HC Deb 07 March 2000 vol 345 cc857-8
12. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

If he will make a statement on the results of his inquiry into the safety and maintenance of the Forth rail bridge. [112184]

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

I understand that inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive meet regularly with Railtrack to monitor progress against the agreed maintenance plan. The Health and Safety Executive has also undertaken targeted inspections as part of its routine maintenance programme. Railtrack is working to the plan that it produced to comply with the HSE's improvement notice issued in 1996. The HSE's report of its inspection concluded that the bridge was safe; it has no evidence to suggest that the bridge has deteriorated since its inspection. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) yesterday on the matter, and I shall write to the Scottish Executive shortly.

Mr. Dalyell

But deterioration continues. Given that Wilkie-Hooke, the subcontractor for 13 years, has been forced into receivership—blamelessly, in the opinion of its bank chairman, George Younger—and its experienced, skilful and brave employees have been thrown into unemployment by a puerile row between Railtrack and Rigblast, who will carry out the maintenance and painting of the greatest engineering monument to the experience of the 19th century anywhere in Europe, let alone make it safe for rail services north of the border?

Mr. Hill

I understand my hon. Friend's proper anxiety, but the termination of the maintenance contract for the bridge is a commercial matter for Railtrack and its contractor Rigblast, as is the relationship between Rigblast and its subcontractor, Wilkie-Hooke. They are not matters for Ministers' intervention. The key point is that the bridge is safe and that Railtrack is actively planning a programme of work to complete refurbishment of the bridge.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

As someone who uses it regularly, may I say that the condition of the Forth rail bridge is a national disgrace? Is it not time that somebody told Railtrack to show more expedition than it has demonstrated in the years since the matter was first brought up? Surely it is ultimately up to Ministers to do that.

Mr. Hill

The nation knows that the bridge is an epic structure, which needs to be protected, and that it provides an essential route to the highlands. However, let me try to reassure the hon. Gentleman by saying that, to date, Railtrack has invested £25 million in refurbishing the bridge, on recoating, new floodlighting and repairs to the steel structure. It will shortly appoint a new contractor to complete the work on the walkways, carry out minor steelwork repairs and enable the bridge to be painted.