HC Deb 27 June 1996 vol 280 cc521-32

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

7 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss investment in the Gospel Oak to Barking line. The Minister knows about the line's problems. If he did not know, I am sure that the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) has related his experiences when he visited the line last year. It lived up to its reputation. The train was cancelled and we spent 45 minutes waiting on a cold platform for the next train, which came only because the train going in the opposite direction was stopped short of its destination to come back and pick us up.

The line has enormous potential. It could be part of an outer north London orbital route. It could provide easy journeys between points that are difficult to reach by other forms of public transport. Everyone agrees that it is grossly underused because of the serious reliability problems. No one has suggested that the line is valueless; it could be a useful service. The trouble is that people have been saying that for 20 if not 25 years, but little has changed. I suspect that the service is poorer now than it was 20 or 25 years ago. I will not repeat the graphic description of the line given by hon. Member for Epping as that would be to use unparliamentary language.

The consequences of the lack of investment are felt in the service. In charter period 54, there were 210 cancellations out of 968 services. In charter period 56, there were 284 out of 1,209. In both periods, the cancellation rate was more than 20 per cent. The cancellations are caused mainly by rolling stock and infrastructure failures. I shall discuss that and the investment decisions on them.

The line has had aged rolling stock since the decision in the early 1960s not to electrify. There was a short period when some new diesel units were used but that did not work terribly well. Apart from that, it has always had cast-offs from other lines. As other lines were electrified or improved, the cast-off diesel units went to this line. The present units are more than 30 years old. In the longer term, we will need new, modern, reliable trains.

Some immediate questions need to be considered. The lease on the existing units will soon run out and their failure rates suggest that they may be beyond redemption. I understand that North London Railways is considering using class 141 diesel units, which are cast-offs from west Yorkshire. That may be a short-term answer, but I have some doubts about it. They would need major refurbishment before they could be remotely regarded as reliable. There is no commitment to provide the money for that. Many people feel that they would be unsuitable because they have a smaller capacity. Shortage of space for prams and bicycles is a problem.

Recently, under the Government's cycle challenge scheme, £79,000 was awarded to improve cycle-rail integration on the line. That involved cutting cycle channels on station stairways to allow people to get bicycles on and off trains. The trouble is that Railtrack is being obstructive about reaching agreements on their installation. It is demanding all sorts of guarantees from local authorities and asking them to take responsibility for accidents, compensation and the maintenance of the channels. Those problems are largely the result of Railtrack having to draw up new leases with the various users of the line.

It is likely that some of that £79,000 will not be spent because of the difficulties in getting agreement between local authorities and Railtrack. It would be helpful if the Minister could examine that problem to discover whether anything can be done to resolve it. It is ludicrous that the Government have agreed to spend the money but that it is not being spent.

What are the responsibilities of the rolling stock leasing companies for such lines? Is there a formal requirement for them to supply suitable rolling stock? Are their activities in any way subject to the scrutiny of the Rail Regulator? If not, should that be considered?

There are several hundred bridges and viaducts in a surprisingly short distance on the line, which is largely built on them. The bridge across the River Lea on the edge of my constituency is so weak that two trains cannot be allowed on it at the same time. That problem is compounded by the outdated signalling. Because the signal box at Leytonstone was taken away, there are no signals between Wanstead park and the bridge. If a freight train is sent along the line, it has to be held at Wanstead park until the whole track is clear through to the Lea valley. That causes enormous disruption to passenger services, which run only once every half an hour.

Those long gaps have implications for safety. I am sure that the Minister will recall the crash at Wanstead park in 1995. A freight train had to be held there as there was nowhere else, other than the weak bridge that it had to cross further along the line, for it to be held. As a result of an error at the previous station on the line—Woodgrange park—there was a crash at Wanstead park. If there had been modern signalling or if the there had still been a signal box at Leytonstone, that crash might have been avoided.

If the Minister has travelled on the line, he will be aware of the poor condition of most of the stations: they are run down, there are no indicators and there are no staff most of the time. In 1995–96, under the transport policy and programme system, a joint local authority bid won some welcome money from the Government for station improvements on the line worth £200,000. As a result, Leytonstone station was modernised and about a third of the cost was contributed by Railtrack.

