HC Deb 18 December 1985 vol 89 cc395-414 9.39 pm

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

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

This is a saga, because one of the prime duties of politicians is to warn their colleagues of all parties and their fellow countrymen about all-too-likely future fiascos and catastrophes.

I am no regular Jeremiah, but I foresee mid-channel mayhem in the mid-1990s, and 10-mile tailbacks in both directions under the Channel. Fanciful? If it can happen on the M6 and M25, why should it not occur under the Channel? I am using my luck in the Consolidated Fund draw, either to establish my fears about the Channel road link, or to have them refuted. I do not blame the Minister for not answering the questions about driver psychology that I asked in Monday's debate, which are reported in the Official Report c. 703, because I made a three-minute speech at the fag end of the discussion. Nevertheless, they remain unanswered.

In this era of "Members' interests," I had better say that I have the good fortune to be sponsored by the National Union of Railwaymen. But, as George Walkinshaw, Jimmy Knapp and Keith Hill will bear out, I initiated the discussion on this subject of driver psychology a month ago at the political committee of the NUR. Although the union has been extremely kind to my constituency Labour party, I am not a creature of the union

On purpose, I have never knowingly talked to, or had a meal from any commercial lobbyist or organisation involved in the Channel link.

The genesis of the debate was when, some years ago, I was stuck in the Dartford tunnel in a jam with my wife feeling increasingly sick from the fumes, and two whimpering small children in the back of the car. That is not an uncommon experience in the relatively short British tunnels.

The issue tonight is whether travellers who wish to accompany their vehicles across the Channel should be allowed to drive them, or whether they should be carried across with the vehicles by train. I am worried about highway hypnosis, and I had better define it carefully. It is the rigid cognitive set developing and creating a subjective notion of unchanging visual surroundings.

Highway hypnosis is associated with mental relaxation and lowered alertness. Bluntly, a great deal has been said even about the flora and fauna of Kent but not much about the psychology of humankind. Motorway madness has not had the consideration for the dimension of the Channel tunnel saga that it should have had. The serious work that has been done should make even the friends of the M6 a little uncomfortable.

G. W. Williams in his 1983 paper on highway hypnosis suggests that the monotony of the surroundings and the necessity to attend only to a small part of the visual field may induce some kind of hypnotic trance. The Department may have carried out serious work, but Mick Hamer of New Scientist has outlined all the cuts that have been made in the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, and the work that I have seen leads to the conclusion that a road link is flawed.

I have received a letter from the excellent scientific librarian of the Library, Dr. John Poole, who has served many Members well. I asked him to establish what the TRRL was doing, and he replied: "I duly rang up a psychologist at TRRL, who rang me to say that he was not at liberty to tell me anything about the R and D programme. He referred me to an assistant secretary of the DoT." Why cannot the TRRL have frank relations with the Library? For time's sake—I think of those who will be present at 9 o'clock tomorrow morning—I refer the Minister to the article in New Scientist of 5 September 1985, which shows how the TRRL has been affected by cuts. What work is the laboratory doing on the psychology of driving through the tunnel?

It is not that I have a bee in my bonnet. I have permission from the first five parliamentary colleagues whom I approached, to read what they told me. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) states: I find even going through the Blackwall Tunnel a worrying experience. Certainly I feel a sense of relief to come out the other side. That is after the long distance between Greenwich and Tower Hamlets. My hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) states: I find the short distance involved in driving through the Clyde tunnel to be oppressive; I hesitate to think what the cross-channel link will be like. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) states: I am always reluctant to go through the Mersey Tunnel; I would find the Channel Tunnel impossible. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) states: I drive about 25,000 miles every year, and I do not suffer from claustrophia. But nothing would induce me to endure the tension of driving through a tunnel for half an hour. My right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), a former Home Secretary, states: It is one thing to sit in a train through a long tunnel—even if it requires a certain effort. It is another to drive a car through a long tunnel with that light at the end a long way off. It will be a long time before drive from Calais to Dover and when I do I hope there is room to pass by easily those who have given it up as a bad job.

My hon. Friend the noble Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, formerly responsible for transport, said: The second reservation is perhaps more substantial, and it has been mentioned by many noble Lords here. It concerns the question of driving through a 30-mile tunnel. I am always amused when I see the rather over-enthusiastic artists' impression of such things as these tunnels. You always see the lone motor-car, the Fiesta, the Metro or the Novo driving through a beautiful, clean well painted bright tunnel. You never see Aunt Agatha"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 December 1985; Vol. 469, c. 515.]—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not quoting from the Lords Hansard.

Mr. Dalyell

I must confess that I was, but I know that I should not.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

How does my hon. Friend respond to the experience of those who travel between France and Italy, who regularly pass through the 20-kilometre Mont Blanc tunnel but have no difficulties?

Mr. Dalyell

Ten miles, but I shall come to that later.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dalyell


Those were the collected views of people in the prime of life. What about our weaker, less experienced brethren, or sisters too, for that matter?

Some of my constituents say that they will drive from Edinburgh to Paris. Bluntly—I do not know whether this is a parliamentary word—they will be knackered by the time that they reach the entrance to the Tunnel. Most of my constituents are sensible people, but even in Linlithgow there is the occasional nut behind the wheel. That proves the case, because it needs only one nut to create motorway havoc.

Consider driving from Paris after that last good meal. The whole scenario of returning from a continental holiday has the ingredients of tragedy. Motor magazine of 28 September 1985 states: It's the last weekend in July 1992, and you're driving at 70 mph in bumper-to-bumber traffic in a tunnel 120 ft below the sea bed, halfway between Dover and Calais. Suddenly a 12-year-old Cortina seizes up in front of you and, as you stand on the brakes, you hear the screech of a dozen massive tyres behind you as a fully-laden juggernaut skids towards your rear bumper.

