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Transport

Volume 264: debated on Monday 23 October 1995

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London Tilbury And Southend Line

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on progress made in privatising the London Tilbury and Southend line. [36458]

Good progress is being made with the LTS rail franchise. The franchising director has short-listed bidders, and aims to award the franchise in December.

As the bids for the franchise have to be in by Friday, will the Minister pull out all the stops to ensure that LTS becomes the first privatised line in the, United Kingdom? LTS has been such a continuing disaster under British Rail control that it got the name of the misery line, so can my right hon. Friend give some information about the benefits that will accrue to the public? For example, what about the replacement rolling stock which is urgently required?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his staunch support of the Government's policy on privatisation. I can confirm that the franchising director has decided that the LTS line should be one of the first for which a contract will be let. I hope that the service will be up and running early next year and that the benefits of privatisation will shortly be apparent to my hon. Friend's constituents. For example, my hon. Friend will be aware that fare levels have been frozen in real terms as from January and that service levels will be guaranteed, which his constituents have not benefited from before. I understand that the details of the arrangements governing the provision of improved rolling stock will be agreed imminently with the leasing company. I hope that it will not be too long before the safety clearances are completed so that that new rolling stock can be on track.

Did the Minister see the report in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday which said that City analysts believe that the sale of Railtrack before the spring or autumn of 1997 could lose public finances as much as £750 million? I am sure that the Minister will have noted that that estimate was not been made simply because City analysts expect a Labour Government, although they do—I warn anyone contemplating bidding for any part of the rail network that there will be no gravy train for fat cats out of that privatisation and that Labour intends that the rail system should remain in public ownership—but—

I have already asked two questions.

Did the Minister note the serious criticism that the information provided to City analysts by his Department is so inadequate that they cannot properly value Railtrack? Will he give a solemn undertaking that it will not be sold cheaply before the election merely to fund a Tory tax cut?

I welcome the hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box in her new role. I notice that the Opposition's entire transport team was so demolished by us during the debate on the railways last week that they had to be replaced and a fresh franchise secured.

As for receipts, we have not speculated about the proceeds that will be secured, but a full prospectus will of course be published in due course for those seeking to invest in Railtrack. I hope that at some point the hon. Lady will respond to the questions put to her predecessor on several occasions last week. How will the Opposition pay for their policy of buying back the railways? Will it be achieved through higher fares, higher taxes or higher borrowing?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that what he proposes for the London Tilbury and Southend line is extremely good? We are very pleased that that line will be one of the first, if not the first, to be franchised. For many years, there has been a great need for replacement rolling stock. I am glad that my right hon. Friend has said that it will be replaced, but could he give us some more detail?

As my right hon. Friend may know, a number of Networker express units currently under construction by ABB Transportation are to be deployed on West Anglia's Great Northern services. That will permit what is called a "cascade" of 25 four-class 317 units to my right hon. Friend's constituency, which in turn will allow the scrapping some old class 302 units, which are more than 35 years old.

South Yorkshire Rapid Light Transit System

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received regarding the effect on local authority standard spending assessments of the South Yorkshire rapid light transit system. [36460]

I answered a question from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) on 22 May. I have had no more recent representations on this subject.

The Minister will be aware that today Sheffield is celebrating the completion of the rapid light transit system, the supertram. In my constituency, which is part of the South Yorkshire passenger transport authority, there is considerable concern about the impact on local authority budgets of debt charges arising from the cost of the supertram system. Is the Minister aware that, despite the fact that the Government agreed fully to fund the system, the debt charges were allocated to the budget of the four authorities that make up the South Yorkshire passenger transport authority? The charges are having a considerable effect on the spending powers of the four authorities. I understand that discussions are taking place—

Oh, shut up.

I understand that discussions with the Department are well advanced. Is the Minister able to give us any encouragement? Is he able to tell us whether the pressure on the standard spending assessments will be relieved for the forthcoming financial year?

I share the hon. Gentleman's pleasure that today marks the opening of the Hillsborough extension of the supertram system. I am pleased that it is now able to operate at its full potential. I understand that supertram is offering the residents of the area free travel for the next couple of days so that they can come to know what an excellent system is being offered.

I appreciate that there is concern about the way in which the financial arrangements impact on the capping levels of each of the member authorities of the passenger transport executive. The hon. Gentleman has raised the matter with me before. He will appreciate that it is a matter for negotiation between the local authorities and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

Dartford Bridge And Tunnel

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has to improve access to both ends of the Dartford bridge and tunnel. [36461]

Major improvements were made in association-with the opening of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge a few years ago.

