§ Order for consideration, as amended, read.
§ Question proposed, That the Bill be now considered. —[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]7.13 pm
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)
It may be for the convenience of the House if I remind hon. Members that the Bill received an unopposed Second Reading—[Interruption.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)
Will those hon. Members who are having a meeting by the doors, please do so on the other side?
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson
I was reminding the House that the Bill received an unopposed Second Reading on 1 February 1990 and went to a Committee on Unopposed Bills on 2 May 1990. During its passage through that Committee, an amendment was made by the British Railways Board removing the works requirements at Bedford, and it is because of that amendment that this consideration stage is now taking place.
Several hon. Members put down blocking motions at various stages in the Bill's progress and I hope that we can now be satisfied that those hon. Members have had their problems dealt with. I refer particularly to my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) who was concerned about the coal trains to the Drax power station. Assurances have now been given to the Selby district council that such heavy coal trains will not normally be routed via Selby.
That conveniently brings me to the point that will perhaps be raised by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) if he catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. He supports works 13 and 14 which affect his constituency.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) expressed concern about works 6 and 7, the siding at Deighton, the ICI works. As far as I am aware, no problems about that now remain.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), whose name appears on the Order Paper today, is concerned about a piece of land in his constituency that has been sold to the local authority and requires fencing, about which he has had discussions with the board. I hope that the matter can be resolved speedily. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that the board is anxious to reach a speedy conclusion, but, clearly, the local authority will have its part to play in that. It may be that the hon. Gentleman will catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and explain the matter further.
The Bill is one of a large number of British Rail Bills. On this occasion, the works outlined are broadly not contentious. It is part of the legislation that British Rail brings forward each year to modernise and improve services. It will play a significant part in removing freight from road to rail and in providing better access for commuters in the London area and in South Yorkshire.
The Bill must be seen in the context of the £3.5 billion which is due to be spent during the next three years, but it would be impossible to talk about British Rail at this time without mentioning the difficulties that some travellers have experienced. The snow has obviously caused problems not just for rail users, but for road users as well.
791 I am advised by the board that the Meteorological Office has informed it that there have been only four occasions in the past 30 years when there has been a fall of more than 6 in of dry powder snow of the type that we have experienced in the past week. In the 19 years between 1963 and 1982, there was effectively no snow at all. The board is shortly to send a team to Sweden to examine the operation of railways in extreme conditions, and it is hoped that, when its report is available, it will provide information that can be used in future.
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
Did the hon. Gentleman say that there has been no snow deeper than 6 in in the recent past? If so, will he delineate the geographical spread of that claim?
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson
We are talking about the special type of snow—over 6 in of dry powder. The Meteorological Office has advised the board that only four times in the past 30 years has that snow fallen. I have no doubt that there is plenty of wet snow falling tonight outside the Palace, but the snow that caused the problems in the last week is comparatively rare. I know that the board has taken note of what the hon. Member has said.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)
Many commuters in my constituency, and I am sure those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) will take the explanation that the snow is of a different type and one not normally seen in the constituency—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. The terms of the Bill are quite wide, but not wide enough to allow descriptions of the snow that we have had of late.
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson
I shall move on immediately and obey your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Some 340 units on Network SouthEast have been damaged in this bad weather, and 130 traction motors have been replaced in the past 24 hours, but, overall, 50 per cent. of Network SouthEast operated normally this morning. The new Networker train has sealed motors, which will not be subject to the problems that I have outlined. Many of the new trains introduced by the board in recent years have never operated in serious snow conditions. Therefore, the problems relating to door operation and electrical circuits have not been experienced before.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley
I shall try to stay in order. If the Bill helps, on those days when there is not a peculiar type of snow, to make services reliable, many of our constituents will be happy. The problem is that the excuse was used in the following days when there was no snow, and there were still no regular trains. I hope that the Bill will help.