The longest tunnel in Europe, for the information of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), is the Gotthard, which is 10–1 miles long. First-time motorists have difficulty envisaging the experience of travelling through it. Would any of us drive through a tunnel at 60 mph? Most of us would not go at more than 40 mph. What about overtaking, and what happens when the lighting goes wrong? What happens when cars run out of petrol? Some of us have suffered the indignity of running out of petrol when the gauges in our cars were defective. It happens to the best of us. What about the weekend drivers, just popping across to the Continent?

In the experience of the Simplon and of Japan, we have nothing like this. No one has driven through a 30-mile tunnel. I should tell my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) that the Channel expressway would be four and a half times longer than the Gotthard tunnel.

The subject has been studied by many psychologists. A paper published by Wertheim explains highway hypnosis, based on a theory validated in experimental research. Wertheim acknowledges that the explanation of Williams and others is difficult to verify, not least because the concept of monotony is not easily measured in such a way as to enable scientific experimentation. However, he argues that it is not monotony but predictability of the road situation that is crucial to the explanation of highway hypnosis.

The main points in the theory are as follows. Some of our mental abilities are related to the activity of our oculomotor system—the neurological system responsible for the initiation of eye movements. Car driving is a task where specific eye movements are required to follow predictable movements in the visual environment—other traffic vehicles as well as changes in the road. The more predictable those movements and changes, the more oculomotor control becomes intentive at the expense of the attentive component. As a result, drivers disregard most of the information present in the external visual field because of its irrelevance to driving performance. Thus, oculomotor control may become dependent on information derived from the perception of very few visual signals. In addition, those signals may become highly predictable in their movement pattern, especially during prolonged driving on long unchanging stretches of highway or during prolonged single file driving. That is what we are talking about in relation to the Channel. The Minister will contradict me if I am wrong about that.

The conditions thought to cause highway hypnosis would appear to prevail in the tunnel schemes; the visual images presented to a driver going across the bridge or through the tunnel seem especially prone to the predictability of the road situation examined by Wertheim. If it is, effects of such conditions on drivers should be understood in much greater detail during the design stages of the tunnel schemes. Symptoms affecting only a few drivers could have significant dangers for the functioning of the tunnel. Even 1 per cent. of drivers could create a dramatic incident in mid-Channel. It would need only a few fools, a few inexperienced drivers or a few panicking drivers to create such trouble.

Fatigue is not necessarily related to highway hypnosis but, according to the man who has done the work—Wertheim—it may sometimes have a facilitatory effect on its development. In general, there is likely to be recognition by motorists that there is danger in driving where certain circumstances may induce boredom, lack of attention or drowsiness.

Psychologists at the Institute for Science of Labour in Kawasaki, Japan, undertook a study of fatigue of bullet train drivers operating on multi-tunnelled sections. They recorded changes in the cab environment, heart rate, ear lobe, blood pressure, eye movement, flicker fusion frequency, responses to secondarily given visual signals and subjective fatigue. They concluded that continuous driving through tunnels "significantly hampers vigilance" and requires countermeasures against monotonous driving situations. The generally monotonic driving situations through tunnels caused gradual decrease in heart rate and low flicker fusion frequency. The subjective fatigues scores increased remarkably during the journey. Although driving such trains may not be strictly comparable with driving vehicles in well-lit tunnels, it is further medical research evidence that moving through a tunnel over long distances may have effects on driver vigilance that are not sufficiently understood.

I do not wish to boast about it, but I studied psychology for a year at Edinburgh university, and I know enough to say that this is a serious argument.

There is a serious risk of accidents in road tunnel schemes. The consequences of simple errors in driving in tunnels are illustrated in the case of the Caldecott tunnel. This extract from the official investigation serves to illustrate the possible dangers of road accidents in tunnels. This is from the official documents from California. They say: At about 12.12 am on April 7, 1982, several vehicles on a westbound California State Route 24 entered the north, No. 3 Bore of the Caldecott Tunnel near Oakland, California. A Honda car driven by an intoxicated driver struck the raised kerbs inside the tunnel and came to rest at the left edge of the roadway about a third of the way through the tunnel. It was struck soon afterwards by a following gasoline tank truck and tank trailer and then by an AC Transit bus which subsequently struck the tank trailer. The bus driver was ejected, and the empty bus continued west, exited the tunnel, and struck a concrete road support pier. The tank trailer overturned, and gasoline was spilled inside the tunnel. A fire erupted and heavy black smoke quickly filled the tunnel. The tank truck and tank trailer, the Honda car, and four other vehicles that had entered the tunnel were completely destroyed by the tire. Seven persons were killed and two people were treated for minor smoke inhalation. The tunnel incurred major damage. What happens should that happen mid-Channel? The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this accident—

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

It might well happen here.

Mr. Dalyell

Of course it might.

The board said that the probable cause of the accident was a combination of events involving first the erratic driving by the intoxicated driver of a passenger vehicle which stopped in a through-traffic lane, creating a traffic obstacle. It is perfectly possible for somebody who enters the tunnel from France or England to be intoxicated—there are no checks on that. A second factor in the accident was the inattention of the truck driver in causing his vehicle to strke the passenger vehicle. Many of the main lobbyists for a tunnel are the big truck-driving firms, whose drivers have to wait for the boats.

A third factor was the bus driver overtaking the truck too rapidly to avoid striking the passenger vehicle when it unexpectedly appeared in the path of his bus. There we return to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South.

Contributing to the cause and the severity of the accident was the presence of a flammable cargo tank truck and cargo tank trailer in the tunnel and the damage to the overturned trailer, which permitted a loss of flammable cargo and a fire. How does one control a fire in a confined space of parked vehicles? That question is at least worth answering.

Also contributing to the severity of the accident and injuries were the lack of adequate monitoring capabilities and the variable message signs or traffic signals at the entrance of the tunnel and within the tunnel, and the lack of a communications system betwen the tunnel personnel and the tunnel occupants, which if present, might have facilitated occupant evacuation.

Related to this is the proposition of driving over long bridges. I represent the area at the south end of the Forth brige. The vehicles have to go over, in moderate and high winds, two by two like the animals into Noah's ark, because, rightly, of police regulations. The winds in the Forth are nothing like those that blow up the Channel. Once again, problems are caused.

