HC Deb 30 April 1990 vol 171 cc871-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John M. Taylor.]

12.29 am
Mr. Alan Amos (Hexham)

I am pleased to initiate this debate because transport provision is particularly important in dispersed rural areas and is all the more important now because of my region's economic prosperity, which has been brought about by the Government's policies towards the north-east. All three forms of transport contribute to meeting the area's needs and I shall deal with all three tonight.

I refer first to road transport. The Tyne valley's economy is booming and the area is experiencing a significant growth in population. It is generally regarded as the most beautiful constituency in the country, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I very much hope that you will visit it as soon as you can. It has a large number of small businesses and there is a need to diversify into areas such as tourism.

At this point, I should like to place on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic for always listening to and acting on my many requests so positively and helpfully.

Our big problem is that the growth of economic activity has created severe problems for so many towns along the Tyne valley—hence the need for bypasses. I refer first to the Prudhoe bypass. Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for agreeing to fund 50 per cent. of the cost of that £8.3 million project through the transport supplemenary grant and for providing £1.75 million this year to get it started. It is a major boost for the area and is one of the most significant transport projects in the constituency. It is excellent news for the people of Prudhoe and for the local economy because it will reduce traffic congestion and pollution, improve safety, increase employment and open up large investment opportunities. I hope that the county council will hurry up and start the project.

Secondly, I refer to the Callerton lane link road. Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving a section 272 grant of more than £1 million to relieve congestion and environmental damage in the Ponteland and Darras Hall area.

Thirdly, the Haltwhistle bypass is an on-going and big problem. My hon. Friend the Minister knows that I have raised that matter with his Department persistently for three years and that my constituents have been consulted on it for about 12 years. They are now, as always and with my full support, united and determined that only the green bypass option is right and feasible as a solution to Haltwhistle's dangerous traffic congestion both now and in the long term. The situation has changed due to two factors—the changes in economic evaluation and assessment and the new traffic forecasts.

Haltwhistle needs a proper bypass, not a costly and useless inner relief road, which is now the most expensive option, and which is situated close to—in fact, right next to—a railway line, in a single carriageway, and alongside a 30 ft high sheer bank. It will involve a lot of houses, cause environmental damage and cannot be dualled. Therefore, I argue strongly that now is the time to proceed with the green route option. Apart from some officials, nobody now wants an inner relief road. From the new costings, I understand that the cost of that option has soared to £9.16 million, from £4.35 million in 1988, whereas the costs of the two bypass options—the yellow and the green routes —are now estimated at £6.1 million and £7.31 million respectively. It therefore seems to make no sense whatever to have yet another round of public consultation, which includes the inner relief road option, especially since the objection to a bypass has always been on the ground of higher cost. We must prevent any further waste of time or public money and simply drop the prospect of the inner relief road altogether.

The green option is the only viable one left. The yellow route has also already been rejected, on a number of grounds. First, there are environmental grounds: the line of route would involve a number of sharp angles, and a long section would be on stilts—some 30 ft high over the railway line. It would obviously constitute a visual intrusion. Secondly, it would cause severe disruption to local industry by cutting across the factory sites of Crown Paints and Kilfrost. The siting of the roadway support stilts would mean a loss of amenity land and disruption of the firms' traffic operations, which are vital in view of the essential need to move goods and raw materials, and the fact that a high proportion of the traffic involves exports.

There would be disruption to mains services—gas and electricity, for instance—because of the need to reroute them. Other engineering works would also be affected. The large amount of flammable and combustible chemicals on site would cause safety problems. Safety, in fact, is the third ground for the rejection of the scheme. All the emergency services, including the police and fire services, oppose the inner relief road: the green bypass route is their preferred option. Any further public consultation must concern that option, and there should be no delay: all the facts have now been made available. Fourthly, Haydon Bridge clearly needs a bypass, and we look forward to progress on that.

The new road layout on the A1 near Stannington is still a considerable cause of concern. Many of my constituents are still writing to me complaining that it is dangerous, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will keep it under review.

Another pressing need is for a dual carriageway on the A69 west of Hexham. I have raised the matter with my hon. Friend a number of times. The traffic flow is now composed of some 9,000 vehicles a day, and is still growing. I know that the criteria for dualling have not yet been met, but I would argue that those criteria should include some of the following factors.

The first relates to the type of vehicles used. A high proportion of caravans use the road, particularly in the summer—which seems to begin in March and finish around November. The road is very winding, and has some steep hills; it is also subject to particularly bad weather conditions. It is difficult to overtake, and the accident rate is exceptionally high. In a special exercise, the police are now monitoring by video an area near Bardon Mill, where the number of accidents is particularly worrying. Incidentally, I have observed that most of the accidents are caused by frustrated drivers who have been unable to get past slow-moving heavy lorries. We do not need a three-lane road; we need a dual carriageway all the way to Carlisle. This is not an ordinary road; it is the strategic east-west coast route from the north of England to Scotland.