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson
If weaknesses exist in the design or manufacture of the units that have caused trouble, it will be for the manufacturers to put them right. British Rail is ensuring that all the lessons that can be learned are learned so that, by next winter, these problems will be behind us. I do not want to delay the House, because the Bill started with an unopposed Second Reading and went to an Unopposed Bill Committee. The works in the Bill are a small but significant contribution to 792 the revival of the railway system in Britain. I ask the House to approve the amendment made by the Committee and in due course to give the Bill its Third Reading.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)
I support the Bill, because, for many years, there has been a problem in the small industrial town of Knottingley in my constituency. After the boundary commission report, Knottingley became part of my constituency. In the early days I found that it had a major problem. Some 120 coal trains went through the centre of the town, cutting it in half and travelling 5 m or 6 m from back doors.
The people in the town had complained about that problem for a long time. When a planning inquiry gave permission for the development of the Selby coalfield, people were dismayed to find that one of the conditions was that the coal must travel by rail. The most sensible thing would have been for British Rail and British Coal to get together to get the shortest route between the Selby coalfield and the Drax B power station, which was completed at about the same time. Given that, for 60 years, coal from Selby will travel to Drax B, the longer route through Knottingley will result in much greater expense. It would have been economically viable and attractive to both parties to have a shorter cross-country route.
I understand that there were problems and, as a result, coal travelling from Selby to Drax went through Knottingley. When I tell hon. Members that that was in addition to the 120 coal trains already going through the town, they will appreciate the problem. In many meetings, correspondence and other contacts with all the parties concerned, such as the West Yorkshire county council, the Central Electricity Generating Board and the Secretary of State, great sympathy was shown, because everybody could see the problem. Suggestions were made for either a direct route or a bypass through Knottingley.
Despite all the efforts, in an Adjournment debate that I had in 1984, the then Minister at the Department of Transport turned down the proposal for change because it would cost £4 million. Given the cost of the development of Selby coalfield and of building Drax, £4 million to solve the problem would have been but a drop in the ocean. Unfortunately, it was not to be and since then, apart from the 180 coal trains going 5 m or 6 m from back doors, 24 hours a day, there has also been the problem of the level crossings which are closed for 30 per cent. of the day. One can imagine the traffic problems that that causes.
My constituents are impatient about the delay in the Bill because the Bill will alleviate their problems. British Rail is not getting much praise today, but it has attempted to solve the problem. If the Bill is agreed to, and British Rail carries out the works 13, 13A, 14 and 14A, a substantial amount of the traffic will no longer go through the centre of Nottingley, and none will go through at night. I recognise that hon. Members have a right to block Bills for genuine reasons, but the House will appreciate why my constituents, who do not understand the workings of the House, cannot understand why Parliament has been blocking a Bill that would help them. I hope that the House will pass the Bill, because if it does, my constituents will be most grateful.
§ Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Sir P. McNair-Wilson) has presented the Bill with his customary skill, but this is a terrible night for British Rail to put forward any Bill. My hon. Friend reminded us of the problems that so many of my constituents have faced in recent days. Normally the service from so many parts of my constituency to the centre of London is, to put it mildly, bad, but in the past five days it has too often been non-existent. It would be difficult to exaggerate the rage which so many commuters in my constituency feel about the way in which British Rail has tried to cope.
I am especially interested in part IV of the Bill, which deals with land and the purchase of land, because one of the curious phenomena of British Rail planning in recent times has been to find that it is proposing to move much of the freight from the industrial heartland of the country to the channel tunnel via the congested rail lines of southern London.
Many of my constituents have found that their properties are severely blighted by British Rail's plans. They are hoping that British Rail will propose better schemes for compensation. However when I looked at the provisions in part IV of the Bill, which relate to the purchase of land, I found that, far from improving compensation in clauses 32 and 36, British Rail is proposing to restrict the amount of money that it will have to pay out in certain cases.
Clearly this will not be the last British Rail Bill to come before us. I hope that in future Bills there will be adequate compensation clauses, because part IV of this Bill is far too restrictive. I am sorry to see it in the Bill.
§ Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of the motion that I have tabled opposing the Bill. I shall be brief, first, because the issues that I wish to raise can be dealt with briefly as they are simple matters, and secondly, because my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) has informed me that tonight is his 49th birthday and that he needs to join the various street parties that are taking place in his home town.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) spoke to me before the debate. I listened carefully to his speech today, and I also know that the Bill has the support of a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. When my hon. Friend told me that he had been struggling for 12 years to get some of the measures in the Bill into legislation, I felt that I could not be the person to prevent his constituents from benefiting from the Bill. However, having said that, I am sure that my hon. Friends and Conservative Members will not mind waiting a few moments to hear about the problems that the constituents of Leicester, East have had with the British Railways Board. My objection to the Bill is that it gives specific powers and duties to the British Railways Board, which I do not believe it will carry out properly, simply because it has not carried them out properly as they affect the citizens of Leicester and especially of Leicester, East.
My concern is a strip of land at the back of houses on Woodgreen walk in the west Humberstone area of my constituency. Some time ago there were no houses on that piece of land, but, as the housing needs of the city of 794 Leicester developed, it was decided to sell the estate, which became known as the Willow Park estate, to a firm of private developers, which established about 1,000 households there. It left the land abutting the railway line in the ownership of British Rail.
British Rail has specific duties and responsibilities set out in many statutes. One that I would bring to the attention of the House is section 68 of the Railways Clauses Consolidation Act 1845, which I understand has not been substantially amended. Those responsibilities and duties enable the board to protect the lives of those people who live in the vicinity of land that it owns. However British Rail has, in my view, wilfully and continually ignored its statutory responsibilities.
Before I was elected to this place, when I was the parliamentary candidate for Leicester, East and another stood in my place, I was contacted by residents of the Willow Park estate. In particular Margaret Taylor, who went onto become the lady mayoress of Leicester, Philip Currie and Peter Maxwell, who formed themselves into a local residents group. They were worried because, from the time that they had lived on Willow Park estate, British Rail had not only failed to maintain the land and clear it of the debris that people were dumping on it, but had also failed to ensure that fencing had been adequately repaired.
As a result, I started my correspondence with the chairman of the British Railways Board. As the House can see from the pile here, I have written many letters to the British Railways Board to try to resolve the matter. At that early stage, I wrote to the chairman and requested a meeting. Following my election as the Member of Parliament, I convened a meeting with local residents and wrote again to the British Railways Board.
I received replies from the board and from the local authority, Leicester city council, which showed that no one knew who owned that piece of land. Many months of procrastination followed. British Rail, the local authority and the previous developers denied ownership of the land. Eventually, with a great deal of effort and work, we discovered that British Rail owned the land, and I contacted the regional office in Birmingham. I told British Rail what I told officers I met recently—that in my view this piece of land was of no material value to British Rail. The answer to the problem of constant letters and telephone calls from the local Member of Parliament and the local authority and the answer to the problem of young children running on to the track—through holes in the fences which people had cut to enable them to get to work quicker across the track—was to hand over the land either to the local authority or to the local residents. It took many months to convince British Rail of the need for such a scheme.
Eventually, officers from Birmingham came to meet me and local residents at the Northfields neighbourhood centre, and agreed in principle to hand over the land. At that stage, being a large organisation, it wanted to maximise the value of the land and was talking in terms of selling it to local residents or to the local authority. I pointed out to British Rail that there was no point in doing so, because no one could develop the land and the local residents would be the only people to benefit from it. Therefore, British Rail agreed to a scheme that would enable local residents to take the piece of land abutting their gardens, leading directly up to the railway line. British Rail was proposing to give the land to local residents at the peppercorn price of £1 for each strip, which 795 I thought was reasonable, as did many residents. Many of them had said that that was all it was worth, as they were not proposing to develop it, and the land was of no value to the local authority or to British Rail.