I refer to one letter of many that I have had, from Mr. G. D. Austin of 28 Alexandra road, Peterborough: Dear Tam Dalyell, I noted your little piece in the newspaper about driving twenty five miles through a proposed Channel Tunnel, yes the Dartford tunnel is bad enough, we have to pass through the Dartford Tunnel when visiting my son in Canterbury, and I note when looking into the driving mirror that my wife always covers her eyes when going through this tunnel (she always prefers to sit in the back). Now! on our last trip through the Dartford Tunnel in the late summer, the atmosphere was like a blue mist, being an ex-fireman I quickly realised the risk with what of course were petrol exhaust fumes, we were at the point of no return, so I at once instructed my wife and son, to close all windows tight, and to shut all ventilators in the car, even so the smell of exhaust fumes was terrific, and it was with a sigh of relief that we emerged at the Cambridge end. If people cannot cope with the Dartford tunnel, how the heck does one know that they can cope with a Channel tunnel? Having skilled and experienced railway engine drivers—trained professionally—is one thing. Letting loose Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all behind the wheel of a motor car is another.

We have to look at the effects of stress. The research by Dr. Ivor Brown and Dr. Roger Watt has shown that a large proportion of professional drivers flout the European Community regulations on hours of work. Many heavy goods vehicle and public service vehicle drivers are therefore suffering from the effects of driving fatigue, sleep loss and sleep disturbance. Many tourists are also fatigued from over-long periods at the wheel between home and their holiday destination. An enforced speed limit and the tedium of convoy driving may therefore depress to dangerously low levels the alertness of many commercial and private motorists using the tunnel, particularly from the southerly direction.

It is possible that the unusual conditions of tunnel driving will be sufficiently stimulating as largely to offset the effects of fatigue and sleep loss, at least initially. Thus, the effects of these forms of stress are likely to appear later in the journey through the tunnel, if they occur at all. Serious consideration must be given to the alleviation of these effects, if mid-tunnel multiple collisions are to be avoided. It is the multiple collisions, mid-tunnel, that concern many of us.

The two main effects to be guarded against are so-called "micro-sleep" and distraction. Micro-sleep, as the name implies, is a condition in which the driver actually loses consciousness for very brief periods. The experience is quite common. In a study of some 2,000 motorway and A-road accidents among truck and bus drivers, it was found that around 10 per cent. were preoccupied or distracted and that about 5 per cent. were actually asleep, just prior to the collision. Distraction occurs because fatigue causes the composite skill of driving to disintegrate. Thus, attention is given to events which may be of only peripheral interest for driving, and important sources of information are ignored.

Remedial measures against fatigue can therefore take two forms. The first is the establishment of advisory or mandatory, headways which are greater than the normally safe two seconds. This allows more time for recovery, even in the event of micro-sleep, but clearly it is not an infallible remedy. People are usually very good at detecting closure with an obstacle ahead. This ability could be aided by requiring the use of lights by all vehicles in the tunnel, but again this will be an ineffective measure if drivers are distracted. Are we to say that drivers will never be distracted? The introduction of special "arousing" stimuli to maintain the driver's level of alertness at an appropriately high level should be seriously considered.

Arousing stimuli can be visual or auditory. The former can take the form of verbal messages, light signals or markings on the road surface or tunnel walls. The latter can take the form of music, speech or warning tones. If one has to go to the length of introducing music or warning tones, one cannot be certain that there will never be major accidents. I repeat that, if this can happen on the M6, resulting in the kind of tragedy that has been reported to the House, how can one say that it will never happen on the Channel tunnel motorway? Repetitive stimuli produce a condition termed "reactive inhibition" in which the person ceases to respond appropriately to external stimuli. Any alerting system for drivers therefore needs to present continually changing sensations if it is to remain effective.

The auditory channel is more effective than the visual for alerting drivers, since it does not require the conscious direction of attention. However, specific applied studies would be required in order to establish the feasibility of auditory alerting devices, since ambient noise levels in the tunnel are likely to be high and warnings must not be pitched so high above them that they produce startle responses.

If auditory alerting techniques are adopted, advantage should be taken of the research on auditory warnings conducted at the MRC's applied psychology unit. The aim of this research has been to develop a technique by which the spectral characteristics of signal and background noise are specified so as to maximise the warning effect at minimal sound pressure levels in the signal.

Many users of the tunnel, at least in the summer, will be families. Young children will perhaps find the experience unpleasant and could then become an extra distraction for the driver. There is considerable scope for providing entertainment for young children. A painting of a different "Mr. Men" character at frequent intervals could help the time to pass quickly for them. In a similar vein, weather reports and pictures of tourist landmarks could be useful for passengers who are not quite so young. Clearly these should not be eye-catching to the driver, and high pressure advertising would be undesirable.

It is strongly recommended, say the psychologists, that some form of visual or auditory alerting system should be incorporated in the tunnel design to offset any difficulties which may result from driving fatigue or the tedium of tunnel driving. Research is required on the specific form that this signal should take.

If one goes to that extent to try to provide safety, how can any of us think that safety can be so certain as to ensure that there is not the nightmare of accidents which could lead to catastrophe?

What about the mixture of right-hand and left-hand drive vehicles in two-lane, one-way tunnels? What about the change at the French end? It is one matter to drive on the other side of the road after a two-hour boat journey, but if there are no boats and no bateaux and people suddenly have to change over, what difficulties will that create? We must remember that reflex actions are involved, especially when overtaking. Such details must be discussed now rather than later.

We could be the biggest Charlies of the 20th century. Let us imagine, week in and week out, sub-Channel pileups. It would be like the road between Cockbridge and Tomintoul. That is just about as reliable as the road from Banchory to Fettercairn in mid-winter. To imagine that we can have a successful road under the Channel is ill-conceived to a hazardous extent.

