HC Deb 19 March 1985 vol 75 cc825-30

Order for Second Reading read.

7 pm

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is part of the continuing policy of the British Railways Board to achieve more efficiency and better services for its customers. It comes at a time when the highest level of investment for 25 years has been authorised. About £2.5 billion is to be spent over the next five years. Electrification of the east coast main line and the introduction of the new "sprinter" vehicles to replace the old diesel multiples are examples of that improvement in service.

As my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out yesterday in the House, substantial losses have, of course, resulted from the miners' dispute. It is the board's determination not only to make good those losses, but to win back the lost business. The Bill will go some way towards changing the present structure of the board's network to take account of the need for greater efficiency.

I shall point out those parts of the Bill that hon. Members may wish to study. Part I contains mainly the standard provisions that appear in all similar Bills. I refer, for example, to the general provisions in clause 3 that are relevant to railway construction, and to the application of the Compulsory Purchase Act 1965 in clause 4.

Part II contains the most significant early changes and the power to make works. Several works which are outlined in the Bill will have some material benefit for the travelling public. For example, works Nos. 1 and 2 relate to London. Work No. 1, which is outlined in clauses 6 and 7, involves the reinstatement of the railway at Farringdon, which has lain disused since 1969. Using the tunnel at Snow Hill, it will provide a link between the board's midland main line service out of St. Pancras and the board's passenger network south of the Thames. It will ultimately link stations such as Bedford, Luton, St. Albans, Streatham, Croydon, Catford, Bromley, Sevenoaks and Gillingham with an uninterrupted service.

Work No. 2, to which clause 8 relates, involves building a short railway of some 650 m joining the midland main line outside St. Pancras with the east coast main line at the King's Cross freight terminal junction. That will provide direct access for the movement of empty high-speed rolling-stock and will save a great deal of time, fuel and manpower. As it is directly within the board's King's Cross freight complex, it will certainly improve activities there.

Work No. 3 involves the electrification of the east coast main line. I reassure hon. Members that there has been full consultation with the Tyne and Wear county council, and that the scheme has its full approval.

Clauses 16 to 26 relate to the closure of level crossings. They represent part of a continuing programme to provide for more efficiency. If any hon. Members have points to make about individual level crossing closures, I shall endeavour to deal with them later.

Part III is another standard provision dealing with the purchase of land, and rights over land.

Part IV incorporates the provisions of the British Railways (No. 2) Act 1981.

Part V of the Bill, which contains miscellaneous provisions, introduces several quite significant new proposals. Clause 37 gives British Rail police powers to seek information as to the identity of a vehicle driver involved in offences either at level crossings or within station approaches. That power does not currently exist, and the Bill will bring those officers within the scope of the more general law.

Clause 42 has caused some concern in south Wales, particularly for the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) and for the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Coleman). The board proposes to cease to operate a swing-bridge over the River Neath. I should like to set the record straight. The ability to open the bridge was the result of the Rhondda and Swansea Bay Railway Act 1892, and it represented an attempt to provide access along the length of the river from wharves and jetties down past Briton Ferry. However, the swing-bridge facility has hardly been used in recent times. It was used 14 times in 1947, three times in 1948, only once in 1949, and once in 1956, but only for testing purposes, at the request of the Neath harbour commissioners.

The board believes that maintaining the fiction of a swing-bridge that has suffered serious fires, whose dynamos and pumps have been destroyed, and which has been the subject of extensive vandalism over the past, say, 30 years, presents it with a cost that is no longer justified. Many of the wharves and quays have already disappeared, and a road bridge further up the river has already been built on the A474. However, I assure any in the area who are concerned that it will be possible for small craft to pass up river.

Although the river is hardly navigable above the bridge, the clearance available at the bridge will be 5.2 m at high tide and about 10 m at low tide, which should allow any small pleasure craft easy access further up. I know the area well, and I am aware that there is a large sailing marina in Swansea. Those with larger boats may keep them there anyway.

Part VI deals with general provisions, and then there are the schedules.

This modest Bill is part of a continuing process to tidy up the system and to provide better services for passengers. I hope that it will be given a Second Reading. I commend it to the House.