Then the problems arose. British Rail said that the residents would have to pay the cost of conveyancing—although a large legal services agency supports British Rail, and although British Rail pays a considerable amount to private solicitors to enable it to promote Bills of this nature. I put the residents in touch with a local solicitor.
The costs, it appeared, would amount to £100 per resident; in addition, the residents would have to pay a land registry fee of £30 and a fee for the incorporation of their residents' association. British Rail was not prepared to deal with each owner individually, preferring to deal with a single organisation: that meant another £30.
Next came the problem of who was to pay the cost of maintaining the land and repairing the fences before the land was handed over. British Rail estimated the cost at £10,000. Initially—in all generosity—it was prepared to contribute £2,500, 25 per cent. of the cost of the works. That was despite the fact that British Rail owned the land and was statutorily responsible for the maintenance and repair of the fences.
British Rail then looked to Leicester city council and the residents to make up the £7,500 difference. In good faith, I approached the council and wrote to the director of property services, Terry Ward. I asked him whether the council was prepared to provide £7,500 to repair the land and do British Rail's job for it. The reply stated—rightly, in my view—that it was the board's responsibility and that the council would make no contribution to the cost of the maintenance of the land and the repair of the fences. I was not at all surprised.
I then wrote again to Sir Robert Reid, the chairman of the board, suggesting that the stance adopted by him and his officials was not reasonable—mainly because they were responsible for the work. In March 1990, a meeting was convened at Leicester station, where I met regional officers, the station master and others to try to resolve the problem. During the negotiations, British Rail raised the amount that it was prepared to spend from £2,500 to £5,000: during a half-hour meeting, it was able to find an extra £2,500. At that stage, however, it still refused adamantly to pay the £5,000 that was needed to put the land into a decent state before it was handed over to the residents.
Surely it is reasonable for local residents to expect British Rail and its board to fulfil their statutory responsibilities: if they own land and fences, surely they should ensure that the fences are in a state of repair and the land is cleared of debris. I say that because the land now represents a hazard.
For the past decade, in the summer, people have dumped debris that they do not particularly want to keep in their homes—newspapers, for instance; and, when I went to have a look, a fridge had been dumped there. Anything that people do not want to drop at the council dump, or that council refuse collectors will not take, is dumped at the back of Woodgreen walk.
As can be imagined—even in the weather that we are now experiencing—the area becomes very hot in the summer as a result of the dumping, and there is always the risk of a fire. It is impossible for the emergency services to reach the site, because it is blocked with debris that has 796 accumulated for a decade. Moreover, the fence puts local people at risk because there are holes in it: children, especially, can get onto the tracks and could be injured. When I visited the site with a British Rail official, a group of children were playing near the line, having got through the fence.
This represents an important test case, not only for the residents of Woodgreen walk but for residents of all homes that abut railway lines. As a legislator, I am not prepared to come here and vote through British Rail's legislation on the nod, when it has been seen to be completely incapable of fulfilling its proper responsibilities to the people of Woodgreen walk and the people of Leicester.
Everyone suddenly took a great interest in my problem when my name appeared above the motion asking for the Bill to be considered in six months' time—along with the names of the former leader of the Liberal party and others; they disappeared because they had other engagements, but courteously warned me that they could not be present. I was approached not only by Conservative Members, but by a Gentleman called Rufus. He seems to be some kind of liaison officer for the British Railways Board. He is a very courteous person; he wrote to me, but forgot to include my name in the letter. Clearly he has the letter on a word processor: whenever anyone tables a motion criticising British Rail, out pops the letter and Rufus signs it, forgetting to say who it is addressed to. There is no "Dear Mr. Vaz" or "Dear Sir"; it is a general letter saying, "I understand that you have put your name down to the motion. I should be very keen to discuss the matter with you."