What work did the Department do before presenting a fait accompli? The trouble is that civil servants did not give evidence for the rail-only solution to the Select Committee because they did not think that Ministers would wear it. Civil servants should present to the Select Committee all the options, if there is a convincing answer to the problems that I have raised, either now or by letter in the new year, which should be made public to my colleagues. I would accept that publicly and privately. If a convincing answer—

Mr. Snape

Has my hon. Friend considered the role of civil servants, because like Ministers they are hostile to a rail link as they are hostile to railways anywhere else in the country?

Mr. Dalyell

I have a high regard for the Civil Service. I have been listening this afternoon to the Select Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) which was examining Clive Ponting. Civil servants have difficulties, but I agree with my hon. Friend's substantial point. The Civil Service should be able to speak frankly and fearlessly, without ministerial pressure. However, I am upset that the TRRL apparently is not to be able to make its views known. I should like to have the candid view of those experts about the points that I have raised.

If Ministers at the Department of Transport cannot produce convincing answers, officials and Ministers will, I fear, find me as persistent, as difficult and as time-consuming as do their colleagues in the Ministry of Defence.

10.9 pm

Sir John Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)

Last week, on 9 December, I declared my interest in that debate because I am joint chairman of the all-party Channel tunnel group. The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) is the other chairman. We have tried objectively to examine the options which the Government are considering. As I explained then, the group goes back about 50 years, and I have been associated with it for 25 years.

At a conference and exhibition in Lille last Monday, the French, because of this event's association with Trans Manche, insisted upon introducing me as the president of the British fixed link committee. I shall try to be objective, although the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has confessed his interest in and sympathy for the National Union of Railwaymen. In a humorous and delightful way he described the horrors of driving through tunnels.

They are also the anxieties of a motorist, whether he is stuck on the boulevard peripherique or the latest innovation of that—judging by the comments of some motorists who live near it—the M25. It must be accepted that statistically motorways are safer than other roads, though when an accident does occur it can be horrific, as many know to their cost.

I have previously said—I shall illustrate the reason for holding this view—that I like the idea of driving through a Channel tunnel. However, the point that the hon. Member for Linlithgow raised needs close consideration, for it is necessary to bear in mind the psychological reaction of drivers in a tunnel 27 miles long. Frankly, I do not know what that reaction is likely to be.

When the House debated this issue recently, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary pointed out that that and other matters were being examined by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, an organisation for which, I am sure, the hon. Member for Linlithgow has as much respect as I have, but is it possible to simulate the reaction of a driver in a tunnel for 30 minutes when at present no such tunnel exists? Is it possible to gauge that, whatever equipment is devised? I am not criticising the transport laboratory. I, too, have made inquiries, being an enthusiastic motorist. You will know, Mr. Speaker, that the House of Commons Motor Club, in which you have taken a close interest, is a body of which I have been chairman. By chance, that club visited the Institute of Advanced Motorists' centre at Chiswick today. The institute's theme is "Safe driving", and I have been president of the Sheffield branch for 25 years. I wanted to obtain the reaction of that institute, but I was not able to get a considered reply about whether it was safe to contemplate driving through 27 miles of tunnel. Thus, the motoring organisations are not united on whether the projects that have been put forward have been well worked out.

I have examined again the excellent report of the Select Committee. That Committee doubted the validity of the traffic forecasts and pointed out that they were not required by the Government to be submitted in the same format and to be based on common assumptions. The Committee added: It is consequently very difficult for the Committee to make detailed comparisons between the schemes. I should have liked those detailed comparisons to enable me properly to discuss this issue, but I could not obtain them.

Those advancing the Channel expressway put the case over in Lille extremely well. They have their own views on the number of air travellers that the expressway will attract. They believe that passengers and cars with drivers will number 2.4 million in 1991, that there will be just over 1 million lorries, and that rail and foot passengers will number 4.4 million. I should like to compare those with other forecasts, and I hope that the Minister will give some statistics of traffic forecasts.

The promoters of the expressway said: All types of internal combustion engine vehicles can drive through at 100 km/hr (62.5 mph) taking 30 minutes to do so. I was interested to read in one of their documents in respect of safety and the problems of fatigue or becoming mesmerised through driving for 30 minutes along a straight tunnel: There is not a shred of evidence to support the allegations of driver fatigue or uncontrolled operation of motor vehicles in excess of that incurred on motorways by virtue of driving through a 50 km properly designed tunnel … All modern devices which have been found useful for keeping the driver alert for open road and tunnel driving have been incorporated into the Channel Expressway, such as strong lighting, signalling, roadway surface variations, painting and closed circuit radio systems. That was described in their video. I hope that the assessors will question whether that has been gone into in adequate detail.

Sir John Wells (Maidstone)

Is it not true that the expressway scheme has been vetted by some eminent medical people? Naturally we want to have a governmental medical view, but I believe that the expressway promoters have gone to a lot of trouble on the medical point.

Sir John Osborn

Yes, and their report refers to that. The assessors must question that medical evidence, and I would wish to see that. Of course the adequacy of the ventilation must be questioned.

Euroroute has a slightly different idea of speeds—100 kph on bridges, 80 kph in tunnels and 50 kph on the islands—the spiralling projects. Euroroute states that it will install sophisticated traffic management and control systems using closed circuit television cameras, excellent lighting throughout the link, frequent patrols and 24-hour assistance teams to provide fast response. That is all nicely put down in the document, but how will it work in practice?

Will the spirals be safe? Will traffic be able to move without problems, without skidding or braking? The report says that the maximum gradient of 3.5 per cent. is half that on the Hyde Park underpass, and it points out that the radius of the helix is considerable, making the diameter rather larger then Trafalgar square. However, or, a long journey, four of five circles, particularly for a heavy goods vehicle driver, could be a little detrimental. It says that two independent driver psychologists have reviewed the road link and reported that driving conditions on the bridge and tunnel sections will be as good if not better than on existing roads.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow makes me want my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the matter. Obviously I have looked at the traffic density put forward by the Channel tunnel group. It is definitely using a shuttle—a railway carriage in the old definition; one able to carry heavy vehicles, another with two tiers to carry cars. It points out that passengers will suffer less stress; that there will be none of the disorientation that could arise from driving through a long distance tunnel. There will be immunity from road traffic delays, traffic accidents and the vagaries of the weather. It also points out that accident rates on straight rail lines with no interconnecting rail line compare favourably with the accident rate on motorways.

