. The Audit Commission is just beginning a major study in that very area. I very much welcome that, because we can then achieve even better value for money.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the substructure of rural roads has been allowed to break up as a result of the illegal target system imposed by the Government on local authorities and an inadequate level of TPP? Therefore, will it not require more than a 15 per cent. increase to bring the roads back to their proper condition? It is the destruction of the substructure, rather than damage to the surface, that must be repaired now, and 15 per cent. will not do the job.

I am sure my hon. Friend will remember that the Select Committee on Transport recommended a 10 per cent. increase in real terms in provision. As I said, that matter will be dealt with tomorrow.

I am very well aware that it is important to make the sort of provision that will deter further deterioration. That is exactly what we have done by producing the code of good practice for local authorities, and we shall continue to encourage them to do the very things that my hon. Friend has requested.

The Secretary of State is a disaster, although the Minister of State is all right—[HON. MEMBERS: "Sexist".]—The Secretary of State has plenty to say here, so why does he not open his mouth during Cabinet meetings at No. 10 and obtain money for road maintenance?

Is the Minister aware that police and local authority reports state that bad road maintenance contributes more than anything else to road accidents?

The hon. Gentleman is not being his customary self. My right hon. Friend is an excellent Secretary of State.

I cannot, for the reasons that I have already given, answer the hon. Gentleman's question. He has not drawn the right conclusion. If all drivers kept within the speed limits and observed what was happening on the roads, rather than thinking of other matters, there would be fewer accidents.

We shall continue to put forward the necessary resources for necessary road maintenance. I have every confidence that that will happen.

Inter-City Services

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if, when he next meets the chairman of British Rail, he will raise with him the performance of British Rail's inter-city travel.

The day-to-day performance of the inter-city sector is a matter for the railways board.

Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister cares about British Rail's inter-city performance. Is he aware that under British Rail's 1986 inter-city timetable trains will generally take longer to reach their destination, stop at more intermediate stations and that there will be less choice for travellers? Is he further aware that inter-city trains are overcrowded and that, more often than not, buffet and restaurant facilities are not available? Does he agree that that is unsatisfactory? Will he take up the matter urgently with the chairman of British Rail?

We certainly care about the level of service on inter-city trains. The hon. Gentleman complains about inter-city trains stopping at intermediate stations. I hope that he observes the contradiction in his remarks, because the additional stops provide an additional service for members of the public who want to travel on inter-city services.

British Rail is examining the possibilities of more private sector activity in the provision of buffet services. I have no doubt that that will lead to the improvements for which the hon. Gentleman is looking. I congratulate him on his appointment to the Front Bench as Opposition spokesman for health.

When my hon. Friend next meets the chairman of British Rail to discuss inter-city services, will he take up the possibility of cyclists continuing to be able to take their cycles on inter-city trains, since that facility is threatened? Will he also suggest that buffets should be open from the time that a train departs, not 30 minutes later after card playing has ended?

The problem of cycles on inter-city trains is one of space for accommodation. I shall write to my hon. Friend further about that. I shall draw the attention of the chairman of BR to my hon. Friend's words about the opening and closing of buffet services.

Is the Minister aware that the chairman of British Rail has categorically refused to give cheap early-day travel to passengers travelling from Stoke on Trent, even though he gives that facility to passengers from Manchester and Stockport on the same line? Does he agree that that is extraordinary discrimination by the chairman of British Rail, and will he take up the matter with him?

I shall draw the chairman's attention to what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I am sure that it is not British Rail's intention to discriminate against his constituents.

Will my hon. Friend raise with the chairman of British Rail the question of punctuality, particularly the punctuality of trains at intermediate stations rather than termini? I am sure that he will discover that the punctuality at such stations is very bad indeed.

One of the objectives set for British Rail by the Secretary of State was a reliable, attractive and punctual service. British Rail recognises that it still has some way to go. Since the remodelling of Crewe station there has been some improvement on the west coast main line. I recognise that my hon. Friend's campaign on behalf of his constituents is desirable. I shall draw the chairman's attention to what he said about timekeeping at intermediate stations.

Does the Minister accept that inter-city punctuality tables—at least, the latest ones—are the worst for almost 20 years, that despite what he has just said the timekeeping of trains from Euston on the west coast main line is deplorable, that morale in the railway industry is at rock bottom and that, thanks to the stewardship of the Secretary of State, the right hon. Gentleman has proved himself unfit to take down engine numbers let alone undertake responsibility for a once great industry?

I so much regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman turns up at every Question Time, no matter what the questions are about, and carps about British Rail instead of praising it for what it has achieved. It runs more trains at over 100 miles an hour than any other railway system in the world. As for timekeeping, the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong when he says that it is the worst ever. There has been a significant improvement in recent months.

Dial-A-Ride Services

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what arrangements are being made to ensure the continuation of dial-a-ride services for the disabled in London following the abolition of the Greater London council.

We have secured powers in the Transport Act 1985 to enable London Regional Transport to make grants for the provision of dial-a-ride services. A specific allocation of £5 million will be made for this purpose within my right hon. Friend's overall grant to London Regional Transport.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, which provides a necessary reassurance after our many anxieties. As background to these anxieties, which are felt all over London, including Harrow, can she say, on the scale of bad politics, that which she regrets the most—the Government's unwise decision to abolish the GLC, which we set up in the first place, or Dave Wetzel's irresponsible use of these anxieties to create scare stories?