In 1996–97, when the local authorities jointly wanted to continue the work and made another bid, it was rejected. There was no money for 1996–97, although some was granted for bridge repairs under objective 2 European regional development funding. None of that money has come through this year. The local authorities have been told that there will be no more funding until a business plan for the line has been agreed.

What does the Minister expect from that business plan? Does he expect and want private sector money to be used in the business plan? If so, I am concerned. I know that the Government want to bring in private sector money and I do not object in principle to private sector money being added to public sector spending, but if there is to be a plan that demands private sector money I am doubtful about where it will come from. I can think of no major firms or developments near any of the stations that it might be possible to persuade to invest private sector money. I believe that there have been problems on the west London line in attracting the levels of private sector finance that were anticipated.

I hope that we shall not hold up investment in the Gospel Oak to Barking line—thereby stopping money coming in through the TPPs—while we wait for a business plan that proves to be completely unrealistic in its expectations. I am told that Railtrack has some investment plans; it has been suggested that it might be prepared to spend up to £500,000 on one station and significant amounts on other stations, but all that investment seems to be on hold while we wait for the business plan. We need investment now if the line is not to deteriorate further.

Some of my comments have related to the short term and to what can we do to stop the line deteriorating further. Perhaps we need more reliable rolling stock, but if the line is to prosper in the longer term we need to do more. We should not consider it in isolation; we need to consider how it could link to other lines to form an outer north London orbital, which will require electrification and modern trains. That seems to be the only way in which we are likely to achieve a reliable service, with 15-minute intervals between trains, that will attract people to use the line. North London Railways has estimated that it could increase passenger usage by 50 per cent. if the service was reliable, and I suspect that that is an underestimate. Indeed, if we were to link the line with other services and to use more modern trains, that figure would be a gross underestimate.

There is a possibility of investment to provide new stations. In my area, a station at the Baker's Arms at the junction with Lea Bridge road, where there are shops, could be a possibility. I know that other Members with constituencies along the line could suggest other places where new stations and links could usefully be constructed.

It would be helpful if the Minister could give his view on the wider issues. What are the Government's plans for outer north London? We know that the London planning advisory committee still believes that an outer London north orbital route could be useful and that the line could be a useful part of it. It would be helpful to have some encouragement on that. We need to know what the Minister believes can be done to ensure that passengers enjoy something better than they do at present.

Could the regulator be asked to examine what is happening to ensure that Railtrack and the operating companies provide a service? They are certainly not providing a worthwhile service at present. When the Minister considers the issue he should bear in mind that the comments that I have made tonight, that I have seen in writing and that I have heard in speeches over the past year or two have all been made for 20 years or more. People who use the line are getting fed up of hearing the same promises about what might happen in the future. They stop using the line because it does not provide a reliable service and because they do not believe that the necessary investment will be made to provide services.

It is time that we started to take action; otherwise, the line will deteriorate to such an extent that nothing can be done to salvage it. All it needs is for one bridge to collapse in the wrong place and it will be impossible to run services along the length of the line. We should not leave any rail service that could be as useful as this one in that sort of state.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)


Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. I notice that two hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Do they have the permission of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and the Minister to speak?

Mr. Gerrard

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister has been informed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

This is essentially the hon. Member for Walthamstow's debate and contributions to it should complement it.

7.17 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I should not dream of being anything other than complimentary to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), so the suggestion that I would say anything uncomplimentary about him cuts me to the quick and I am sure that it also offends him deeply.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. For the sake of clarification, I should say that by complementary I meant that any further contributions should essentially add to what the hon. Member for Walthamstow has said, and should not be separate speeches.

Mr. Corbyn

I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker—as in milk in coffee.