I come back to my own experience. I have said previously that there was a debate on the bridge versus the tunnel in the early 1970s, at the Institute of Civil Engineers. The hon. Member for Linlithgow might have been there, through the parliamentary and scientific committee. A paper was given by General Sverdrop, who had just built the tunnel embankment bridge complex across Chesapeake Bay. I described how in 1972 I went across Transpo' 72 in Washington and met General Sverdrop. He arranged for me to visit that complex. I think that I crossed 22 miles in 17 minutes. I am not sure of my facts, because I might have been travelling above the American speed limit. I might have had a slightly fast driver. I liked that. However, the first year of work on Chesapeake Bay had a setback because a ship rammed into the bridge and it took several months to repair it, with a consequential loss of tolls.

Another experience was more than 30 years ago, when I drove from Milan to Zurich over the Lukmanier pass, which is next to the St. Gotthard pass. It was a tiring, all-day journey. I set off in the morning and arrived at around 8 pm or 9 pm, rather late for a business dinner. This summer I drove through the St. Gotthard tunnel—unaware that there was a tunnel, let alone that it was 17 km or about 10 miles long. I understand that it is planned to have two tunnels, but at the moment there is one tunnel with two-way traffic. There are notices telling cars and lorries to keep their distance and I had no problem in driving through that tunnel with the other vehicles, even in two-way traffic, although it was a novel and unexpected experience. I understand, however, that one or two drivers who have deliberately driven through the tunnel three times in quick succession to achieve the distance have found the 50 km drive far more exhausting.

Mr. Dalyell

The hon. Gentleman is a good driver.

Sir John Osborn

I like to think so, and I aim to be so. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind words.

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

In the light of my hon. Friend's remarks and of the earlier comments, is not the answer to have a road and rail link both going through the tunnel so that the driver has a choice? If a driver feels tired, he can use the rail link and have his car transported, but if, like my hon. Friend, he regards it as a novel experience, he can choose to drive.

Sir John Osborn

My hon. Friend tempts me to embark on a full discussion of the wider options.

My hon. Friend organised an excellent meeting at the Institute of Advanced Motorists, which now has about 85,000 members out of perhaps 25 million drivers. A further 260,000 or so have taken the institute's test, so there might be 500,000 drivers in this country who can claim to be able to concentrate and to cope with any situation. I have no doubt that they could drive through a tunnel of the proposed length, but whether the entire 25 million would be capable of doing so is a matter of doubt.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow referred to a fire in a tunnel in the United States. Matters of that kind must constantly be borne in mind. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, however, to inquire what problems the Italians, the Austrians or the Swiss have had with the Mont Blanc tunnel or with the St. Gotthard, which is currently the longest in the world. I believe that when drivers, especially heavy vehicle drivers, become used to driving through tunnels they temper their manner and drive more soberly, just as British drivers are now better adjusted to motorway driving than they were when motorways were introduced 20 years ago.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow has convinced me by raising the subject today and by his comments that the concept put forward by the Government in 1974 and by the Channel tunnel group now has much to commend it. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) has drawn me slightly on this. I should like him to consider the possibility of a shuttle as the first move. This would accommodate drivers who did not wish to drive through the tunnel. Certain categories of heavy vehicle which should not be allowed to go through the tunnel could be diverted to ferries or go on a shuttle if there is subsequently a road tunnel as an additional option. In my view, certain types of goods—for instance, dangerous chemicals and highly inflammable materials—should not go into the tunnel at all, but should always be carried by ferry.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North will agree that I am concerned about these issues. I am concerned that the two Governments should make the right decision, and also that that decision should not eliminate the use of ferries when the first tunnel is built. I have been drawn a little further than the question of safety, but I look forward to the Minister's reply.

10.25 pm
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for raising this subject and for the way in which he expressed his point of view.

In a way it is ironic that we should need such a debate, because one would have thought that a Government who were so obviously committed to some sort of fixed link—as the present Government appear to be—would have undertaken some research into the effects of driving long distances in a straight line. I hope that in his reply the Minister will address himself to the questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and also to some of the points that were understandably and relevantly raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Sir J. Osborn), who is co-chairman of the all-party Channel Tunnel Group.

I have not had the same number of years in that position as has the hon. Gentleman, but he will be aware, as other hon. Members are, that I have been in favour of a rail Channel tunnel for some years. I hope that that will not affect what I shall say tonight.

Sir John Osborn

Perhaps I should point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Sir J. Wells) was chairman for many years. Along with the hon. Gentleman, I have been co-chairman for only 18 months. I would not like him to give the impression that I have been chairman for 25 years.

Mr. Snape

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I should have said that in one way or another he has been connected with this project for considerably longer than I have.

The fact that we are having this debate demonstrates the enormous power of the road lobby, which insists that Governments of both political hues should cravenly accept that, whatever improvement is needed to our transport infrastructure, the road lobby must be catered for first and foremost. It continues to demand enormous public expenditure on such improvements on the ground that the lorry and private car should be allowed to go anywhere the driver wishes to go.

Mr. Greg Knight

What about the rail lobby?

Mr. Snape

If the hon. Gentleman has something to say, he should get to his feet in the normal way.

Mr. Knight

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The points he is making could just as easily be applied to the rail lobby.

Mr. Snape

That might well be so, but, given transport history over the last 25 years, it is clear that the road lobby has been far more successful. Given the way in which the hon. Gentleman has put his view, it looks as if even he has succumbed to the argument that the private motorist and the heavy goods vehicle driver should be allowed to go wherever he or she likes and that it is the job of the Department of Transport to provide the infrastructure to allow them to do just that.

