HC Deb 19 March 1991 vol 188 cc224-9

Order for Second Reading read.

7.39 pm
Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must ask hon. Members to resume their seats.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, on this Bill.

Mr. Speaker

On this Bill? All right.

Mr. Nellist

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, as there was an obvious danger of at least two Opposition Members ending up with laryngitis before too long.

Will you confirm, Mr. Speaker, that the phrase, "business of the House" does not include private business such as the British Railways Bill? By definition, it is a Bill which affects a small section of the community, so it should not take precedence over a matter that affects the whole community. As you were railroaded or steamrollered by the Leader of the House, who bounced you into the position that you have held for the past 40 minutes, would it not be more appropriate if the business of the whole community—the poll tax—had a full hearing in place of that private business?

Mr. Speaker

Top marks for ingenuity, but the hon. Gentleman knows that we must get on with the Bill, which we should have started to discuss at 7 o'clock. It is only fair to those Members who have an interest in it.

Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson

I was endeavouring to say that the works in the Bill are designed to add to the capacity and improve the safety and reliability of the railway system. The shift to rail implicit in the schemes is good for the relief of congestion, for the environment and, ultimately, for the taxpayer. In many areas, British Rail is currently investing substantially in growth. It is perhaps worth remembering that the electrification of the east coast main line to Newcastle, Edinburgh and Carstairs which will take place in July this year will bring Edinburgh within four hours of London for the first time.

The Networker project is designed to bring more capacity on routes around London, particularly in Kent, with the first Networker 465 due to be delivered in September this year.

As for the channel tunnel link, it is fair to say that the expenditure of f1.4 billion on channel tunnel trains, stations, depots and track upgrading for 1993 is currently in hand. A massive investment in the regional railways is taking place so that all diesel trains that are over 30 years old can be replaced by 1992.

In the longer term, projects such as the InterCity 250 will reduce journey times to the north-west, the west midlands and Strathclyde and on the crossrail link in London.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for showing his characteristic courtesy in giving way. He mentioned improvements in the service to Strathclyde. As a Strathclyde Member, may I ask what confidence he has that improvements will take place in the next year or so? I receive many complaints, particularly from business men and women passengers, that the service along the west coast of Scotland and England into Euston is massively inferior to the service between Edinburgh Waverley and London King's Cross.

Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson

I prefaced my remarks with "in the longer term". My earlier comments related to events that will happen this year and changes that will take place soon. I assure the hon. Gentleman that his remarks will be passed on to the chairman of British Rail, so he will be aware of the concern of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents about the services provided in that region. I have no doubt that the point will be carefully noted.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the issue of Anglo-Scottish services, may I say that many of us who have been keen to support the measures that he outlined a moment ago are worried that the undertaking that was given to us about the restoration of sleeper and overnight services was not maintained.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the new chairman of British Rail and those of us who are most concerned—my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel)—were especially grateful that the chairman has agreed to reconsider the matter. However, we attach importance to undertakings that are given when private Bills go through the House and wish to ensure that they are followed up as far as is humanly possible.

Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson

I understand that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and his colleagues met the chairman of British Rail on 27 February and that an early response to his comments will be given to him. That is as far as I can go this evening, but I hope that it will satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

The Bill represents works in the shorter term and most of the projects command general support. There have been four petitioners against the Bill and the board hopes that it will be able to reach agreements with at least two of them before the Bill goes before a Select Committee.

The Bill follows the usual format for Bills of this type. Part I—clauses 1 to 4—is in line with past practice. Clause 1 deals with the short title; clause 2 deals with interpretation; clause 3 deals with incorporation of general enactments; and clause 4 deals with the application of part I of the Compulsory Purchase Act 1965.

Part II deals with the details of the works to be undertaken. Those are important because they allow British Rail to meet the increasing demand, both for additional passenger services and for freight services. I stress again that the transfer from road to rail is in everyone's interest. I shall outline the most important works, but if hon. Members have additional queries on matters to which I do not refer, I shall try to seek clarification for them.

It may be interesting to point out that many of the works are reinstatements of older works. Work No. 1 is the reinstatement of a chord line, half a mile long, at Guide Bridge in Greater Manchester. It will handle trainloads of stone for the construction industry and take them to various terminals north of Manchester. That will allow trains to run via Ashton Moss instead of the present route via Ashburys, which is undulating with severe curves. I know that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is interested in that matter, but he is, unfortunately, not in his place.