I welcome this opportunity to contribute to the debate. My hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow and for Barking (Ms Hodge) and I have all lived somewhere near the line for a long time. In previous incarnations as members of relevant local authorities, we have all been involved in campaigning about the line. In 25 years, I have never lived more than half a mile away from the Gospel Oak to Barking line—I was closest when I lived just 10 yards away for some time. The line was not too noisy as there was not much traffic on it. In some ways I wish that it had been noisier as that would have shown that it was more frequently used.

Many of us have been involved in campaigning for the line, and, as the Minister will be aware, over the years there have been many questions and early-day motions about the line. It was a frabjous day when we persuaded the Minister for Transport in London to travel on the line. I could not join him on that day; in some ways I am glad that I did not as I have a copy of the letter that the Barking and Gospel Oak line committee sent to him in February, shortly after his visit. It stated: As passengers stood and shivered on decrepit stations waiting for 35 year old decrepit 'Heritage' trains to finally turn up— suffering delays and cancellations just as you did when you visited the line—they might well have found it hard to believe that they were commuters in the capital of a major industrial country nearly at the end of the 20th Century. It described the line as being run on latter-day Heath Robinson principles. I never saw a copy of the Minister's reply, but I hope that it was full and detailed and that he remembered his freezing hours on stations on the Barking to Gospel Oak line. He has never been back. While the summer is still with us, I invite the Minister for Railways and Roads to travel with us on the line. We will hope that the train does not break down, but if it does we can show him the sights of north and east London.

In this short debate, we should pay tribute to the Barking and Gospel Oak Line Committee, which for many years, with the support of all the local authorities along the line, has worked to keep the issue before the public and to keep pressure on British Rail, Railtrack and Ministers. I also wish to pay tribute to North London Transport 2000 for the work that it has done to keep the line in the public eye, and to the borough councils, especially to Waltham Forest, which has produced an excellent submission for the Department about investment in the line.

Local people and local organisations recognise and value that beautiful line and the role that it could play in reducing road traffic in the area. Local groups do not have attitudes of deep hostility to British Rail or Railtrack: they wish to work with them and with North London Railways for a better and improved service.

A couple of years ago, the line celebrated its centenary. Historic as it is, it presents a fantastic opportunity for the 21st century if we use some imagination. Anyone who has to travel on the line will, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow has pointed out, travel in rolling stock that is at least 30 years old. That interests the trainspotter brigade on Sundays—when there is a Sunday service—but is not good for people who use the line to get to work, because the trains frequently break down and that affects the rest of the service.

The other problem with the line is that the connections are not well thought out. For example, I recently travelled to Sudbury, near Ipswich, to address a pensioners' meeting. I live near the Barking to Gospel Oak line, as I have explained, so I decided to take the line to Barking, board a main-line train to Manningtree and then go on to Sudbury. Had I done it that way, the journey would have taken three and a half hours each way because of the lack of connections. It was quicker to go to Liverpool Street and, tragically, it would probably have been even quicker to have driven there.

A lack of imagination in the timetable is only one of the line's problems. The limited connection at Gospel Oak with the North London line is temporarily closed because of the widening of the tunnel under Hampstead heath. With a bit of imaginative investment in the signalling system, trains could run more frequently on the Barking to Gospel Oak line; through trains could run to Watford, Willesden and round the west London link to Battersea; trains could run directly into King's Cross and Liverpool street; and a whole range of services could be available.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow has rightly drawn attention to the need for investment in the bridges along the line, the rolling stock and the track bed. I suggest that substantial investment in signalling could lead to a massive increase in potential usage of the line.

My constituency contains two of the line's stations. One is Crouch Hill, which is an attractive station with a country station atmosphere. The problem is that when the station is unstaffed early in the morning and late at night, people simply do not feel safe because they may have to wait an hour if a train is cancelled or if they miss the half-hourly connection. The other station, Upper Holloway, is just below a busy main road, which is usually clogged with traffic—today was a classic example—with one person in every car while there are empty rail lines all around. That station is not well kept: it is dirty, damaged and covered in graffiti. People do not feel safe standing on the platform to wait for a train. Staffed stations might cost money initially, but it would be recouped in no time at all because passengers would feel safe using them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow mentioned the possibility of new stations. Islington borough council, with Waltham Forest and others, has consistently argued for new stations on better sites that are better managed all along the line. I feel strongly about the possibility of a new station at Tufnell Park. It would be simple to build and there is plenty of space alongside Junction road about 200 yd from Tufnell Park station on the Northern line of the underground. A connection to the underground would be very valuable, because the Barking to Gospel Oak line has few connections, apart from Blackhorse road, with the underground system.

