HC Deb 13 March 1986 vol 93 cc1255-71

4.2 am

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

My hon. Friend the Minister of State may not be as glad as I am to be here at 4 o'clock in the norning. Nevertheless, we much appreciate the contribution he makes in the office that he fills. I am also pleased that the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) is here. He demonstrates every day, in Committee and when he contributes to transport debates, that it is possible to adopt an aggressive yet light-hearted tone across the Dispatch Boxes. We welcome the fact that he has stayed up until this late hour to join in this important debate about transport in west Yorkshire.

I think that it is fair to say that, among the factors which encourage the development of industry and commerce in particular areas, there is good evidence that transport links figure very near the top. I want to deal, in particular, with the western part of the county of west Yorkshire, which not only suffers from higher than average unemployment but has relatively poor road and rail communications. In the eastern part of west Yorkshire, Leeds and Wakefield have first-class rail links to London by the east coast main line and also first-class road links by the M1 motorway to the south of the country. However, places such as Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield come some way behind.

Leeds has attracted many new jobs in commerce and the services sector, but Bradford and its environs are still trying to recover from the shake-out in textile jobs which has taken place under successive Governments over many years and has reached a plateau only during the past 12 months or so. My constituency is defying the doom and gloom merchants and many firms are now more optimistic, although it remains to be seen whether that will turn into real jobs. Keighley is particularly poorly served by transport. Whether those jobs will come depends a great deal on the realisation of our transport needs.

Among the most important developments is the electrification of the east coast main line. Its completion to Doncaster and Leeds is eagerly awaited by the many people who use the train regularly, including me, and by tose who suffer from the delays caused by the many failures of the current diesel units. The fact that British Rail received substantial compensation from the manufacturer is little confort to those who are inconvenienced. The Government made the right decision in giving the go-ahead for this important and significant scheme. The increased reliability which the new Electra locomotives will bring is eagerly awaited also.

We are pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister will visit Bradford soon. Many people in Bradford are naturally unhappy about the link between the city and the rest of the inter-city network, especially the route between Bradford and Leeds. I understand that the existing dated rolling stock which is operated by the passenger transport executive is being replaced by the new Pacer train. That development is badly needed.

Many people in Bradford regard electrification of the route between Leeds and Bradford as essential to Bradford's regeneration. I must admit that, unlike some hon. Members, I do not believe that this argument necessarily stands up to rigorous examination. Decisions made by the great railway builders of the last century inevitably cause the journey time from Wakefield to Bradford to be long, especially if the train has to stop at Leeds on the way. British Rail claims that a stop at Leeds between Wakefield and Bradford has been forced on it by commercial considerations. It has already ceased to run trains via the Wortley curve directly to Bradford.

The time factor has in the past deterred passengers from travelling through to Bradford by train even when no change of train was required during off-peak periods. This factor will continue to apply whether or not electrification comes. At the end of the day, whether a service is viable depends not on electrification but on whether sufficient passengers use it. I know that there is criticism of British Rail for making the service so unattractive that passengers are driven away, but I do not think that it is all the fault of British Rail that the number of passengers using the inter-city service during off-peak periods declined to such a low level that services were discontinued.

There has never been any suggestion that, if electrification were continued through from Leeds to Bradford, British Rail would again start running through trains during off-peak periods. It is hard to see what advantage electrification can bring to make the service more attractive. On that basis, it is reasonable to assume that the electrified inter-city services would continue through to Bradford only during peak periods. British Rail has already said that it intends to continue inter-city services to Bradford during peak periods following electrification of the east coast main line, with a change of traction at Leeds during the time currently allowed for the stop there.

Therefore, the only advantage that I can see that electrification would provide is a kind of guarantee that British Rail would be more likely—it is certainly not a cast-iron guarantee—to fulfil its pledge to continue inter-city sevices to Bradford than it would if a change of traction were necessary.

I believe that better ways can be found of spending the several millions of pounds—various figures, ranging from £5 million to £10 million, have been cited—that such a guarantee would cost. The question of the Wortley curve is separate and not directly related to electrification. It is connected with the question whether it is commercially viable to run trains through to Bradford which do not call at Leeds. It looks as if the courts will have to decide whether British Rail was justified in closing that stretch of line to passengers without submitting the issue to a Transport Users Consultative Committee inquiry and final decision by the Secretary of State.

We live in an age of convenience, but I do not understand how electrification can make things more convenient unless one were willing not only to spend the £4 million, £5 million or £10 million needed to electrify the link, but also to maintain a continuing subsidy each year for uneconomic trains.

Some Bradfordians have admitted that electrification would not make economic sense but would have a psychological effect. British Rail is required to achieve a 5 per cent. return on its inter-city services by 1988. I am not sure where a subsidy would come from. Even if Bradford council was initially willing for the ratepayers to meet the cost, it could hardly give a guarantee to continue doing that indefinitely. No doubt one would come to a different conclusion if it seemed that electrification could bring any genuine benefits to Bradford. I find it difficult to argue that there should be any exception from the requirement that the inter-city service should be ineligible for public service obligation grant from April 1988, bearing in mind that this additional investment would incur additional costs if BR were to try to justify it by running through trains outside peak periods.

