HC Deb 03 July 1995 vol 263 cc4-6
4. Mr. Robathan

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has to encourage passenger and freight traffic to switch from road to rail. [30119]

Dr. Mawhinney

Privatisation will bring improvements that will make railway passenger and freight services more attractive to customers.

Mr. Robathan

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the past 45 years of the nationalised rail network have been years of decline in which freight has been deterred from using railways and pushed on to roads? Will he urge operators when they come forward to win back the business from the Royal Mail, the newspapers and innumerable other operators who send their freight by road instead of by rail because it has been so inefficient?

Dr. Mawhinney

My hon. Friend is right that, in the past 40 years, there has been a relative decline in the amount of freight moved by train. In 1953, 24 per cent. of goods were moved by train; today the figure is 5 per cent. and falling, but my hon. Friend, and I suspect the whole House, will take encouragement from a survey recently conducted by the rail freight group, which considered current, former and potential rail freight users. It received 83 responses. Two thirds of those who responded expected to increase the use of railways for the moving of freight, and more than half of non-users thought that they were more likely to use rail now than in the past. Those are encouraging statistics and underline the importance of moving the freight railway from the public to the private sector.

Mr. Tyler

Can the Secretary of State clear up a mystery? He will, I think, agree that one of the principal reasons, particularly at this time of year, for trying to reduce the amount of road traffic and to move it on to rail is to reduce atmospheric pollution, especially for the considerable number of asthma sufferers. During the debate on the Environment Bill, the Minister for the Environment and Countryside said that powers were available to the Secretary of State for Transport to reduce the amount of traffic, to reduce speeds and even to close roads where atmospheric pollution had reached a danger point for asthma sufferers. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has such powers, explain how he intends to use them, and tell us what opportunities he would offer to local authorities to use such powers as well?

Dr. Mawhinney

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to road safety regulations, which are very complex—certainly legally complex. I suspect that both of us think that there may be a case for trying to find an easier way through that particular issue, as quickly as possible.

Mr. Sumberg

If my right hon. Friend wants to move freight from road to rail, may I give him a piece of advice from my area? I suggest that he abandons the disastrous M62 relief road, which is causing havoc in my constituency, and where the management by his Department of the houses that it has acquired is little short of disgraceful. Will he abandon that scheme sooner rather than later?

Dr. Mawhinney

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is robust in defending the interests of his constituents, as they and he see them. He will note that a number of alternatives are being explored at the moment. I shall reflect on what he has said as we move forward with those investigations.

Mr. Grocott

If the Secretary of State is serious about transferring freight from road to rail, should he not look urgently at an area of Government policy practised by the Ministry of Defence? At the beginning of the Tory period of Government, no fewer than 40 MOD depots had rail connections to the main line. Half of those connections have since been closed, including the Donington link in my constituency. Is that not a clear illustration of the MOD pursuing an obvious policy of transferring freight from rail to road, and what will the right hon. Gentleman do about it?

Dr. Mawhinney

You will understand, Madam Speaker, that I do not have responsibility for the Ministry of Defence. However, I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are brought to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Waterson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is nothing more likely to discourage a move from road to rail than the annual threat of rail strikes? Does he have any idea whether future rail strikes are likely to have the support of the Opposition Front Bench?

Dr. Mawhinney

I am sure that I am speaking for everyone—at least, all Conservative Members—in saying that any threat of industrial action on the railways cannot be in the interests of the passengers, the industry or those who work on the railways. I should have thought that everyone would have had enough experience of industrial disputes last year to use great caution in the contemplation of similar activities this year—which I sincerely hope will not take place.

Passenger transport in some areas of the country has not recovered from the negative effects of last year's strikes. We need a buoyant, viable rail service that will be attractive to passengers and there is certainly no way in which industrial disputes are likely to aid that process.

Mr. Meacher

We certainly hope that the right hon. Gentleman has learnt his lessons from what happened last year. What is the point of him launching a great debate on transport when there is to be no action at the end of it? How does he expect to achieve a major switch from road to rail when last year, for the first time since the war, there were no orders for new rolling stock, because of privatisation? Investment in the rail network as a whole plummeted by a third in one year to its lowest level for the past 50 years. When will the right hon. Gentleman realise that he is fast becoming the eunuch of the transport world—all talk and no follow through?—[Laughter.]

Dr. Mawhinney

I am sorry, Madam Speaker; I know that I am not supposed to laugh out loud at the hon. Gentleman, but it is too great a temptation.

First, I did learn a lesson from last year's strikes—that if there is a strike in the public sector, we can always expect the Labour party to row in behind it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will think very carefully before he repeats the foolish support that Labour Members gave to that damaging industrial dispute last year.

Secondly, unlike the hon. Gentleman, virtually everyone else in the country—those who take transport seriously—has welcomed the debate. Indeed, I had the opportunity to talk to 700 people at the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford just a couple of weeks ago. I was told that, apart from graduation ceremonies, it was the largest event at the university in the whole of the academic year. People came together to study, debate, discuss and explore the possibilities of transport policy and transport strategy through to the next century.

We know that the hon. Gentleman does not have a policy—he does not have one on railways, on roads or on aviation—so we understand his embarrassment. We are happy for him to continue to sit on the Labour Front Bench and make his rather silly remarks while the rest of us get on with developing a transport policy for the next century.