I do not agree with my hon. Friend's first proposition. The second obviously stands. There was no doubt whatever in my mind that it was right to provide for the most severely disabled people by continuing dial-a-ride services, and I am delighted that they will have the professional backing of London Regional Transport to help them become even more efficient.

Is the Minister aware that she has effectively frozen the level of funding at a point which means that dial-a-ride will be unable to expand after the abolition of the GLC, and that this cannot be good for disabled people in London? I have a letter here from the Prime Minister in which she says that she will ensure, through the Department of Transport, that both dial-a-ride and the taxicard service will be preserved. Will the Minister give an assurance from the Dispatch Box now that the GLC's taxicard service for people with those disabilities will also be retained after the abolition of the GLC?

I can assure the House that the £5 million put forward for the dial-a-ride service is sufficient to maintain the service in 1986–87, and with this the London borough's working party has agreed fully. It will be up to dial-a-ride, with the help of LRT, to achieve the better efficiency that will allow expansion of the system.

The taxicard service has been costing ratepayers around £5 million. It is a service where the boroughs, following the GLC, have power to grant-aid the service of concessionary fares. It is in the Transport Act 1985. It will be up to boroughs, which are now discussing it, to do so. All councils are being sounded out and will report back to their co-ordinating committee on 27 November. It is, however, blatantly unfair of the GLC to come up at this stage with proposals that will double the cost to the London ratepayers of a scheme which would not be right and one which would not help all those people whom we wish to help. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that this high-cost scheme, which his GLC is setting up, is meant to provoke anxiety and to be an embarrassment to the boroughs. I hope that everyone recognises it for what it is worth.

A1 (Safety)

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on safety on the A1.

Overall, the A1 continues to have an accident rate below the national average. The recently revised national road programme contains 10 major schemes designed to improve the safety of the road still further. These are in addition to five major schemes completed since 1979 and a continuing programme of smaller, but nonetheless important, local improvements.

My hon. Friend will recall telling me in earlier correspondence that the A1 has a good safety record. Since then, however, there have been a number of serious accidents, including the death of an entire family in a cross-over accident. Does she agree that the A1 is dangerous and that it lulls motorists into a false sense of security? It is not as safe as a motorway, with its long stretches without a central safety barrier or hard shoulder, with cross-over points and poor sight lines obscuring slow-moving traffic. Will she commit the Government to a full-scale programme of improving road safety on the A1, and particularly to extending safety barriers?

I am fully committed to improving road safety, not merely on the A1, but on all roads. This year I have instituted a review of all safety fencing, which may be of assistance to the A1. Furthermore, it does not matter on what road one drives, or what the road conditions are, because much of road safety is in the hands of drivers. Nothing that the House may try to persuade me to do or that the Government do will change the fact that at present 65 per cent. of accidents are caused by driver error only.

Would not safety on the A1 be substantially improved if there were a switch to rail? However, before that development takes place, and in the light of anxiety throughout the country about the standards of British Rail, may we have a full inquiry——

National Roads Programme

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he last met representatives of the Confederation of British Industry to discuss the national roads programme.

When, in future, my right hon. Friend meets the CBI, will he concentrate on the differences between his programme and that which the CBI proposes in "Fabric of the Nation"? Will he explain why there is such an enormous discrepancy between its proposal and his programme?

There are no great differences between our forward programme and "Fabric of the Nation II", which the CBI has proposed. In most cases where they are not the same, either we are studying a new scheme to meet the CBI's requirements, or we think that the schemes that we have adjacent to its demands are meeting the need in a different way. There are few schemes that do not fall into one or other category.

Are the Government prepared to listen to the strictures of—is it Sir Anthony Beckett?—on the Government's failure to invest in the infrastructure?

I do not quite know who Sir Anthony Beckett can be. [Interruption.] That may be the hon. Gentleman's stage name. I addressed the CBI last Friday, and would be delighted to send the hon. Gentleman a copy of my speech so that he can comprehend fully the extent to which we are meeting the nation's needs for a modern road system.

Motorway Safety

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received regarding motorway safety following the accident on the M6 on 21 October; and if he will make a statement.

I have received some 1,000 letters from members of the public, and 33 from hon. Members. Although motorways remain our safest roads, there is still scope for improvements in driver behaviour. As the House knows, I am looking particularly at every aspect of the safety and speed of vehicles on motorways, especially coaches. I shall announce our conclusions on this as soon as possible.

Will my hon. Friend tell the House the most helpful things that drivers could do to prevent accidents on motorways?

If drivers would slow down and keep a safe distance behind the vehicle in front—that means an even longer distance at night and in bad weather—there would be far fewer accidents.

Does the Minister agree that speeding and bad driving on motorways are often encouraged by the lack of a police presence? Will she consult her right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to make certain that motor vehicles manned by the police are on motorways to ensure that the laws are obeyed?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am already doing so, and I am having further meetings about enforcement. If people drive safely only when they see a car with stripes down the side and a blue lamp on top, we shall still have accidents that are avoidable. It behoves every driver to improve his driving and his lane discipline. I hope that this awful series of crashes will bring home to people how much they have to do to avert such terrible tragedies.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a bit of a record that we have reached only question No. 9?