I am sure that the board would be keen to discuss the matter with me—but why now? Why do legislators have to go to such extremes to protect their constituents? Why cannot British Rail come to Members of Parliament who have constituency problems and try to sort those problems out, without our having to delay the House by raising these matters?
British Rail has laid down a deadline—31 March 1991—for the completion of the process. It expects the residents to pay up to £300 to acquire a tiny strip of land at the end of their gardens, simply because it will not fulfil its statutory responsibilities.
I believe, in all honesty, that the way out of the problern —and the way in which to stop legislators having to take action of this kind—is for British Rail to come up with the additional money that is necessary for it to fulfil its obligations. If it did that and made a contribution to my constituents' legal costs—so that they would not have to pay up to £130 to take over something with which British Rail should be dealing—I should be satisfied, and I think that they would be as well.
If, however, British Rail fails to fulfil its statutory responsibilities, I will use every parliamentary device to ensure it does so and to bring to the House's attention when it seeks to pass such legislation that British Rail should be given no more powers until it is seen to be dealing with its responsibilities to the satisfaction of local people who pay such people as Rufus and the chairman of British Rail for the work they do.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
In general terms, welcome the Bill. I should declare an interest: I have five £10 shares in the Keighley and Worth Valley light railway. 797 I was the founder of the Keighley and Worth Valley railway preservation society; I called the first meeting, and was chairman for 10 years. As the House will be only too keenly aware, no dividend has ever been paid on the shares, because the money goes back into ensuring that the railway provides one of the best preserved steam-operated services in the country. I thought that I should mention that to show that I have some experience of the operation of railways, having done most of the jobs connected with the operation of the five-mile branch line.
Clause 7 relates to a viaduct that formerly carried the Kirkburton branch railway over the Huddersfield broad canal. After a number of works have been carried out, the board will be relieved of the obligation to maintain the viaduct for the purposes of the 1863 Act. Does that mean that the board will be entitled to demolish the viaduct? Insufficient viaducts are carrying railways, their primary and true purpose. However, they form an important part of our landscape. That is recognised by the British Railways Board; its viaducts committee examines the merits of viaducts. The board accepts the onerous obligation of maintaining a limited number of viaducts in such a condition that they remain part of the landscape, even though they do not carry traffic. However, it seeks to discard others. Few commercial organisations retain discarded items of equipment, purely because they are liked by members of the public. I wonder, therefore, whether this viaduct is worthy of preservation, or whether the board intends to demolish it.
There is a fair amount of interest in these often magnificent structures. Their construction sometimes involved loss of life. They provide a reminder of what the former Prime Minister regarded as Victorian values. I am sure, therefore, that all those who sit on the Treasury Bench will want not Victorian values but Victorian monuments to be retained wherever possible. Clause 14 provides that the board shall install a new level crossing in the borough of Northampton. The board normally tries to avoid creating new level crossings. They impede traffic and are a nuisance both to the board and to traffic users. The board has to bear the maintenance costs. If, however, it believes that there should be a level crossing, one accepts its judgment.
According to subsection 3:The Board may, subject to such requirements as the Secretary of State may from time to time lay down, provide, maintain and operate at or near the new level crossing such barriers, lights, traffic signs and automatic or other devices and appliances as may be approved by the Secretary of State.There is no better form of supervision at level crossings than people. A number of accidents has resulted from the use of flashing lights. An infamous accident occurred at Nixon level crossing. A driver was transporting a transformer across a level crossing. Due to a hump on the level crossing, the transformer on the low loader ground to a halt. A locomotive train ran into the transformer, fortunately without doing much injury and there was no loss of life. If, however, that level crossing had been staffed, the accident would not have occurred.
On such minor railways as the Keighley and Worth Valley railway, level crossing gates, due to the light railway legislation, are linked to signals. That is not a requirement of the operating regulations laid down by the Department of Transport for such level crossings as that referred to in 798 clause 14(3). That is why I imagine the subsection is couched in such general terms. The Minister is no doubt listening attentively while reading a guide to the House of Commons.