As well as the safety of stations, we should consider the question of accessibility. Stations have no lifts or escalators and no thought has been given to wheelchair access. Access for someone with a bicycle or carrying children poses the same problems. I recognise that it would take a big programme to make all the stations accessible, but we should start somewhere by converting the stations that would be easy to convert and by ensuring that new stations are completely accessible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow mentioned the need for new trains on the line. The experience of the Barking to Gospel Oak line mirrors that of a country railway in the 1960s. The main line gets diesel trains and electrification and the small country line gets a parade of fantastic steam engines for a few years before it is scrapped. The Barking to Gospel Oak line carries the history of commuter railway trains because they are handed down, as clothes are handed down in a family. Why cannot we have new trains and an electrified line? We should use some imagination, get cars off the roads and get people and freight on to the railways.

I fear that rail privatisation will mean a general lack of investment, interest and concern in the future of the line. Some people believe that the authorities are waiting for a bridge to collapse or a major accident to happen so that they can close the line. It has been suggested that the line should become a light rail line, but I would be cautious about that. It would remove the possibility of using the line for heavy freight, as a freight bypass or as a feeder line for the main-line system.

I invite the Minister to come on a journey along the line while the weather is nice. He will enjoy it and we will show him the sights. He can then put pressure on for real investment to make the line of real value to everybody in north London.

7.28 pm
Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing the debate and I hope that my contribution will complement his. I have an important constituency interest in the line and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for an opportunity to share with the House the intolerable suffering that my constituents and other regular users of the line have to endure. I also have a personal interest because I live near the line, like my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), and my children use the line, when they can, to get to school.

The plight of the Barking to Gospel Oak line was brought to my attention at the turn of the year because my postbag was full of complaints about the poor service. For that reason, on Valentine's day, I led a delegation of local people and user groups to the Department of Transport to present the Minister for Transport in London, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) with some special Valentine cards. The Valentine cards did not—despite his reputation to the contrary—express undying affection for the Minister, for his politics or for his policies. The cards asked him to ensure that passengers had a regular and reliable service. For a Valentine's wish, that was rather restrained. Alas, despite this event and despite my correspondence with the Minister, the future for the line still looks bleak.

The accolade "the misery line" has long been granted to the London-Tilbury-Southend service, which is the other line that runs through Barking—I believe that the Department of Transport has it in for Barking—but the Barking to Gospel Oak line appears to be vying for that undesirable title. For example, in 1995, one in 15 of the trains was cancelled. In December 1995, almost one in five trains was cancelled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow referred to the passenger charter period. In March to April, almost one in four trains was cancelled. I shall compare that with other lines. For example, in the four weeks ending 29 March—a slightly different period—one in 100 trains was cancelled on the Thameslink service, which is another London service.

I am not talking about the odd late train or even one or two cancellations on the Barking to Gospel Oak line; I am talking about a complete and utter breakdown of the service. It is a tragedy; a comedy of errors; a complete farce. It seems that the Barking to Gospel Oak line is being deliberately run down. Why else is the service using 36-year-old diesels? So great is the state of disrepair that the trains are actually rotting. For example, on 5 February, coach No. 51400 had to be closed—while the train was in service—because it developed a hole. Can hon. Members imagine running a train with a coach that is so rotten that it is dangerous? It was probably wise to close the coach, but what a way to run a service. That example clearly demonstrates the lack of investment in, and the downright shoddy state of, the service.

However, the service need not be like this. The line fulfils a vital function, both in its place in the local transport system and in the overall wider London transport infrastructure. In fact, some of the journeys possible on the line by other means could take significantly longer—perhaps up to an hour longer. Alternative ways of reaching certain destinations by public transport could also involve numerous changes between buses and tubes—which could put many people off making their journeys by public transport.