Work No. 2 is a similar reinstatement of a curve at Edge Hill, Liverpool, to allow coal trains from Gladstone Dock to reach Fiddler's Ferry power station without the need to reverse at Edge Hill, saving time and fuel through improved efficiency.

Work No. 3 is the restoration of the rail link between St. Helens and St. Helens Junction on the Liverpool to Manchester railway. The line is now used in part as a freight siding and its restoration will allow the introduction of a new passenger service between St. Helens and Warrington, with a possible subsequent extension to Ellesmere Port. The proposal has the backing of the Merseyside passenger transport executive and will contribute to the relief of traffic congestion in the area.

Work No. 4 is a temporary diversion of the railway at Bingley to allow the construction of a bridge for the new Airedale trunk road. Works No. 5 and 6 allow the construction of two extra tracks on the western approach to Leeds station to handle the increasing number of passenger trains planned for the future with the West Yorkshire passenger transport executive. The scheme will help to improve reliability and relieve congestion in West Yorkshire.

Work No. 7 is to some extent connected with the future channel tunnel project. It provides for the closure of Willesborough level crossing at Ashford—a very busy crossing on the line to Dover and the channel tunnel—where delays to traffic are already severe. A new footbridge will be provided for pedestrians, and the nearby Crow Corner bridge will be widened to take the extra road traffic.

Work No. 8 involves a chord line at Clarborough near Gainsborough, which will allow coal trains from Immingham to reach Cottam power station direct, avoiding the need to run to Retford and reverse direction there.

Work No. 9 involves a long siding at Sherburn in Elmet, between Pontefract and York, to carry trains of gypsum from the Drax power station to the works of British Gypsum Limited. The flue gas desulphurisation plant at Drax produces gypsum as a by-product, and the link allows the heavy traffic to pass by rail rather than by heavy lorry.

Other works are related to the replacement of various levels crossings, and other clauses in the Bill relate to provision for underpinning buildings, dealing with surface water, agreements with highway authorities and so on. Two changes deal with level crossings over private roads, and provide for the normal penalties for disregarding flashing red lights that would apply if the crossings were over public roads. Clause 30 deals, among other things, with the extension of platforms at Strood station in Kent to allow longer Networker trains to be run, to increase capacity and reduce overcrowding on the busy north Kent route from Charing Cross and Cannon Street.

I realise that some hon. Members may be concerned about the works that relate to the moving of coal. Concerns have been expressed about the movement of imported coal, but that is clearly not a matter for British Rail. British Rail is in the business of moving goods and passengers, and I hope that the House will agree that it is far preferable for any product that has to be moved to be moved by rail rather than road. I hope that the House will welcome the works that are proposed, which are modest and which will help to build on the shift from roads to railways.

The Bill is one of a number of measures—I have had the honour of being involved in many of them over the past 10 years—and I hope that the House will allow it to go to a Select Committee because it represents an essential building block for British Rail in its continuing attempt to build a more effective and reliable service. I hope that the difficulties of the past winter are behind us. The general thrust of the board's policy is to improve its facilities and its service to passengers and freight users, and the Bill is an essential part of that process.

7.52 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I have a deal of sympathy for the Bill and I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for New Forest (Sir P. McNair-Wilson).

I want to refer to the Anglo-Scottish service. The hon. Gentleman courteously gave way twice. The first intervention concerned the sleeper service. In particular, concern was expressed about the trains stopping in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Two hon. Members use the service—the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson).

I speak as a long-term supporter of British Rail. As someone who travels between Glasgow Central and London Euston, I can speak as a consumer. As one who occasionally travels down by train, but—regrettably, the hon. Member for New Forest may say—much more frequently travels on the shuttle service between Glasgow airport and London Heathrow, I think that unquestionably the most civilised way to travel between the two cities is by train. There is no argument about that. It is much better to travel by train than to go through a crowded Heathrow and undertake the dreadful journey from there to Westminster tube station.