We have a number of further proposals for improving access to the Dartford bridge and tunnel.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the bridge has been one of the Government's great success stories? In co-operation with the private sector, the bridge was built to relieve awful congestion at the Dartford tunnel. With the growth of developments in the area—Lakeside and now Bluewater, and the proposal that there should be a new depot at Ebbsfleet—it is reckoned by those who are running the bridge that congestion will return in three or four years. Does my hon. Friend consider that now is the time, while the bridge is making massive profits, which will soon return to the taxpayer, to reconsider the east London river crossing proposed for Woolwich, which would take a great deal of traffic and be another great Government success story?

My hon. Friend will know that the east London river crossing is the subject of consultation. She is right to say that the Queen Elizabeth II bridge at Dartford is a wonderful example of a private finance initiative in operation.

Raf Northolt

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what conclusions he has reached about the sharing of runway capacity by civil aircraft at RAF Northolt; what discussions he has had with the Ministry of Defence on this matter; and if he will make a statement. [36462]

Consultation with business aviation users this summer demonstrated a positive reaction to shared use of the newly commissioned facilities at RAF Northolt. As outlined in the 1995 competitiveness White Paper, my Department is currently working closely with the Ministry of Defence to identify further ways of enhancing the service offered.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is concern in my constituency that the sharing of runways at RAF Northolt could result in increased traffic noise? Will he give me an assurance that, in the event of sharing, there will be no increase in the permitted number of air traffic movements at Northolt?

I am indeed aware of the local concern that my hon. Friend has expressed to Ministers in my Department on several occasions. The station continues to operate on the basis of 7,000 movements a year.

Will there be any consultation with people in the locality with regard to further aircraft movements, particularly civil airline movements, because that part of London already suffers excessively from aircraft noise?

Yes, of course; local opinion will be taken into account in connection with any plans to change the use of the airport.

Local residents feel most strongly that the current limits should be maintained, as my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) has said, and that the existing operating hours for civil air transport movements should be kept at 0800 to 2000, with no weekend operation.

I am aware of the strong feelings in the area, which are well represented by my hon. Friend. As I said a few moments ago, we will, of course, ensure that local opinion is taken into account when we look at any future use of the airport.

Road Casualties

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what new proposals he has to reduce road casualties. [36464]

The Department is currently considering, with other representative organisations, the next casualty reduction target and the measures needed to achieve it. The trend in fatalities and serious injuries is that they continue to fall. A package of measures is being introduced to improve the safety of newly qualified drivers and we have invited bids to participate in the safe town initiative.

Will the Minister congratulate DHL, which recently removed all bull bars from its 300 vehicles? What assessment has he made of the Australian evidence that proves that bull bars represent an increased risk not only to pedestrians and cyclists but to those who are driving, and to passengers in vehicles with bull bars? Why does he not take action on the three practical steps outlined by Commissioner Kinnock from Europe, who said that the British Government could take steps to banish them? Why does he hesitate to remove these fatal fashion accessories?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to express his interest in the subject of bull bars in the way that he has, because not only is his interest entirely appropriate but I join him in congratulating a major company that has decided that an unnecessary fashion accessory that can also be dangerous is inappropriate in a responsible company. It is ludicrous of the hon. Gentleman, frankly, to describe the Government's attitude as being prepared to delay while Commissioner Kinnock rushes to the fore. All the proposals that the Commissioner has made rely on precisely the evidence of the survey, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we are conducting into the incidence of bull bar-related accidents. He will appreciate that, to invoke any of the three measures that Commissioner Kinnock outlined in his letter to me, there is a precondition that we should have that evidence. I believe that bull bars, which make the fronts of vehicles less safe than they would otherwise be, should be removed without delay.

Has my hon. Friend carried out an examination of the possible impact on the number of road casualties in London of a strike on the London underground? Would he like to draw a contrast between his policy of upgrading the Northern line with that of certain trade unionists of disrupting traffic in London?

Sadly, my hon. Friend is entirely right. One of the many sad consequences for Londoners of disrupting underground services is that there will indeed be more congestion on London's roads and, indeed, inevitably more accidents. This underlines the futility of this kind of neanderthal action. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers is the only union not to have accepted London Transport's package. I hope that, even at this stage, it will see the wisdom of getting on with the job and keeping London moving in the way that any responsible trade union ought to be prepared to do.

What progress is the Minister making on the vexed issue of cut and shut vehicles? He will recall that I brought a delegation to see him some months ago on that matter. It is extremely serious; vehicles that have been involved in accidents and should not be on the road are stitched together without any controlling mechanism. What progress does he expect to be made to control those very dangerous vehicles?

