HC Deb 01 March 1991 vol 186 cc1283-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Nicholas Baker.]

2.31 pm
Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I am grateful for this opportunity to express my concern about the standard of service of London Underground, which provides the most important means of travel for millions of people in our capital city. I regard myself as a friend of the underground, which I have used for many years. It provides a vital service, not only to central London, but to my constituency of Uxbridge which is served by the Metropolitan, Piccadilly and Central lines.

Since last autumn I have become increasingly disturbed about persistent reports that London Underground is urgently reviewing its activities to find savings in a bid to avoid possibly overspending £35 million by the end of the financial year next month. However, in evidence to the Select Committee on Transport on 4 December 1990 the gross deficit was estimated at £93 million, leading to a net budget shortfall of £52 million. The managing director of London Underground, Mr. Denis Tunnicliffe, is reported in London Transport News as telling his senior managers that a drop in income and a significant increase in costs has contributed to the current cash shortage. He said that the main cause of increased costs was the acceleration of the programme on safety works. The cost-cutting measures to be adopted appear to include a ban on recruitment, a policy described by Mr. Alan Norman, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers divisional officer for London Underground, as One that would take it back to the days before King's Cross when the system was run down through insufficient staff. The House knows just how important it is to have sufficient staff, well trained and operating at ground level.

The reductions in service in prospect are, according to the Financial Times, closing more ticket offices during off-peak periods, slowing the investment programme, withdrawing all Boxing Day services, delays to repairs on the Victoria line and delays in station modernisation programmes. Other press reports of leaked documents suggest that all booking offices from Mansion House to Cockfosters are likely to be shut from mid-evening and that Covent Garden, Russell Square, Hyde Park Corner and Knightsbridge may close until 9 am. Additionally, it is said, consideration is being given to closing Holloway Road and Arsenal from 10 am to 4 pm and closing the Aldwych branch line.

Those changes and staffing cuts will mean unmanned stations, probably late at night—a particular problem for women passengers, who are already deterred in large numbers from travelling on the underground and represent a significant proportion of the lost fare income. Mothers with babies are frightened to travel after 9 or 10 pm for fear of being attacked by drunks and other undesirables.

Even more worrying from my point of view, as a constituency Member representing an outer London constituency, is the suggestion in some press articles that stations on the outer fringes of the network of 273 tube stations are at most risk of closure at less profitable times. I say that because Ickenham, Hillingdon, Uxbridge and West Ruislip in my constituency fall into that category. Indeed, I was informed only yesterday by London Underground that the booking offices at Uxbridge, Hillingdon and Ickenham will be open only from 6 am to 9 pm Monday to Saturday and until 9 pm on Sunday.

The situation is worse at West Ruislip. The booking office will be open only from 6 am to 6.30 pm Monday to Friday and from 9 am to 5 pm on Saturday and Sunday. That will cause considerable inconvenience to passengers, particularly those who arrive at the station without the correct loose change for the automatic ticket machines and who will find it extremely difficult to obtain change for a £10 or £20 note.

The transport correspondent of the Financial Times said in a recent article that there would be a small reduction in services on some lines because trains were being taken out of service for modification and refurbishment. The worst affected, he suggested, would be the Circle line and the Hammersmith and City line. While all the gloomy forecasting and speculation is taking place the public are becoming increasingly concerned. Taxpayers are investing £380 million into the core business this year, but in return they are getting only long overdue work on the Central line and some other refurbishing. They are not getting station modernisations, maintenance expenditure on the tracks and more and better staffing.

Why is London Underground in such financial trouble? It says that its land sales are £35 million down during the current financial year and it estimates a £45 million drop in income next year. Fare increases, it says, are below estimates. I have seen no evidence to show that that is due to the downturn in the economy, although that could be part of the reason. Perhaps the drop in tourism as a result of the Gulf war is another factor. Nor must we forget those women passengers who will no longer travel on London Underground at off-peak times.

I believe that there are opportunities for London Underground to increase its income, for example, by advertising on the back of tickets, by increasing retail outlets, by having more station shops and by providing opportunities for telecommunications networks to use the tunnels for laying cables. Telepoint is a good example of what could be done.

There is also the worrying question of London Underground's capital expenditure. There are continuing problems on the Victoria line, where the trains have developed square wheels due, it is said, to unseasoned wood being used for sleepers when the tracks were originally laid. What is being done about that? I hope that the Minister will explain when he replies.

It has also been decided that most of the station ceilings on the Victoria line, and even the modern ceilings on the Central line, are dangerous. They have been removed or scraped off.