I should like to make some relatively brief comments about local rail lines as these are not the responsibility of BR or of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Transport but of the local PTE. The reason for that is not because they are unimportant; indeed, the contrary is the case.

Many commuters, shoppers, school pupils and tourists depend on the local rail lines between the major conurbations of Leeds and Bradford and the towns of Shipley, Bingley, Keighley and Skipton in Airedale and the smaller communities on the way to Ilkley in Wharfedale. In recent months there have been many complaints about the quality of the service. I would like to pay a tribute to the Wharfedale rail users group whose professionalism has impressed the professionals and whose suggestions have resulted in the improved scheduling of trains. The Ilkley line is popular with travellers but its viability is not enhanced by the way that section 20 agreements between the PTE and BR require the whole of the track costs to be borne by the former because the line is not part of the BR network.

The details of section 20 agreements are being re-examined and I hope that some benefits will result. In the meantime, I believe that the PTE should operate its fare structure on a more commercial basis. The local railway provides a fast alternative to the congested roads for which many people would willingly pay a realistic fare if that helped to retain the service. People need the service to be reliable and seats to be available. Lately, both timing and the number of coaches available have fallen well below acceptable levels. I hope that things will improve in future.

I have some good news for my hon. Friend the Minister of State about the likely effects of the Transport Bill for which he was responsible. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen a letter from County Councillor John Tweddle, who is the Conservative spokesman on transport on the county council. In the letter Mr. Tweddle refers to The latest information on the charges which the Transport Act 1985 is bringing about to bus services in West Yorkshire. He states: The west Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive have just informed Councillors that commercial network mileage has been increased from 55 per cent. previously assessed to 75 per cent. of the current mileage. This improvement is to be achieved as a result of better service planning, faster journey times and improved staff productivity following the new cooperation from the Trade Unions. National Bus Company Subsidiaries operating in west Yorkshire, have not yet told of the extent of the commercial network that they intend to register". Nevertheless, the sort of improvement in the commercial network mileage, together with the cost savings on the rest of the network due to tendering, is obviously going to save passengers and ratepayers a substantial amount in the future.

Mr. Tweddle concludes his letter by writing: The claim of the white paper and in debate now looks set to be achieved scorning the mis-information and scare-mongering of opponents to the Transport Bill. That is encouraging news indeed.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

Did the hon. Gentleman say that the spokesman of the Conservative group was County Councillor Tweddle, or was that the content of the letter from which he quoted?

Mr. Waller

County Councillor Tweddle is a man for whom I have the highest regard. I always found what he has to say about transport, in which he is a specialist, of extremely high quality. The hon. Gentleman will probably see more of Mr. Tweddle in future. He has already been a parliamentary candidate, and is undoubtedly destined for even higher things than the outgoing metropolitan county council.

One of the more obvious benefits of the abolition of the metropolitan county councils was the opportunity it gave the districts to take responsibility for highways. There is a good case for some services still to be provided on a countywide basis, for example research, and work on major strategic traffic management schemes. Nevertheless, I am surprised that some district councils in west Yorkshire are effectively throwing away the opportunities that they were handed by reorganisation by continuing to join together on a countywide basis to operate highway functions voluntarily.

I am glad that Bradford has opted out of that retrograde scheme, and I believe that it will benefit in future by so doing. If the old county borough was capable of running its highways, the much larger metropolitan district with a population as large as some counties should certainly be able to do so effectively.

One of the most important trunk road schemes in the offing is the Kirkhamgate-Dishforth scheme. The need for a strategic link between the M1 and M62 south of Leeds, and north Yorkshire and the north-east remains. Much national and local traffic must use a variety of roads which are unsuited to the flows that they must carry. There was a good case for a route to the west of Leeds which would have benefited Bradford and provided an alternative to the dangerous route north from those cities to Harrogate and Ripon. But we did not get the cake with the icing, and because the inspector did not recommend the construction of the entirely new section south and east of Leeds either, we have got only half of the alternative rather plain cake.

Now new alternatives are to be examined, and that process should be carried out quickly. The problem exists today and we cannot wait many more years for it to be properly resolved, even if the necessary improvements on the A1 are to go ahead.

I welcome the fact that active consideration is being given to the construction of an eight or nine mile link between the M1 near Wakefield, possibly between junctions 39 and 40, and the M62 at junction 25 near Brighouse. I have been pressing for that scheme for many years. Two or three years ago I was told by officials in the Department that it was a non-starter, but I am pleased that it is now considered that it may pay its way.

The scheme would bring considerable benefits to the western districts of west Yorkshire. It would provide a faster, more convenient route between the M1 and Huddersfield, Halifax and Bradford, would cut several miles off the journey between the M1 and the M62 to the west, and would relieve the A638 through Heckmondwike and Cleckheaton—towns which I had the honour to represent before the last general election but which I no longer represent. The traffic in those towns was considered sufficiently bad to merit the construction of relief roads which have now been deleted.

This new route would also relieve the A644 through Mirfield and traffic would be able to use an alternative to the unsuitable, and in parts narrow, A637. It would enable the largest proportion of traffic linking between the M62 and M606 at the Chain Bar roundabout to do so without having to negotiate that roundabout—it is about half a mile around that large circuit. The Calder Valley link would have environmental, safety and economic benefits which would justify its early approval and construction. I hope the results of the analysis will prove favourable.

For my constituents the Airedale route is of great significance. It is a vital route for the future prosperity of the Aire valley towns, especially Keighley. When the route is complete it will mean that there will be a fast link between Keighley and the motorway network. At present in peak times it can easily take an hour to cover 15 miles. It is possible to get from south Bradford to Manchester more quickly than it is possible to reach the north-western parts of the district. That route, which has been on the stocks not just for years but decades, is essential.

The final obstacles to the construction of the Kildwick to Beechcliffe section—the most westerly part of the route—have now been cleared and I hope that construction will start this summer. There has been a recent announcement about the Victoria Park-Keighley-Crossflats section. That will mean the loss of about 13 per cent. of the Victoria Park at Keighley, but I do not think, as some fear, that the annual gala and show at Keighley, which are important events for the town, will be threatened too much.

The Crossflatts-to-Cottingley Bar section extending to the east of Bingley will go ahead eventually. There is a question about what will happen between Cottingley Bar and the Shipley eastern bypass. This will link with the Bradford central spine road and the motorway system. I have serious doubts about the consultative process which was carried out some time ago. I do not think that adequate opportunity was given for the people living outside the immediate area to express their views as there would have been under a statutory inquiry. I carried out a survey of Keighley firms which clearly showed that the overwhelming majority regarded the route as important and thought that it was essential that there should be a new route skirting Saltaire and Shipley. Those questioned did not think that any alternative would prevent traffic jams.

An alternative to the new route would probably rely on traffic management and perhaps on one or two short new sections, but all this would only create an almighty snarl-up which would strangle Saltaire—an outcome which those who wish to protect Saltaire fear. The anticipated traffic figures which I have been given by the Department of Transport do not add up. Even an incomplete Airedale route would draw traffic away from routes such as the A629-A644 through Denholme and Queensbury and the B6144 across the moors. I feel that there could be a botch-up and I am waiting anxiously for the announcement, due this summer, of the outcome of inquiries into alternatives. I note that I am supported in my view by Bradford council and the West Yorkshire metropolitan council. It is a sensitive matter.

Among the villages which have waited long—I will not say patiently—for a bypass, Addingham, on the borders of my constituency, features prominently. At long last, the detailed route has been announced. I believe it has the support of the overwhelming majority of the village residents who wish to see the bypass constructed as soon as possible.

Obviously, the objectors have every right to have their say, but I hope that their number will be few and that the statutory procedures will be carried through as speedily as possible. The road winds through the village in an attractive way that is suited more to the horse and cart than to today's juggernaut. The completion of the bypass, which will be partly hidden in a cutting will bring blessed relief to the villagers, who often have to jump for their lives, and have been kept awake at night by the rumble of heavy traffic.

The Leeds-Bradford airport has a catchment area twice the size of that for Newcastle or the east midlands, but has only about half the throughput of those two airports. It has great potential. For instance, it could carry a great deal of postal business, some of which used to be diverted through Speke airport at Liverpool. Last year, the operational income of Leeds-Bradford airport increased by 24 per cent., mainly as a result of increased business. There was a 10 per cent. increase in air freight, and a 14 per cent. increase in passenger trade. However, it has had to turn away much business in the past two years because of the ban on take-offs and landings after 10 pm. The question whether there should be take-offs and landings after that time is a sensitive issue, and I do not want to come down on one side or the other, but it is fair to investigate the matter, bearing in mind that most of the present generation of quiet aircraft were not in existence when the public inquiry took place in 1979.

I hope that I shall be forgiven for reverting briefly to the subject of rail. This is not a part of the British Rail or PTE network, but the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway. I take a particular pride in that scheme, as did my predecessor as Member for Keighley, Mr. Bob Cryer. The railway is run in a very professional way, although it depends on volunteers and fare-paying passengers, and the subscriptions of members of the preservation society among whom I am proud to be counted. The figures that have just reached me show that in 1985, 148,500 miles were covered by locomotives on the railway, a large proportion of them under steam. Not only do people come from far and wide to work on the railway, or travel on it as tourists, but some use it as a commuter service from Oxenhope and the famous village of Howarth down into Keighley and on into Bradford and Leeds. The railway is more expensive to run than an ordinary railway because it is a steam railway. Over £40,000 per annum has to be spent on coal alone.

I am glad that in the past couple of days, a pie-in-the-sky scheme to build a tramway and transport museum on the other side of Bradford seems to have run into the buffers. It was an over-ambitious scheme on which the West Yorkshire metropolitan council has already spent some money. It was never a realistic scheme, and my view is that it would have confronted head-on the voluntary efforts of people on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway. I had appealed for somebody to say no to the scheme, which would have eaten up a great deal of ratepayers' money, when they are already suffering from increased rates.

I have taken my hon. Friend the Minister and the many other hon. Members in the House at this time on a tour of the transport facilities in at least part of the county of west Yorkshire. I hope that I have shown that transport is vital to the future of the county. During the next few years, it will be even more vital for the system to improve.

4.28 am
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

I would be stretching credulity to its limits if I said that the House was grateful to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) for raising these matters at this time in the morning, but it does at least give us the opportunity to debate the transport infrastructure of west Yorkshire, for which, regardless of the lateness of the hour, we should be grateful.

I found much of what the hon. Member said fairly unexceptionable, except that, like a loyal parliamentary private secretary, it contained not a shred of criticism of Her Majesty's Government or their policies.

Mr. Waller

I am afraid that my horse was shot from under me when my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) was struck down in mid-flight.

Mr. Snape

It was a regrettable episode, and I am sorry that the striking down in mid-flight of the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) had such an enormous impact on his stable lad as well.

I thought the speech was more loyal than accurate, and it did not address itself to financial problems which the west Yorkshire conurbation will face, particularly after the abolition of the county council.

It is fascinating to hear some Tory Back Benchers talk about transport. The hon. Member for Keighley said that he would have difficulty in advocating subsidy for uneconomic trains. He said that he would not attempt to justify any grant to British Rail's inter city services after 1988–89, although he welcomed the east coast mainline electrification. A few minutes later, he demanded the expenditure of literally millions of pounds of public money on roads in the county wherein lies his own constituency. He wants a link between the M1 and the M62, and a link between the M62 and the M602, if I have the numbers right. This is millionss upon million of public money for the road network. Despite what Councillor Tweddle said about the future of buses in west Yorkshire once deregulation gets under way, presumably those of his constituents who do not have motor cars will spend their leisure hours watching all the bulldozers creating the new motorways, or better—or perhaps worse from their point of view—watching all those lovely lorries nose to tail on those two motorways.

Mr. Waller

If the hon. Gentleman recollects, he will remember that I suggested that there would be an economic return on the motorways or new roads that were built whether they are analysed by means of the Department's COBA system or any other system.

Mr. Snape

There is no doubt that, left to itself, the Department of Transport could find an economic return for a road through the Sahara desert. The day the Department of Transport under any Government and under any Minister evaluates road schemes in exactly the same way that it does rail schemes, or vice versa, I will start believing in some of the statistics which emanate from that Department. The justification for building roads can be, and is, churned out year after year under successive Governments. It is only railways that are not supposed to be subsidised or, if they are, the subsidy has to be so transparent that people like the hon. Gentleman can complain about it provided, of course, that the subsidy will not go to railway lines in and around his constituency.

The real meat of the debate, which the hon. Gentleman failed to reach, is what will happen to public transport in particular in west Yorkshire over the next few years.

Mr. Waller

It will be better.

Mr. Snape

The hon. Gentleman says that it will be better. He did not offer a shred of evidence to say that that is true.

I will try to put some evidence before the hon. Gentleman and the Minister to indicate that the reverse is true. On 12 February this year the Department of Transport issued a press release. It set the expenditure limits and the maximum precepts for all the passenger transport authorities, including the hon. Gentleman's, west Yorkshire. The limit was set on development at 26.51p. The preliminary expenditure limit for west Yorkshire had originally been set at £57.8 million and was redetermined to £61.3 million, giving that precept level of 26.51p. In the opinion of west Yorkshire county council, although I do not know what Councillor Tweddle thought about it, the approximate precept necessary to meet the PTA's own expenditure proposals, according to the Government's press release, was 34p. There is a considerable difference between the two of around 6 per cent. The hon. Member for Keighley blithely ignored those financial realities, so anxious was he to prove how wonderful a Minister is his hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Transport. Therefore, I shall be interested to hear from the Minister of State how west Yorkshire is to meet all the commitments that the hon. Member for Keighley just skated over, given the fact that its expenditure limit has been set at that level.

The press release then quoted what the Secretary of State for Transport had said: This Order at last puts a stopper on the amounts which metropolitan ratepayers have in the past had to fork out year after year to subsidise wasteful public transport policies. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Keighley thinks that the west Yorkshire passenger transport authority has been guilty of supporting wasteful public transport policies or whether he agrees with me that that is just the kind of ideological claptrap that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has been expounding for far too many years.

The kind of nonsense that the Department of Transport indulges in nowadays was amply illustrated in a picture that appeared only a few days ago in a newspaper. The newly appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport was no doubt set up by his civil servants to pose under Barton bridge on the other side of the Pennines. There is a £20 million scheme to widen that bridge from two lanes to three. There is no shortage of cash for that scheme, despite the fact that the Minister will tell us how hard pushed the Government are in meeting all their economic commitments. However, when it comes to public transport in the constituency of the hon. Member for Keighley, I am afraid that cash is so tight that, again in the words of the Secretary of State for Transport, the wasteful public transport policies of the west Yorkshire public transport authority cannot be paid for.

The impact of those restrictions on the precept limit for west Yorkshire are grim. In fact, they are grimly enormous. The hon. Member for Keighley said that discussions are taking place on certain section 20 services. That is ne way of putting it. He might have said that Mr. Bill Cottham, the west Yorkshire passenger transport authority's director-general, has intimated total withdrawal of section 20 support for no fewer than six railway services in west Yorkshire. They are Huddersfield to Denby Dale; Huddersfield to Wakefield; Leeds, Castelford, Knottingly and Goole; Leeds to Ilkley, Bradford to Ilkley and—this is a route in which the hon. Member for Keighley might be interested—Bradford to Keighley.

It is strange—

Mr. Waller


Mr. Snape

I shall give way in a moment. It is strange that in his paeans of praise for what the Government are up to the hon. Gentleman did not mention that fact. He said that discussions were taking place about the withdrawal of section 20 support.

Mr. Waller

The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. There is no question of section 20 support being withdrawn from half the routes to which he referred. I understand that Mr. Cottham is bailing out of trains altogether and that he is going to run the bus company, now that the system has changed, following the passage of the Transport Act 1985.

Mr. Snape

I understand that West Yorkshire is bailing out of trains and intends to run buses in future, for reasons that I shall come to. No less than half of West Yorkshire's local railway passenger services are either up for closure or are suffering drastic cuts in service quality.

Over the past few years West Yorkshire has been positive towards its rail services. Passenger numbers on the services that I have mentioned and on others supported by the PTE have grown in contrast to an overall decline in the number of people using the buses. Many rail services have gained passengers following the opening of two new stations and the county has bought some new diesel trains. All these policies are now being put into reverse. Because of the Government's expenditure savings, the county council estimates, on my information that up to half the existing network and one third of train miles at present operated by the PTE could be reduced or withdrawn completely.

Mr. Waller


Mr. Snape

Yes, "could", according to the director-general. I do not want to insult the hon. Gentleman, but if I were told one story about the future of rail services in the county by the director-general of the PTE and a different story by the hon. Member for Keighley, even at the risk of upsetting the hon. Gentleman at 4.39 in the morning, I would put my trust in the professional rather than in, I shall not say the bumbling amateur, but, on his performance this morning, the grovelling amateur, the hon. Member for Keighley. He will have to accept that there are severe funding problems for the section 20 services in the county. Those problems are likely to lead to a switch from rail travel to bus support.

I always like to be fair about these matters. The Minister will be the first to concede that BR is far from blameless on the future of West Yorkshire's railway services. Again, Government targets on inter-city profitability have, according to BR, forced it to transfer inter-city services from the former Midland line, Leeds and York to Sheffield, even though that line has been extensively modernised. The Midland route's long term costs must now, according to BR, go to freight and regional passenger trains, most of which are assigned to the West Yorkshire PTE. West Yorkshire, understandably given its financial constraints, refuses to pick up the bill. So again there are financial problems for the recently modernised former Midland railway line.

Closure hearings have already taken place for the southern section from Normanton and Wakefield to South Yorkshire. New advance closure notices under section 54 cover the section from Normanton and Castleford to Leeds. They would lead to the closure of two commuter stations, Altofts and Woodlesford. That would mean the diversion of local Leeds-Sheffield trains and the circuitous and uncompetitive rerouteing of the Leeds-Knottingiey-Goole service.

Another line which the hon. Gentleman did not mention in his somewhat carefree tour round West Yorkshire's railways is the Settle-Carlisle line, about which a series of public inquiries is to be held in the near future. BR's closure proposal would withdraw services from one of the most spectacular and scenic railway lines in Britain. I do not expect the Minister to comment on that, but the withdrawal of that service will have a knock-on cost effect on the West Yorkshire section of the line around the constituency of the hon. Member for Keighley. Surely that would aggravate the concern about the cost of lines from Leeds and Bradford to Keighley and Ilkley. It is already leading to drastic local service economies, with the retention of Leeds trains but a reduction in the Bradford services to a peak only service to Keighley. Those are the real financial problems for West Yorkshire, all of which the hon. Member for Keighley glossed over.

The chairman of the north-eastern transport users consultative committee, Mr. James Towler, recently said that his prime objective is to see that the existing network, existing stations and, as far as possible, the existing services are maintained". The TUCC has supported objectors' proposals for improved rail links. But fine words and TUCC reports might well, on past form, be ignored by the Secretary of State.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)


Mr. Snape

I do not know why the Minister is saying, "Oh." It is worse than I have indicated. When a railway line in the Tunbridge Wells area was recently put up for closure, the TUCC said that considerable hardship would result to those using it. That did not bother the Secretary of State. He promptly decided to close the line, anyway.

Mr. Mitchell


Mr. Snape

Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I urge him to reflect on his own actions regarding railway lines. In other words, if he proposes to rise to defend the Secretary of State, he should first defend himself because, when replying to a similar debate a fortnight ago, he told me that he had not declined to give permission for a line to be electrified. He said exactly the opposite to that, however, in a written reply to me about the Manchester-Blackpool line, a topic to which I shall be returning on Monday. Does he still wish to rush in to defend his right hon. Friend?

Mr. Mitchell

I would not want the hon. Gentleman to mislead himself or the House into believing that my right hon. Friend had not taken full account of what was said by the TUCC in the case of the Tunbridge Wells-Erith line closure to which he referred. My right hon. Friend went so far as to secure the agreement of British Rail to provide a bus service from Groombridge—a town which might otherwise have suffered—direct to Tunbridge Wells. It would be wrong to give the impression that that town had been left isolated.

Mr. Snape

I did not say that the town had been left isolated. I said that the service had been withdrawn despite the recommendation of the TUCC and the hardship that would inevitably be caused to users of the line. Bus services do not normally last long when rail services are withdrawn, as the Minister knows. That has been the experience of the last 20 years.

The position in west Yorkshire is as I have described it, rather than the sunny, optimistic picture painted by the hon. Member for Keighley. We hope that despite the Government's interference with the right of locally elected representatives to opt for the transport system they want, BR will be able to keep things going at least until the next general election. But the future looks bleak indeed, even if the hon. Member for Keighley will not admit it.

Councillor Tweddle must be the only person to believe that bus deregulation will mean an increase in services. Not even the Minister, who at least tries to sound like an optimist, has claimed that. With bus deregulation and metropolitan county abolition—bearing in mind that about 26 per cent. of all BR's east coast main line passengers begin their journeys on feeder rail services—the Government's pulling of the financial rug from the west Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear passenger executives will undermine the financial prospectus for inter city routes and local passenger trains.

The situation is bleak indeed and I fear that the price of the Government's neglect—indeed, positive hatred—of local passenger services and transport initiatives in west Yorkshire may deprive the House of the privilege of the presence of the hon. Member for Keighley after the next general election. That will give him time to reflect that if he had protested a little louder and been a little less loyal to his party, west Yorkshire might have had better public transport services and he might still have had a seat in this House.

4.49 am
The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) has spoken robustly on behalf of his constituents, as he always does. I am not sure that he would wish me to congratulate him on his good fortune, as it is 4.49 am

We have had an interesting and important debate. My hon. Friend mentioned the quality of Bradford's rail links and the rest of the rail network. I am aware of his and other hon. Members' anxiety about rail services to Bradford, especially the inter-city service. The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) secured an Adjournment debate on rail services to Bradford last November, since when there has been correspondence.

I have accepted an invitation to visit Bradford next Wednesday, 19 March. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, like the hon. Member for Bradford, West has been anxious for me to pay that visit, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Lawler) will be present. I can assure all three that I shall travel to Bradford by inter-city service, changing at Leeds and that the programme arranged for my visit will give me an opportunity to meet BR's passengers, and representatives from several interest groups, including the chamber of commerce, the university, the transport users' consultative committee and Age Concern, and to discuss issues of concern with the city council and Members of Parliament.

I have no doubt that the visit will be interesting and useful, but I must emphasise, as did my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in reply to the Adjournment debate last November, that the quality and level of services on routes and their timetabling are entirely matters for the BR Board. Ministers have no powers to interfere. The Government have set a framework of objectives for the board. We have emphasised that rail services should be reliable, attractive and punctual at acceptable fares and charges. It is for the board to manage the network in the framework of those objectives. For the inter-city sector, we have set the board a commercial target. We have asked the chairman to ensure that it achieves a 5 per cent. return on assets by 1988–89 and said that, from 1 April 1988, the sector will not be eligible for public service obligation grant. That approach is consistent with the firm policy of successive Governments that there is no justification for subsidising inter-urban transport whether it is provided by rail, road or air.

Mr. Snape

Can I draw attention, in my tentative fashion, to the fact that the Department has subsidised road haulage for donkeys' years and shows every sign of continuing to do so, not least because, when their own figures show that the heaviest lorries do not meet their true track cost, the Government move the goalposts in an attempt to prove that they do?

Mr. Mitchell

Perhaps we could debate expenditure on roads and the contribution made by road users some other time. The hon. Gentleman jolly well ought to know that road users contribute considerably more than is spent on the road system. BR's inter-city sector is already under a strong challenge from airline and coach operators, and it is beginning to respond well.

My hon. Friend referred to the board's proposals in respect of the Wortley curve. I understand that an application for a judicial review of the board's decision not to implement the statutory closure proceedings for that stretch of line has been granted, so hon. Members will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment. The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) was worried about the future of the Wharfedale and Airedale lines. Both of them are supported by the passenger transport executive through section 20 agreements. I shall return to the hon. Gentleman's point later.

As hon. Members will be aware, decisions on the level of financial support for local rail services in west Yorkshire are a matter for the passenger transport authority and its PTE. That is as it should be. PTAs and their executives are in the best position to judge the value of local rail services within the overall provision of public transport in their areas. The fact that the decisions rest with local bodies means that no one in Government can ever give an absolute assurance of support for a particular service. However, if the PTE were to withdraw its support for the service, British Rail could not withdraw passenger services from the line unless and until the proposal had been considered in the statutory procedure and the Secretary of State had decided to give consent to the proposal. The procedure allows objections to be made and fully considered before the Secretary of State comes to a conclusion.

Mr. Snape


Mr. Mitchell

I intend to return to some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has made and seeks to make, when I have dealt with other aspects of railways raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley.

Mr. Snape

I am grateful to the Minister, but he should not allow himself to read out such dishonest claptrap. Will he tell the House how it is possible for local people to make local decisions when his boss, the Secretary of State, issues press releases saying that he will stop what he calls wasteful public expenditure on public transport? To do that, he is deliberately restricting the money available, so preventing those local people from making local decisions.

Mr. Mitchell

Clearly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should not have given way to the hon. Gentleman. I had every intention of dealing with the rubbish that the hon. Gentleman spoke from the Dispatch Box. If he will allow me to take my speech in its proper sequence, he will find that I have great pleasure in rubbishing what he had to say when he addressed the House earlier.

Hon. Members have expressed disappointment with the fact that the British Rail Board does not propose to electrify the link between Bradford and the east coast main line. I understand that BR considered the case for electrifying the line between Bradford and Leeds in 1982, but found that it could justify spending only some £2 million to £3 million against an estimated cost for the scheme of £10 million.

It has been suggested that appraisals of possible electrification schemes, such as that between Leeds and Bradford, should not be determined solely on a commercial basis. We believe firmly, however, that BR's inter-city sector, where the responsibility for the Leeds to Bradford electrification scheme should fall, should operate and invest efficiently. In making investment proposals for the inter-city sector, BR must demonstrate a commercial rate of return.

West Yorkshire passengers, including Bradford ones, should benefit from the east coast main line electrification scheme, which will be completed to Leeds in 1989. I understand that, with the electrification scheme, BR has no plans to withdraw through services to Bradford. I am happy to give my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley that assurance. The services will be provided with the very latest rolling stock. The locomotive will be changed at Leeds.

The electrification of the east coast main line has a value of more than £3 million, which is the largest BR investment scheme for more than 25 years. BR was able to put forward a good financial case for the scheme, and we were glad to give it our approval. It is an example of our commitment to a modern and efficient railway system and it should bring significant benefits to the people of Yorkshire.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley also referred to the private steam conserved line—the Keighley and Worth Valley Line. I join him in paying tribute to the enterprising people who run preserved railways in different parts of the country. I have had the opportunity of visiting several of them. I was most impressed by the enthusiasm, skill and professionalism of those running such railway lines. I am a member of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway Preservation Society, and I have been involved with the Watercress Line. I join my hon. Friend in warmly congratulating those who are involved with the preserved lines.

My hon. Friend mentioned trunk road schemes in and around his constituency. We expect to start three important schemes in west Yorkshire in 1986. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that starts are planned on two sections of the Airedale route in his constituency—Kildwick to Beechcliffe and Victoria Park to Crossflatts. Those schemes are part of the improved trunk road for Aire valley. We also plan to start work on a much-needed bypass of Wetherby on the A1 following a decision in December on the Kirkhamgate to Dishforth proposals.

I acknowlege that the Airedale route is of prime importance. The new road links to the Aire valley are of considerable importance. My hon. Friend is disappointed with the decision, confirmed last year, to terminate the route at Cottingley Bar near Bingley, but the announcement made it clear that a new road through the Saltaire-Shipley corridor would be unacceptable to local people. Alternative routes were examined carefully, but would cause considerable environmental damage. Therefore, we see the need to concentrate on new sections that we can build plus improvements to the existing road east of Cottingley Bar. As my hon. Friend knows, we are already consulting on the form of junction arrangement at Cottingley Bar. The chosen design will be included in proposals for the Crossflatts to Cottingley Bar section. Publication of the proposals is planned for later this year.

We also plan to hold public consultation about improvements to the existing road east of Cottingley Bar and the Shipley eastern bypass, which will link the improvements being planned by the local authority in Bradford. My hon. Friend said that he was worried about some aspects of this. I shall draw his concern to the attention of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State who has prime responsibility for roads.

Another important scheme in my hon. Friend's constituency is the Addingham bypass. I am pleased to note the interested local response to the exhibition of proposals. Many people share the view that has been expressed that work on this should be started quickly, but we must consider objections before reaching a conclusion about a public inquiry. A few miles to the west, but just in west Yorkshire, a bypass of Draughton is planned. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will make an announcement on it in the spring.

On the A65, a bypass is planned for Burley in Wharfedale. We shall publish proposals for this during the summer. Many people are looking forward to relief from trunk road traffic. Improvements are planned on the A1 between Scotch Corner and the Bramham crossroads, at A64 junction north-east of Leeds. In west Yorkshire, in addition to the Wetherby bypass, we shall be publishing fresh proposals later this year for the section from Bramham to Wetherby. I recognise the concern about conditions on the A1 south of Bramham crossroads, and we are considering it carefully.

The decision announced in the House on 6 December by my hon. Friend the former Minister of State to press ahead with A1 improvements was welcomed generally. But we also decided, following the inspector's recommendation, not to make orders for an M1 to A1 link to the east of Leeds. Therefore, a study will be carried out into the problems of through traffic in the communities in and to the east of Leeds. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for roads and traffic is considering the terms of reference for the study and he expects to make an announcement soon. He will also decide who will carry out the study. We fully acknowledge the need to come to a conclusion as quickly as possible about the next steps to be taken, but it is important to make a full assessment of the situation before reaching a conclusion.