7.8 pm

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn Hatfield)

In contributing briefly to this debate on the Bill, and in considering those items relating to works, I feel that I should begin with a plea to my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the introduction of a Government health warning that "commuting can seriously damage your health", if the recent report from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions can be cited in evidence.

British Rail is ever the butt of criticism, whether justified or otherwise, but it is now taken to task—along with other forms of commuting—as the instrument of regular stressful journeys that can lead to hindrance in family relations, leisure activities and job satisfaction. Indeed, travelling to and from work by courtesy of British Rail, which the Bill will facilitate, especially via clause 5, can contribute to everything from sleeplessness and digestive disorders to skin complaints and excessive perspiration—the latter no doubt the consequence of the "Will she come, won't she come" syndrome, well recognised by would-be travellers hopping up and down on station platforms wondering whether a train will arrive.

It may already be evident from my opening remarks that I view the Bill with a mixture of support and circumspection, especially as I represent a constituency in Hertfordshire which has a great many regular rail commuters. My support comes for the evident improvements that will be made to the services of British Rail if this measure is passed by Parliament. My circumspection comes in consequence of the omissions from part II of additional improvements which would be of value to my constituents in Welwyn Hatfield.

The purpose of the Bill primarily is to empower the board, as it states, to construct works and to purchase or use land. However, no mention is made of the long-awaited redevelopment project at Welwyn Garden City station, nor of the possibility of creating a new station at Welham Green, for which I and many local people have been campaigning. But mention is made in clause 5 of works to be carried out in terms of the railway at King's Cross, which is the terminus for the eastern region line from the north, on which are the four stations in my constituency. The other three stations are Brookmans Park, Welwyn North and Hatfield, the last mentioned having been, with its staff, a recent award winner.

Although the Bill could not be expected to cover all aspects of the inner suburban electric service, given the long title to the measure, it might be appropriate simply to mention that, despite the new rolling stock and revised timetabling, a number of difficulties unfortunately still exist. Nevertheless, it would be equally appropriate when considering the Bill, in particular part II, to mention that local people, whether travelling to King's Cross or to Moorgate, or, indeed, even further afield, have much benefited from a faster and more efficient service, albeit not a cheaper one. Commuter tax relief, which I have long sought, would have been a welcome addition to today's Budget statement by the Chancellor.

On balance, it is my intention to support the Second Reading of the Bill tonight because of the importance of clause 5 and other aspects for hon. Members and their constituents, but I would make one plea. When hon. Members travel the length of Welwyn Hatfield as they come or go to or from their constituencies at high speed by rail, especially if they are enjoying the advantages of the 125 train, and cross the noticeable landmark of Digswell viaduct and get a brief glimpse of mid-Hertfordshire's towns and countryside, perhaps they will spare a thought for our extra needs. Then hopefully on the next occasion they will equally be prepared to support a further British Railways Bill relating to works designed to provide those additional and necessary improvements for my local commuters.

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

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) for the customarily succinct manner in which he has performed the annual ritual of moving the British Railways Bill. My remarks will be exceedingly brief because, as the hon. Member indicated, there is nothing in the Bill which could be regarded as controversial, although the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) managed to strike a suitably parochial note, not only by making a plea on behalf of his constituents, as we would expect from him, but by providing the Welwyn and Hatfield "Bugle", or whatever the weekly organ is known as, with a line or two that will interest his electors whenever that newspaper is printed.

I hope the hon. Member will not feel that I am being unduly combative if I say that the service which his constituents enjoy, both to King's Cross and to Moorgate, would be welcomed by millions of people throughout the length and breadth of the country. Although there have inevitably been teething troubles on that route, I hope that the hon. Member will agree that now that it has settled down it is far superior to probably seven eighths of British Rail's commuter network. I hope that both the hon. Member and his constituents feel that British Rail has made a very good investment in improving communications in that part of the country.