At Green Park, the entire ceiling system was removed two years ago and has not been replaced. Ceilings have also been removed at Oxford Circus and Victoria stations. The resulting tatty appearance is dreadful and a bad advertisement for Britain, let alone London Underground.

The overloading of trains is another appalling problem. Recent events have made it clear that levels of train loading are a major safety factor. If trains are stopped in tunnels for long periods, rapid overheating, acute discomfort and even panic can occur. It is difficult to evacuate passengers who are taken seriously ill as a result. Recently, four capacity-loaded trains were stuck in tunnels near Liverpool Street station for more than four hours.

An excellent leader in the Evening Standard two days ago drew attention to that problem, saying: Heaven preserve us if a fire breaks out on the underground train on which we travel to work". Despite that, London Underground has reduced peak hour service on several lines. On the Victoria line, for example, the number of trains in service during peak hours has been cut from 36 to 30 to save costs. But in practice, the lack of available drivers means that even 30 trains are unlikely to be run and the usual number is only about 24.

To be fair to London Underground, of which I am a friend, the picture is not entirely bad. The Central line is to have new rolling stock, tracks and signalling. I hope that that will include new ballast under the tracks because, over the years, it has become hard, compressed and unable properly to fulfil its role of providing a soft ride for passengers.

The Metropolitan line, which serves Uxbridge, now has a 50 mph speed restriction. I recall, when I travelled on that line regularly some 30 years ago, that trains between Finchley Road and Rayners Lane would travel anything up to 70 mph. The lack of good track ballast is slowing much of the system down.

Although ticket issuing facilities are in accordance with the Department of Transport's requirement, the standard must be maintained. It must not be cut, for the reasons I gave a few moments ago.

Three years ago, after the King's Cross fire, London Underground had implemented fire detection systems, plans and services which were as good as those in any underground system in the world. However, it has still to follow the same rules which were introduced as a result of the King's Cross fire. I believe that no other underground system follows such a policy and that is why no other system has such a disrupted service.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear those problems in mind as they cause such frustration to passengers. I suppose that, ultimately, the problems come down, once again, to money. What can be done to provide the resources to restore the fine service that London Underground used to provide? Regarding running costs, London Underground has received a special grant of £55 million extra this year. However, I understand that the Treasury has the right to offset that amount against next year's external financial limit. London Transport receives a block grant of £474 million, part of which goes to London Underground. The subsidy is currently at £669 million but London Underground wants a further £90 million to bring it up to about £750 million. It also wants to be forgiven the special grant of £55 million, which was given because it breached its external financial limit this year.

Fares, which are a thorny subject, have not risen in overall terms in the past decade—that is, in real money. They dropped in 1980 to the lower level set by the former Greater London council under its "fares fair" policy and, by 1990 have risen in real terms only to the 1980 level. Clearly, there should be a fares policy to allow them to rise by 2 or 3 per cent. per year in order to help meet running costs.

Capital expenditure is £439 million this year. Thanks to my hon. Friend the Minister, for the next three years it is to be £800 million, £1,000 million and £1,200 million to catch up with the decade of neglect, provide new rolling stock, tracks, modern stations and everything necessary to provide a good service. But that is not enough to meet the splendid vision of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister of first-class service not only on London Underground but on all the other public services in this country. The amount will need to be increased for several years until the necessary modernisation and refurbishment have been carried out. The system could then perhaps be privatised, rather like the electricity industry, with one group owning the system and another running the trains. Meanwhile, it is clear that substantial inward investment is needed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say whether he can give approval to the recommendation of the Select Committee on Transport that his Department should allow London Underground to borrow forward on the 1991–92 financing limit.

Is London Underground management good enough? In its minutes of evidence, the Transport Select Committee did not seem to think so. It said: We believe that the London Underground budget/plan made avoidable errors in its forecasts of income from property and fares. The accelerated safety expenditure was, in our view, justified. We differ with the London Underground witnesses in their view that so many external factors arose simultaneously; in our view, some of their expectations were wrong. Another question put by the Select Committee was answered with candour by the chairman of London Underground, who admitted that the financial systems and procedures were not all they should have been and that there was inadequate communication between the accounting and finance function of the project managers". The Select Committee also said: we were surprised by the Chairman's assertion that the former finance director 'had many talents but one of his talents was not controlling cash'". That is not the sort of management that London Underground needs.