The Department should reconsider that question. It is neither sensible nor safe to continue to say to British Rail, "Get rid of employees." That is what the Government have said, in a number of guises, to British Rail. Danger results from the removal of human supervision at level crossings. If there is no link between gate closures and signals, a hazard may result. That point should be borne in mind.
During this difficult weather there have been a number of train delays because of frozen sliding electrical doors. Trains of that design were introduced so that trains can be operated by one man. If the doors are electrically operated, no platform staff are required to make sure that they are closed before a train leaves the station. Manually operated doors are simpler and safer and can be operated simply and reliably in freezing weather. However, the Government have put pressure on British Rail to cut costs—mostly employees. Consequently, during inclement weather British Rail has great difficulty maintaining services.
The Bill is couched in wide terms. There have been a number of accidents at unmanned level crossings. I suspect that they are different from the kind of level crossing envisaged in clause 14(3). However, I hope that the promoter of the Bill will clarify the position. Unmanned level crossings have led to people going on to them and being involved in accidents. There is a telephone link to the nearest signal box, which may be some distance away. Telephone boxes have sometimes been vandalised. It is outrageous and wicked for anyone to vandalise such equipment and place people's lives in jeopardy.
Towards the end of 1990, there was a level crossing accident near Doncaster. The accident was not due to a vandalised telephone. A young woman and at least two children were, tragically, killed. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) has drawn my attention to an accident at Harrison Farm level crossing. A seven-year-old girl was knocked down and killed by a train on the main Newcastle-to-Sunderland railway line. The view of the people who live there and of the deeply saddened relatives is that either the crossing should be closed or that it should be staffed by someone. If a level crossing is much used, someone should be there.
§ The Minister for Shipping and Public Transport (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)
The hon. Gentleman said that the Doncaster accident happened on a level crossing. I should put on record the fact that it is a public right of way—a footpath. I am sure that he will accept that it is not a level crossing. I cannot comment on the case in the constituency of the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon).
§ Mr. Cryer
I am grateful to the Minister. Of course, a level crossing is just what the term implies. A device is fixed across the line to give people a level walk over the rails. I accept the Minister's differentiation—that this was a foot crossing, rather than a vehicle crossing—but the principle is the same.
The Minister may be interested to know that the Secretary of State will have received a letter about the sad accident at Harrison Farm crossing. I hope that the point I am making can be put clearly to British Rail. Where the 799 board is given powers to operate a crossing—as in clause 14(3)—the Government should give sympathetic consideration to the provision of staffed level crossings if there is the slightest danger of a reduction in safety arising from having flashing lights and barriers with no linkage between the level crossing gates and the signals.
Let me remind the Minister of the procedure that used to apply to all level crossings throughout the country. A key that was fastened to the gate had to slide into a lock when the gate was in the closed position across the railway, physically preventing access to the railway. In fact, there were two keys at each crossing—one at either gate. Both had to be inserted and turned before the home signal protecting the level crossing against railway traffic could be released and railway traffic could proceed past the level crossing. That was a pretty foolproof system.
There is no doubt that rail speeds are higher than they used to be. Electric trains and high-speed diesel electric trains run at higher average speeds than were prevalent in the days of steam operation. In addition, they do not produce as much noise as did steam-generated locomotives. Of course, that noise was a source of very great affection to many people. The exhaust beat from a three-cylinder Gresley Pacific locomotive—an A4 "Streak"—was music to many people's ears. But it was also a warning to people using level crossings. Modern trains are faster and more silent than their predecessors. I urge the Minister to convey to the Secretary of State and to the other Ministers in his Department that there is a very good case for ensuring the highest possible safety standards at level crossings. If that means providing British Rail with extra money to employ people, it will be money well spent.