As has already been pointed out, the line feeds into other lines and other routes. The most imaginative scheme was put forward in 1975 by the London rail study group— the same plan detailed the original proposals for Thameslink and cross-rail. The plan suggested linking several routes—including the Gospel Oak to Barking line and the West London line to give a through route from Clapham to Barking. However, despite the low initial set-up costs, the plan never came to fruition.

The same fate befell the proposed electrification of the line in 1955. Frankly, it is unforgivable that the line has been neglected for so long. Despite the neglect and the problems, my constituents continue to use the line—for many, it remains the only means of travel. I refer to Miss Katy Andrews—who does not own a car—who lost her job because the train service between Blackhorse Road and Upper Holloway was so unreliable that she was late for work too often.

I hope that tonight the Minister will take the opportunity to state his views on the status of the Barking to Gospel Oak line. My constituents need answers from the Government. If the Government are truly committed to public transport, they will guarantee the improvements to the service. It is not acceptable for the Government to pass the buck to the operators, North London Railways. The Government must provide direction, commitment and support. North London Railways stated in a letter that I have in my possession: Performance on this route has indeed been extremely poor over the past two months … The rolling stock is … some 35 years old and as such requires a very great deal of attention if it is to maintain anything like an acceptable level of reliability. The letter also confirms that North London Railways is looking to replace the stock in April 1998. That wait is unacceptable to me, to my constituents and to the users of the line. Does the Minister think that it is acceptable?

I must confess that I have learnt that there might be some replacement trains before 1998. However, perhaps I am misleading the House by calling them trains—at best, they are a stop-gap measure. Ten class 141 units— basically a Leyland bus body on a rail chassis—will be making their way on to the Barking to Gospel Oak line at some time in the near future. Far from causing jubilation among the users, my constituents and the user groups who are fighting for the line, many feel that these smaller trains are unsuitable because of the insufficient capacity for peak times. Also, these buses—not train carriages—have no space for prams or bicycles. In addition, the class 141 units appear to require major works mechanically and internally before they are properly fit for use. As I understand it, the owners—the rail stock operating company is Porterbrook Leasing—have not made a commitment to improve the trains without a contract from the train operator.

I believe that to foist these so-called trains on passengers is cruel and unfair, given the plethora of problems that they have already been forced to endure. The use of so-called trains, cobbled together from buses, is symptomatic of the Government's approach to the railways. They do not care that train services are being run down by stealth under the dogma of their privatisation plans. Bus consortiums are winning train contracts and, in the end, it is likely that buses will ferry passengers along the routes once serviced by trains.

What guidance will the Minister be issuing to North London Railways in relation to renewing the rolling stock? Or will he wash his hands of his responsibilities and let the suffering continue? If the Government were truly committed to public transport, it would guarantee improvements to the stations and to the track. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow has already referred to the £200,000 of TTP money that was allocated for improvements for 1995–96. Why has no money been allocated for the current financial year? The Minister sent me a letter in March, in which he stated: A significant feature of the settlement was that it has to be arrived at during a period of severe restraint on public expenditure, with consequential pressure on the available funds … Given the overall funding pressures … we felt that it could not be supported in 1996–97 against competing bids. The Minister must admit that something is wrong. The excuse that these necessary and vital improvements are ignored because the pool is insufficient demonstrates, beyond doubt, the long-term neglect of the Government in relation to investment in essential infrastructure projects. What a dreadful legacy to leave for a future Labour Government.

However, it is not only the stations and the rolling stock that are past their sell-by date and in need of urgent overhaul—rather like the Conservative Government, the tracks and the bridges are falling apart.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. With the greatest respect, it is not the hon. Lady's Adjournment debate but that of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). He has already given the House the benefit of his experience, which was supplemented by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). It is not acceptable that the hon. Lady's speech should run the risk of being longer than the original speech.

