HC Deb 03 December 1993 vol 233 cc1319-44

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

12.44 pm
Mr. David Evennett (Erith and Crayford)

Naturally, I am pleased to be able to raise the subject of transport in south-east London this afternoon. It is a matter of great importance for my constituents, and I know from discussions with my colleagues in south-east London and north-west Kent that it is one which features heavily in their constituency correspondence.

One of the most vocal critics of our poor transport service has been my hon. Friend the Members for Dartford (Mr. Dunn)—my good friend and neighbour. Unfortunately, he is unable to be with us for this debate as he has a long-standing and pressing constituency engagement. Nevertheless, I am sure that he will read the proceedings closely and with great interest. His constituents and mine share many of the same problems. However, I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) in his place—he will participate in the debate as well. Similarly, the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) shares the same transport problems as we all do in south-east London.

I have raised the issue on many occasions in debates, questions and meetings with various Ministers at the Department. But I regret to advise that to date there has been relatively little improvement in transport provision in our area. Today, I do not want merely to highlight the inadequacy of transport in south-east London, nor to speak only on behalf of the hard-pressed local commuters, although I intend to speak on those matters. I want to range widely over both road and rail transport problems in our area. There are major concerns.

At the outset, I must say that I share the concerns of my constituents and experience the same problems as I journey from my home in Crayford to Westminster either by road or rail. At the start, I shall be positive and thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his recent visit to my constituency to see at first hand both the local problems and the considerable potential in our area. The visit was much appreciated by all involved.

Regrettably, as we told the Minister during his visit, many people in my area feel that the Government do not have a coherent strategy for transport in south-east London. While applauding in general terms the Government's aims to increase road building and to improve railway services through increased expenditure and a coherent strategy nationally, we feel somewhat neglected in our area. There appears to be no real rail strategy, and no road strategy either.

I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), who is in his place, in discussions that we had with the Department. When one looks at the increased number of new Networker trains now starting to operate on Network SouthEast in north Kent and south-east London, I am sure that all hon. Members will be encouraged and delighted. However, if one is travelling every day from Crayford station, Erith station, Barnehurst or Bexleyheath, and is subject to delays, cancellations and overcrowding on a regular basis, the individual traveller sees little benefit and questions the strategy of British Rail. Similarly, if one is travelling to London to shop, to a film, to the theatre, travelling to visit friends or relatives, going on holiday or whatever, the service provided on the British Rail lines through my constituency and the borough of Bexley in general is extremely bad.

My postbag regularly contains horror stories from my constituents about late, poor or non-existent services. To add insult to injury, already hard-pressed travellers and commuters in my constituency face a large increase of 8 per cent. on the cost of their fares from 1 January.

Commuters from Bexley are justifiably angry at having to pay for an increase far above the inflation rate. They commend the Government on keeping inflation so low but criticise British Rail for putting up fares so much. They are irritated at having to pay so much more for an inadequate and appalling service. People are late for work, appointments and social engagements simply because of British Rail's failure to deliver a first-class service.

In the mornings I listen to the radio—either Capital FM or my local community station, RTM Radio on 103.8 FM —which regularly lists cancellations on local services. RTM gives an excellent report each morning, highlighting both good and bad news for commuters and travellers. Regrettably, the news is too often bad.

British Rail may apologise, and sometimes does. Occasionally it even informs the public. But in general its attitude is wrong and it appears unconcerned. New timetables have made the position worse and the decision to close Charing Cross station for rebuilding work for several weeks during the summer angered the travelling public even more and made the service even worse in August.

I have often raised the issue of British Rail in the House, even in Adjournment debates. I have met British Rail executives and taken up the issue of the poor value for money provided by British Rail with the Government and British Rail. Unfortunately, there has been little improvement. The fact that people travelling on commuter lines from south-east London and north-west Kent are still experiencing one of the worst services in the country is unacceptable. I hope that when British Rail is privatised and lines are franchised, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London will look for more effective operators of our local railway service, because improvement is essential. We are putting our trust and hopes for the future in my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State.

Three railway lines serve my constituency. One runs along the river, through Abbey Wood, Belvedere, Erith and Slade Green en route to Dartford. The second goes through Bexleyheath and Barnehurst, located in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath. Those stations are well used by residents in my wards of Bostall and Crayford, and Northumberland Heath, as well as by my hon. Friend's constituents. The third line goes through Sidcup and Bexley and serves Crayford—the town where I have a home. I regularly use Crayford station and know about the problems suffered by Crayford line travellers.

In theory, one would think that my constituents were well served by such a network of railway lines and collection of stations, yet in practice nothing could be further from the truth. At my regular surgery at Erith town hall on Friday evenings, my constituents tell me of the poor service and my postbag contains even more complaints. The existence of the hardware—trains, stations and tracks —does not make a good service by itself. British Rail should adopt a different approach to its customers. It needs a commitment to service, concern, and value for money for travellers. The citizens charter has had some effect and publicity clearly brings some results. This Adjournment debate has resulted in many groups contacting me and trying to put a gloss on their operations.

A letter from the divisional director of Nework SouthEast, Mr. Fearn, is indicative of some of the problems that we have been suffering. Mr. Fearn says that British Rail is providing 15 new Networker trains in daily service in our area and that customers have commented favourably on those trains. That is only natural when one compares them with the old cattle trucks that are used for the rest of the time. Anything would be an improvement on those. However, I admit that those trains are super and very good news.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)

When they work.

Mr. Evennett

I endorse the comment by the hon. Member for Greenwich.

However, in our area we have no competition. Competition, publicity and private enterprise bring choice and better services for consumers.

Mr. Fearn's letter shows that the passengers charter has highlighted poor results in our area. It says: we fell short of the demanding train service punctuality standard set under the Passenger's Charter on Kent Link for the 12 months to 5 November. This has triggered a 5 per cent. discount payment on renewal of customers' season tickets. The fact that BR failed to meet its requirements is well known to my constituents and those of other hon. Members.

One example of how Network SouthEast does not look after passengers is that it stopped the half-hourly Sunday service and substituted an hourly service on the Bexleyheath line and other lines in my area. Mr. Fearn's letter states: In terms of the timetable, we reinstated the Sunday half-hourly service on the North Kent and Bexleyheath lines to Dartford in October this year. Those services should not have been cancelled in the first place. It is fine to say that those of us who campaigned to have the half-hourly service reinstated have had some success, but the half-hourly Sunday service should never have been cancelled. However, we welcome a sinner repenting.

On the issue of fares, Mr. Fearn's letter states that the number of fraudulent passengers has been reduced to less than 1 per cent. compared with 4 to 5 per cent. in the past. That is also good news. I learned from Mr. Fearn's letter that Erith and Slade Green stations are to receive major facelifts by next spring, subject, of course, to the contract being granted to private contractors. That is good news because Erith station has been in desperate need of restoration and refurbishment for many years, and the platform buildings at Slade Green need refurbishment.

South-east London suffers from the great disadvantage of the lack of choice. It has no underground network and in that respect it is the most underprivileged part of the metropolis.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

My hon. Friend puts his case superbly. Is he aware of the campaign that I and others have been running against the British Rail tactic of having no staff on stations in the evenings? For a public service that is disgraceful and downright dangerous.

Mr. Evennett

I thank my hon. Friend and endorse his comments. I am aware of his campaign and have supported it. He is right to demand a first-class service that passengers must at all times feel safe in using. In the absence of staff, severe problems could arise.

As I say, we in south-east London do not have an underground network and have to rely exclusively on British Rail. Not for us the choice and competition that exists, for example, in north-east London where there is real choice between various BR lines and a substantial underground network.