I welcome in particular the clause which deals with the Snow Hill link. I, like the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield, shall sound a somewhat parochial note by saying that although I welcome the clause, I believe, since I represent a midlands constituency, that it is the wrong Snow Hill with which it deals. Unfortunately, the grandeur of the Great Western Railway at the former Snow Hill station has not yet been restored. Although provision was made for such works in the last British Railways Bill, I understand that there has been a hold-up.

Those of us who view the centre of Birmingham with a somewhat jaundiced eye believe that the bomb site appearance of the former Snow Hill station ought to be dealt with sooner rather than later and that the work for which parliamentary permission was given this time last year ought to be commenced. I hope that the Minister will be able to give an assurance that the delay will not be due to the fact that inevitably these decisions will now have to be taken by the Department of Transport because of the regrettable demise, if the Government have their way, of the West Midlands county council.

On the clause that mentions the Snow Hill link with London, one of the regrettable legacies that our railway system has inherited is the unbridled competition that took place 100 or 150 years ago between the railway companies. In modern transport terms, that competition has resulted in journeys all too often commencing and terminating in the wrong place. The Snow Hill link will create through services between the southern and London midlands regions via Blackfriars and Farringdon. Once the link is opened, the hon. Gentleman's constituents will be able to travel in the same train as far as Sevenoaks, Chatham or East Croydon, or even further than that. I hope that when the scheme comes to fruition he will be led to praise at least some aspects of British Rail's management.

Clause 33 gives a time extension to the Windsor link, as it is known, in Manchester. It deals with the Castlefield curve. The House has welcomed this clause in the past. Therefore, it appears to be about time that British Rail stopped talking about the need to connect two former competitors—the old Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and the London and North Western Railway—and got on with the job.

On behalf of the Opposition, I give a qualified welcome to the Bill. We hope that the works contained therein will be completed before this time next year. Much though we enjoy listening to the hon. Member for New Forest, we should hate him to have to repeat himself.

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

It may be helpful if at this point I intervene to give a brief indication of the Government's view on the Bill. With the knowledge that you yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, represent a railway town and have a very special interest in it, I am sure that you will be following the debate with keen interest.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) has shown his usual lucid mastery of the purposes of the British Railways Bill. The House should be grateful to him for the way in which he went through it. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) put the case for the improvement of station facilities in his constituency with great diligence on behalf of his constituents. These matters would, I believe, best be raised by him direct with British Rail. I am sure that if he writes to the chairman his letter will receive careful attention.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) claimed that because of the way that the railways started, many journeys do not begin or end where people would like. That is another illustration of the constancy of change in the market for transport. When the Transport Bill returns to the Floor of the House, I shall look for the hon. Gentleman's obvious support.

Mr. Snape

I know that the hon. Gentleman does not intend to introduce a controversial note, and before he does so he should reflect that the Opposition are interested in ensuring that there is transport where people want to go. We fear that the deregulation Bill will be a debussing Bill and destroy the system altogether.

Mr. Mitchell

I shall not pursue the hon. Gentleman on that matter on this occasion. I am sure there will be happy opportunities for hunting him in future.

The Government have considered the Bill and have no objection in principle to the powers sought by the board. A few minor points have been raised with the Bill's promoters in correspondence, but I have no reason to doubt that these will be satisfactorily cleared up. A petition has been deposited by London Regional Transport, but I understand that BR and LRT expect to resolve this matter before the Bill reaches Committee. Therefore, I recommend to the House that the Bill be given a Second Reading to allow it to proceed in the usual way to Committee where its provisions can be considered in detail.

7.21 pm
Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. With the leave of the House, the hon. Member may speak again.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

May I elaborate on a point made by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) about clause 33? He is right to say that when work No. 2 was authorised in 1980 it was regarded as subordinate to the main work in the Act, the Castlefield curve, to which he referred. For various reasons with which we are now familiar that curve has never been built and the proposal has now been abandoned. However, the board still sees a good case for retaining the powers for work No. 2, as that will enable the junction between the Liverpool and Bolton lines at Salford junction to be simplified as part of a scheme for track rationalisation in connection with the construction of the Windsor link, as it is known, which is still planned to go ahead. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) will, I have no doubt, be noted by the board.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed.