HC Deb 19 December 1988 vol 144 cc111-32

10.1 pm

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the subject of transport in London. I am particularly delighted that I have been lucky in the draw and that the debate has come at this time of the evening. Perhaps my colleagues will agree with that, not least my hon. Friend the Minister who is to reply. We have been mercifully treated in that, particularly as, had I been less lucky, we might have found ourselves trying to get home in the early hours of the rush hour tomorrow morning. That would have stressed the problems that we address in this debate.

When I first applied for this debate, road transport was uppermost in my mind, particularly the chaos caused by a variety of incidents and accidents and the standstill that affected our city centre on at least three occasions. Since then, sadly, the train crash in Battersea, outside Clapham junction station, has dominated our thoughts on transport in London. I hope that we can set on one side the details of that incident, because we want to avoid snap judgments on a terrible tragedy of that magnitude.

For example, soon after the crash, we had discussions on the design of the coaches of the train involved. At first it appeared that they were an old design which ran regularly on that line and we seemed to have an answer to the problem. It seemed that all we needed to do was to change the style of the coaches and all would be well. But subsequently we discovered that that coach was only on that line that day because of vandalism at Poole. Vandals had put a cement mixer on the line and prevented the more modern train from passing to Bournemouth, so the older train had come out of store so, let us not jump to conclusions tonight, but wait for the public inquiry.

Certain thoughts must come from that incident and there have been many thoughts on the number of passengers travelling on trains into central London. In shorthand, it is called overcrowding, but that is a difficult term to define. Crowding seems bad enough, so I am not sure what overcrowding is. Thereby hangs another debate—on the numbers that should be standing in excess of the number of seats.

What is clear is that, while there are rules on the number of passengers in excess of seats that can travel on long-distance journeys into London or elsewhere, for journeys of fewer than 20 miles such rules do not apply. Most of the trains that cover my and other inner-London constituencies travel fewer than 20 miles and so are not covered. Those trains are jam-packed with people travelling over the same lines on which the accident took place and along the same network of signals.

We must look carefully at the number of people travelling on trains. I believe that the first lesson we must learn is that we need not so much more trains—I doubt whether the timetable could accommodate them—as longer ones. However, in many of our suburban stations longer trains will mean that longer platforms are needed, which I hope will be considered.

However, that accident has caused us to look at the safety record of the railways in London. That record is quite remarkable; it is a tribute to the management of and those working for British Rail. We have the busiest junction in the country, perhaps in the world, through which 2,000 trains travel per day, carrying more than 350,000 passengers—at peak times, 1,000 passengers a minute travel into London—yet when I asked people in the Battersea area when an accident last caused loss of life, they could not remember. The last time they could remember casualties in that part of London was when bombs dropped out of the sky over London. Such a record is a tribute to the staff. There have been few severe rail accidents in London. I believe that there have been two others this decade, each with three dead, and then one goes back to Hither Green in the 1960s and Lewisham in the 1950s. One has to look way beyond the last war to find anything that has affected this busy area of London. It is a safe track, which must be reassuring.

The message that I hope to bring to this debate is that, in solving our transport difficulties in London, we must look much more seriously at public transport. We must encourage many more people to use it, which must mean more people using the railways. Of course we need safer railways, and that will come out of the inquiry, but we need a better service to attract people to them. We have a service which is good in parts and improving in parts. We know that in some cases there is a need for staffing, rolling stock and platforms, which I have already mentioned.

I believe that we need, too, new and reopened lines. Snow Hill is perhaps a good example of old railway being brought back into use, and I would like to see others reopened. I think in particular of the west London line. The old Battersea station was not reopened after the war and is still there in embryo over Battersea High street. That line could serve an area of London which is not served by rail or Underground. It could travel across the Thames to Chelsea harbour, another area deserted by public transport. Most important of all, it could go up through West Brompton to Earl's Court and provide, at long last, an underground link from the busiest junction on British Rail—Clapham junction—to Earl's Court. I hope that my hon. Friend will look carefully at that suggestion.

I hope that in studying the road plans in that area, especially the WEIR—the western environmental improvement route—the Minister will ensure that any such plans do not cut off the options for that rail and tube link at West Brompton. I am sure, too, that there will be general agreement that the Chelsea-Hackney link, which has long been a priority of hon. Members and of transport managers in London, should be given the go-ahead.

I believe that British Rail has received more investment cash this decade than in any other in its history. That is good news, but it is still not sufficient. We need still more resources if we are to continue the shift from road traffic to rail.

There are three ways in which to encourage road users to abandon their vehicles and to use trains. The first, of course, is to allow roads to grind to a halt. Drivers would have no option but to leave their cars and walk or find public transport. The second is to price cars off the road. The third option is to make rail travel more attractive in terms of speed, comfort and price.

The first option, of allowing our roads to grind to a halt, is totally unacceptable. One has only to consider the impact on the emergency vehicles and remember the recent example of those vehicles trying to get to King's Cross and Clapham Junction. One can only price cars off the road if the third option is operative. That third option must take the lead in our policies to cure London's problems. We must have more funds, better used, to provide a better rail service.

Cash is required for all forms of transport—I do not just mean taxpayers' cash, but investment cash in the broadest sense. I do not believe that one should pluck figures out of the air and say that, within the next five years, £2 billion, £5 billion or £10 billion must be spent. That is the wrong way in which to consider the problem. We must accept that London is seizing up and that it needs investment cash.

In recent years we have had a good record of investment, but the current rate of investment is leading not to any improvements in London's transport, but to a standstill position; all too often, that literally means that London's traffic comes to a standstill. That is not good enough. We must have a shopping list of major and minor projects so that people can live and work in London. Once we have that shopping list, we can decide those we must afford to fund, those to which we can ask the private sector to contribute and those that we can suggest that transport passengers fund, if they are prepared to pay the price. We should use all three avenues to achieve the necessary investment.

I believe that we need co-ordination to achieve the improvements we seek. Too often we consider road and rail transport separately. When reaching conclusions on schemes for either branch of our transport system, we often do not consider whether they will work in conjunction with the other branch.

The last thing we need is another example of the Greater London council approach: after 10 years, it produced the central plan, which it then took three years to abandon. We need greater co-ordination, which must come from the Department and its Ministers.

Does my hon. Friend believe that it is sensible to continue to have a Minister with responsibility for roads and a Minister with responsibility for railways? Is it sensible to continue to have that symbolic divide within the Department? That divide is often reflected outside. We need to find better ways in which to divide responsibilities within the Department. That is a tentative suggestion, because I know that it is my hon. Friend's boss, the Secretary of State, whose task it is to work on that.

One way in which we could improve things is to have a Minister for London or a Minister whose responsibilities included London. We should consider whether that means London as it is or whether the area within the M25 should be part of the London transport scene.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

What about the GLC?

Mr. Bowis

That Minister would be able to bring together the planners for the roads, the railways and the Underground and those responsible for the river and air transport to consider the problems. Recently we had a problem in Battersea when a barge bashed into Battersea bridge. That had a great effect on traffic. When I asked in a parliamentary question the effect that that accident had on traffic flows, I was told that it was the responsibility of the boroughs. That is fine, but Wandsworth happens to be responsible for Battersea bridge, and Kensington and Chelsea is responsible for the Albert bridge. No one has the figures for the effect on various bridges down the river, or a co-ordinated policy to operate if, for example, we needed urgently to bring in the Royal Engineers to put across a temporary bridge.

This co-ordinating role is an important necessity. I hope that the river will receive greater prominence in future planning. There is enormous scope for more riverbus traffic. I hope that such planning will include building piers in suitable places, such as the heliport, to take some traffic off the roads.

I hope that my constituents will not be the only ones to suffer—or benefit—from a heliport. There used to be two of them in London—it is time there were two, or even three, again. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell the City of London that it is time it did its bit to provide a heliport service—

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Is my hon. Friend aware that if there is a heliport it is likely that helicopters will fly from it, and that many people find the noise of helicopters a severe irritant and want fewer, not more, helicopters and few and smaller heliports?

Mr. Bowis

I entirely understand my hon. Friend's worries. That is one reason why I want to spread the load a little, so that not so many flights fly over our end of London and flights can be spread down the river to the east of London. We have a City airport—why not allow helicopters to fly there, too?

Helicopters and riverbuses will provide only some answers to our problems. A great many more people travel on the Underground. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of passengers travelling on it in recent years. That increase, good as it was, will be reversed if we cannot improve the service.

On the eastern border of my constituency—there is no other Underground service in it—is a branch of the Northern line. Numbers of my constituents are served by the stations at Clapham Common, Clapham South and Balham. Those three stations give rise to more than a little of the volume of my mailbag. My constituents refer to a black hole down which trains rarely come. If they come, they tend to be full; while people wait for them they tend to be mugged. If they manage to get on, they tend to get mugged again. While they are on the trains they may get tipped out halfway down the line, because the trains go no further.

I exaggerate a little, but for a purpose. I know that LRT is making enormous efforts to cure the crime and frequency problems of the Northern line, but it is always in the news and it has always been seen as a bad line—yet it is never at the top of the priority list. The line needs staff, rolling stock and station redevelopment, and it needs to be split in two—and it should be put at the top of the priority list. If that requires private investment, let us pioneer that in the Underground system. Let us put the line out to tender and see whether private enterprise can do what so far public management has not been able to.

In public transport of all sorts, but particularly on the Underground, there is often a problem of staff shortages because of the difficulty of housing at the ends of the line, which tend to be in more expensive areas. We should encourage the railway authorities to provide some sort of housing for their staff. I do not mean the old tied cottage sort of housing. Railwaymen and Underground staff want to own their homes these days like everyone else. The railway authorities should, by themselves or together with housing associations, provide share purchase schemes to enable railway staff—particularly young couples—to start down the line in the housing market.

There need to be more car parks at the outer stations, which people should be encouraged to use.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about housing, but how does he think the London borough of Wandsworth would react to his suggestion, bearing in mind the enormous housing problems there? More than 1,000 houses are empty, waiting to be sold not to local people but to anyone with money. Unfortunately, rail staff do not live in the area and have no commitment to it.

Mr. Bowis

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a need for housing for such people. I am sure that Wandsworth council would welcome the scheme that I mentioned, just as it welcomed a similar scheme proposed by Wandsworth health authority to enable its staff to buy their own homes. Housing associations have been involved in such schemes. The public sector need not be involved.

I shall not dwell, because others may, on the options for further development of the Underground, especially the deep central figure of eight line, as it is described, and the private investment that could be waiting to assist in such a project.

From a recent answer by my hon. Friend the Minister, we know that there has been a marginal slowing down of traffic as it enters London in the rush hour. As he rightly said, the figure is not much different from that of 50 years ago, but there has been a move downwards in recent years. Of course, at times the slowdown becomes a full stop. We have heard interesting ideas about building deep tunnels—perhaps with private capital—to solve our road problems. I say firmly to my hon. Friend that we do not need inner link roads carving a way through the best of our housing and through the green spaces and commons of inner London. We should treasure and protect them. The Department should turn down some of the dottier consultants' schemes as soon as possible so that there is no planning blight, which such proposals have caused in the past.

My hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt say that we have traffic problems and that they must be solved. We cannot put all the traffic on to rail. We must have good routes so that buses, taxis and bicycles, as well as the cars and commercial vehicles that need to reach the centre of the city, can travel in inner and central London. Surveys show that, although there is much traffic moving round the inner ring, it is mainly local traffic from one borough to the next. The main problem occurs when that traffic comes up against the traffic trying to get out of London. If the Department considered decommissioning the south circular road, that would help everyone's state of mind.

We need to build roads that go right out of London, and we must consider radical solutions. We should consider tunnelling by deep boring rather than the cut and cover technique, because the former is much more acceptable. Where there is land alongside the railway lines that go out towards the M25, let us use that. Where there is no land, let us build on top of the railway lines. If it is feasible to build a new six-lane motorway above the M25, it must be possible to put roads above our railways. At least that would solve the falling leaves problem in the autumn. We should allow the private sector to put money into such schemes and to charge tolls. I am sure that people would pay to use fast roads in and out of London. That would take traffic off the minor roads of my borough and others in inner London.

Local solutions, including road straightening, road widening, traffic light improvements and better traffic light co-ordination, could help enormously. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend and his Department have done with Wandsworth council. Schemes such as that at Swandon way have made an important contribution to improving the area. But there are still problems in that area, because, although Swandon way has been a great help to traffic travelling west, going east we have the south circular road, Wandsworth road, Battersea Park road, Lombard road from Battersea bridge and Wandsworth bridge roundabout, all those routes funnel into Wandsworth high street and then try to get up West hill, where the road has only one lane each way. Such problems still need to be tackled in west London.

We welcome the measures involving new technology in the Road Traffic Driver Licensing and Information Systems Bill introduced in another place to enable drivers to dodge bottlenecks. Bottlenecks are not always caused by the annoyances that we expect. They are not always caused by broken-down cars, burst water mains, gas leaks or even the antics of the National Union of Students. More often than not the cause is thoughtless, illegal parking on single and double yellow lines on through roads. Too many of our fellow motorists see the single yellow line as a nuisance and the double yellow line as a bloody cheek. We must now say to such drivers, "Enough is enough. You cannot go on blocking London or bringing the city to a halt. You cannot choke our roads."

I should favour the introduction of a red line system on through routes, involving the instant payment of a £200 fine. That would apply to the rush hour and would deter even those people whose fines are paid by their employers. If necessary, I hope that we could make it illegal for employers to pay their employees' fines.

I welcome the continuing efforts that many London boroughs have made, particularly to enable cyclists to travel as safely and as pollution-free as possible through inner London. My final plea, however, is for the disabled who are too often ignored in transport planning in London. I think particularly of route planning, vehicle and rolling stock design and access to railway stations—for example, at Clapham junction with its many staircases and gaps between the platform and the train. We should pay much attention to such points. I think also of the excellent dial-a-ride scheme, although that is rather inflexible because users' needs sometimes come second to the administrative neatness preferred by London Regional Transport. I understand its desire for neatness, but it should also be flexible. In my area, people can benefit from longer journeys on the dial-a-ride scheme for medical reasons or to go into the west end. A single journey is often worth more than a shorter journey. One long journey to a relative may be worth six visits to a local bingo hall.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to continue his resistance to the European Community straitjacket into which it is trying to put voluntary drivers for the disabled. This morning, I attended my local Golden Age club where a bus was handed over to enable members to get around the borough. Sadly, if the new EEC scheme comes into force, they will have difficulty finding a driver equipped to take them round.

London is a densely populated city and provides jobs for many people who live beyond its boundaries. Its economic growth is creating new jobs, and many firms are looking well beyond London for staff. In a recent article, Professor Buchan said: Traffic is mostly the product of what goes on in buildings. That is right. The result of building in London is ever greater demands on transport. Historically, our railways and Underground system had to be built where they could be built. Houses have been built alongside and we cannot therefore build new lines alongside. Our roads were built not for modern vehicles or the present volume of cars, but for the slow-moving, narrow-gauge horse and cart. We must introduce schemes for modern transport in the capital.

Many surface improvements could be made and I have alluded to many of the options. Ultimately, to coin a phrase, the answer lies in the soil. We should be digging deep to look for solutions. We should be tunnelling our way out of this transport prison. I come from a borough that incorporates part of Wimbledon common, and if we dig deep we may, to quote the Wombles song, have an "Underground, overground, travelling", well, if not "free", at least one on which we can travel safely, swiftly, in comfort and at a price that we and our environment can afford.

10.30 pm
Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

It is always nice to hear of someone who sees the light on the road to Damascus. We have just heard from someone who has seen the light on the road to Clapham junction. The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) urged greater investment in public transport and its greater use. However, I must remind the hon. Member that he is talking to a Government who have continually decimated the public service grant to the extent that there has been a 40 per cent. cuts in grant. The Government have also abolished the only effective transport authority for London, the Greater London council, and they are determined to break up London Regional Transport.

I agree with the hon. Member for Battersea, as would most people, that our roads are antiquated, that our transport system was designed for the horse and cart and that we now have to live with the car. The same could be said of almost every other capital city. In comparison to other transport systems, we have failed in many respects.

I believe that there should be five principles for transport in London. The first is the freedom to move about London quickly to work, for shopping or for leisure without the need to use the car or spend a fortune. The first principle is good, cheap and effective public transport.

Secondly, I want the freedom to move out of London quickly and efficiently without a car. That means ready access by rail or coach to airports or seaports.

Thirdly, I want people to have the freedom and to enjoy the pleasure of moving around on their own two feet, on one foot or, if one is completely disabled, on no feet. There should be pedestrian areas where people can enjoy moving around in a segregated area. It is an absolute disgrace that we have not pedestrianised Oxford street, Shaftesbury avenue, Regent street and other areas of London. I accept that part of Clapham junction has been pedestrianised along St. John's road. However, in comparison with other major European cities, it is outrageous that London has so few areas designated for the freedom of the pedestrian or for people in wheelchairs. There should be more pedestrianisation, and we should strike the right balance between one's ability to use a car and the ability to use one's feet.

Fourthly, we should have the freedom to move around London by cycle because that is one of the healthiest and least polluting ways of moving around any city. The more we can encourage the use of the bicycle, the better.

Finally, we should have the freedom within the constraints imposed by pedestrianisation and overcrowding to enjoy using our cars. I am not being hypocritical about this. The ability to use a hypermarket with a large parking area represents an immense increase in the freedom of people to use their city. It increases convenience and often produces a big decrease in their cost of living. We must not neglect the car.

Over 50 years in London we have witnessed the inability or unwillingness to make bold decisions about transport or bold investments in transport. There has been too much whining and parochialism and not enough courage. There is evidence of that even today. It is no use arguing for 50 years that traffic should be shifted off the roads and on to rail and then, when we have the opportunity to gain access to a rail network serving the rest of Europe and even Asia, to whine about the possibility of our having to improve domestic access to that network.

We must have more courage and put aside our cowardice about bold transport systems, provided of course that there is proper compensation and that such development is sensibly approached and not bulldozed through. We must be bold from time to time. Having argued for 50 years that rail must take more traffic, we must not run away from that prospect the moment it means adding an extra platform to our local railway station. I hope that we shall be bolder and more courageous in tackling London's transport system.

We have suffered also from undue restrictions. It is outrageous that our major fruit and vegetable market, new Covent Garden, on the edge of my borough, is not served by water access. Many of us understand the reason—restrictions on use of the river. But again that is outrageous, and it is an enormous waste of a potential transport facility.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does my hon. Friend recall that, at the public inquiry into that scheme, its promoters promised river access, and that there was the prospect of rail access as well? That was discussed during the debate on the Covent Garden Market (Financial Provisions) Bill 1977, when my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) and I nearly divided the House. Nevertheless, the property developers—or some-one—reneged on both undertakings.

Mr. Fraser

I am sure that that is so. I regret that lack of foresight—

Mr. Spearing

Such a facility was foreseen, but it was reneged on.

Mr. Fraser

My hon. Friend makes his point.

In the past, London docks were destroyed by the inability of heavy lorries to reach the dockside. That is one reason why so much employment in central London was lost. About 20 years ago, it took three days to get a lorry carrying an export order from Barker and Dobson's factory in Clapham to the London docks. The docks were moved elsewhere because of the essential need for proper road communications.

Underground construction since the end of the last war has been pathetic. There was an immense general building programme, but in the past 50 years we have seen only the building of the Victoria line as far as Brixton—and it cannot go further because it is grossly overcrowded to the point of danger—and that of the Jubilee line. Compared with the massive programme of underground construction that was undertaken in the 1920s and 1930s, there has been gross neglect of investing in the system.

There should be duplication of the Northern line and of the Victoria line. Lines should be constructed to destinations such as Crystal Palace and beyond the Elephant and Castle, where the land has been reserved for the last 50 years, to Camberwell green. There should also be an underground link to Lewisham, perhaps using the misnamed east London line—really it is the south-east London line

There should also be an end to the extremely dangerous overcrowding. I am reminded of a Spike Milligan poem: A little sardine saw a submarine And took a look through the peephole. 'Come, come, come', said the sardine's mum, It's only a tin for the people. One can say exactly the same of any sardine seeing a train on the Northern line.

I want to see massive investment in London's transport system, together with a substantial increase in pedestrianisation—achieved with the right balance between that and one's necessary and pleasurable use of the car. Our present choice is the choice between the cattle truck and the stampede. We must have a better London transport system. Without it we shall have a system that does not work at all.

10.39 pm
Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) said that it was essential to have swift access to the Channel tunnel, and that people should not whine if their properties were affected because full compensation should have been paid. Alas, three of the four proposed routes from London to the Channel tunnel touch my constituency, and—as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware—there is considerable apprehension about the building of new lines. The Clapham junction railway tragedy, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) referred in so ably opening the debate, has reawakened the alarm of those who fear the mixing of high-speed trains from the continent with existing suburban lines, and we must give much more thought to that problem.

It is always pleasant to be able to say "I told you so". In our debates on the abolition of the Greater London council, while I broadly supported the Government in their abolition of that elephantine body, I said that successor bodies would be necessary to co-ordinate traffic in London. The same point was made forcefully in a leading article in The Times the other day, after a notable series of articles on traffic problems in London: For the organization of London's transport to be improved does not require the Greater London Council to be reconstituted". What was needed, said the article, was a new executive with both operational independence from the vested interests in the Department of Transport and powers to require British Rail and London Regional Transport to co-ordinate their plans and function in co-operation … A new London Transport Executive could go a long way in relieving the police of responsibility for traffic control and reinvigorating the warden service. Most important, it could standardize policy on parking and penalties across the capital.

We desperately need a new transport executive in London, and co-ordination is needed in particular to deal with obstruction, traffic choke points and parking. The main obstruction offenders are the statutory authorities which dig up roads, and builders who block highways while carrying out construction work. Of course the telephone, gas and water authorities must have the right to dig up the roads to carry out repairs, but I believe that they should have to pay for that right, and that the payments should be sufficiently graded for every pressure to be put on those who dig up the roads to return them to operation as quickly as they can by working night and day.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has said that in years to come, possibly by the beginning of the next century, the expenditure of hundreds of millions of pounds will provide us with a great new computer-controlled electronic warning system that will tell bus and other drivers about obstructions ahead and divert them around those obstructions. With a little thought and organisation and the expenditure of tens of thousands of pounds rather than tens of millions of pounds, and the provision of a few quickly-produced signs, I think that we could have a warning system now.

Twice during the past month when parking near Hanger Lane I have been caught in horrendous traffic jams at normally slack periods during the weekend because the authorities had closed two of the three lanes without providing any warning signs. When I drove back to London on Sunday I could have got into exactly the same sort of jam in exactly the same place, but because I was listening to LBC I heard a traffic warning that again the three lanes had been reduced to one. No attempt had been made, however, by the authorities to provide warning signs on the roads coming into London which would have enabled drivers to take alternative routes and avoid the traffic jam. I believe that an adequate warning of road works could be provided now and that the new traffic executive should be responsible for traffic signposting. Sadly, south London has the worst traffic signposting in any major European city.

A number of traffic checkpoints in London have been made a great deal worse because local councils have closed side streets, thus forcing more traffic on to main roads. During the past few weeks my regular route to my constituency from the Palace of Westminster has been made virtually impassable by the action of the local borough council. I have been pushed back on to a main traffic artery. I am wholly in favour of protecting quiet back streets, but that can be done by the use of sleeping policemen and road humps that slow down traffic without completely closing streets to traffic. Kensington and Chelsea council has adopted a very enlightened attitude towards road humps. I urge the Under-Secretary of State to keep the road hump regulations under regular review and to encourage their wider use. London needs a central traffic executive to override the powers of local councils that want to close side streets.

London desperately needs a sensible parking policy. Traffic flows and road safety would be enormously improved if illegal parking near street corners could be stopped. It would be difficult to stamp it out completely, but if people who parked illegally at street corners had to pay a fine that was two or three times greater than the normal parking fine, I believe that this practice, which hinders traffic flows and endangers road safety, could be reduced.

The central traffic authority should have direct control over some traffic wardens so that traffic choke points such as the notorious junction of Kensington High street and Kensington Church street could be patrolled regularly and any vehicle that stopped there would be given a parking ticket immediately. The central traffic executive should also be responsible for encouraging the provision of more off-street parking. We need greater subsidies for underground car parking in some of our London squares. In the House, we benefit from one of the best underground car parks in the world, and the central traffic executive should encourage the wider use of off-street parking places.

Before the war Mussolini gained great praise because it was alleged that he made the trains run on time. I believe that enormous dividends can be gained by any politician who can solve London's traffic problems.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It might be helpful for hon. Members to know that the Front Bench speeches will begin at 11.10 pm. It is a very short debate. I suggest that five-minute speeches will enable many hon. Members to be called.

10.51 pm
Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Popular)

I have spoken many times about the lack of overall planning required to improve public transport in my constituency, particularly in view of the enormous developments in Docklands. The building of the Docklands highway will encourage cars to come into the area and choke it up if public transport is not massively increased. However, that is not the subject on which I wish to speak tonight.

I wish to speak about a subject which many women in my constituency and many of their fathers, partners and sons would like me to raise—the safety of women on public transport in London. Only 35 per cent. of women in London hold driving licences—half as many as men. "Women's Transport News" researched the matter and found that only 60 per cent. of those with driving licences have access to a car and 70 per cent. are always dependent on public transport and lifts. "Ask any Woman"—based on a research project in London by an organisation called Women Against Rape—showed that 80 per cent of women in London do not have their own cars. Some have motorbikes, but two thirds of them have no access to any motorised transport. Another source, Pensioners' Link, showed that only one in 10 women over 65 drives a car. Transport Today showed men and women from black and ethnic minorities groups use public transport about 50 per cent. more than white people.

It is quite clear that women have much less access to cars and have far greater need than men for public transport, and that black women need public transport even more than white women. It is extremely important to all women to be able to travel safely.

Unfortunately, on or waiting for public transport is one of the most common places for women to be attacked. Another danger is when women accept lifts from semi-strangers. Possibly young women who have been to a party and who have missed the last bus or face a long wait at bus stops or a long walk to the tube in the dark feel that accepting a lift is the lesser evil, and that decision often leads to an attack. Sometimes young women hitch-hike or accept lifts due to lack of money. That is all too common, given the present level of unemployment.

"Ask any Woman" found that three quarters of women felt uneasy, frightened or very frightened or never went out after dark. Women of all ages have said to me that they never go out after dark. That affects their social lives and their choice of jobs and job opportunities.

Women fear different categories of London public transport. British Rail closed-compartment trains are feared most by women, followed by the Underground. Women say that if they are attacked on an Underground train they cannot get off until the train stops. After getting off, one is in a maze and cannot see round corners. One has to run up the stairs and there is no one to go to for help. It can be a nightmare. Seventy per cent. of all women think that it is unsafe to use British Rail or the Underground or to wait at a bus stop at night.

Winvisible and other disability organisations say that disabled women are particularly vulnerable. If one cannot see, hear or run well and has to ask for physical assistance from people who may take advantage, one is particularly vulnerable and may be singled out for attack. That applies also to older women, pregnant women and women with young children who cannot move fast.

Another danger is one-person-operated doors. Again, that is particularly dangerous for older people, pregnant women and women with small children. Last year there were 300 officially recorded incidents involving people trapped in the centre doors of buses in London. At least three people have died. If I had more time, I could supply many quotations from people saying that they fear those doors and one-person-operated buses.

Transport cuts are harming women in particular since they use public transport most. Eighty per cent. of women interviewed by the GLC women's committee said that they wanted bus conductors arid station staffing. I am disappointed that the Docklands light railway in my constituency has no staff at stations. The cuts in bus routes mean longer waits at dark bus stops and more hitch-hiking. Every cut in services means that more women are attacked. The same applies to rises in fares. Fares for women are disproportionately higher because women do more short journeys.

Many factors make women feel unsafe. For example, women are frightened by empty platforms and carriages, standing alone at bus stops, not seeing round corners in subways, being unsure of where to go, knowing that no help is at hand in case of trouble, having to wait a long time, and long corridors in subways resulting from the bad design of stations.

Many positive measures can be taken but they all cost money. Money must be spent so that women are not trapped in their homes and can live full and proper lives. Money should be spent on good lighting and visibility. We should reduce the circumstances which result in women having to wait. That means frequent train and bus services. There should be visual display units, radios, alarm systems, good indication of when trains are coming, better positioning of bus stops, improvements in the signposting on the Underground, more exits on the Underground to reduce the distance that women have to walk and rationalisation of passageways. There should also be an absence of provocative advertising and the removal of sexist, racist and violent graffiti immediately. Above all, there should be adequate, well-trained staff to observe, advise and assist passengers.

10.58 pm
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

The House is agreed that there should be more co-ordination. There used to be. When the GLC was formed it had overall responsibility for strategic planning. Whatever one thought of the members—I was a member of the planning and traffic committee for some years—there was a skilled and professional team at work. That team has been broken up and does not appear to be in the Department of the Environment or the Department of Transport. That is to be deplored.

There have been major strategic errors. For example, 50,000 people are working at the Canary Wharf development without there having been a public inquiry or a proper planning application. That is a sin of commission. Proposals for the Channel tunnel must be decided by British Rail, but there should be an inquiry before a decision is taken and a Bill is brought before the House. There has been no strategic planning, for which Conservative Members have been asking.

In the early 1980s, Sir Peter Parker suggested an imaginative cross-rail plan for London to the Department of Transport but received no response, probably because it would not pay for itself. If it had been accepted, it would have been built by now and would have forestalled the present overcrowding.

Of course there is overcrowding, but much of it is due to Government policies. There has been investment in new stock, but railway staff say that for every four coaches taken out of service only three are being replaced. A driver writing in Modern Railways in September 1988 said: Something unheard of is now arising—drivers resigning…July sees the cancellation of over 100 trains on Southern Region due to staff shortage. Overcrowding is often a result of cancelled trains or trains that are too short because of an insufficiency of coaches. Financial pressure on British Rail management, especially on Southern region, is unrealistic, and there is a lack of cushions in the performances being demanded of it. The east Putney up-spur, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), was electrified in 1915 but has now been lifted. Such nonsense must stop.

A problem in my constituency illustrates the Government's approach to transport in London. London Buses is being broken into 15 different firms. Pressure on staff to work harder for lower wages is a controversial subject. There was an unofficial strike at West Ham garage about three weeks ago because the men were being asked to work longer hours and cover more mileage for the same pay. They were not too worried about pay because it had been agreed in negotiations, but they were worried about passenger safety and the fact that they were becoming too tired to give a proper service, especially with London's congestion. That occurred because of the Government's policy to break London Buses into 15 different firms, with conditions of service that worry the staff very much. The safety issue arose directly from the Government's pressure for less public money to be spent on public transport in London.

I hope that the Fennell report will be debated in the not too distant future, so I will leave my comments on it until then, but much criticism has been made of the Underground. The Northern line was mentioned by the hon. Member for Battersea. I have a cutting from The Times of 2 December 1924, which said that a new chapter had been opened in respect of railways in south London. It said that the city and south London line was being extended and continued: The service to be opened on the line will consist of 26 trains an hour in each direction between Clapham Common and Camden Town. I wonder whether there are anything like 26 trains an hour running today.

A controversial plan was introduced the summer before last for one-person operation on the Piccadilly line. I have grave doubts about the safety of that scheme, as had a driver writing in The Guardian on 22 November 1988, who said: If the Railway Inspectorate got it wrong on King's Cross, what grounds have we to believe that they got it right on deep level tube One Person Operation. In a reply to a question that I tabled, the then Minister with responsibilities for railways said: These plans have been shown and demonstrated to the Railway Inspectorate, which is satisfied that they will provide a proper level of safety."—[Official Report, 24 July 1987; Vol. 120, c. 607.] I cannot agree with the one-person operation on the Piccadilly line or, in particular, the controversial proposals for delays and difficulties.

The Government are at fault for not providing a comprehensive planning service for traffic and transport in London. It was available under the GLC, when road, rail and other forms of transport were co-ordinated. The Government are irresponsible in their financial pressures on British Rail and London Transport. In the end, such pressures prejudice safety standards if only by pressing staff at the difficult end of the service to cut corners and to risk tiredness and all the other things about which we have read in the newspapers in the past few days. That comes directly from the client-contractor basis which the Government are pressing upon staff at every level. It is not a concomitant of safety, as we have seen in recent incidents. The Government must change their minds and think seriously about the matter, otherwise public safety will continue to be at risk.

11.5 pm

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

As the remaining time is short, my remarks will be brief.

If we were honest about it, we would agree that public transport and transport generally in London is in absolute chaos. Traffic speeds are the lowest that they have been since the first world war. Overcrowding on Underground trains is at danger point for most of the day. Bus journeys are longer and slower than they have been for the past 30 years. The Government are spending less in proportion and in real terms on supporting public transport in London than at any time since the war, and they propose to spend less in the future. Their record on public transport in London is deplorable. They have abolished the GLC, they have refused to set up a public transport authority for London, and they now insist on London Regional Transport making a profitable return on its operation. No public transport undertaking anywhere in Europe or in most of the United States makes any return of the sort that is being sought from British Rail and London Transport.

Although we are not here to debate the details of what happened at Clapham and King's Cross, things are beginning to show that, when there is a shortage of staff—they have been dismissed to make ends meet— insufficient cleaning of stations and insufficient maintenance of trains, danger is the order of the day, and the result is death and danger for the travelling public. The Minister should listen carefully to what the people of London are saying about that.

I ask the Minister a couple of specific questions, because there is no time for me to say all that I want to say. His Department employs about 14,000 people. I understand that it employs a mere 69 people to study possible future rail developments in this country, even fewer studying pedestrianisation and pedestrian matters, and even fewer studying water-borne transport. The vast majority are obsessed with road building and road building schemes.

Is it sensible, through road assessment studies, to propose building motorways in London which, excluding land costs, will cost £14 million a mile, when the hon. Gentleman could be improving and developing public rail and bus services throughout London? Surely to God we will not solve London's transport problems by encouraging into London more and more commuter traffic, which is heavily subsidised by tax relief and causes untold chaos and pollution in constituencies such as mine, and creates greater traffic jams in central London.

I ask the Minister to say now that the road assessment studies are to be dropped and that he recognises the massive opposition that exists in my constituency, in Hornsey and Wood Green, in Finchley and, no doubt, in his own constituency, to the very notion of going back to motorway building in London. People are demanding a sane, safe and sensible transport policy for London. That must mean the development of a public transport system, investment in railways, and an end to the crazy financial relationship between the Government, British Rail and London Regional Transport. That relationship demands endless staff cuts to pursue the mythical profitable return that they cannot achieve, and danger is the result.

We live in a large city—the capital city of this country. Its public transport system is deplorable. I hope that the Minister will recognise that priority must be given to ending the road building plans and developing rail plans.

Will the Minister put pressure on British Rail not to make the decision on the siting of the Channel tunnel terminal—which I understand it is due to make early in January—without going into the environmental impact studies and without properly assessing Stratford? British Rail may do that because it is determined to develop at King's Cross, because that is where it can achieve the best rate of return and it has been told that its rail plans must be self-financing.

Will the Minister assure me that he will lift the blight that extends over my area because of the road-building plans and put pressure on British Rail not to allow the development of Gillespie park and Gillespie sidings near Finsbury Park? They are valuable open spaces that have been usefully developed by local children and the local community. Will he further accept the Finsbury Park community group's plans for Isledon road sidings, which provide a mix of public open space, housing and jobs for local industries and for local people, rather than continuing to put pressure on British Rail to achieve the greatest possible return on all its land sales, as that policy is damaging many inner-London communities and preventing the creation of open spaces, decent housing or valuable local jobs?

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

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) for initiating the debate. The expressions of dissatisfaction with London's transport have been fairly constant from both sides of the House—perhaps uniquely in my 15 or so years in this place. No one will blame the Minister personally. We probably all suspect that at heart he disagrees with the fundamental philosophy expressed so often by the Secretary of State—that there can be no central planning for London's transport. Yet the speeches from both sides of the House—again, this is probably unique—have suggested that that is just what is wrong with London's transport and traffic. The market has palpably failed as it inevitably must to solve the problems of London's traffic. [Interruption.] I am reminded that it has probably made them worse.

I shall not urge a re-formed Greater London council on the Government, because they would immediately reject such a course but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) reminded us, much of the good work done by the technical people as well as the elected representatives in the GLC has been undone since the council was abolished. It has been undone to one purpose—to save money. That will not come as a blinding revelation to hon. Members on either side of the House.

When the Bill to strip the GLC of responsibility for London's traffic was before us back in 1984, there were numerous exchanges across the Floor of the House about the Bill's impact and about the undemocratic and eventually unjust solutions—solutions that were also uneconomic, because they failed to alleviate London's traffic problems—that the Bill would bring about. All our suggestions were rejected, largely contemptuously, by the then Secretary of State, who is now Secretary of State for the Environment. Talking about London's transport problems and his solutions for the future, the right hon. Gentleman said: There are great possibilities for reducing the amount that will have to be taken from the ratepayers by reducing the cost to London Transport and, therefore, the subsidy paid for it. The more I hear about the potential for saving, the more I believe that that is the aspect on which to concentrate. That is where the ratepayers' relief, in part, will come."—[Official Report, 9 April 1984; Vol. 58, c. 34.] The obvious result of that policy and philosophy was seen in the wreckage scattered across Clapham junction a week or so ago. It is seen outside this building on most nights of the week, and on the roads into our city on most mornings. Over the past decade the Government have been obsessed more with saving money than with resolving transport problems, so those troubles lie directly at their door. That philosophy and policy is responsible for the present chaos.

The Government deliberately try to evade any long-term commitment to greater expenditure on public transport in this city and elsewhere. Five years ago they set up the Serpell report which said in chapter 2(22) that there was no possibility of any growth in commuter traffic over the next few years. That shows how wrong those self-styled experts were. In the past six years the number of people using the Underground has increased by 50 per cent. and the number of those using Network SouthEast services by 25 per cent. Each day between 7 am and 10 am 900,000 people enter central London by rail, and over the next 10 years peak demand is expected to increase by as much as 30 per cent. and off-peak demand by 45 per cent. Surely the Minister will not tell us that increases of that size will be catered for by private capital and that somehow people in the private sector will come forward with billions of pounds to save us from traffic chaos on public transport and our roads. That lack of central planning has contributed enormously to our present problems.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) concentrated almost exclusively on the chaos on our roads. He may be interested to know that the number of vehicles entering the city during peak hours can be as high as 50,000 and that more than 70 per cent. of all vehicles on London's roads are cars and no fewer than 43 per cent. of those are company cars. No other country in the world has the company car perk to the extent that we do. Inevitably, if people are given company cars as part of what they call a remuneration package, they will use those cars. They will take the view that if someone else is paying, they might as well sit in some degree of subsidised comfort, rather than join the rest of us in London's congested, expensive, overcrowded public transport.

In previous years the excuse for our enormous number of company cars was that salaries were low and taxation high. This Government have taken care of all that. As they continuously boast, taxes are among the lowest in Europe and for directors remuneration is among the highest. Yet 43 per cent. of cars continue to enter London in the rush hour, subsidised directly by a particular company. It does not make any sense. I hope that the belated efforts of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to tax company cars to prevent the present congestion will continue.

The Government's regular reply to my hon. Friends and others about the lack of investment in the railway system is that investment has never been higher than it is now. That is another myth and is just not true. On 16 December there was a letter in the Financial Times headed "Investment in the railways" from a Mr. John Wells. I presume that he is not the former Conservative Member. He describes himself as a member of the Faculty of Economics at Cambridge university. He wrote: following the period 1981–1984, in which, for four consecutive years, the lowest-ever levels of investment since the Second World War were recorded, there has indeed been a strong recovery in railway investment in recent years. Nevertheless, railway investment in 1987 (the latest year for which data are available) was considerably below that for the period 1975–1979 as well as for 1965—66. I do not have time to go into the figures in detail, but I shall send them to the Department of Transport. I hope that we shall then hear the end of the myth that investment under this Government has been higher than at any other time in the country's history.

The Secretary of State for Transport said that the terms of the inquiry into the Clapham junction disaster, headed by Mr. Anthony Hidden, QC, are to be the same as those under which Mr. Desmond Fennell, QC, was appointed to inquire into the King's Cross disaster. The House will not need reminding that Mr. Fennell decided that vital questions about such matters as staff morale and investment were ultra vires the inquiry. However, it did not stop him expressing the view that such lack of investment and low morale had no direct bearing on the King's Cross disaster.

Mr. Spearing

Without any evidence.

Mr. Snape

Mr. Fennell admitted that he had no evidence.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will make it clear that those vital matters will be considered by Mr. Hidden and that we will be able to see the impact of low investment on tragedies such as that of Clapham junction. Will the Under-Secretary tell us why half the trains using the busiest junction in the world—not just in Europe—on the former London-south western railway were controlled by a signal box more than 50 years old? I hope that the hon. Gentleman will assure us that Mr. Hidden will be allowed to consider those vital points.

I make a plea to the Under-Secretary, even at this late stage and after hearing so many excuses from the Government, that proper investment will be found to, at least, allow us to move some way towards solving London's public transport problems.

I shall repeat the words of Miss Lynda Lee-Potter in the Daily Mail of Wednesday 14 December. That is not a publication that is normally over-sentimental to those who work in the railway industry, nor is it one that has traditionally supported the Labour party, but Miss Lynda Lee-Potter said: I only hope this"— that is the Clapham disaster— is an awesome warning to both them"— that is British Rail management— and the Government that they can't make a lottery out of people's lives, that money has to be made available and made available now. Paul Channon can rationalise 'til he's blue in the face, but compared with other countries the money poured into our railways is pitiful. We once had a great, fine and enviable system that is becoming shoddy and shameful and breaking the hearts of the long-service, loyal workforce. No Member of the Opposition could put it better. Some months ago I asked the Secretary of State to consider appointing Miss Lynda Lee-Potter a member of the British Railways Board, and I repeat that plea tonight. It appears that she knows a damn sight more about the transport problems of London and this country than anybody at the Dispatch Box has for the past 10 years.

11.23 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Peter Bottomley)

One hundred years ago, William Morris, a Socialist Utopian, wrote these words: having said good night very amicably, took his way home by himself to a western suburb, using the means of travelling which civilisation has forced upon us like a habit. As he sat in that vapour-bath of hurried and discontented humanity, a carriage of the underground railway, he like others, stewed discontentedly". The first thing that the comrade did when he woke up 115 years or more later was to cheer about the fact that the underground railway had been abolished. I am glad that the Labour party now supports it. It is important that we take London's transport opportunities—

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham North-West)

"News from Nowhere".

Mr. Bottomley

Yes, "News from Nowhere". I congratulate the hon. Gentleman. Instead of shouting out as if he were still on Capital radio, as he was earlier, it would be sensible if we tried to follow the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser), who followed my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) in introducing this debate, on the serious sequence of movement in London. It is plain that transport in London is becoming more and more important and is becoming more popular among newspaper writers—I shall come back to Lynda Lee-Potter in a moment. If there had been a strategic planning authority in London in 1982 and if it had asked London's national newspapers, then congregated in Fleet street, what transport arrangements they wanted for their journalists and production staff to get to and from work and for delivering their newspapers, the answer would have been rail. In the past six years, however, every national newspaper has left Fleet street. Their staffs cannot use public transport and they are trying to drive to and from Wapping, the Isle of Dogs, Farringdon road and Barkers. They are now discovering that that is not possible. I welcome the fact that the newspapers are now facing up to the problems of London transport network, just as others have already done.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea for the broad and serious way in which he introduced the debate. It is now common ground that movement in and out of London must take place predominantly by rail. My hon. Friend drew attention to the safety record of the railways.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) asked about the terms of reference of the inquiry into the disaster at Clapham. The aim of the inquiry, as my right hon. Friend has said, is to establish the facts and to ensure that it never happens again. The terms of reference are similar to those for the Fennell inquiry and should be wide enough to cover all the relevant matters. If there is any addition to them, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman or make sure that his questions are followed up.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is present because what he said was very unfair. He knows perfectly well that the Parker report—I am grateful to him for lending me the booklet so that I can emphasise my point—said: The purpose of this discussion paper is to test public reaction and to establish the views of relevant authorities before deciding whether to undertake additional work. I understand that the cross-rail study is being considered as part of the central London rail study.

Mr. Spearing


Mr. Bottomley

No, I have only about four minutes to answer a long debate.

The point about safety is that 5,200 people a year die on our roads. The more movement we can transfer to the railways, while maintaining the safety on the Underground and overground, the better. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] The Labour party cheers, but that should not be a matter of dispute. If Labour Members are cheering because they believe that radial commuting, which needs to rely on the railways, is a new or controversial idea to be mooted by either side of the House, they have not listened to our debates.

If the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) uses the word "motorway" as part of the assessment studies that are not purely road assessment studies, he is deliberately using a word that has been cast out by the Government. His only purpose in doing so must be to mislead, and I hope that he will not do it again. It probably was not intentional, but the word "motorway" does not work with the assessment studies. If the hon. Gentleman stopped chirping that word, his constituents would learn more from him and me.

It is clear from the stage 1 reports that the Londoner's needs are taken into account. As hon. Members have said, perhaps it would be a good idea if we had more lanes going out of London than coming in.

It is also important to recognise what was said about the rail links to the Channel tunnel and the rest of Europe. I was asked if I would oppose any new railway line going into a tunnel in my constituency. I said that I would not, and that it was impossible to work for railways and then to say that those lines should not come into London. As the hon. Member for Norwood has said, we must be bold and, although trying to ensure that the right choice is made and the compensation is correct, we must openly state that it is necessary at times to build railways and that that is not always convenient. We will not get extra movement on the railways in Europe or in Britain without paying a price for those lines.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea has spoken of the renewed use of the west London line. I have looked at some of the nice Christmas cards from Parkland walk, which says that it is opposed to road and rail schemes. But we must be prepared to accept that railways will cause some discomfort to people along the lines.

We lead the world, certainly Europe, in road safety and we lead the world in the provision for the disabled, but there is more to be done. Let us remember our Airbus service, Taxicard, dial-a-ride and the availability of wheelchairs in our taxis—not to mention our minibuses.

I say to all in the Labour party: they should contact their friends in Europe to get across the point about the minibus driver licensing regulations—how a minor adaptation to move from an additional test to an assurance of safety, perhaps asking people to wait two years before they drive a minibus, will enable us to protect the 85,000 minibuses in this country, 11,000 of which have wheelchair adaptations on the back. Another 40,000 or so are used for the elderly, for children, for scout and Church groups and for common interest groups such as students. Then we shall be likely to preserve safe transport on the roads.

We want to protect safety on the roads, on the Underground and on the railways. We want to improve safety on the roads and to ensure that London prospers with greater movement, as well as environmental relief and road casualty reduction.