Many people in Erith and Crayford and in neighbouring areas in the south-east of London look with considerable interest to the extension of the Jubilee line to south-east London. The 12-month delay in the go-ahead for this essential addition to our local transport network caused great local disappointment. I have followed the history of the proposal and I understand the difficulties that have been encountered, but, to say the least, the delay has been unfortunate.

My area needs the Jubilee line extension much more than the crossrail link is needed across northern London. Whatever our political persuasion, we all eagerly look forward to its completion and operation. It is the first step towards giving more choice to south-east London travellers. The Jubilee line extension is welcome and positive news.

Yesterday, I took part in the debate on the Budget, with which I was delighted. In his Budget speech my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor gave the go-ahead to the extension of the docklands light railway which will go south of the Thames to Lewisham. There is some movement, I am delighted to see, not only on the Jubilee line but with the extension to the docklands railway into south-east London. For that I must congratulate my hon. Friend The Minister for Transport in London and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on the work that they have done in getting the finance and the go-ahead.

I am always disappointed that some Labour Members do not welcome such developments. They should, because we can always debate station locations or whatever once we have the principle and once the projects are up and running. I think that that is important.

I am grateful for the money that has been invested in London transport. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury mentioned a figure of £1.75 billion yesterday. That sum includes the cost of work on the Jubilee line and on the docklands extension. That is big money, and we are extremely grateful in south-east London for that development. It is something for which we have worked hard. My hon. Friends the Members for Eltham and for Bexleyheath have campaigned behind the scenes on the issue.

We want an improved and extended tube network. That is not a subject for debate today, and I will not go into the details of the enlarging of financing for the tube across London. I want to talk about subjects that relate to south-east London and are most important to my constituents.

I will say, however, that tube financing has again hit the headlines of The Evening Standard in today's lunchtime edition. The paper reports on capital expenditure and whether it should come from private or public funding, or from a mixture of both. I have to say that it is of no concern to my constituents whether the funding or ownership is public or private. They want a first-class service to which they have greater access and on which they can rely. I am disappointed with the headlines in The Evening Standard, because it is a first-class evening newspaper for the whole of London. I was rather disappointed that it should have taken that view. The funding is of no consequence to the travelling public in my constituency who want a first-class service.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

It is probably fair to The Evening Standard to say that the editorial is rather more thoughtful. We should make the point that journalists respond in the same way as hon. Members. They should be patted on the back, and then one should pass over the headline.

Mr. Evennett

I thank my hon. Friend for his witty intervention, and I believe that my hon. Friend is a former journalist. I endorse what he said. The paper's editorials are read with great interest by a vast number of my constituents. The editorials are always well thought out, and I enjoy them. The headlines in today's paper are disappointing. I will leave the issue of the tube by saying that we want it in south-east London, we like it, but, at the moment, we ain't got it.

I wish to speak now about roads, a subject in which my hon. Friend the Minister is even more involved. One desperately needed improvement in our transport network in south-east London which was proposed was the building of the east London river crossing. As my hon. Friend knows following his recent visit, my constituents in Crayford and Erith are suffering the daily nuisance and disturbance of hundreds of heavy goods vehicles using suburban roads and the high streets.

Those roads are wholly inadequate to deal with the heavy burden of traffic, especially the large lorries which cause delays to traffic trying to negotiate town centres. It has also proved to be dangerous to other road users and to pedestrians. In particular, I am concerned about young children and the elderly who are put at the greatest risk by the juggernauts which go through, for example, the centre of Crayford and try to negotiate the one-way system there.

The lorries use residential roads to cut through from the industrial estates to make their way to the Dartford tunnel or the Blackwall tunnel. The latter, of course, is not large enough to cope with the volume of traffic that is travelling from south-east London across to east London, to Essex or to the M11 and destinations in East Anglia or the north.

The Queen Elizabeth bridge has made the traffic flow on the M25 much better. We all welcome that excellent addition to our road network in the area. But using the crossing point at Dartford puts many miles on the clock for those wishing to travel from south-east London up to the M11—and for those who wish to travel to the north circular and north London, who have to travel east before they can go north and west—and takes much longer because the number of such journeys adds to the traffic congestion.

I warmly welcome the recent statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham to the effect that the approach road to the proposed east London river crossing would not destroy any of Oxleas wood. Many people in my area campaigned vigorously to save that historic woodland. We all share the view that it is important to keep such woodlands and open spaces. It is excellent news that the woods are to be saved from destruction and that the motorway approach will not plough through that attractive area. Yet we in south-east London are left rather in limbo as a result of the decision.

I strongly urge my hon. Friend the Minister to reappraise the situation and examine alternative solutions to the problem. My constituents in Erith and Crayford would welcome an announcement from the Government about what they propose to do to deal with the traffic problems in our area. Is the east London river crossing to proceed, and if so, when? If not, what do the Government propose to do to improve traffic flow and alleviate traffic problems in south-east London?

Is my hon. Friend aware of the tremendous traffic pressure on the Blackwall tunnel and the A2, especially during the rush hour? I am sure he is. When the tunnel is closed for repairs or when an accident happens, the snarling up is tremendous. There are too many cars trying to gain access to too few river crossing points in our area. We need answers from my hon. Friend, and I urge him to review the position and perhaps suggest that some of his colleagues and officials in the Department try the commute from Crayford, using the A2 and the Blackwall tunnel, at around 8.15 in the morning, when they will see the snarl-up developing.

Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will also enlighten me about suggestions that we have read in the paper about the possibility of a new bridge at Blackwall to relieve some of the congestion. The existing tunnels are inadequate for the traffic that they serve. Moreover, they bend, and that slows down the flow of traffic.

As I said earlier, we were absolutely delighted when my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London visited my constituency and met Bexley council leader, Councillor Len Newton and his officials at the new Erith leisure centre. The centre, provided by the council, is an excellent amenity for the north of the Bexley borough. My hon. Friend came to discuss the problems of traffic and road transport in our locality. Having known him for many years, and being a friend of his, I am particularly grateful for the time and interest that he took, despite the inclement weather. Standing on the waterfront at Erith, my hon. Friend received a frosty welcome—not from the residents or council officials but from the weather. I am glad that he has had the opportunity to see at first hand the problems created by juggernauts using inadequate roads. My hon. Friend is now well briefed on Bexley's proposals and hopes and we await his decisions and actions in that respect.

Councillor Newton and I emphasised to my hon. Friend the concerns of the councillors and residents of Bexley about the ridiculous suggestion that the east London river crossing should go ahead and be built and that traffic should be allowed to flow along the Thamesmead spine road—the A2016. That would increase local congestion and add to the chaos and anger not only in Erith but in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath. Such a scheme would be a disaster for traffic management in our area. In addition, it would fail the basic test, which is that the east London crossing should be part of a strategic road network for south-east London. The Thamesmead spine road solution would increase problems rather than reducing them and is therefore a non-starter.

My hon. Friend also saw the problems caused by the traffic flow in Crayford town, and how that historic and residential town is being destroyed by the juggernauts, lorries, vans and cars which constantly thunder through the town centre, causing considerable congestion and potential hazard. When he was standing outside Crayford town hall in the bitterly cold weather, chatting to people at the local bus stop, my hon. Friend received first-hand experience of the problem.

We in south-east London know that there are great plans for the east Thames corridor. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is keen to develop the potential of the area and we are keen for the corridor to go ahead. We are looking for more investment, factories, homes and jobs, and the regeneration of the riverside. In my constituency, both Thamesmead and Erith are ripe for such development.

The prospect of the corridor is exciting and challenging and offers much scope and potential. To realise that potential and to encourage industrialists, house builders and new residents to come into the area, we need a better transport network. That transport network must include substantial road and rail improvements, and an improvement in services is essential.

What is the key question for my hon. Friend the Minister? My constituents are growing impatient and I urge my hon. Friend to take action. All is not gloom and doom, because there have been positive signs on the underground, the docklands light railway, the Jubilee line and even British Rail, as described in the letter from the director that I highlighted earlier.