Let me make another plea—for better signposting. We need a more practical approach. My constituency depends increasingly on tourism, and its development is hindered when people do not know where to find accommodation, or sites of interest such as Hadrian's wall and Langley castle. Signposts must, of course, be environmentally friendly, but the information is essential to drivers, and I do not believe for a moment that they will be distracted to the point of danger.

With the channel tunnel and 1992 almost upon us, we need a proper dual carriageway of motorway standard, like every other region. Let me repeat my request for a commitment to the upgrading of the A1 to motorway standard. The presence of prolonged roadworks means that often there is only a single carriageway on that vital arterial route. For example, traffic flows on the Newcastle-to-Scotch Corner section have now reached 32,000 vehicles a day, a large proportion of which are big, heavy lorries.

The driver should be given much more consideration while the roadworks are in progress. It is only sensible and right, for instance, to provide temporary sliproads so that drivers can bypass them. If we do not act, I fear that after 1992 the north-east will lose out to other regions.

Secondly, I should like to mention a recent and an on-going problem with rail transport, both of which concern the Tyne valley line from Newcastle through Hexham to Carlisle. The first concerns British Rail's recent announcement of the cancellation of the last two night trains from Newcastle to Hexham, the 10.25 pm and the 11.30 pm. The last train is now at about 9.15 pm. That happened as British Rail was extolling the virtues of its new, more frequent evening service from London to Newcastle. It is extraordinary that it is making it more difficult, if not impossible, to travel west of Newcastle to Hexham by cutting the two night trains.

There is considerable scepticism about what analysis British Rail made of the effect of the withdrawal of those services. Many constituents tell me that often tickets are not checked on the train and that fares are not collected. I am assured—and I have the statistics to show this-that the service is well used on Fridays and Saturdays.

Those cancellations will have a disproportionate effect on the social and economic life of Tynedale. People now cannot have an evening out in Newcastle or at the Metro centre and travel by train. The Metro centre station was built by private contractors and in 1989 was used by 400,000 passengers. I fear that there will be an increase in drink-driving as people have no option but to drive to Newcastle.

There is also a problem for business men. If the last train leaves at about 9.15 pm., business men will have to leave London late in the afternoon, which is not good enough for men who must do a full day's work. Again, they will be driven from the railways and will fly or attempt to drive.

Given the considerable doubt that has been expressed by most people, including Tynedale district council, which, in view of the accuracy of British Rail's figures, has undertaken its own survey of the number of passengers using the late-night service; given the indecent haste with which the decision was taken; and given the lack of public consultation, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ask British Rail to review its decision. I cannot believe that it is impossible to run at least one late-night train on Fridays and Saturdays. After a two-hour meeting at British Rail's headquarters last Friday, I very much regret its refusal to consider reinstating all or part of the service.

I am sad because that undermines the good news on the Tyne valley line, for example the new through service from Newcastle to Hexham, to Glasgow and Stranraer. Unfortunately, British Rail has united everyone in opposition to it and has lost a considerable amount of goodwill and trust.

The other aspect of the Tyne valley line is the saga that has been going on for several years of appalling reliability because of the Pacer train problem. I understand that there is a problem with spare parts, maintenance and the late delivery of new trains, but the problem has been going on for three years. I have been promised several times that there will be improvements to the service, but those promises have not been kept and the service has worsened. On 7 December 1989, British Rail's chairman wrote to me saying: Happily, no service will be withdrawn from the Tyne Valley line and my local Provincial Managers will be working hard to ensure that the advertised service is maintained. Since then, three more trains have been withdrawn, which is due to take effect next month, including the 7.46 am Hexham to Newcastle train, which is known as the "ghost train" because it has never turned up. In that sense, cancelling it makes no difference.

There is enormous potential for expansion on the line because of growth along the Tyne valley and the development of tourism. I have seen British Rail's excellent promotional video. Hexham came fourth in the national best kept station awards last year, another encouraging development, but the unreliability of the service is driving people from rail travel, with the result that revenue is falling. The potential of the line is being frittered away. The Government give, through the public service obligation grant, some £400 million a year, and my constituents are entitled to some of that.

I do not believe that throughout the national rail network there are no sprinter trains that can be redeployed from other regions to the Tyne valley line. I have good reason to believe that spare trains—the sprinter trains are more reliable rolling stock—are available for redeployment. That could resolve all the problems and lead to the reinstatement of all the trains. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take up this matter with British Rail as a matter of urgency. With the opening of the national garden festival at Gateshead, it would be disastrous public relations for BR if it could not run a regular or reliable service for that event.