I make no apology for disagreeing with that view. I am well aware that many of the proponents of the fixed link have referred to public opinion polls which have shown that people would prefer to drive all the way across the Channel. There is nothing surprising about that. Ask average motorists whether they would prefer to go to the moon in a spaceship or to fly themselves, and a substantial proportion would say that they preferred to fly themselves rather than rely on someone else. I must therefore discount that sort of evidence.

The tragedy is that, if the Channel tunnel had been built when the idea was first mooted, it would have been a rail-only tunnel. I do not normally praise the foresight of Victorian business men, but I believe that Sir Edward Watkin, the chairman of the London and South-East Railway, was right when he said all those years ago that a channel fixed link—he did not say rail-only, but it was presumed that it would be—was sensible. In talking of through trains from Waterloo to Paris and other continental cities, he was speaking with a great deal of foresight.

These days it is different. The fact that there is a demand for the type of options that the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) mentioned owes much to the strength of the road lobby. The lobby seems to forget that a torrent of cars and lorries will cause immense environmental problems in south England and north France. They will cause immense traffic and pollution problems in the tunnel.

Most hon. Members spend a considerable time behind the wheel of their cars. Some might say that they prefer to travel by some alternative means, as I do. I would prefer to go to my constituency—or at least as close as I can get to it—by rail, but it is often necessary for me to use my car. Those of us who travel a considerable number of miles are aware of the stupid behaviour of the minority of motorists, which can be seen most days, especially on the motorways but also on any trunk road or road in an urban area. Most people would be prepared to concede that an accident in a 21-mile or longer tunnel would have a greater effect than a similar accident on a motorway. Of course, our motorways are safer than most other roads, but, by the nature of the speed and type of traffic on motorways, an accident on a motorway is normally more serious than an accident on a minor road. I think that anyone who is prepared to be fair would concede that it is a matter of time before a major accident takes place under the English channel, if there is a fixed link that provides an opportunity for the two modes of transport—road and rail—to be used.

I do not want to be accused of painting an unduly lurid picture of what might happen. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow showed the picture humorously and dispassionately in talking about accidents in tunnels in other parts of the world. I do not think that any of us would like to be in our cars if carnage of the sort that happened on the M6 a few weeks ago were to take place within the confines of a tunnel. I imagine that the tragic and appalling loss of life that occurred on the M6 would be multiplied considerably if there were a similar incident in a tunnel stretching across the Channel.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow talked understandably about the problems of exhaust fumes and the ventilation of a Channel tunnel. I am aware that some of the bidders have said that with the technological developments of recent years it will not be too great a problem to extract exhaust fumes from a tunnel, but there will be a navigation hazard wherever the fumes are extracted.

It is argued that it is safe to sail across or up and down the Channel. If we are talking about hazards below the Channel, we should talk also of some of the hazards on the surface, and I should like to know what research the Department of Transport has undertaken. We all know that there are about 300 near misses or near accidents in the Channel each year. If we were to add even more navigation hazards, as some of the schemes for the fixed Channel link are supposed to do, it is likely that there would be even more problems or accidents than at present.

I am aware that the Minister might say that there is nothing new about the bridge technology that would be involved. I accept that modern ships are equipped with better navigational equipment than hitherto, but, I have in mind a large tanker, such as the Torrey Canyon of 1960s fame, drifting out of control in the Channel and striking one of the likely navigation hazards. There are problems with a fixed link above the surface as there are with one below.

Of the schemes that are shortly to be considered by the Department, one of the front runners appears to be the Euroroute, which is the part-bridge, part-tunnel scheme. According to the newspapers, it was regarded as the favourite a few months ago. It has the drawback of featuring a bridge out to an artificial island, and my comments about shipping hazards must apply to an artificial island. Road traffic would have to travel to the island before descending a futuristic spiral which would take it beneath the sea.

If the average motorist is asked in a questionnaire whether he or she would prefer to drive across the Channel, I do not believe that he or she would pause to consider factors such as strain and sheer boredom, which would be involved in driving for a considerable time in a straight line in a tunnel below the sea. Those who built some of the long-distance roads in other parts of the world soon realised that straight-line roads were a likely cause of accidents. Most of us know who spend any time on motorways how easy it is to lose concentration and to indulge in what my hon. Friend described as microsleep. How much more likely it is to lose concentration and be more susceptible to microsleep when travelling in a straight line.

We all know that if we open the Channel fixed link to everybody, among those sitting behind the wheel will be a fair proportion of people with things on their minds that stop them from concentrating on their driving, a proportion of drivers who have drunk too much, a proportion of people who should not be allowed behind a wheel at any time, on any road—but who, thanks to our 50-year-old driving test, can drive legally—and a proportion of drivers, especially of heavy lorries, who will be anxious to get to their destination as quickly as possible because time is money.

That explosive mixture below the surface of the English Channel is an unacceptable risk. I hope that the Minister will tell the House what research is underway into those factors, and whether they will be taken into consideration before the Government announce which of the proposed schemes is to be accepted.

The hon. Member for Derby, North said that if drivers felt that they were not up to the psychological impact of driving through a tunnel, they could take the train. If he thinks about it, he will recognise that that is a naive way of looking at the matter—

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

The hon. Gentleman is daft, not naive.

Mr. Snape

I would not be so unkind. It is a naive way of looking at human reactions. If someone was driving from the West Country to Scotland, but not feeling quite up to that, it would be possible to put the car on a motorail train in ride to Scotland. But the number of impulse buyers of motorail tickets is infinitesimal, to say the least.

If a driver has decided to drive to the Continent and back, he will do so regardless of his physical condition or the availability of alternative services.

Mr. Greg Knight

The hon. Gentleman is slightly distorting what I said. My earlier intervention was in response to the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Sir J. Osborn), who referred to the person who had driven through the tunnel once, then back through the same tunnel, then back again, and then back yet again for the fourth time.