There is a serious malaise hanging over London Underground which can be cured only by action from my hon. Friend the Minister. That malaise exhibits the classic symptoms of public sector ownership that can be cured only by enormous levels of capital investment and perhaps, in the longer term, privatisation. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend will address those failings and will today be able to hold out to the travelling public in London some hope for a substantial and sustained improvement. I hope that he can also assure my constituents that when they go to Uxbridge station after 9 pm they will be able to buy a ticket from a booking clerk.

2.47 pm
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) on presenting his Adjournment debate with such great clarity and courteousness. He had the kindness to forewarn my Department of some of the issues he intended to raise. I think that my hon. Friend would find it helpful if I studied the record carefully and wrote to him on the detailed points he made. We could discuss how my reply might be made available to the House. I understand that there might be an opportunity in the next week or so for the House to return to the issue of London Transport, particularly London Underground.

This is an important subject and I shall deal more generally with the problems facing London Underground. There are at least four major problems. First, it is important to understand that London Underground is, in large measure, an Edwardian railway, incorporating design features that no one would dream of building into a modern mass transit system and which impose serious constraints on the efficiency of that system. The cost, for example, of completely rebuilding some of the underground stations is astronomical. The cost of changing the layout of a single station, at the Angel Islington, is likely to exceed £72 million. That work is well under way and the station will open in September 1992.

Escalators are another case in point, and my hon. Friend specifically mentioned them. Some of them are beautiful pieces of engineering, but I cannot help feeling that their proper home would be in the science museum, not in a modern railway. The Government set London Underground the target of achieving 86 per cent. escalator availability by March 1992. I am glad to say that in the last quarter of 1990 the company had already achieved 85 per cent. I am sure that it will do everything that it can to better that performance in the months ahead, but it is important to recognise that the design of the system imposes restrictions on the reliability that London Underground can achieve.

Our Victorian and Edwardian forefathers, when they built and designed the system, had vision, resources and great determination, but the inheritance that they have left us is a system that is difficult to alter or adjust without building new capacity.

Secondly, it is vital that London Underground maintain the system that it has inherited. Regrettably, many parts of the basic infrastructure are suffering from decades of neglect. For example, some ballast and track are long overdue for replacement. They represent the sort of low priority investment in basic infrastructure that can be put off for years without detriment to the safety or efficiency of the system. I hasten to add that I am not blaming London Transport or absolving this or previous Governments from joint responsibility. I merely make an observation which commends itself to those who have studied the underground system.

Eventually the lack of investment will begin to make itself felt. The ride will become uneven. That is unpleasant for passengers and it puts unnecessary strain on the rolling stock. So speed limits have to be introduced, and they reduce the capacity of the system. In due course, the need to spend money on the permanent way and track becomes unavoidable, and many stretches of the underground network have now reached precisely that point.

The third factor affecting the underground is safety. The Fennell report on the King's Cross fire identified many areas in which investment was needed to improve safety standards. It also prompted a fundamental reappraisal of the safety of the system, undertaken by London Underground's own management, who have in turn identified many ways in which the safety of the system can be improved. They have also, with our encouragement, been improving passenger security; for instance, by strengthening the complement of British transport police and by installing video cameras. In present circumstances the value of these initiatives is obvious: violent crime on the underground is falling. I do not know the figures for my hon. Friend's constituency, but violent crime against the person on the underground has been falling, is falling and I hope will continue to fall—a fact not fully appreciated by passengers. Nevertheless, I am delighted by the success of the British transport police and of the new technology, for which the Government have paid, and which has now been installed on some stations and some lines—to give passengers a greater feeling of security arid to enable them to call for help quickly.

Last but not least, demand for underground services increased dramatically in the mid-1980s—a phenomenon similar to the sudden turnaround in the demand for commuting services on Network SouthEast. There was a long decline in demand for those services between 1970 and 1985, but the demand suddenly increased thereafter.

There is an urgent need to increase the capacity of the system, and two ways of achieving that. One is to build new lines. Following on from the conclusions reached in the central and east London rail studies, the Government have given the go-ahead to the Jubilee line extension and the east-west crossrail. We have also authorised the safeguarding of the Chelsea-Hackney line. We hope that parliamentary approval will be given to both lines. Both are funded; the Treasury has agreed with the Department of Transport that they are important additions to our infrastructure. The permission that we gave London Underground to deposit Bills for both lines was preceded by agreement on their full funding.