It would be churlish of me not to welcome the electrification of the east coast main line from London to Newcastle, which should be completed next year. It should reduce the journey time from London to Newcastle to only two hours 55 minutes. Notwithstanding signal failures and operational difficulties, I look forward to using that fast service.

The channel tunnel is of particular importance to the regions. London is near Europe and has little to lose if the channel tunnel is not completed on time. The regions would lose out. Never before, for example, have Hexham and Hamburg been so close together and so accessible. There is a golden exciting opportunity not to be missed, but it is essential to introduce through freight and passenger services to the continent. I am promised that three through trains a day will be operational in each direction. The new terminal for those fast services must be at King's Cross. That has the full support of everyone in the north-east. I hope that we shall proceed with it as soon as possible.

Thirdly, I am proud to have what I like to think is the best part of Newcastle international airport in my constituency. The airport plays a vital role in the economic regeneration of the region and is especially important in bringing business men to see for themselves the investment opportunities that are available because of domestic and international connections. The airport reflects the state of the local economy, both of which are booming and buoyant. The number of passengers going through the airport is up; new airlines and routes have been introduced; and the financial situation is healthy. Indeed, 1989 was a record year in terms of the number of passengers and dividends to shareholders. There are now more than 1.6 million passengers compared with only 1 million in 1980—a substantial increase. The number of domestic passengers is up by a massive 15 per cent. and international passengers by 9 per cent. New routes and operators, both domestic and international, are being introduced. Apart from London, there are connections to Manchester, Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Brussels and Frankfurt, and the list goes on. Air France and Sabena now use the airport.

The airport is preparing well for 1992. Domestic and international scheduled services have increased dramatically by 17 per cent. Equally encouraging is the increase of more than 4 per cent in holiday charters and inclusive tours. That goes against the trend at other airports but reflects the high level of disposable income in the north-east. Newcastle international airport is well prepared to cope with the tendency for longer-haul destinations—for example, transatlantic and Caribbean as well as its traditional Mediterranean routes.

The airport's new and better service links—in terms of road access and the link to the Tyne and Wear Metro, which is under construction—mean that the airport has taken off. It has a continuous programme of improving terminal facilities to cope with an annual throughput of 2 million people and is upgrading airfield facilities. It is taking every opportunity to cope with air freight and cargo. However, the consumer's interests are always enhanced by more competition. I therefore simply ask my hon. Friend the Minister to accept that more competition on domestic routes—the Newcastle to London route—would lead to more choice, lower fares and a higher quality service. I know that British Midland would be interested, but cannot get slots at Heathrow. We need competition on this busy and growing route. British Airways is in a position of near monopoly, which is not in the customer's best interests.

It is therefore vital that we get a significant and radical improvement in air traffic control. Without it, the Government's policy—which is correct—of air liberalisation and deregulation is not possible. The new east coast corridor on the Newcastle to Heathrow route, which the Government approved recently and for which I thank them, has resulted in some improvement. It is still not enough, however, to cope with expansion at its present rate.

I commend those arguments to my hon. Friend the Minister.

12.49 am
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Atkins)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Amos) on the way in which he has spoken about his constituency. He did so with his usual clarity and courtesy, and I know that he takes a great interest in transport matters generally and those in his constituency in particular. I am sure that his constituents already know of the tremendous amount of work that he does on their behalf. He knows that I have visited the area many times and intend to do so again. As he rightly said, it is one of the most beautiful parts of England and it is an especial pleasure to visit it.

My hon. Friend will also know that I received a large delegation of Northumberland councillors and officers last October, when we discussed several of the items that my hon. Friend has raised today. Good communications are essential to the northern region, and for that reason the Government have given special priority in recent years to the improvement of links between the region and the rest of the country, and communications within the region. Much has already been achieved and I should like in the few minutes that remain to me to deal with the specific issues that my hon. Friend raised rather than with the generality of the region.

My hon. Friend referred to the completion of the Horsley-Corbridge section of the A69, which is now dual carriageway from Newcastle upon Tyne to Hexham. West of Hexham, a major improvement is planned at Haltwhistle, and widening schemes and climbing lanes elsewhere on the A69 will allow safer overtaking.

My hon. Friend referred to the Prudhoe bypass. I must record that one of the chief reasons why the bypass has been accepted for a September 1990 start and grant aid from my Department was the persuasiveness and the lobbying of my hon. Friend. Many road programmes are pushed, and many are accepted, but my hon. Friend's persuasiveness was a significant contribution, and I hope that his constituents are fully aware of that. The Department will support the scheme until it is completed. The county is being given full capital cover and, as my hon. Friend said, it is now up to it to make progress. I hope that it will hear what he has said, as he has already achieved so much for his constituents. Determination of priorities for other local road schemes is important for Northumberland county council, but this is a matter it should push hard.