I hope that this Bill will pass. It should result in the provision of extra facilities for British Rail. It authorises several additional works. I hope that it will facilitate a shift of traffic from roads to railways—something that all hon. Members, certainly those on the Opposition Benches, wish to see. Railways are inherently safer than roads. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) made a specific point about railways being intrusive. By and large, railways are less intrusive than roads. Freight trains are less intrusive than the juggernauts that pass houses at close quarters 24 hours a day. I accept that my hon. Friend has a perfectly valid case, but that case has been met by British Rail. We want to ensure success for British Rail.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
I point out that the whole case has not been met, although a substantial part of it has. I should not like it to he thought that the entire problem has been solved.
§ Mr. Cryer
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's indication that the Bill goes some way towards solving the problem. It is a step in the right direction.
I hope that the Bill will turn out to be a tiny step in the direction of the regeneration of British Rail. It is the annual "odds and sods" Bill—the garnering together of all the bits and pieces of legislative authority that are needed. Let us hope that British Rail, by using that authority, will generate increased traffic and reduce the burden on our roads.
§ 8.5 pm
§ The Minister for Shipping and Public Transport (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)
It may be helpful if I intervene briefly to give the Government's view on this Bill. The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) was rather dismissive of my reading Dod's. In fact, 1 was reading for further background information. I was very interested to see that the hon. Gentleman has written two volumes on railways—one in 1969 and one in 1972. That may have been some time before he entered this House. Perhaps he would use his time well by providing us with volume 3 and perhaps even volume 4.
The Government have considered the contents of the Bill and have no objections in principle to the powers sought by the British Railways Board. So far as the Department is concerned, there are no points outstanding. It is for the promoters to persuade Parliament that the powers they seek are justified. There were two petitioners against the Bill, but those petitions have now been withdrawn. The Unopposed Bills Committee has allowed the Bill to proceed with amendments. Judging by the debate so far, I think that there is agreement to it on both sides of the Chamber.
§ 8.7 pm
§ Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)
You will be relieved, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I do not intend to refer to the copious reference books in front of me. A glance at them makes me grateful that I did not have to be present for the winding-up speech in the last debate. Obviously, it was extremely complex.
As the Minister has said, general powers Bills are regular occurrences in this House. Such legislation provides British Rail with a valuable opportunity to make minor improvements up and down the country. I refer in particular to works No. 6 and No. 7. All of us who take an interest in these matters will be pleased to see a switch of freight from road to rail. All too often these days, the reverse happens.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) on being able to get some way along the route of diverting trains away from his constituency. This is something for which he has campaigned for a considerable time. I hope that his partial success will be followed by complete success in the years to come.
I was interested in the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). I am grateful to him for his birthday wishes. I know that this has not yet happened to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but when one reaches one's 49th birthday, one appreciates it if people do not remind others of the event.
My hon. Friend made a very wide-ranging case. His was a splendid piece of advocacy. If I followed the gist of his comments, the projects about which he complained are not covered by this Bill. However, I understand that, under our procedures, he was quite entitled to raise them. He seems to be of the opinion that British Rail should not only sell land at a nominal price but also tidy it up, fence it, and pay the legal costs of his constituents. As I have said, it was a splendid piece of advocacy.
Some of us think that, if British Rail were to be so generous, it might find the money to run the trains in accordance with the timetables. I am thinking in particular of services between Birmingham and London over the past 801 few weeks. My hon. Friend's splendid advocacy will have been heard, and perhaps it will be acted upon by those who are in a position to make such decisions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) referred to the viaduct involved in works No. 6 and No. 7 and to level crossings. I hope that he will agree that British Rail has an onerous burden in maintaining many of these facilities, especially those on railway lines that are no longer being used, or are sparsely used. The Government and the Department must consider how best this financial burden might be lifted from the shoulders of British Rail, so that it might be able to do what, at least in theory, it is supposed to do—run passenger services in accordance with timetables.