Another encouraging sign is that we have seen a considerable rise in bus service in the past few years. The Hoppa bus has been a tremendous success, and I praise the Kentish Bus Company. That company's depot is in my constituency, and I visited it recently. The service to local people has improved beyond belief. There are better buses, a more reliable service, cheerful and polite drivers—which is important for passengers—and better routes have been provided. I congratulate the Kentish Bus Company for the improved service.

Bus services are far better than they were, and many local people—particularly the elderly—are very grateful for the improved service which, together with their bus passes, is a real lifeline for many pensioners.

When I was a newly elected to the House 10 years ago, I received many letters from disgruntled passengers, whose buses never turned up or were always delayed and many of the staff were not as polite as they should have been. That has changed dramatically. The use of the Hoppa, which picks up people where they need to be picked up and ensures that they do not have to walk considerable distances to a main road bus stop, has been a great improvement for local residents. We have a large elderly population in Erith and Belvedere that is very grateful for the improved service that enables elderly people to get to the Bexleyheath shopping centre and elsewhere.

I thank my hon. Friend for the attention that he has given to that part of London. We can be proud to have such an effective Minister to deal with the problems of London, particularly problems of transport. I am sure that my hon. Friend's in-tray is full of suggestions from hon. Members who represent London constituencies and that he knows that there is still much to be done.

We need to improve the road and rail network across the south-east of London. I know that my hon. Friend understands the frustrations of travellers, the annoyance of local people and the concerns of hon. Members. I urge him to look at the problems of our part of London and to come forward with a strategy and proposals to solve them. I know that he will do it, we believe that he will do it, and I hope that he will do it very soon.

1.14 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on not only arranging the Adjournment debate but on persuading the business managers to allow it to continue for longer than the usual half-hour. The issue of transport in south-east London deserves a lot of attention in Parliament and action on the ground.

I want to mention the most visible, frequent and popular form of transport—walking. We must remember that, whatever our interests as rail passengers, most of us get to railway stations on foot. Whatever our interests may be as car drivers or passengers or bus passengers, we normally walk to bus stops and make many journeys by foot. We must think of the journeys made by those who have no choice as they have no car in the garage or street and are forced to be pedestrians.

There was a remarkably sensible editorial in The Evening Standard. I rang up that newspaper this morning to congratulate it on a good editorial and article featured on Monday—I wrote the feature, but it was improved by another writer. The editorial in today's Evening Standard gets even more clearly to the heart of the issue of London Underground than we have to the issue of British Rail surface lines. If we had sustained capital investment in London Underground, it could run without subsidy after a few years, with the potential of increasing its capacity; the Government are providing help with crossrail, the Jubilee line and docklands light railway extensions.

As London becomes more prosperous—a world city building on financial expertise, flexibility, the fact that English is a common world language and the fact that it houses many universities—there will be less long-term unemployment, more people sharing in prosperity and more people with a choice in life. The key to achieving that aim is London Underground.

I wish to mention the centre of London before returning to the subject of south-east London. The most recent large line built in London is the Victoria line, which has been up to capacity between Victoria and Green Park. Most people do not want to change trains at Victoria or Green Park, but want to travel across London. That is where crossrail can help. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) talked of crossings over the Thames. There are fewer rail crossings over the Thames in east London than road crossings, which is why I want to redirect attention towards a proposal from the south-east London branch of Friends of the Earth for a rail tunnel at Woolwich. That tunnel would make it possible for people to make connections to Network SouthEast lines as well as to underground lines—a major improvement.

It will be interesting to listen to my hon. Friend the Minister's words on progress on the possible east London river crossing bridge and, in addition, to hear whether he will say who will consider the economic prospects, and the social and environmental benefits, of having a rail tunnel under the Thames at Woolwich.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford for his words on Oxleas wood, which is currently not in my constituency. The independent impartial boundary commissioners propose to bring the ward which contains it into Eltham constituency. Shrewsbury ward is currently in the constituency of the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker), and I do not think that I am being controversial when I say that the greatest fuss is about the impact of the southern approach road. The issue of the bridge has successfully cleared two inquiries, but the proposal to wreck Oxleas wood did not clear either of them.

Where the route should go is a matter for discussion and debate. If one considers the route south of the M11, across the Thames where the proposed bridge might be, the road as previously proposed would have turned south-west towards Brighton. However, we all know that most traffic is trying to get to the channel ports which are to the south-east. Even if the Thamesmead spine route is not used, we should recognise that the economic reasons for the road going south-east are the same as the environmental ones. Although it will be difficult for Members of Parliament and residents of the Bexley area to accept, the road should go through Bexley rather than Eltham.

On the subject of pedestrians and buses, I echo what has been said about the flexibility of the development of London bus services, which I welcome. I also welcome the non-appearance of the total deregulation of London's buses, which marks a wise decision. The Select Committee on Transport considered the matter and made suggestions to the House and the Government. We need to make bus services more flexible. London Buses has much to contribute, but I do not believe that it will run many buses directly. It is the advantages of tendering and flexibility that matter.

I shall now give an illustrative example of local people's interests. In Middle Park avenue, on the Middle Park estate, which is in my constituency, there is what could be described as a rat run. If it is not a rat run, it is a tempting run, through which people drive their vehicles too fast. It is a prime candidate for traffic calming. I am sad that London Buses objects to bringing in some traffic-calming measures on the ground that if they were made, it would not run its buses through the estate. In other parts of England, I have seen bus operators perfectly content to negotiate traffic-calming features of one kind or another. I would ask the people in London Buses, and the emergency services, to stop being so stupid in saying a flat no to suggestions on behalf of local residents. Too many of London's casualties are pedestrians and local people who are hit by vehicles driven by local people and outsiders.

Slowing the speed of traffic has contributed to bringing the present total number of road deaths to below half the peak level, even though traffic has increased and will continue to increase. I ask bus operators and the emergency services to do all they can to find a way forward, rather than digging out the historic negative that one cannot do something in a new way, because it has never been done in that way before.

I echo what has been said about the benefits to London of having my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) as the Minister of Transport in London. It is good to have a Minister for Transport in London, but it is even better that it is my hon. Friend, who has a constituency interest in London and a background in the transport industries.

One reason why road traffic flows in London is the helpful work of the police. Most of their work is in keeping traffic flowing, but there is a problem and I hope that the Select Committee on Transport will make inquiries, both of the Home Office and of the Department of Transport.

In general, traffic policy is settled by the Department of Transport. Some of the budgets are held by the Home Office. The police, on their performance indicators, will normally be judged on crime, and traffic will not get much of a look-in. That applies also to capital investment in virtually automatic technology, such as speed cameras and cameras to detect red light jumping, and to a variety of ways in which technology can be of value.

It is important to try to get rid of the rumour that the people in the traffic branches of the Metropolitan police are called black rats, because they are down a sewer and never seen. They should be out in the open, getting respect for their professional expertise and being honoured for the dangerous work that they do. Stopping vehicles or attending scenes of car crashes on busy roads is a dangerous business; it can be as dangerous as it is on the motorways. I hope that that matter will get attention at New Scotland Yard, the Home Office and the Department of Transport.

We are in the same situation we were in seven years ago, when I was at the Department of Transport, on the question whether local authorities can be trusted to use new technology, or even old technology, to enforce rules on parking on yellow lines. I am not asking my hon. Friend for a detailed response on that matter, but wish to flag it as a matter of significant concern.

Rail investment matters both above and below ground, Denis Tunnicliffe at London Underground was very open in praising Ministers before the last election on their commitment to getting a level of investment that would allow a decent, modern metro to be maintained and extended. I am sure that hon. Members will want to recognise the efforts made by Transport Ministers in the collegiate discussions with the Treasury over the budget level in a difficult financial year.