There has to be some equality as between the service that runs down the west coast of Scotland and the one that runs between Edinburgh Waverley and King's Cross. For a start, I think that I am right in saying that the Edinburgh Waverley to King's Cross service is much more frequent than the Glasgow Central to Euston run. Moreover, the latter is often served by old rolling stock. Two weeks ago, my wife and I went to board the Royal Scot leaving Euston for Glasgow at 10.25 am. Given that it is supposed to be the premier train of the daily service, the rolling stock was a disgrace. The buffet service, too, was nothing short of scandalous. If British Rail is to attract passengers—particularly business passengers and tourists—we shall need not only improved travelling times between Scotland and London but improvements in on-board services offered to passengers.

As a supporter—albeit a mildly critical one—of British Rail, I hope that the company will note what I am saying, because, as I said, rail is the better mode of passenger transport between Scotland and the south-east of England. Given that passengers are to be incarcerated for more than five hours, it is nothing short of disgraceful when, on boarding a train at Glasgow Central, they are told that the buffet service is off or that no restaurant facilities are available.

Improvements are therefore required in addition to these welcome, if somewhat modest, changes and the promise of long-term changes. The hon. Member for New Forest talked about the 250 service, for example. If the train provides the kind of service that I should like to see, many Scots will be keen to travel on it.

Journey times need to be improved, as does the quality of service on board. I do not criticise the staff, who are extremely friendly and courteous, but they must be given the best facilities and resources to help them in their dealings with passengers.

If such criticisms were taken on board, I genuinely believe that there would be an increase in passenger travel on the Anglo-Scottish service.

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

I want to make three extremely brief points about the Bill. The first—touched on by the hon. Member for New Forest (Sir P. McNair-Wilson), who moved the Second Reading in his customary able manner—concerns the moving of imported coal. Like other hon. Members, I am conscious of the contentious nature of any proposals to import coal into the United Kingdom. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, if imported coal is to be moved—and, once it is imported, it has to be moved—it is best moved by rail.

The proposals for the two chord lines at Edge Hill and Clarborough on the west and east coast respectively will keep a considerable number of heavy lorry movements off our roads. Moreover, I need hardly remind the House that if the Bill were defeated because of an objection to the moving of imported coal by rail, the coal could be moved by lorry without any reference whatever to our procedures. It is only because of our somewhat archaic way of dealing with British railways matters that we are discussing the proposals.

Secondly, I wish to record my pleasure about the restoration of the link between St. Helens and St. Helens Junction. It will provide a connection for Warrington, as well as connections for Birmingham and the west of England. If the extension goes ahead, there will be connections at Helsby for Chester and at Ellesmere Port for the electrified line serving the Wirral area. I am sure that the Merseyside passenger transport executive feels that such works will benefit the area.

My third point relates to the building of the chord line at Guide Bridge. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) has previouusly raised that matter. We appear to be in some danger of causing further inconvenience to my hon. Friend's constituents. I hope that the hon. Member for New Forest will relay our concerns to British Rail. A number of years ago, the track was reduced to a single line just south-west of Denton station,and it stretches as far as Heaton Norris junction. The current proposals will result in an increased number of heavy trains having to wait before they can enter the single line section. Some 20 years ago there were four tracks between Denton and Heaton Norris junction, but now there is just one. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand the problem of congestion that could and is so easily caused, especially at night when so many freight train movements take place.

Having made those three points, I welcome the Bill on behalf of the Opposition. I wish it a fair passage through the House.

8.1 pm

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Christopher Chope)

The Government have considered the Bill and have no objection in principle to the powers sought by the railways board. We have no points outstanding as a Department. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading and allow it to proceed to Committee for detailed consideration in the usual way. I understand that there are four petitions against it.

8.2 pm

Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall deal first with the points raised by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). I know Glasgow well as my father was a doctor there. The InterCity 250 service is designed ultimately to take 30 minutes off the journey time to London and to provide the sort of benefits to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, sadly, the time scale for the project does not envisage completion until 1994. I assure him that the project is on time.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) and I have discussed railway Bills for a number of years. I welcome his support and his acknowledgement of the point about the movement of imported coal, on this occasion, and generally about trying to get freight off the roads. He properly raised the question of the chord line at Guide Bridge and the worries that that is causing the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). I have drawn the matter to the attention of the railways board, which was not entirely aware of the congestion. As of this evening, the matter will be re-examined. I hope that that reassures both hon. Members that the matter is now firmly under consideration.

I welcome the support of my hon. Friend the Minister. I hope that the House will allow the Bill to go to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.