I wrote to the hon. Gentleman a couple of days ago and asked him to pass on a copy of my letter to Mr. George Austin, whom he brought to see me on this subject. It is indeed a serious matter. As the hon. Gentleman understood when we discussed it, there are some practical difficulties in implementing a system that identifies vehicles that have previously been involved in serious accidents, particularly when, for example, they may be insured only for third party and therefore the insurance company concerned is not notified when the vehicle is effectively written off.

Sadly, some of the initiatives suggested to us earlier have not proved effective, and the Association of Chief Police Officers, responding to some of our inquiries, has said that it is unhappy with some of our proposals. As I said in my letter to the hon. Gentleman, I therefore propose to continue to explore other ways in which we can deal with this serious problem.

Is my hon. Friend familiar with research that suggests that, if we adopted double summer time, we could save more than 140 lives a year on the roads? Does he agree that the putting back of our clocks only yesterday ought to remind us that that opportunity is within our grasp?

The issue of summer time and double summer time interests a number of Departments. I speak only for the Department of Transport when I say that it is a simple matter of fact that allowing for more daylight in the way that my hon. Friend suggests has a demonstrable impact on accident statistics. For that reason, certainly, such action is to be encouraged.

No doubt the Minister, like other drivers, has felt a frisson of fear when overtaking or being overtaken by a heavy goods vehicle on the motorway lest its driver has put in far too many hours on the road. Did he read yesterday's article in The Observer which claimed that 200 deaths a year could be prevented if that danger were eliminated from our roads? Will he now end the Department's complacent attitude, and present proposals to ensure that tachographs cannot be tampered with? Will he also undertake some serious research into the effect of over-long hours on drivers who are forced to work those hours by bullying employers?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the transport team as one who has managed to survive as a Front Bencher for longer than almost any other Member on either side of the House. It is a pleasure to see him join the ranks of the instant transport experts, one of whom he clearly considers himself to be.

The United Kingdom inspects more than twice the European average number of tachographs, because we are pre-eminent in the Community in recognising the problem of overtired drivers as extremely serious. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify it as a major source of accidents. Indeed, simply listing the number of fatal accidents that may have involved tachograph offences probably underestimates the true figure.

The hon. Gentleman should understand two points, however. First, the practice is much more widespread in all the other European countries, in which the issue prompts very much less interest. Secondly, only the very worst operator would recognise the description of the robber barons of the transport industry grinding drivers' faces into the dust. As the hon. Gentleman will come to recognise, being the fair man that he is, the standard of operators in this country is excellent.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the serious concern in my constituency about the safety record of the Birmingham A456 road from Kidderminster to Blakedown? There have been two fatalities on the road in the past 12 months, and the average speed at Blakedown—in a 30 mph area—was recently gauged at some 50 mph.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the problem would be alleviated by the construction of a Kidderminster-Blakedown-Hagley bypass? Does he realise that we have now been waiting for no less than 12 months for the Government to publish the inspector's report, and will he ensure that progress is speeded up?

I note my hon. Friend's observations, and acknowledge his consistent concern about the scheme on behalf of his constituents. I hope that he will appreciate that I can make no firm announcement today.

Woolwich Rail Tunnel

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he has made of the benefits of the proposed Woolwich rail tunnel. [36465]

London Transport, British Rail, Railtrack and the London Docklands development corporation continue to co-operate in their study of that proposed project and I await their further report with interest.

Will the Minister acknowledge that the proposed east London river crossing, if built, would produce increased congestion and pollution in the Woolwich, Belvedere and Plumstead regions, which already have some of the highest rates of asthma and respiratory illness in the south-east? Does he recognise that, in terms of economic regeneration, the Woolwich rail tunnel would provide enormous benefits to a region that has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the United Kingdom? In view of the support for the Woolwich rail tunnel—which is environmentally acceptable and cheaper to produce than the east London river crossing—of the London Docklands development corporation, London Underground, British Rail and local authorities, will he now get the Government to pull their finger out and start construction of that vital rail project?

The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to anticipate the outcome of the consultation exercise on. east London river crossings in general, which was embarked on several months ago, and I cannot do so; nor can I anticipate the dedication of resources before considering the wider pattern that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will need to examine in the public expenditure settlement. As for the hon. Gentleman's point about the east London river crossing, he will know that we withdrew the original scheme for the long east London crossing, but that a number of other proposals, which interrelate in east London, are still on the table in the consultation document. There again, at this moment it would not be appropriate to pre-empt the conclusion of that consultation.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, in my borough of Bexley, considerable support exists for that rail tunnel, that there is also, however, considerable support for additional road crossings between Tower bridge and the Dartford crossing, and that it is essential, if we are to develop the east Thames corridor-Thames gateway, to have them as soon as possible? When are we likely to have an announcement on those developments?