We are not spending enough. I do not believe that we should draw too many lessons from the Central line power failure, because that was unusual, and the Central line has had £700 million of capital investment in addition, that line does not come into south-east London, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford. If we can get tube links into south-east London, which will require some capital investment, that will be good.

On the surface, when will aproval be given for the doubling up of the rail tracks at Borough Market junction? Anyone who looks towards Westminster from the 29th floor of Guy's hospital will see the bottleneck that stops Thameslink services going through London Bridge. Four times as many people want the service to go through London Bridge as want it to go through the Elephant and Castle. That is the key to all the Kent line services. I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to come up today with a detailed policy statement, but I want him to say to those to whom he talks that there will be constant, persistent, consistent pressure, because that is the key to getting the best value for other investments in the Kent services.

Let me return to the subject of the rail lines going through the south-east constituencies. The main channels of communication go along the railway line. They unite Greenwich and Woolwich, as I was saying to the Local Government Boundary Commission inquiry in my constituency recently. They unite Kidbrooke and Eltham. No doubt my colleague, the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) will say something on that subject as well. The roads performs the same function. Watling street, the A2, or the Old Dover road—part of it, by the Royal Standard, is still called the Old Dover road—is a natural way of uniting constituencies, at least in the borough of Greenwich.

I hope that, when the House considers those proposals, it will look at the transport links and decide that if Shooters hill and Shooters Hill road are used as the division, that will make it possible for hon. Members to represent their constituents' transport interests in the House. I look forward to doing that for some years to come, representing Eltham and making sure that my hon. Friend keeps his ministerial job going well.

If we get better safety provisions for pedestrians, cyclists and motor cyclists, some access to allow those using cars to commute to central London—although not too many—and improved rail services and choices, we will be able to make sure that London transport contributes to the quality of life in London rather than detracting from it.

1.26 pm
Mr. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) on achieving an Adjournment debate on a subject that must be dear to everyone—not just those who represent south-east London—who has to find his or her way from it by road or rail. We do not yet have the sophistication of the tube line, as the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) pointed out.

It is important that we accept the principle of a high-quality public transport system, for two good reasons —one economic and one social. The economic reason is that if we are to get the people of south-east London to the centre of London or elsewhere so that they can participate in the prosperity that we hope that a capital city such as London will achieve, we need a good transport network. If we want the tourism of a capital city such as London to develop and enhance the city, we need excellent transport services. If we want serious reductions in unemployment —if we are beginning to see some reduction in unemployment, it is only by 0.5 per cent. in my consitituency—we need to ensure that people can move about the city.

The vast majority of people who use the buses are women who are tied to their homes through having young families or who have part-time jobs, the elderly, people with disabilities and children of school age, particularly those of secondary school age. For that social reason, it is important that we have a proper and systematic system working throughout the capital but particularly in the south-east, which has been cut off from the rest of London because of defects in the transport system.

I shall now spend some time bemoaning the state of British Rail and Network SouthEast. I know that other hon. Members will join me in that, because those of us who have to travel on those trains know that they are dirty and overcrowded, with trains being cancelled and delayed. The Kent link and the Kent coast line have the worst punctuality record of all the London lines. We have already accepted that we have a poorer transport system than elsewhere, but we also have the worst service. One in five trains is routinely late and delays and cancellations have exasperated and frustrated commuters for as many years as I can remember. When I travelled in this morning, I did not leave as normal from Hither Green, but left from Catford Bridge and, of course, once again the train was late. Although it was not at peak hour, the train was still quite crowded.

It is illogical that Ministers or British Rail believes that the reduction in the number of people travelling into the centre of London because of the rise in unemployment during the recession is an excuse for removing huge numbers of trains. Will the Minister tell us, now that, according to the Government, we are coming out of recession, whether there will be more trains on the timetable rather than fewer trains? I doubt it.

No doubt the Minister will talk about the Networker trains and how wonderful they are. They are much cleaner, brighter and smoother than the old, rickety trains to which we are used. However, they too have had problems. Doors have malfunctioned and elderly people in my constituency have had difficulties boarding them. I hope that that will be considered and that some redesign is possible to remedy that fault.

The hon. Member for Eltham mentioned the problems that we face in south-east London over the lack of decision on the channel tunnel, which has been going on for many years. Houses down that line are blighted. I am deeply concerned that, in my constituency, two of the major areas, Grove Park and Hither Green, will be affected as long as Waterloo remains the terminal. I know that residents in streets such as Millborough crescent and Springbank road are already under siege because they feel that their properties have been devalued. When we heard that the line was to be changed to run along the east London corridor, there was great relief. Unfortunately, the issue has been thrown back into the pot and it appears that, for several years to come, those constituents will suffer because there will be fewer trains to take them into central London and much heavier use of the track by channel tunnel trains. I should like to be able to reassure my constituents that the Minister thinks that is not likely to happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) and I were probably the only hon. Members who gave a small cheer during the Budget debate when the Chancellor said that the docklands light railway was to come to Lewisham. The rest of the House was relatively quiet at the time and it may have sounded rather odd that the Chancellor's only support for that announcement came from the Opposition Benches. However, I am glad that it was only a small cheer, because I received a letter yesterday from the Department of the Environment. It states: The approval we have given remains subject to the condition that no Government grant will be made available. That leaves so much uncertainty that we are concerned about whether the whole proposal will eventually go through. I know that the Minister is visiting Lewisham on Monday to look at the plans. I hope that he can confirm that a target date will be set and that the DLR will go ahead. I know that controversy surrounds the scheme, because, for that to happen, other stations on the line may have to be closed, which may not please people elsewhere.

We conducted a survey on British Rail in my constituency during July and August this year. It was not a straightforward survey which we carried out by standing on the platforms while people waited for cancelled and delayed trains. We did not ask them merely to say yes or no to a series of questions. We handed the questionnaire to people and then let them get on to their trains, once they had arrived. People had to post the completed questionnaires to me, which, as hon. Members know, was asking a lot of them. They had to make an extra effort to respond to the survey.

The results of the survey were horrifying. I received well over 300 replies in a couple of weeks. Three out of four people, in the past six months of travelling on British Rail trains through Lewisham, had experienced having to stand in the guard's van because the train was so overcrowded. Some 98 per cent. of those replying felt that their trains were overcrowded. Some 84 per cent. said that they could not get a seat and two out of three feared travelling at night. One of the main reasons for that fear is that there are no staff on the stations. Another aspect of that is that people have an opportunity to dodge fares. I pass through stations regularly and I come home with pockets full of tickets that I have not handed in to a member of staff. I may decorate a room with them one day as a way to use them up. Two thirds of those who replied feared travelling at night and two thirds felt that there should be more staff on duty.

Some Lewisham commuters went further and wrote letters to me explaining some of their more serious worries about the state of British Rail. One described the overall service as appalling, chaotic and perhaps even dangerous. We should all be worried if people travelling in the rush hour fear for their lives or fear injury because of the dangers caused by overcrowded trains.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

On the point about there being no staff on stations, the hon. Lady will be only too well aware that some ghastly sexual crimes have been committed on local railway lines. One of the risks of having no staff on stations is that if there is an incident on a train, there is no one to whom to report it. When I raised that matter with the authorities, I was told that people could ring stations in London and that there were cameras monitoring people. That is wholly unsatisfactory and puts at risk many of the travelling public. That should be unacceptable in this day and age.

Mrs. Prentice

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that intervention; he is right. The lack of staff especially affects women, although not only women. A number of people wrote to me saying that they did not fear travelling at night because they simply did not travel at night any more. They will not travel by train in the evening because of their fears, so they travel by taxi or by minicab instead. It is nonsense for people to be turned away from a public transport system because they fear for their safety. Having staff on stations is crucial for that reason, and is also important in terms of giving people information.

With the changes in the timetable in the past year, there are stations in south-east London and in Kent where there are no staff on duty. If a passenger misses a train by one or two minutes, he or she may wait on his own for almost an hour because a station is unstaffed. Unfortunately, even in the middle of the day, that is not a pleasant experience in this day and age. I hope that British Rail will heed the needs of passengers in south-east London.

Some respondents have been travelling on British Rail for 40 years. They say that the service has never been so insultingly bad as it is at present.

One wrote: I cannot remember when I last had a seat on a rush-hour train out of Lewisham … Cancellation and late running are not the main problem, though the situation is far from ideal. The main problem is that with each new timetable a few more services have disappeared and that the remaining trains are shorter. British Rail is suffering from inadequate investment in south-east London. People wanting to travel to work in a positive frame of mind arrive at their offices, factories or shops feeling frustrated, stressed and under considerable tension as a result of travelling into central London.

I welcome the news that there is to be no deregulation of London's buses, but I am extremely concerned that the Government are still going headlong into privatisation, which is causing considerable anxiety to members of the public who rely on bus services to get around.

I have written many letters to the Minister on behalf of constituents about the travelcard. I know that he said that its future is safe, but we cannot be convinced of that. I hope that the Minister will reiterate today that the travelcard will remain in existence, come hell or high water.

I remember the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) speaking some time ago about motorway coning and saying all that would be stopped when he became Prime Minister. Has the Minister ever thought of holding a national no roadworks day, on which motorists could use the roads without having to skirt cones, barriers and other obstacles? Will he at least suggest to the utilities—British Gas, British Telecommunications and London Electricity —that they consult so that, if they must dig up a particular road, they all do so the same day, instead of digging it up separately week after week? I am sure that central London's car users would greatly appreciate such an arrangement. Perhaps there could be at least a London no roadworks day, later extended to other parts of the country.

I would normally say that one could drive a bus through Government transport policies, but I fear that the bus would be snarled up in the jam on the south circular. This debate has provided a useful opportunity to inform the Minister of problems encountered by rail commuters and others in south-east London. I know that the phrase "an integrated transport policy" sends civil servants into paroxysms, but perhaps the Minister will ensure not only that British Rail is the subject of proper investment and considers the passenger to be of paramount importance but that roads and bus services are considered as part of an overall strategic plan for south-east London travel. The Government should also get their act together in respect of the channel tunnel, so that my constituents using the line from Hither Green down to Kent stations will not suffer from its heavier use by channel tunnel trains on which they will not be able to commute.

1.48 pm
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) on his good fortune in being called for today's debate, particularly since it has allowed relatively full discussion compared with the normally short Adjournment debate. I congratulate him also on his good choice of subject. He selected a topic of real concern to all right hon. and hon. Members who represent south-east London constituencies. It is noticeable that in today's debate we have heard a unanimous expression of concern from both sides of the House about the serious problems that exist and the way in which people in south-east London are badly served by current transport arrangements.

Network SouthEast traditionally has been the main transport service for south-east London. It has, I am afraid, an unenviable record which has been mentioned by every speaker who has contributed to the debate. Its punctuality record for the past year, is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice) pointed out, the worst of all the Network SouthEast regions, with the possible exception of Thames, which just about matches the failure of Network SouthEast on punctuality.

The written answer that I received a couple of weeks ago, giving the latest figures, shows that in the most recent period, up to 5 November this year, only 79.9 per cent. of services arrived reasonably punctually on the Kent coast line and only 78.2 per cent. on the Kent link line. On both the Kent coast line and Kent link services, fewer than one in five trains routinely arrive on time, against targets—which are not especially ambitious—of 82 per cent. for the Kent coast line and 88 per cent. for the Kent link. That record of unpunctuality is a daily experience for my constituents and those of every other hon. Member who represents south-east London.

I shall now quote from a letter that was sent to me on 26 November by a constituent who also happens to work for ITN. I hope that he will have some influence on coverage of the issue. In the past three weeks literally not a single train that I have tried to take has been on time. Many have been delayed by more than 15 minutes, others are cancelled altogether. I have written so often to the Network Customer Service Manager that my letters are now ignored—I have not had a reply to the last four anyway. No trains and no replies to his letters—what an appalling record.

In the past, those problems have been attributed to the poor condition of the old, out-dated rolling stock that people have to travel in on the Kent link and Kent coast services. Now the new Networkers are being introduced. We were promised that their introduction would be the solution; they would be modern, comfortable and reliable and we would all have a more attractive and pleasant rail service to and from London.

I agree with the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford that the Networkers are fine when they work, but unfortunately they do not work all that often. For a brand new supply of rolling stock, it is astonishing how many of my constituents—and, I expect, constituents of other hon. Members—have had to write with descriptions of lengthy delays that occur while the doors are made to work. The doors jam, apparently, if passengers lean against them. It seems extraordinary, in 1993, after getting on for two centuries of experience of building rolling stock, that it is impossible to design and build trains whose doors do not jam if passengers lean against them.

I hope that the Minister can give us some sort of answer as to when we can expect those problems to be sorted out and when Network South-East will run trains whose doors open reliably and do not cause the type of problems and delays that we have come across. I must also ask him for an indication of when Network SouthEast will achieve a reasonable target performance, given the abject failure to which I have referred. It is reasonable for us to expect that at least 90 per cent. of trains arrive punctually as a matter of course. When can we expect even that rather modest target performance to be achieved?

Investment in the rail service is crucial. There is an urgent need for increased investment, not just in new rolling stock, but in improved signalling and track. The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) rightly referred to the bottleneck on the approach to London bridge. That has been a serious problem and it has to be tackled. I ask the Minister, when can we expect that problem to be resolved? Secondly, can we expect any progress on the other rail investment issue that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Eltham—the rail crossing at Woolwich, which would serve a very useful purpose, linking the Kent services with north London and, in the course of so doing, making it possible to run an orbital service around the whole of London? We hear about the problems and the appalling congestion on the M25, but the link at Woolwich offers the opportunity of an orbital rail service around London. When can we expect any news about the possibility of progress on that issue?

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East asked about the channel tunnel. When will the uncertainty end, and when can we expect the high-speed link to be operational? That is one of the most disgracefully delayed features of investment in British Rail's infrastructure in the last decade. It may not appear to be directly relevant to south-east London, but, in the absence of a dedicated high-speed rail link, the rail network between London and the Kent ports has to be used to accommodate passenger and freight traffic to and from the channel tunnel.

It is clear that Network SouthEast is having to change the programming of local services to accommodate additional traffic that will come from the channel tunnel. That was brought to my attention by the Blackheath Society, which is concerned about changes to the timetabling of trains at Blackheath and about the fact that the two trains an hour that run through Blackheath at off-peak times are leaving the station in close proximity to each other. It has reasonably asked that the times should be spaced out at a more reasonable interval, but it was told by Network SouthEast that it was not possible because of the channel tunnel.

I did not believe that, so I took the matter up with Network SouthEast. It replied: I can understand your frustration at the current situation affecting users of Blackheath Station, the spacing of services is clearly not ideal. The current timetable has pathways built into it for Channel Tunnel services. The decision to introduce this in advance of the tunnel opening was taken to enable us to iron out any problems before the new trains take up their pathways. Network SouthEast obviously requires a great deal of time to iron out problems as the current timetable has already been operational for some months. At the time this decision was taken and the timetable process activitated the Channel Tunnel was due to open in May 1993, this date has now of course been postponed. The inclusion of these pathways entailed a complete rewrite of the timetable with both Network SouthEast, European Passenger Services and Railfreight Distributions aspirations to be catered for. British Rail's main commitment was that there would be no curtailment of Network SouthEast services but clearly there would have to be timing changes with considerably more services than in previous years approaching and leaving the London area. There we have it—our services will be squeezed even more because of the need to accommodate channel tunnel traffic. Given the likelihood of yet further delay in the construction of the dedicated high-speed link to the channel tunnel, that is likely to be a continuing frustration and problem. As the hon. Member for Eltham said, with the congestion at the approach to London bridge and the difficulty in accommodating the existing volume of traffic, heaven knows what the consequences of a substantial additional volume of traffic from the channel ports will be. Therefore, when can we expect the high-speed link to be operational?

The London underground has not been available to south-east London. It has been south-east London's traditional complaint that the underground has passed it by. I suppose that we should raise half a cheer for the news that the Jubilee line and docklands light railway extensions may be coming to south-east London. It is only half a cheer because important questions remain unanswered about both.

There is the important question whether there will be a station on the south-east London part of the Jubilee line. It is extraordinary that there is no commitment as yet—the Minister may be able to assure me that I am wrong—to build a station at north Greenwich, the one point on the Jubilee line that is in south-east London. It would be astonishing if there were a hole in the ground with a concrete box in it and underground trains passed through south-east London for the first time without stopping there. Will this be the fate of south-east London—the tube, at last, but it does not stop for us? Or will we get the worst scenario, which now appears to be under consideration— a park-and-ride facility for 1,000 cars on the north Greenwich site to fund the construction of the station?

The delay is for the same reason that delayed the Jubilee line for 18 months—the Government's insistence that there had to be a contribution from the private sector towards its construction.

We all know about the nonsense of the Olympia and York contributions. Supposedly, it was £400 million but that has gradually reduced. As my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) revealed in the House yesterday, it is probably worth no more than £200 million now because of the phasing negotiated with the Government by the bankers acting for Olympia and York. At least that problem is supposedly resolved.

In the case of North Greenwich station, there is no resolution. I understand that British Gas is reluctant to meet the Government's request for £25 million for the station. That is not surprising, given that the same Department of Transport is proposing to cut a significant part of the development site with its bridge across the Thames at Blackwall. While the negotiations continue, there is uncertainty about the station. The latest proposal I have heard is that there might be a park-and-ride facility for 1,000 cars to provide the money that British Gas will not produce. If that were so, it would be an outrage.

The area is already grossly overcongested with traffic. To attract a substantial additional volume of commuter traffic into the area simply to pay for the rail link will be a gross disservice. It will not only adversely affect the environment of everyone living in that part of south-east London but ultimately blight the future development of the peninsula. It will be a case of infrastructure investment not assisting development, as most of us believe it should be doing, but distorting future development and creating a pattern that is incompatible with the sort of development that most of us want to enhance and improve our local environment.

If the Jubilee line station is a problem, the docklands light railway station is an even greater one. We have the supposed announcement of the extension of the docklands light railway accompanied by some interesting figures. The Budget statement announced that a project that was supposed to cost £140 million will now cost £100 million. I grant that the Minister is not responsible for that. It is extraordinary that he is not responsible. It is an amazing comment on transport policy under this Government that the Department of the Environment is now responsible for the docklands light railway. What a way to run a transport system.

The Government are now saying that the scheme will cost only £100 million, rather than £140 million previously estimated. Like many other hon. Members who have been troubled by the failure of the original section of the docklands light railway to provide a reliable and dependable service, I am naturally concerned about the reduction in cost. Is this another example of cheeseparing leading possibly to malfunction and breakdown of the service? So there is a big question there.

It seems likely that the real saving, so far as one can identify it, is from a decision to drop two stations from the docklands light railway extension, respectively at Island Gardens and Greenwich Cutty Sark. I am still waiting for answers to the questions that I put to the Department on this matter. But the only explanation appears to be that the cost is such that the two stations must be dropped. What a way to plan a rail system. Stations that were to provide an important access point to people using the facility must be dropped, supposedly because they cannot be financed.

It is not a question of the scheme not having extremely favourable cost benefit implications. All the financial analysis suggests that it will be one of the most profitable rail investment projects that is feasible. We notice that the Secretary of State for the Environment, in his press release, talked about the great benefits of the scheme. He said that it would help attract tourists to Greenwich. It is astonishing that in the same breath he should be praising the merits of the scheme for bringing tourists to Greenwich when he is proposing to drop the station that would serve tourists who want access to Greenwich town centre. It is nonsense. I am only sorry that the Minister will not be in a position to answer my questions, as the matter is not within his responsibilities.

The people of Greenwich are feeling sore. They will get a glimpse of two quasi-underground services—the Jubilee line and the docklands light railway—apparently without any new stations. What an extraordinary fate and what a way to plan rail infrastructure investment. It has been planned to serve not the public but merely the whims of the market on the basis that, if a private developer does not stump up the money, we cannot have our station. Such thinking is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with transport planning.

This morning, we learnt that the Government plan to sell London's underground. It is typical of the Government that such a decision is announced not in an election manifesto or a ministerial statement to the House but simply in a newspaper report that says that the Government have now decided to sell London Transport. It is a wonderful sense of timing, just after two weeks that must have done everything possible to encourage potential buyers that it is an attractive prospect. In the past two weeks, we have seen the worst chaos of London Transport in memory, with a massive power failure that halted the entire Central line for five days. Apparently, the cable concerned is 70 years old. Yesterday, we were told of the extraordinary experiments being run by London Underground on driverless trains.

The news raises the question about whether the sale is designed to save money rather than improve the quality of the service. But this blinkered vision—I hesitate to say "tunnel vision" because it would be an inappropriate pun —puts all the emphasis on a commercial approach and is typical of the Government. Their policy is sell, sell, sell and, if the thing cannot be made to work, sell it to someone else. It is a deplorable surrender of responsibility. The Government are washing their hands of their responsibility to deliver a proper service to Londoners. It is the product of political dogma seized on by a desperate Government, who have failed lamentably to look after Londoners' transport interests. Incidentally, they have reneged disgracefully on their election pledges to provide desperately needed increased investment in London Underground, a point which the Opposition will continue to make in the months ahead.

We also notice that the Government have abandoned their manifesto pledges on London's buses. The manifesto pledged to deregulate London's buses and I admit that we welcome the abandonment of that pledge. However, it has only a limited advantage because the Government are proceeding with their other ideological predilection—privatisation. We shall therefore see a privatisation exercise involving net cost tendering, which raises questions about the continuation of services in areas where they may not be commercially viable.

We all knew about the problems that would be caused by deregulation—chaos in central areas, excessive interest in profitable routes and, consequently, a great deal of traffic congestion and problems. But one of the problems associated with net cost tendering is the disappearance of many less profitable services in areas where whoever seeks to take on the routes simply cannot run them viably.

The subsidy provision for London Buses in the current year is some 50 per cent. less than it was last year—some £52 million as against £100 million in 1992–93. We do not yet have figures for the revenue support grant for next year. If that downward trend in subsidy continues, a question hangs over whether those unprofitable services can be run in a framework in which the Government are going for net cost tendering. What will happen if a contractor takes on an unviable service, says "We shall try it", and then finds that it cannot make money. If the line does not provide adequate returns, will they say, "We are sorry but we cannot run that service any more"? How will those services be sustained under a privatised framework? I hope that the Minister will answer because we are worried that, following privatisation, the number of services in some parts of London, particularly the south-east where routes are far from profitable, will be seriously reduced.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East asked about the travelcard. I simply endorse her concern that the travelcard must remain available. It is all very well for Ministers to say that they will continue with the travelcard, but can they guarantee that it will continue to be available on the same terms and at the same real cost, without a huge increase in price?

Many of us are concerned that even if a token travelcard continues to be available, a rapid and considerable increase in cost will take away a great deal of its value.

I have spoken mainly about public transport and I shall now turn to vehicular traffic in south-east London, which is causing serious problems. Traffic congestion in south-east London must be among the worst in any part of the capital, as those of us who travel through the hopelessly congested main routes into London and some of the smaller routes which are extensively used as rat runs, know all too well. The consequences of such congestion in terms of atmospheric pollution and the health hazards that flow from it are serious.

It is no coincidence that there is an above-average incidence of asthma, especially among children in south-east London. That together with the figures for the increased emissions of NOx and carbon monoxide and the atmospheric pollution from industrial sources that south-east London unfortunately suffers, constitutes a real health hazard for people there. Against that background, it is worrying that the Government still seem preoccupied with road building and investment in new road infrastructure rather than in improving and extending the public transport network.

Some hon. Members have spoken about the decision to abandon a ridiculous proposal to bulldoze Oxleas wood as part of the east London river crossing scheme. I hope that the Minister will give a categorical assurance that there will be no reappearance of the ill-fated scheme to drive a road anywhere near that part of south-east London which already suffers excessive traffic volumes and atmospheric pollution. The damage that would be caused to parts of Plumstead and the areas around Oxleas wood would be just as unacceptable as the damage to the wood itself.

There is severe congestion at Blackwall, and the Department of Transport is right to look at a third crossing to relieve it. The bridge that the Minister appears to favour has certain cost and speed of construction advantages, but a high-level bridge would have serious environmental consequences. Has a low-level bridge with a facility for it to be opened for ships on the Thames been considered? Would such a bridge be feasible and would not it cause less environmental damage than the current proposal?

More parochially, in the interests of my consituency, what is the possibility of exploring a scheme to divert through traffic from the historic town centre of Greenwich? Everyone who knows the area is aware of its enormous architectural importance and of the damage being caused by the volume of heavy traffic through the area. Progress is being made on a scheme, which I hope the Department of Transport will endorse, for a heavy goods vehicle ban in the town centre. That would be a step forward but to solve the problem we need a proper bypass to keep traffic out of the town centre. Will the Department encourage work reasonably soon at least to study that option?

We have had a wide-ranging and important debate on an issue of enormous concern to all hon. Members who represent south-east London constituencies. The situation is intolerable and the people of south-east London are ill-served by current policies and transport systems. We shall continue to highlight those failures and will press the Government to change their policy in important areas and increase investment in public transport. As concern has been expressed by hon. Members in all parts of the House, I hope that the Minister will deliver some good news and will fight to ensure improved traffic provision and arrangements in south-east London.

2.10 pm
Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West)

May I first apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to other hon. Members? I had intended to be here for the whole debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) on getting not just the Adjournment debate but a particularly elongated version. Unfortunately, my plans this morning went awry as I am sure hon. Members will appreciate. It was nothing to do with British Rail, but I did not get here at the time I expected.

I am grateful for the few moments in which I have been permitted to speak. Obviously, I shall restrict my comments to ground that I feel has not been covered and to which perhaps the Minister could respond. South-east London is particularly prone to problems with Network SouthEast, and people think that hon. Members from that area go on at disproportionate length about it. The reason for that is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) said, that London underground is to all intents and purposes the north London underground. There are, I believe, 14 stations located south of the river out of a total of 260 stations. Apart from New Cross and New Cross Gate, there are none in south-east London at all.

Network SouthEast has been working hard recently to improve its performance, but, as has been made plain, it has had mixed results. It is also working hard on its public relations. I was present at a useful meeting at Bromley town hall with representatives from Bromley, Greenwich, Bexley, Croydon and Lewisham. The Minister's colleague, the Minister for Public Transport, was present and we found the meeting to be extremely useful.

The meeting heard a quite surprising number of relevations about cuts in services or what will, in effect, be cuts in services. Those revelations were made only through that forum, which was an entirely unofficial body. We heard of the problems that making slots available for channel tunnel traffic is likely to cause. We also heard of the details of the franchises that are ultimately to be let for services in the south-east. Will the temporary reductions, or the allegedly temporary reductions, in the normal commuter services for south-east London be made good in the years to come? Ultimately we all hope—if any of us are still alive at the time—that the dedicated link should relieve congestion through south-east London, and then we shall look to those services being returned.

Another area where the pressure for slots is having an effect is the reduction or the almost complete cancellation of the Thameslink service into south-east London. We have been told by Network SouthEast that all the slots are going to the Gatwick-Luton link. While that is perfectly reasonable in itself, I do not see why we in south-east London should lose all our Thameslink services. The service is immensely useful and it is important for south-east London. Why do all the services need to be sacrificed? A reduced service is better than no service at all. I would ask Network SouthEast to reconsider that.

My final points relate to the A205, which is part of the south circular road, for which the Minister's Department took responsibility some years ago. Its performance in charge of that route has been problematic, to put it at its mildest. It is a major route, although that part is little more than a disjointed series of highways and byways. The idea that it can be compared with the north circular road is erroneous. The north circular road has the characteristic of being a route in a way that the south circular does not.

Recent repairs, particularly those at Dulwich common, caused chaos throughout south-east London and not just in the immediate vicinity. People started to re-route their journeys into central London from a long way back. Will the Minister give any assurances on the stewardship of the A205? The red routing of the A205 is under public consultation at the moment and, regardless of people's attitudes, all local authorities are determined to co-operate with the traffic director to ensure that that is as beneficial as possible.

In conclusion, I will raise with the Minister a subject that I have raised before. Perhaps he will be able to say something about it again. It concerns where the Catford town centre relief road stands in the current order of events. There have been at least five different start dates for the scheme. I wonder whether we are still working to the same one that we were the last time the subject was raised. I believe that the start date was in the latter part of this year or the early part of next year. Those are just a few points, and I am grateful to hon. Members for allowing me to make them.

2.14 pm
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)

I have been in this place on and off for about 10 years and I still have not a clue how it works. I came here briefed that my excellent hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennet) and I might have to speak for two and a half hours between us. I now find, after an extraordinarily interesting debate, that I have to make about two and a half hours' worth of replies in about six minutes. I trust that the House will indulge me, therefore. I shall try to cover the major areas and if there are others that I leave untouched, I shall be happy to write to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford for initiating this important debate. He spoke extremely well. It was typical of him that when I went to Bexley recently to look at the problems, at his invitation —I am grateful to Councillor Len Newton and his colleagues for their hospitality to me and my colleagues —my hon. Friend was there with us the entire time. He is absolutely right that it was extremely cold and also that the visit was very useful. I am grateful to him for drawing my attention to the problems of his constituency. I try to get out and about in the city as much as I can. I know it pretty well, as do most hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, but there are always aspects that one needs to know better. I acknowledge the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend): I will say a word or two later about staffing at stations. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), a former transport Minister of great distinction, spoke with authority. The hon. Members for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice) and for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) also spoke.

Let me just say to the hon. Member for Greenwich that I know that his hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) regards having to speak on transport as something of a demotion, and I know that there is a lot of irritation in the shadow Cabinet about the fact that he, and not the Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), whom Conservative Members all desperately miss, is no longer in charge of transport, but I hope that the hon. Member for Greenwich will not feel that he has been dealt too poor a hand by his colleagues. The way in which the Labour party works is pretty labyrinthine and impenetrable, and I do not know what kind of signals it is sending by having him demoted to shadowing me, but it is a personal pleasure to see him. I trust that he will stay on the Opposition Benches shadowing me for many years to come.

Mr. Raynsford

That is an old line.

Mr. Norris

It is a very old line, and all the better for that.

I am glad that there is real all-party agreement about our policy on buses which, I repeat is to proceed with privatisation, net cost tendering and the flexibility of routes. It is all extremely good stuff. Just to reassure Opposition Members, I should say that the prospect of deregulation remains firmly on track, although it may not be until the next Parliament that we engage upon the process.