While I accept that someone going on a long journey who has packed his car might, if he had the choice, decide to drive through the Channel tunnel, if on his return from his holiday he felt rather tired when he reached the link, if there is the alternative available of using a rail service, many sensible and reasonable motorists would decide to do so. That choice should be available.

Mr. Snape

I know that the Conservative party makes a song and a dance about availability and freedom of choice. The hon. Gentleman's view is unrealistic. A motorist in the position that he described will have psychologically decided to drive.

The argument that clinches the debate on the fixed link is this. Anybody with a grain, an ounce, an iota of common sense, rather than drive to a terminal at Cheriton, would prefer to load the car on to a train at a place away from the tunnel mouth, and pass the long journey in comparative comfort and safety on the train, through the Channel tunnel.

Notwithstanding the advanced technology from Japan that one of the fixed link advocates has talked about, I hope that the Government, despite their avowed dislike of commonsense solutions for transport, will opt for the only sensible cross-Channel link of the ones before them and for once will have the courage to say what Max Hastings, the well-known Left-wing journalist, said. He referred to the detestable road lobby. I hope that the Government will say "This time you are not getting your own way. We shall be sensible about our transport infrastructure." However, I believe that the French will tell them that anyway. Normally on the continent Governments are less susceptible to the wiles, blackmail and arm twisting of the road lobby than successive Governments have been in this country. I hope that the decision will be made for the Government by the French.

The only sensible solution is that of the Channel Tunnel Group. The points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow not only should have been discussed a long time ago and should form a part of the decision-making processes of the Department of Transport, but should provide an unanswerable reason why the only cross-Channel link that we should have is one connecting Britain with the continent by rail only.

10.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) helpfully sought to give an airing to several matters affecting the Channel fixed link, if any, and the decision that the Government have to make. I am grateful to him, for reasons that will come out during my remarks, for having initiated the debate, even at a later hour than both he and I thought it would be.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to an experience that he had had while driving—[Interruption.]—through the Dartford tunnel. It is helpful that that was imprinted on his mind so clearly that he was able to describe it—[Interruption.] I do not think that the hon. Members for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) and for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) wish me to give way, but they keep interrupting from a sedentary position. I shall give way if they wish. [Interruption.] I apologise for interrupting the hon. Members' conversation, but I was trying to answer the hon. Member for Linlithgow, who raised serious points, which the House needs to examine carefully.

The point that I was trying to make was that the hon. Gentleman's Dartford tunnel experience, which was imprinted so clearly on his recollection, is the sort of thing that we have to try to ensure is covered when we make our assessments.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the tailback that can be found on a motorway-type road and said that one nut can create havoc. That highlights vividly why we must consider the promoters' proposals carefully.

The hon. Gentleman rightly attaches importance to driver safety. It is a key element in our assessment. We are not simply considering the type of catastrophic event which he and his hon. Friend on the Government Front Bench—

Mr. Snape

The Minister is two years too soon.

Mr. Mitchell

—the Opposition Front Bench described. We must be sure that the link is designed to cater for all conceivable conditions and incidents. It must therefore have adequate crossovers, high quality surveillance, traffic control equipment for close and constant monitoring and satisfactory contingency measures to deal with breakdowns or emergencies. The promoters' proposals are therefore being examined to see how they would cope with the three operating states.

The first hypothesis is the normal free-flowing condition, when the main need is to provide for the occasional breakdown. The second is when it is necessary for the operator to take a complete lane or carriageway out of service. That has not been mentioned, but it must be taken into account. The main need is the ability to divert traffic safely. Finally, we are considering the promoters' contingency plans to deal with emergencies. Important requirements in this regard are immediate response from rescue crews, clear and effective traffic signals and control of the ventilation system in case of fire.

Hon. Members have mentioned other aspects, which I shall ensure are drawn to the attention of our assessment teams. The drive-through schemes are being assessed critically on that basis. The Department's highway engineers, outside experts and experts from France will have to be satisfied on all of the counts that I have outlined before any road scheme could go ahead.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the findings of the assessment teams be made available to the Library for those of us who are interested? As I said in my speech, I was a little disappointed that the TRRL could not talk to the Library.

Mr. Mitchell

I give way to my hon. Friend.

Sir John Page (Harrow, West)

Are some of the teams joint British and French teams, or is it possible that the two Governments will come to dramatically different conclusions?

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Member for Linlithgow asked about the TRRL report. We will publish a White Paper. Some of the information from the promoters, for example, is commercially confidential. The White Paper will give the House as much information as can reasonably be made available. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Sir J. Page) asked about the possibility of divergent views. We have 20 assessment groups, and the French have other groups covering the same issues. The two teams are in touch with each other. That does not necessarily mean that they will come to the same conclusions. So far there appears to be general consensus between the assessment groups about the risks that they have been asked to identify, consider and recommend on.

The question of driver psychology was also raised in the debate on 9 December, especially by the hon. Member for Linlithgow. That gave me the opportunity to satisfy myself that the question was being thoroughly considered in the assessments. The matter was also dealt with in the Transport Select Committee's report published on 2 December. Interestingly, the Select Committee referred to the need to be satisfied about the psychology, not only of driving through tunnels, but of loading and unloading vehicles from trains.

The promoters of the two fixed link schemes which involve drive-through tunnels have adduced evidence about driver psychology in support of their, admittedly different, schemes. Both promoters propose a range of measures to guard against any difficulty on that account. There will, for example, be permanent patrols throughout the link. Their evidence and measures are being examined closely by the assessment teams. For that work we are calling on the resources of the TRRL.

The hon. Gentleman said that the TRRL did not report direct to the Library or to hon. Members who had made inquiries. It is doing research for a client, and it is normal to report to the client—in this case the Department of Transport—and for the client to make available requested information. Certainly the hon. Gentleman's points will be kept in mind for the White Paper.