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have had a chance to consider all the consultation responses and to issue a further statement on this subject before the end of the year, but I note what my hon. Friend says. I fear that it is always convenient and, in a sense, something of an intellectual cop-out merely to assume that a public transport scheme, however desirable, will be able to absorb all the demand in a particular transport corridor. The consultation exercise points out—frankly, it is not a matter of great political disagreement—that a mixture of further access across the river will be necessary if the river is to cease to be an impediment to economic and social progress, and to be an asset.

West Coast Main Line

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what further progress has been made on the west coast main line reinvestment project; and if he will make a statement. [36466]

The west coast main line modernisation programme is moving firmly forward. Tenders for the development of a new signalling system for the line have just been received by Railtrack. Railtrack expects to let a contract for the main modernisation works next year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and congratulate him and his colleagues at the Department on the work that they are doing in that regard. It is important that the work goes ahead as soon as possible. This is an important route that serves many communities and is so important to the business sector the length and breadth of the country, from Scotland to south England. Will he take this opportunity of telling the House how successful he has been in obtaining European moneys to add to the private finance initiative, and give me an assurance that he and his colleagues will deal with the present Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen in the same way that they dealt with the last lot?

On the latter point, we will do our best.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced during the monumental debate last Wednesday, the west coast main line upgrade project is one of the top priority projects in the trans-European network programme, being one of the Christopherson group, and we have secured a first-year allocation of £7 million from the TENs budget towards the—

Seven million pounds is not to be sneered at. If the hon. Gentleman considers the total amount of money to be allocated to all the projects across the Union, he will find that the allocation for the west cost main line, plus the allocation for the channel tunnel rail link, are a fair share of resources for this country, as compared with other member states.

Would the Minister like to tell us simply how much has been spent—wasted—on privatisation up to this point?

Does my hon. Friend agree that his announcement today about the signalling contracts and the full contract for the west coast main line upgrade will be welcome not only to my constituents but to constituents living up and down the route? Does he further agree that the successful completion of the project will once again demonstrate that the Government's policy of bringing in private sector finance to help upgrade the railways is vastly more successful than the policy that the Labour party would put in place, which would waste taxpayers' money?

My hon. Friend is right. The signalling competition is being developed under the private finance initiative. In addition, the modernisation programme will bring major improvements in safety and reliability, the right quality and the capacity for more trains. The new state-of-the-art signalling system will create potential for reductions in journey times and will, of course, provide automatic train protection.

I am sure that the Minister agrees that services on the west coast main line depend on the reliability of the rolling stock. Will he confirm that the turnover last year of the three rolling stock companies was £800 million, with a profit of £450 million? Will not those companies have a guaranteed income stream for the next eight years? In those circumstances, does he recognise that it would be a monstrous fraud on the taxpayer if the rolling stock companies were sold for £1.5 billion, which is about half their true value? Does he accept my assurance that, under Labour, the rolling stock companies will be brought under the control of the regulator to prevent them from holding the rest of the industry to ransom?

I am confident that once the line has been upgraded there will be both operators wishing to operate the services on the line and rolling stock providers prepared to provide the necessary rolling stock.

North-West Main Line

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he last travelled on the north-west main line. [36468]

I travelled on the line to Blackpool on 9 October for what proved to be an excellent party. conference.

That is a funny old thing to say. Who would believe that? Will the Secretary of State have a word with British Rail and ask it to withdraw the rail passengers charter, in particular as it affects the west coast main line, so that timetables can be restored? Does he realise that, when the Government introduced the nonsense of the so-called charter, all that happened was that BR extended the journey times so that it did not have to pay compensation?

I am genuinely surprise to hear the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the passengers charters should be removed. That is no part of our manifesto. Indeed, far from removing them, we want to improve them and drive up the standards so that railway passengers get an even better service under privatisation than they did under nationalisation.

Is not the best way to restore reliability and investment on the north-west line—and, indeed, across the whole railway system—to proceed as quickly as possible with privatisation? We no longer have questions about lack of investment in telephones, water, gas or electricity because those industries were privatised and they have access to the capital that they need—something that the amateur corporate financiers on the Opposition Front Bench would not understand.

The whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that he read the Sunday Express yesterday, as I hope Opposition Members did. It contained an interesting article by John Edmonds, Railtrack's chief executive, in which he said:

"It is unquestionable that rail privatisation will lead to more investment."
That is exactly what my hon. Friend said.

The Secretary of State will know that the electric west coast main line does not go to Blackpool because the through train service has been discontinued. Does what he has just said mean that he is committed to ensuring that, when the west coast main line is upgraded, Blackpool has an electric train service running from London to Blackpool?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, it is a matter for the franchising director to decide whether to permit that service. However, I travelled via Preston, which is indeed on the west coast main line.

When my right hon. Friend next uses that excellent service, will he take the trouble to stop off at the city of Chester, where he will see the new improved station? He may realise that the station would have been improved some years ago, had it been privatised earlier, because the potential for investment in our railway stations is considerable. Will he also please pay tribute to the people who work on the line and are giving us an improved service of a very high standard despite the carping comments from the Opposition?

Invitations from my hon. Friend to visit his constituency are difficult to resist. He invited me to visit the tax office in Chester when I was Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and I am sure that my visit to his railway station will be every bit as exciting as my visit to his tax office.

Public Transport, Manchester

13.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement about public transport in Greater Manchester. [36470]

Public transport in Greater Manchester is primarily a matter for the local authorities and transport operators concerned. Subject to financial constraints, the Government will continue to consider funding worthwhile public transport schemes in Greater Manchester.

The Minister will appreciate that there has been great difficulty maintaining a reliable bus service in the Ashton and Denton areas of my constituency because of the problems of traffic spilling off the M66, which at present stops in my constituency rather than continuing to Oldham. My constituents had been hoping that the motorway would be completed so that pressure on ordinary roads would be relieved. Can the Minister assure the House that the rumours circulating in Tameside to the effect that there are to be further delays with that motorway are ill founded?

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to mention to me the nature of his question shortly before Question Time began. From the inquiries that I have been able to make, I can confirm that progress on the M66 contracts is proceeding normally, so I do not believe that there is any foundation for the rumours that the hon. Gentleman may have heard.

Is my hon. Friend the Minister surprised that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) did not mention the tens of millions of pounds of investment by the Government in Manchester in support of its 2002 Commonwealth games and Olympic games bids? Does he not accept—

Order. Had the hon. Gentleman done so, he would have strayed far from the question and I would have stopped him.

But is not it a consequence of that investment that the tram system and other public transport systems now operate in Manchester?

Rushing to the aid of my hon. Friend, I entirely agree that the £140 million investment in the Manchester Metrolink has substantially improved the public transport scene there and put it in an even more agreeable position than heretofore to mount a very credible Olympic bid.

I should like to raise that matter on a point of order after Question Time, Madam Speaker.

European Union Transport Networks

14.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next expects to meet his European Union counterparts to discuss the improvement of European Union transport networks. [36471]

I plan to attend the Transport. Council on 7 and 8 December at which I would expect progress with the development of trans-European transport networks to be discussed.

When the Secretary of State attends that meeting, will he press the very strong claims being made in south and north Wales to complete the European transport networks, which are currently under threat due to privatisation? Will he also give a commitment that there will be high quality rail services from our west Wales ports to Europe?

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to accept the premise on which he based his question—that privatisation poses some threat to the railway service in Wales. Having put that on one side, however, I assure him that I shall of course fight the United Kingdom's corner in the discussions as hard as I can. It is worth pointing out that of the 14 priority projects endorsed by the Essen European Council, four are projects in which the United Kingdom has an interest. As for the future programme, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to suggest some of the networks to which he referred as they are eligible under the TENs framework.

In discussions with his counterparts in Europe, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the importance of the A120 as a strategic network? Is he aware that the dualling of that road is badly needed, not only for traffic travelling from the east coast ports, but to serve the airport at Stansted.

I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that I am well aware of the strategic importance of the road to which he has referred.

Is the Minister aware that my colleague Robin Teverson, a Member of the European Parliament, persuaded the European Parliament to make rail links through to the west country, Exeter and Penzance the highest European priority for investment, bringing in European funding towards those improvements? It is understood, however, that Ministers are opposing that inclusion. Given that Ministers need to approve the inclusion, will the right hon. Gentleman argue for the improvement that the west country needs?

My understanding of the situation is somewhat different from the hon. Gentleman's interpretation. My understanding is that at the June Transport Council the Government put forward the addition of both the Waterloo-Exeter rail line and the Taunton-Reading line to the draft trans-European networks. Those additions were approved by the European Commission and by the Council of Ministers.