The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for New Forest (Sir P. NcNair-Wilson) for presenting the Bill in his usual able manner. He spoke about the difficulties that British Rail—particularly Network SouthEast—is suffering now. All too often in debates about railway matters, we end up with anecdotes being swapped from one side of the House to the other, and we do not get very far that way. There is something wrong with a system under which, four days after a major fall of snow, Network South East can still run only 50 per cent. of its booked trains. At the risk of delving into my anecdotal memories, 34 years ago when I first started to work for British Rail—a railway of steam locomotives and paraffin lamps in the signals—passenger train cancellations were virtually unheard of. In the modern and updated system that we have now, they are a daily occurrence in virtually every part of the country.
The hon. Member for New Forest told us, eloquently if not convincingly, that 334 units are out of service because of the type and quality of the snow that fell last week. That is difficult to believe. We need a Government concerned to provide a proper railway service rather than to cut year after year the money available to operate it. We need a management capable of running trains rather than budgets. Managerial prospects now appear to depend exclusively on remaining within a budget laid down by someone else and not on providing satisfaction to the passengers, or customers, or whatever they like to call us poor unfortunates who wait for a considerable time for a train that does not arrive, even when it is shown on a timetable. All too often the timetables appear to be a figment of someone's imagination.
The Labour party officially welcomes the proposals in the general powers Bill. We welcome anything that helps the railway industry. I hope that the hon. Member for New Forest will be back, perhaps later this year, with the British Rail (No. 3) Bill, bringing forward all the necessary improvements that, for various reasons, have not made it into this Bill.
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson
With the leave of the House, I should like to refer to some of the points that have been made. I thank the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) for his support on this occasion, as on others. I know that he has the railway system very much at heart. I congratulate him and wish him many happy returns of the day.
802 I thank the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) for the warm welcome that he gave to the works about which he spoke so eloquently. I hope that they will provide the relief for his constituents that I know he has been seeking for so long.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodheart) dealt with the problems of commuters. My hon. Friend will recall that I previously had the honour to be the Member for Lewisham, West, which shares the same railway system as his constituents have to use. I can assure him that British Rail is as unhappy as his constituents are about the difficulties that have been forced upon it during the past week. As I said earlier, a team is going to Sweden to look at harsh weather performance and other matters to ensure that, in future winters, we do not have the same problems.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham referred to part IV of the Bill, dealing with the purchase of land, and talked about the channel tunnel. He will know that no route has yet been agreed. That may be causing all the problems of blight in the south of London to which he referred. The terms and conditions set out in part IV relate to the works in this Bill. I can assure him that, were we to move to the stage to which he referred—the channel tunnel link in any form—clearly we would be looking at separate terms and conditions of purchase.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), who is not in his place at the moment, spoke eloquently about the problems of his constituents. He will realise that British Rail will stand by the assurance I gave earlier in the debate. I hope that the matters to which he referred can be resolved speedily.
As has already been pointed out, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) is an acknowledged expert on the railway system. He referred to clauses 7 and 14. On clause 7, the intention is to use the viaduct because it is related to the Deighton siding to which I referred earlier. On clause 14, the hon. Gentleman will know with his experience of these Bills, that, as is pointed out in subsection 3, safety is a matter for the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has to give his approval for the board to provide, maintain and operate barriers, lights, signs and other devices and appliances. Clearly, the board wants to be free to introduce the latest technology as and when it is available. However, ultimately it is for the Secretary of State to determine that those matters lead to greater safety. I agree entirely with what he said about safety, and I can assure him—I am sure that he knows already—that, for the board, safety is the absolute No. 1 priority.
This has been a useful debate. The Bill started modestly enough, with an unopposed Second Reading, and I hope that, having dealt, I hope satisfactorily, with some of the points that have been made, and judging from the general support that the Bill appears to enjoy in the House, it can now proceed to a Third Reading.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill, as amended, considered accordingly; to be read the Third time.