Ms Hodge

I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that my speech should not be longer than the original Adjournment speech. I have been keeping my eye on the clock to ensure that I stay within the timeframe and I assure you that I shall do so.

If the Government are serious about their commitment to public transport, the Minister must make a commitment to the long-term future of the line. In a letter to me of 17 May, the hon. Member for Epping Forest said that the franchising director would look at aspects of the long-term replacement of rolling stock when bids were invited for the North London Railway franchise. He assumed that they would be based on an increase in freight traffic. What is the basis of his assumption that there will be an increase in freight traffic?

Tonight's debate has given my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow and other local Members of Parliament like me the opportunity to express the anger and widespread and serious concerns of those who depend on the line to go to work, to visit their families and to travel easily across that part of the capital. The Government have let the line decay, but it must not be allowed to die. If the Minister does not promise specific action in his response tonight, the people who use the Barking-Gospel Oak line will demonstrate their anger through the ballot box. That cannot happen too soon.

7.41 pm
The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts)

I thank the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) for raising on the Floor of the House the issue of investment in the Barking-Gospel Oak line. I am also grateful for the contributions of the hon. Members for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and for Barking (Ms Hodge). I shall accept their kind invitations to visit the line—particularly as I am now aware of its importance in conveying the hon. Lady from her home to her constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) has a pressing engagement out of London, but I could not pass comment on whether there is any connection between that engagement and his recollections of his visit.

The line clearly has other supporters, such as the Gospel Oak to Barking Line Improvement Now Group— which sent the valentine cards to my hon. Friend—and London First. It is also clear that the present state of the line and the reliability of its services worry many people—a good number of whom were prompted to send about 700 valentine cards to my hon. Friend earlier this year. The cards asked for a 15-minute reliable train service every day throughout the year, with a good information system. That sounds a simple request, but the answers are more complex than the question implies.

Services on the line are provided by North London Railways. The line's infrastructure and its rolling stock are extremely old. The route is carried predominantly on viaducts and bridges—I am told that there are 467 bridges between South Tottenham and Woodgrange Park stations alone. The bridges carrying the line over the River Lea require the most urgent attention and currently a speed limit is imposed on all trains travelling over that section of track.

There are also limitations—which have been described tonight—on the line due to old signalling and the lack of intermediate signalling between South Tottenham and Woodgrange Park stations. That means that a train cannot enter that section until the preceding train has left it. The journey time over that section is 19 minutes, and the implications for train frequency are obvious.

The rolling stock comprises first generation two-car diesel multiple units that are more than 30 years old. Although the train operator has increased the number of units available to run the service in an attempt to improve reliability, cancellations occur all too frequently. Further units will become available from the West London line in the next few months, but a longer-term solution is clearly required and a number of proposals are being considered. North London Railways is discussing with rolling stock companies the possibility of using more modern refurbished units, although it is unlikely that they would be available to enter service on the line before the latter half of 1997. However, that may not be a permanent solution to the problem.

Resources have been sought through both the transport policy and programme mechanism and the European regional development fund regime. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, there was a successful bid in 1995–96 which contributed £200,000. It was announced when my hon. Friend visited the line on 15 December 1994. However, as the hon. Lady said, bids for TPP resources are competitive and my Department must make a judgment about which bids offer the best value for money. I am not surprised—in view of my local government background—that local authorities can propose many more good projects on which to base bids than we can afford to fund.

The London borough of Waltham Forest has also submitted bids under the ERDF regime seeking £176,500 for a bridge strengthening programme and a feasibility study. That bid was assessed against both the overall ERDF public transport objectives and the other bids competing for resources. Although the bid was within the "acceptable" category, once again there were insufficient resources available globally to enable the bid to succeed. No further bids have been made.

The Government office for London has advised about the need for a business case or plan that will establish the line's problems and opportunities—I think that the problems are clearly understood and have been described well tonight. It is important to identify also the opportunities that will be a prerequisite for any future investment decisions. The opportunities that the line offers and its potential for connecting services to other parts of the network mentioned during the debate are a helpful start.