The other way to generate additional capacity is to make better use of existing lines. The modernisation of the Central line at a cost of more than £700 million will allow this line to carry an extra 5,000 passengers during the peak hour, and these passengers will travel faster and in more comfort. Passengers will begin to see the benefits in 1992, when deliveries of the new rolling stock will begin. The signalling to permit trains to run faster through the tunnels, and therefore increase offered capacity, is scheduled for completion in 1995.

I know that the Circle line does not directly affect my hon. Friend's constituency, but I am glad to be able to tell the House that the refurbished rolling stock on that line, which is plagued with graffiti and unpleasant to travel on, will start to be introduced in July. That will bring great relief to Londoners like me and others who patronise the Central line who will see real improvement.

Tackling these four problems simultaneously is an enormous challenge and I agree with my hon. Friend that if London Underground is to meet the challenge it needs two things above all else—management and money. Let me start with management. London Underground's senior management team is of a high calibre and has the experience needed to do the job. Wilfrid Newton, in particular, has already run the Hong Kong mass transit system—one of the finest metro systems in the world—and I can assure my hon. Friend that Mr. Newton has had no hesitation in taking the tough decisions that are needed to set London Underground's financial house in order. He said as much to the Select Committee on Transport.

As part of the drive towards more efficiency, the underground has undergone a large-scale management reorganisation, giving more responsibility to local managers and shaping each of the 10 lines into a separate business unit. I am sure that taking decision-making down to the local level is the right approach. It has already paid enormous dividends within London Buses Ltd., and I am confident that it will also pay dividends for London Underground. I understand that a response that I recently gave to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) was seen by some as a vote of no-confidence in London Transport. That was not my intention, and I welcome this opportunity to set the record straight.

Let me turn from management to money. In the short term, London Underground's problems will, inevitably, be compounded by the downturn in the economy and the depressed state of the London property market. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge was right specifically to raise both matters. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced on 14 February a £62.55 million increase in grant for the present financial year, of which £55 million deals specifically with the cash flow problems that London Underground has encountered this year. I hope that that represents a satisfactory response to the recommendation of the Select Committee on Transport and that my hon. Friend will be pleased with it.

We are now considering carefully what changes, if any, to make to London Transport's grant provision for the coming year. I cannot anticipate the conclusions that we shall reach, but I must make it clear that we cannot insulate London Transport from the economic realities. It is not alone in facing a tight financial squeeze. If the Government tried to bail out everyone who is suffering as a result of the economic downturn, that would mean an increase in public expenditure, leading either to higher taxes or higher public sector borrowing—either of which would make the recession longer and deeper, benefiting nobody.

However, even during the present downturn, investment levels are impressive. This year, London Underground will have invested just under £400 million in the existing underground network, quite apart from what is being spent on preparing for the new lines—the Jubilee line and the east-west crossrail. It should be able to maintain a similar level of investment next year. These are not trifling sums. On the contrary, they represent record levels of investment. As the economy recovers, London Underground will have additional fare revenue, which will allow it to do more still. In total, Government grant to London Transport will be £2.4 billion over the next three years. Of that, about £1 billion is a ring-fenced provision for new underground lines. The application of the remainder is a matter for London Transport to determine, but is clearly leaves room for major investment in the existing underground system.

My hon. Friend has suggested that total London Transport investment—that includes London Buses and the docklands light railway—of £3 billion over the next three years is not enough. This matter will be deliberated on in the usual way in the summer. My hon. Friend must wait for his answer until the Chancellor's autumn statement. At this stage, I shall limit myself to two obvious points. First, we shall of course consider carefully any case that London Transport makes out for additional funds; secondly, there are many calls on such funds.

My hon. Friend referred to staff cuts. I am not aware that London Transport is proposing any significant change in the number of scheduled miles provided for passengers. There will certainly be changes on some lines, and I shall consider what my hon. Friend has said and respond to it, but there will be no significant change in service. I understand that the proposed staff cuts of 1,000 are related mainly to the introduction of new automatic ticket barriers, which will, of course, alter the staffing requirements. Those moves are designed to make the underground as efficient as possible. They are not a reaction to a financial crisis, but are based on sound management decisions. If they present any specific problems, I shall certainly look at them.

Let me sum up. London Underground faces enormous practical problems. Management has simultaneously to bring an Edwardian railway up to modern standards, to tackle vital safety issues and to expand the system to cope with increased demand. That is not going to be a quick or easy job. I cannot promise my hon. Friend that we shall solve these problems as quickly as he and his constituents would like, but I can assure him that the Government and the management of London Underground are fully committed to the task in hand; and we shall complete it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Three o'clock.