HC Deb 26 October 1999 vol 336 cc804-6
12. Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West)

What recent discussions he has had with Railtrack on the movement of freight by rail. [94222]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)

Following the tragic accident at Ladbroke Grove, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and my noble Friend the Minister for Transport have had several discussions with Railtrack, and in this context have also met the freight operators EWS and Freightliner. Previously, on 14 September, the Minister for Transport had a meeting with the chief executive of Railtrack, at which rail freight was briefly discussed.

Dr. Naysmith

I, too, welcome my hon. Friend to the Front Bench—a much merited promotion—and thank him for the information that he has given. Does he agree that, given the increase in rail traffic, especially rail freight, railway land should be retained for railway development? What are the Government doing to promote that idea?

Mr. Hill

I am overwhelmed by the accolade bestowed on me by my hon. Friend, and I entirely agree with the thrust of his remarks. That is why our new draft PPG13, published on 18 October, draws particular attention to the need to protect sites and routes that could be critical in developing infrastructure, so as to widen choices both for passengers and those who dispatch freight. It is also why we have required the shadow Strategic Rail Authority, in managing the British Rail property portfolio, to give priority to transport users.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

I add my congratulations to the Minister on his well deserved elevation to the Front Bench. Will he carefully consider the security aspects of the misuse of freight facilities elsewhere in Europe? He may be aware that when the all-party rail freight group, led by Lord Berkeley, visited freight facilities in northern Italy, members of the group from all parties were shocked at the lack of security. He will certainly know that there is grave concern about the misuse of—welcome—freight facilities for the purpose of illegal immigration. Will he carefully consider the report produced by his noble Friend on the rail freight group visit?

Mr. Hill

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, and I undertake not only to make my own inquiries into the matter, but to write to him with full details of our arrangements in connection with it.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

May I advise the Minister that plans to increase the amount of rail freight travelling through Lincoln's already busy high street is causing considerable concern about how that can best be managed under existing arrangements, because new arrangements need to be made? Can he assist my constituents by looking into a practical solution, so that a useful way forward can be found?

Mr. Hill

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an issue extremely pertinent to her constituency, but heretofore unfamiliar to me. The question she asks is important in the light of the Government's clear commitment to, and outstanding record of, developing rail freight facilities. Opposition Members have been very friendly to me so far, so I do not want to create too much hurt and pain on the Opposition Benches, but I must point out that in 1995–96, under the previous Administration, the total spend on rail freight facilities and rail freight grants was £4 million. In the past two years, under the Labour Government, it has been £29 million and we expect it to increase. Indeed, in recent weeks, the two largest ever rail freight facility grants have been given out by this Government.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

Would the Minister agree that in some areas it is lack of track capacity that is the single biggest factor inhibiting the growth of rail freight, such as on the Nith valley line which takes coal from the Ayrshire coalfield to the English power stations? What pressure will he apply to Railtrack to invest in such facilities?

Mr. Hill

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point and he is right. That is why we have made the development of a rail freight strategy a major priority for the Strategic Rail Authority.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

Would my hon. Friend agree that the success of the Government's proposals for freight and for increased passenger use of the railways may lead to a problem in the medium term in allocating freight slots, especially near my constituency between Southampton north and south, and on the east and west lines from London to the west country? Can he give me an assurance that he is actively encouraging Railtrack to develop new rail facilities for freight, including track and new junctions?

Mr. Hill

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue and drawing our attention specifically to the situation in his locality. He is right. In the past two years, we have seen a 14 per cent. growth in freight tonne/kilometres on our railways, which is a terrific success. However, success does bring its problems and it will be a major responsibility of the Strategic Rail Authority to examine the issues of track capacity and rail freight facilities for the future.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I join those who have welcomed the Minister to the Front Bench. Does he agree that the problem of increasing freight and passengers on the railways is one of capacity and the need to manage safety? I welcome the decision that the Government made in the summer approving the installation as quickly as possible of the train protection warning system, and the outcome of yesterday's safety summit. However, given that collisions such as the one at Southall would not be prevented by the TPWS, what did the Government do when they were first notified about the 25 per cent. increase in serious signals-passed-at-danger incidents in August, which was a dramatic deterioration in safety on the railway by any standards?

Mr. Hill

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations. He raises an important issue, but the answer is that the Government had instituted an inquiry into the increase in signals passed at danger—or SPADs—12 months before the Ladbroke Grove disaster. It is on the basis of the findings of that report that the Government are now engaged in urgent action to address the issue of rail safety.