Perhaps I could just assure my hon. Friend on a number of other aspects concerning trunk road schemes and studies in west Yorkshore, because other schemes are being prepared. A bypass of Drighlington is planned, and we published orders in January this year. This will provide relief to the village from heavy vehicles using the A650 to reach the M62. If a public inquiry is needed, it should be held towards the end of this year. We are also planning to provide a climbing lane on the M62 between junctions 24 and 25. The uphill gradient of this five kilometre section results in queues of slow-moving heavy goods vehicles. Our consulting engineers are now carrying out preliminary design work. We hope to start work late in 1987 or early in 1988.

My hon. Friend is now considering who should carry out two further studies in west Yorkshire. The first is on a possible link from the M1 south of Wakefield to the M62, providing an improved route for traffic from south Yorkshire to the west. The other is a study of the Wharfedale route to the A1 south. This is an important route from Leeds to the north-west. A number of bypasses have already been provided or are in the programme, but we need to decide how much more should be done.

There are also a number of smaller improvements about which I shall write to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend also raised certain matters concerning the Leeds/Bradford airport. Perhaps I can tell him that the White Paper "Airports Policy", published in June 1985, outlined the Government's commitment to maximise the potential of regional and local airports so that passengers with origins and destinations in the regions can use their local airports. Thriving regional airports also provide direct and indirect employment in the area, and benefit local industry by providing useful air services for business men and local air freight services. My hon. Friend particularly referred to the opportunities which he saw in connection with a postal service for the Leeds/Bradford airport.

The White Paper, "Airline Competition Policy", also made clear the Government's wish to see the new international services developed from regional airports. The Government are also active within the EEC in seeking to liberalise inter-regional air services.

The Government have also authorised unprecedented levels of capital expenditure for development. Leeds/Bradford has benefited from this. In the past four years, substantial capital expenditure allocations, totalling no less than £18 million, have been made, mainly for runway extension and its associated work, terminal extension and improvements, and so on. Phase two of the terminal extension is due to be completed this year, and approval for construction of phases three and four will be given when it is justified by the traffic growth and subject to the availability of PESC resources.

The Government's policy is to encourage the development of regional airports wherever this is justified by demand and return on capital. I hope that what I have said will give my hon. Friend some reassurance about the importance that we attach to regional airports, of which he has been supportive.

I turn now to the remarks of the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bromwich, East. His usual woolly intervention, if I may say so, included an extraordinary attack on the Department of Transport for its assessment of the need for roads, and snide remarks about justifying a road even through the Sahara. I hope that those towns and villages awaiting bypasses will not fail to note the anti-road attitude of the hon. Gentleman, who represents the Labour party on the Front Bench in these matters. The hon. Gentleman referred to buses, and made what I thought were some rather cheap remarks, making play with the name of County Councillor Tweddle, who has well served the people whom he represents in his part of Yorkshire.

I am not in a position to comment in depth on the particular bus services registered as commercial because at his point we do no know precisely the extent to which the gross numbers break down compared with the existing situation. But it may interest the House to know that no fewer than 15,000 routes had been registered by 28 February as part of the commercial network nationwide.

Mr. Snape

That is a lot.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman is right. That is about three quarters of the existing system, which is much higher than his hon. Friends suggested when they spent last summer trying to oppose our legislation to improve the buses. They claimed at the time that the legislation would lead to no bus services being registered, and now there are 15,000 examples of how wrong they were. Alternatively, they said that there would be great congestion because so many buses were being registered and so many services run in our city centres.

The hon. Gentleman asked how west Yorkshire will meet the level of service within the precept limit that has been set. That is a matter for the PTE in fulfilling the policies of the west Yorkshire PTA. The extent to which they will be able to achieve that will be not insignificantly affected by the efficiency and improvement that comes about in the existing bus services in that area, which everybody knows have substantial room for improvement.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the PTA may give a low priority to section 20 support for British Rail services. That is a matter of local priorities. It is a matter for the local authority, not the Government. If locally elected representatives responsible to local people choose to give a low priority to the section 20 arranged rail services, they must be answerable for that. Certainly there will be those who will have a good many questions to ask should they seek to regard the provision of rail services in their area as a matter of such low priority that they propose to terminate them.

I understand that the PTA is proposing to cut bus services by 10 per cent. in order to avoid the small increase in the real level of bus fares. Again, that is a matter for it to justify. I might find it extraordinary that, while the level of bus fares is substantially below that in many other parts of the country, the PTA pursues a policy of keeping bus fares at an artificially low level, having to cut the network or even raise question marks about rail service rather than increasing the price of tickets.

However, that is not a matter for me to decide. It is a matter for local people to decide through their representatives and to justify to their electorate.

Mr. Waller

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Labour-run PTA has kept fares at the same level for seven years, quite inefficiently, and that even when more money became available it used it to reduce fares in the peak periods and to make special offers to people to attract them on to buses that were already full? The same thing applies to trains. At a public meeting that I attended to discuss the train service on the Wharfedale line, it was clear that people were willing to pay more in order to keep their trains but that they were being prevented from doing so by the PTA which, instead, thought about cutting the service.

Mr. Mitchell

I do not think that there could be a more succinct summary of the extraordinary lack of reasonable priorities than has been expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley in winding up this debate.