HC Deb 07 June 1978 vol 951 cc169-72
1. Mr. Ioan Evans

asked the Secretary of State for Transport how many accidents there were on roads and railways, respectively, involving injury for the latest year for which figures are available.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)

In 1977, there were about 266,000 road accidents involving injury, compared with 2,400 similar rail accidents.

Mr. Evans

Does my hon. Friend agree that this should be an added reason for seeking to pursue a policy for getting traffic off the over-congested roads and on to the under-used railways? Does he further agree that we need to encourage the use of the railways, as there are good economic, financial, social, energy and industrial reasons for doing so?

Will my hon. Friend also comment on the announcement about the new railway system which will enable trains to cover two miles in a minute?

Mr. Speaker

Unless we hurry we shall miss every train.

Mr. Horam

I note what my hon. Friend said in his comprehensive supplementary question. He will be aware of what we are doing in regard to rail investments, where my right hon. Friend and I are making considerable support available to the British Railways Board, and also in terms of general revenue support for railways. I entirely take my hon. Friend's point that safety is a factor to be taken into account.

Mr. David Atkinson

Does the Minister accept that one of the causes of road accidents is driver fatigue and frustration? What assurances will he give the millions of motorists who have experienced endless delays during the last weekends as a result of road repairs that they will not face similar delays during the rest of the summer period? Cannot this work be scheduled during that part of the year when the roads are not most used by motorists?

Mr. Horam

Indeed, that is precisely what we are doing. We have reviewed very carefully the road maintenance programme during the next few summer months to avoid the sort of problem which would otherwise occur. We are able to schedule much of the work during the less frequently used periods of the year, such as the autumn. Where we can, we try to preserve two lanes in use in either direction on the motorways. We try to avoid peak periods. For example, we shall not be doing any maintenance work on the Midlands motorway links during the Motor Show in October.

Mr. Anderson

Is it not also a fact that over the past two calendar years there have been no fatal accidents affecting passengers on our railway network? In the general road-rail debate, should not the contrast between this record of safety and the frightful carnage on our roads be a major factor in our policy decisions?

Mr. Horam

It is certainly a very important and weighty factor, and I fully take account of my hon. Friend's point. In fairness, however, one should also take into account the fact that the railway system is a closed system, whereas the road system is not. Of course, a far greater amount of mileage is done on the roads than on the railways. One should take that into account in keeping a perspective. None the less, my hon. Friend's point is generally valid.

Mr. Michael Roberts

I recognise the splendid record of British Rail in regard to safety, but does the Minister agree that the number of people travelling by road is so vastly greater than the number travelling by rail that any numerical comparison is both misleading and irrelevant?

Mr. Horam

That is why I made the point that I did in reply to the supplementary question of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans). It is important to keep this in perspective. A crude comparison of figures does not give the true picture. We have to take account of the fact that much more mileage is done on the roads than on the railways. Even so, I think that the picture is generally more favourable for railways.

Mr. Robin F. Cook

Cannot my hon. Friend give us precise figures? It is comparatively easy to extrapolate figures for injuries per passenger mile on road and rail. The available figures certainly show that rail is undoubtedely very much the less accident prone of the two modes of transport. Will my hon. Friend take note that the remarkable safety record of the rail system gives the Government considerable reason for encouraging people to travel by rail rather than road wherever possible?

Mr. Horam

I would not wish to give precise figures to my hon. Friend, although I understand his reasons for asking for them. There are genuine differences in the reporting of accidents on rail and road. Almost all rail accidents, even very trivial ones, are reported, whereas some road accidents are totally unreported. This can make a difference in drawing comparisons between the two modes of transport. But the general point that my hon. Friend is making is valid.

Mr. Fry

Did the Minister read the recent statement of Mr. James Tye, the director-general of the British Safety Council, who said that the general deterioration of road surfaces has already caused unnecessary accidents and the situation can only get worse"? Will the Minister now admit that the Government's cutback in funds for road maintenance over recent years—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes, the cutback in funds for road maintenance. Will the Minister admit that this was an appalling mistake and a false economy, which has led to much pain and suffering that could and should have been avoided? What does the Minister propose to do about it in the future?

Mr. Horam

There is no evidence of the sort of deterioration mentioned by the hon. Member. I know what Mr. Tye has said, but I take leave to dispute it. The general picture that he has put forward is not as valid as he likes to make out. I might also point out that precisely because we do not know enough about the situation we have launched a series of comprehensive annual reviews of motorway maintenance to determine exactly the sort of level of spending which is right. Until we get the facts, we are not in a position to say what level of spending is right. None the less, I am sure that the generalised remarks which the hon. Member attributed to Mr. Tye are incorrect.