To the hon. Member for Lewisham, East, let me say that I realise that it is all good knockabout political stuff for Opposition Members to question whether the travelcard will survive. I suppose that if I were in their shoes, I would do the same. It is good irresponsible stuff. There is not the slightest foundation in fact for the Opposition's allegations and there never has been. None the less, this is politics and most of us are over 21—embarrassingly so in my case—and I for one do not object to what is, after all, the stuff of politics.

Let me be serious, though, and say that there never was, and there is not, any threat whatever to the continuation, not just in name but in form and in substance—

Mr. Raynsford

And price?

Mr. Norris

And, indeed, as the hon. Gentleman says, in terms of price.

Mr. Raynsford

In real terms?

Mr. Norris

And in real terms. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me have a copy of the speech that he would like me to make. I said on one occasion in the Chamber that if it did not have such unfortunate antecedents I would ask the House to read my lips. I shall not proceed down that road.

Mr. Raynsford


Mr. Norris

It is a fairly dangerous statement, as the hon. Gentleman says. None the less, this is a serious point.

Frankly, I have rather resented the fact that many people in London have been genuinely troubled by the rather irresponsible nonsense that has emanated from far too many Opposition Members, who have sought to question every aspect just to unsettle all those elderly people who really care about such issues—who have got quite worried because they have heard a Member of Parliament, no less, say, "Perhaps there will not be concessionary fares or a travelcard." Those people may not have the intelligence to read through the pretty obvious political signals. Opposition Members bear a heavy responsibility for taking that sort of approach. Let me make it clear once and for all, beyond peradventure, that there is no threat whatever to the travelcard or concessionary fare arrangements.

As to London Underground, I shall have to skirt over a great deal of what has been said today. The article in the Evening Standard is not so much a statement of policy as a statement of the fact that my dear old friend Dick Murray, transport correspondent of the Evening Standard, was faced with a blank page on a damp Friday morning and had to write something. It is all good stuff, but it is very wide of the mark.

I take this opportunity to make it quite clear that we have no plans, in the short or medium term, for the privatisation of the underground. What we do have is the breadth of vision to recognise that there are three sources that could help to finance the underground—passenger fares, grants from the hard-pressed taxpayer and the involvement of the private sector.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham I welcome the leader in the Evening Standard which—aside from the hyperbole, which sometimes went over the top—said that we ought to ask ourselves questions of this sort. It said, in a characteristically fair way, that the last thing one should do is to deride that approach or attack it on ideological grounds. It is a sensible proposition, so let us look at it.

The important thing that the leader in the Evening Standard said, and which I endorse, is that this is all about improving services to passengers. Passengers are all-important, and we must do nothing unless we are sure that it will deliver benefits to passengers-whether it is moving down the road to more private capital, or more taxpayers capital or doing something on fares.

I have looked at all the industries that have benefited from the introduction of private capital over the past 14 years, and a pretty clear case is made that we should introduce as many of those opportunities as possible. The form of introduction is still very much to be determined. It is too early to speculate on the idea of privatising the underground.

I am sure that all hon. Members are pleased that the Jubilee line extension has been given the go-ahead. As to the question about the North Greenwich station, I understand the point that the hon. Member for Greenwich has made. I think that the hon. Gentleman knows the political background to this—and I use the word "political" with a small "p". British Gas, as the major property holder in the area, is thinking very hard about how to develop the facility there. The Jubilee line scheme will proceed on the basis that the station is constructed—that is to say, the box will be built—and an arrangement will be arrived at with the developer to provide the station facility in due course. It is in everyone's interest that that should be the case. I do not want the hon. Member for Greenwich further to denigrate the economic prospects of his own constituency and to cast further doubt on its economic viability. It is an extraordinary form of community politics to commit suicide on behalf of one's own constituents, as Opposition Members seem to do on many occasions. I will tell the constituents of Greenwich, if the hon. Member for Greenwich will not say it, that they will have a station that will serve them not for five years but for 150 years.

I am glad that the extension of the docklands light railway to Lewisham has been welcomed. It is right that the Department of the Environment is in the lead on this. As any sensible person would expect, I have been kept closely involved with its impact in transport terms. I am not the Minister in charge of the financing arrangements—which is not difficult for me to come to terms with—but I will continue to exercise considerable interest in the transport implications of the project, which is a very exciting one. I am always sad if a good development such as that which brings Lewisham into the city is not welcomed. Thank goodness that at least the hon. Members for Lewisham, West and for Lewisham, East, who should perhaps be able to say a word on the subject, appreciate the scheme.

I am delighted that the Chancellor was able to give the go-ahead to that project, which will be delivered in due course. The eventual mix of stations will be a matter for the private sector to decide in the sensible way expected of it. It is an obvious proposition to put stations where people are likely to board the trains. If one is in the business of selling a service, that seems to be a rather shrewd idea, which is good for passengers and revenue. We have had enough doom and gloom. Both the Jubilee line and the docklands light railway extensions are good news.

I want to talk about the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford and the Kent link line. It is my hon. Friend's debate, and I apologise to him that so much of the debate has involved broader issues. London is receiving a large share of the rail investment—£800 million is being spent on the Kent link modernisation. We should like to spend even more, but we should not forget that in October British Rail announced its intention to operate 41 four-car units on operating leases from ABB, which will mean accelerated replacement of the Kent coast service trains.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, there is currently a problem with the rail service quality in his district. In view of the amount of money being spent, that is genuinely disappointing. I am sorry about that, as I am a great admirer of both British Rail managers and London transport managers who do a hard job, often in difficult circumstances.

I think that the issue raised by the hon. Member for Greenwich on the possibility of building trains with doors that open and shut as required is not a bad one. I am told that the fault has been identified and the staff are working 24 hours a day to correct it. I am sure that people are working seriously to do so, and that the hon. Gentleman would not want to be churlish, but would want to welcome those people's efforts. I am told that all the units should have been adjusted by Christmas. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford mentioned the closure of Charing Cross station during the summer. I think that he will understand that Network SouthEast tried hard to avoid any inconvenience, but it was difficult in the circumstances.

I am glad that there has been a general recognition that the decision on the specific route of the east London river crossing was correct. In answer to a specific question, I wish to make it clear that I remain committed to the concept of improved east London river crossings, and my Department is currently engaged in an extensive study on that subject.

It is exciting and interesting that travelling from Tower bridge towards the east a range of opportunities have arisen for various reasons including the augmentation of the Tower bridge capacity, the tunnel between Tower bridge and Rotherhide, the east London line extension crossing the river, the docklands light railway extension, the third Blackwall crossing, the Woolwich metro possibility and other ways of taking forward the Woolwich crossing. There is also a possibility of a full east London river crossing to the A2, and a truncated east London river crossing. I understand my hon. Friend's reservations about that. There is the possibility of a lower Thames crossing.

The key factor is that all propositions should be put together and evaluated so that we have a clear idea—I am sure that it will be an all-party agreement—about which suggestion should have top priority, and those on which money should not be spent as a priority. I hope that I have shown the complexity of the subject. I took the point raised by the hon. Member for Greenwich about the prospect of a low bridge at Blackwall and the possibility of its opening for occasional river traffic. It was a good point and I will ensure that my staff are aware of it and that they explore the possibility. At the moment, as the hon. Gentlmean knows, the bridge is our preferred option on the basis of cost.

I am sorry not to have a chance to say a great deal about issues such as the Thamesmead spine road in my hon. Friend's constituency—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. I must explain to the Minister that the debate can go on until three o'clock so long as the Adjournment is moved at half-past two. The hon. Gentleman therefore has more time than he probably thinks that he has.

Mr. Norris

It was when you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whispered in my ear that you were keen to get up to the north that I thought that I might never be called again in a debate if I did not let you off at half-past Two, but I thank you very much for your kindness.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.