So much for the history of the line, but what does the future hold? I do not share Opposition Members' pessimism that privatisation has nothing to contribute—quite the contrary. I believe that privatisation of the railway offers a new future for this line and for other lines where we have successfully franchised services.

As to infrastructure, Railtrack has told us that it believes that the line offers a number of exciting opportunities for future development. Unlike British Rail before it, Railtrack is able to undertake the necessary long-term planning with confidence. Investment decisions about rail infrastructure are no longer prey to the vagaries of the annual public expenditure settlement. The financing of investment programmes has been moved from that environment into the more dynamic environment of private financial markets. Decisions can now be taken on a commercial basis to improve services. I hope that this line will benefit and, in that context, the development of a business plan for the line is important. I shall return to that point in a moment.

As for the train operators, the privatisation process through franchising will also bring benefits for railway users, not just on this line but more widely too. There is for the first time a contractually guaranteed level of train services that will guarantee the future of every line and station on the network. So I think that hon. Members will see, when the franchise is let, that the stations on the line and the continued operation of services over it will be secured contractually by the agreement into which the operator will enter with the franchising director.

The passenger service requirement, which covers areas of particular interest to passengers—the frequency of trains, the stations they serve, journey times, first and last trains and weekend services—is drawn up against the background of an unprecedented amount of consultation with the users of services, with passenger representatives, and with local authorities having an opportunity to comment on the services that they would like operators to provide.

Moreover, many franchisees have committed themselves to providing improvements beyond the specified level—for instance, their contracts with the franchising director have included commitments to provide new or enhanced services and new or refurbished rolling stock. When assessing bids for a franchise, the franchising director is instructed to take account of any offers of contractual improvements to service level or quality that go beyond the specification. Only this week there has been a successful bid for Chiltern, including new rolling stock and the provision of security at 11 major stations. That will make passengers feel more secure, in the way that has been called for. There will be 50 secure cycle ranks at Marylebone station and 250 at other stations on the network, to facilitate rail-cycle journeys. Both on Chiltern and on LTS, new rolling stock has been provided as part of the package, and there has been a proposal for a new station at West Ham by the LTS franchisee.

The Office of Passenger Rail Franchising will shortly be developing the draft passenger service requirement for NLR. It will set out the contractual requirements for the services to be provided. It is clearly important, in following the guidance, that the PSR should be based closely on current service levels, and that the depressed level of patronage that has arisen from the reliability problems should not be taken as the base. I understand from the franchising director that the PSR will be set on the basis of an expected increase in patronage following the completion of the engineering works that currently so adversely affect the operation of this service. Consultation will then take place with the official consultees.

On 11 June, the franchising director invited applications to pre-qualify to receive an invitation to tender for this franchise. The deadline for applications is 12 July. It is expected that an ITT will be issued later this year, and that the franchise will be transferred to a private operator in the early part of 1997.

The question of investment in the line was raised early this year at a meeting of the London consultative committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London. As a result, a meeting is shortly to be held between the Government office for London, representatives of the boroughs, the ALG, London First, Railtrack and North London Railways, to discuss future funding options for the route. It is in that context that a business plan for the line becomes so necessary.

We have told the boroughs and others that both the ERDF bid and the 1996–97 TPP package bid, in highlighting the need for a feasibility study for the line, drew attention to the need to take a hard look at the economic justification for investment. Officials in the Government office will endeavour to play a full and useful part in the development of the business plan and in identifying the means by which it can be funded.

The hon. Member for Islington, North asked about the provision of facilities for cycle users. I shall make further inquiries into the matter and write to him—

Mr. Corbyn

And the disabled.

Mr. Watts

Indeed. I will also copy the letter to other hon. Members who have taken part in the debate.

I have spoken about the line's history and its current problems which reflect the low priority that has been given to this line while in the public sector. I believe that its transformation in the private sector, through the franchising process and because of the successful privatisation of Railtrack, will deliver a brighter future for the Barking to Gospel Oak line. I look forward to arranging a visit at a fairly early date, when I shall be delighted to be shown the problems facing hon. Members' constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Eight o'clock.