The relief road scheme involving the A69 at Haltwhistle was presented at a public exhibition in May 1988 as the only viable solution to the problem there. Since then, new traffic forecasts and a revised economic evaluation have indicated that two bypass options are now viable. My Department is preparing for a public consultation later this year on all the viable options. It is important to have views on all the options so that they can be taken into account by my Department when making an assessment before deciding how to proceed and making an announcement later this year. Any bypass to Haltwhistle would cross National Trust land.

Best value for money in economic terms is obtained by providing the relief road alongside the railway, but this option would be the most costly to build. As my Department has been engaged on this scheme for a considerable time, there will be no need for the preliminary work and preparation that normally follows the announcement of a preferred route. The overall delay to the progress of the scheme will, as a consequence, be minimal. I hear what my hon. Friend has said about the option that he would prefer. That will be taken heavily into account when the matter comes before the inspector.

Various options for a bypass at Haydon Bridge have been considered at some length. The national improvement scheme to provide a bypass was removed from the active list of schemes in 1982 following confirmation that no economically viable solution to the traffic and environmental problems of the town could be found, but the matter is being kept firmly under review.

As for the A69 west of Hexham, with completion of the Newcastle western bypass later this year, 60 per cent. of the A69 in the northern region will be of dual two-lane standard. The remaining 40 per cent.—some 20 miles running from the west of Hexham to the border with Cumbria—carries comparatively light traffic flows. The overall personal injury accident rate is about the average for similar roads in England. I am afraid that there is no case for overall dualling of the A69 west of Hexham, but my hon. Friend's persuasive powers and the manner in which he has raised the issue tonight will endeavour to ensure that, at least in my mind, the situation is kept under review. However, in the meantime, the Department is continuing to implement a programme of improvements, large and small, of which the proposed bypass at Haltwhistle is one.

The current regional programme of small improvements includes a scheme to improve a poorly aligned section from Bush Bends to Haydon Bridge, provision of marginal strips over a length of one and a half miles at Greenshaw Plain and further marginal strips over about half a mile from Whitechapel to Bardon Mill. Further small improvements are in the course of preparation.

My hon. Friend also referred to the dualling of the A1 north of Morpeth. With the completion of the Newcastle western bypass later this year there will be a dual two-lane carriageway link from the A1(M) Durham motorway near Washington to the north of Morpeth. The remaining length of A1 northwards to the Scottish border is mainly of single carriageway standard and carries moderate to light flows of traffic. The overall personal injury accident rate at 0.23 accidents per million vehicle kilometres is identical to the average rate for similar roads in England. I am afraid that there is no case in the foreseeable future for an overall dualling of the A1 north of Morpeth. But, again, the campaign led by my hon. Friend and his hon. Friends in the northern region cannot be ignored. No doubt they will continue their campaign, and I shall continue to listen.

It has been found possible to identify short lengths of local dualling which are useful in relieving congestion and driver frustration due to the difficulties on single carriageway roads of cars and other light vehicles attempting to overtake slower moving heavy goods vehicles. One such length of local dualling was completed recently just south of Alnwick.

A further two lengths have been identified at Brownside and Marshall Meadows where national improvement schemes are proposed. These latter two schemes should be complete and open to the traffic by 1993 providing a total of nine miles of dual two-lane carriageway over the 50 miles or so between Morpeth and the Scottish border. The remaining single carriageway sections will continue to be monitored to identify suitable sites for further local dualling. The A1 trunk road will also be monitored to identify other worthwhile improvements. In the Department's current programme of small improvements, it is intended to provide marginal strips at Low Lynn near Haggerston and at the Cat inn near Scremerston.

My hon. Friend also raised two points about railways and airlines. He will understand that I do not deal on a day-to-day basis with those matters. I have some sympathy with the points that he made about railways. I shall endeavour to ensure that the Department expresses his concerns to British Rail. He will understand that the points that he raised are matters of judgment for British Rail. It is BR which must carry the can for its decisions.

On airlines, my hon. Friend referred to slot allocations and the activities of British Airways. I have travelled the route to which he referred. I know that it is a good route. It is a delightful airport at which to land. Again, I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's anxieties are passed on to the relevant authorities.

My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to a part of the country that is now burgeoning in economic terms. However one looks at it, the transport infrastructure is successful and effective but also capable of improvement.

In conclusion, I must say what I said at the beginning of my remarks. It is largely as a result of my hon. Friend's persuasiveness and that of his hon. Friends that the case for the north of England is pressed continuously and strongly, whether for roads, rail, air travel facilities or any other type of transport. I hope that his constituents realise what a good job he and my hon. Friends are doing. The fact remains that there is good news in the northern region. The transport infrastructure goes a long way to creating that good news. My Department—particularly the roads section—intends that that will continue to be the case.

Question put and agree to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to One o'clock.