An important area in which we need to be satisfied is how the less expert non-professional driver will cope with what may be unfamiliar conditions. We need to know the answer to that question, both for safety and to determine whether the psychological effects of driving through the tunnel would affect usage and the viability of the scheme. The hon. Gentleman quoted extensively from a document which has come to me from the Channel tunnel group. I assure him that it has come into his possession, mine and that of the assessment teams. Therefore, they can take account of the points that are made.

Mr. Dalyell

I told the Minister's office that I would quote from it, as soon as I knew I was lucky in the ballot—

Mr. Mitchell

I am not complaining, but merely saying that the Channel tunnel group has sent that information, and that we have ensured that it has reached our assessors and is being covered.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the arguments in that document about the monotony and predictability affecting drivers, and the possibility of micro-sleep. Sometimes when hon. Members are in the House until late into the night and drive home, I am surprised that there are not more examples of that. The circumstances of the tunnel may induce boredom, lack of attention and drowsiness, and that must be considered carefully. There are ways which hon. Members have described, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Sir J. Osborn), which seek to deal with that problem. The question is whether they deal with the problem effectively.

The question of inebriated drivers has been raised, and of holidaymakers tired from long journeys. Some people drive long distances, for example across France, at the end of a holiday, flop into the ferry and are happy to put up their feet and let someone else do the work. I have no doubt that, should there be a Channel fixed link—we do not know that yet—many people will still wish to use ferries for those clear advantages.

Much more serious questions were raised by hon. Members who drew attention to the potential of fire hazards and of carbon monoxide hazards in long tunnels.

Mr. Dalyell

Rational people will use the ferries, where they can flop, but people who want to flop usually want to do it at home. Therefore, they will take the risk of using the tunnel. They will do so at the expense of others and themselves.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that danger. However, that danger also exists on our roads. The House will be well aware that tiredness slows people's reactions and helps to turn small accidents into major ones.

Mr. Rogers

Can the Minister illustrate in our roads system the comparable physical circumstances of a Channel tunnel—for example, a straight 20-mile road?

Mr. Mitchell

I am sorry that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman, because that was not the point raised by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape). I was trying to reply seriously to his question about multiple accidents and the pile-ups that can happen even on open roads such as the M6. We shall have to consider carefully what the effects will be, not just what we should do when a tunnel is jammed and the emergency services cannot reach the scene of an accident as easily as they might reach an accident on a motorway, but whether the tunnel ventilation will be able to cope in the event of such an accident. All of those are important matters of which we are aware, and during this short debate some of there have been highlighted. We shall ensure that they are covered by our assessment teams as they consider the problems.

All tunnel schemes require special ventilation measures. The invitation to promoters made it clear that the ventilation of a road link should comply with the recommendations of the PIARC tunnels technical committee report of October 1983. The Channel expressway scheme uses two systems of ventilation in conjunction: electrostatic precipitators and longitudinal jet fans. Electrostatic precipitators have not before been used in Britain, but they have a proven record in Japan and should be an interesting concept. Their purpose is to clean diesel smoke by scrubbing out the solid particles that it contains. The additional longitudinal jet fan system is required to dilute the carbon monoxide in the air. The hon. Member for Linlithgow referred to the Dartford tunnel. He also drew attention to a letter about the matter. It is clear that we are concerned, not only with the ability of precipitators to take out diesel smoke, but with the level of carbon monoxide, and whether we can ensure that people's health will not be put at risk by driving through the tunnel.

We are examining the details of the proposals as a matter of priority. The tunnel environment will have to meet acceptable standards in carbon monoxide levels and in visibility. In particular, we need to be satisfied about the performance of these combined systems in the range of traffic conditions, and especially their effect in dealing with fires and smoke control. Ventilation shafts are being examined by two assessment groups. The engineering group is assessing the vulnerability of the shafts to impact from shipping. The risks to shipping and the implications for the International Maritime Organisation are being considered by our marine assessment team.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hallam drew attention to the ventilation in the Channel tunnel. He described his fears about the possible risks to shipping, and we have indentified that as something at which we must look carefully.

A number of other matters were raised by other hon. Members. The hon. Member for Linlithgow raised a question about civil servants and evidence to the Select Committee. I understand that none was called to give evidence to the Committee. I shall consider releasing the advice of the TRRL in the White Paper.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the problems of vehicles that might run out of petrol, experience a failure of lights in the tunnel and so on. I am grateful to him for having raised these matters, because again this adds to the valuable way in which, both this debate and the earlier debate, hon. Members have pointed their fingers at things that we have to consider thoroughly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hallam drew attention to the differing forecasts of the traffic and asked me to publish them. Some of that is commercially confidential imformation, but we shall publish a White Paper. I can give a provisional timetable, which involves a decision in late January, a White Paper at about the same time, with a view to a treaty being signed in February.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the gradient on the artificial islands, and I shall certainly look at that. They are large, about the size of Trafalger square, and my hon. Friend's point is important. He also described his experience of driving through the St. Gotthard tunnel, which is about 17 km long. There is a great difference between his driving as an advanced driver and that of my elderly aunt, whom I would not encourage to take this journey.

Sir John Osborn

Surely there must be a fund of experience of good and bad drivers going through these tunnels. I hope that that experience, some of which will be coming from the Mont Blanc tunnel, will be made available to the French and British assessors.

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend has drawn to my attention a point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Sir J. Wells) when he sought the Government's view on the medical aspects of drivers going through such long tunnels. We shall be drawing on the experience of the operators of Swiss and other long tunnels before we make a decision. We shall also be taking expert advice about driver behaviour in a road tunnel.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East said that it was odd that we should have this debate. It is not odd at all—it is helpful that the hon. Member for Linlithgow has given us the opportunity to hear more from the House. It is not odd, it is felicitous, because it has enabled me to recover from my disappointment at the absence of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East from our proceedings when we last debated this subject. I am glad that the inhibition that kept him out of sight on that occasion has now gone.

Mr. Snape

I am grateful to the hon Gentleman. I hope to participate in many such debates—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)


Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should just like to thank the Under-Secretary of State for the seriousness and courtesy of his reply.