HL Deb 03 May 1989 vol 507 cc222-44

7.50 p.m.

Earl Russell rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether their projected expenditure on transport in London represents value for money.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I should not be honest if I said that I had not intended to be topical in introducing this subject. However, I had not expected to be quite so topical. The subject has become more topical since being tabled not only because of what is on our minds today but because of the report of the CBI task force on transport in London. It is an important report and I hope to hear that the Government will be giving it their closest attention.

The figures given in the report as the cost of congestion to business are very serious indeed. For example, it is costing Sainsbury's £ 3–4 million a year and British Telecom £7–25 million a year. It appears that the CBI is well aware that the topics of the two debates today are connected. When it thinks about the challenge of 1992 it does not think only about the level of taxation but also about whether business will be able to move its goods around. That is just as important.

I do not believe anyone will deny that transport in London is in a mess. There appears to be only one part of the whole system which is working. As many noble Lords know, that is the London licensed taxi service which is of very high quality. It appears however that that is the one service which the Government are proposing to reorganise—because it does not fit their philosophy. I hope that in his reply the noble Lord will be able to say that when Mr. Portillo denied that the Government intend to abolish the requirement of the "knowledge" for taxi drivers his statement represented government policy.

When one looks at urban public transport one finds a basic difference between the countries where the houses arrived before the cars and those where the cars arrived before the houses. It is only in the second category that major transport from commuter towns by road is a serious possibility. That is a line which splits New York from Los Angeles. There is no doubt on which side of the line London lies.

In London we have an established street plan, famous public buildings and many structures that we have no wish to tear down. We cannot force a major road transport system in the Los Angeles style through the middle of London buildings. That means that we must depend on what was once the best underground transport system in the world.

If your Lordships look at Mr. Khrushchev's memoirs you will find that one of the photographs of which he was most proud was that showing him standing on the escalator at Piccadilly Circus station. It was the London system that Mr. Khrushchev picked out as being the best to be copied when he introduced a similar system in Moscow. I doubt whether, when the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, welcomed Mr. Gorbachev at Heathrow airport, he asked whether the Russsian leader would like to see the beauties of our Underground system. He would have been most unwise to make any such suggestion. The system has been shamefully run down. We are learning, as we watch it, that Thatcherite philosophy, in the literal sense, is that good old American phrase: "No way to run a railway".

The key objective of those in London Regional Transport is to reduce unit costs by 2.5 per cent. per annum. That has a sickening familiarity to anyone anywhere in the public services. However, this year, the objective has not been achieved. Unit costs have risen because of attempts to implement the Fennell Report. I welcome those attempts but the figure underlines the basic point that cost cutting and safety are capable of conflicting. They concern themselves with efficiency; and they define efficiency most explicitly as "cost cutting". The statement of strategy talks about increasing efficiency and limiting the requirement for support from the Government. The aim is to reduce and ultimately to eliminate the regular operating subsidy. When one looks at the cost cutting that aim shows.

Recently we dealt with the London Regional Transport (Penalty Fares) Bill concerning people who travel without tickets. I call your Lordships to witness—and I hope that I am not using the phrase literally—that there are many times when I do my level best to buy a ticket but am unable to do so. The machine will not give change or it is jammed; there is no one in the office to sell it; and there is no one at the other end to take my money. When one tries to buy a ticket on the London Underground system one must reflect that the characteristic picture of the late 1980s is of unemployment and understaffing both at once.

I could go on for a long time about such things but I shall mention only the closure of public conveniences on the London Underground. It is a subject about which I feel very strongly. It is a classic case of the distinction between the mere profit-making business and a service. It was once my misfortune to be at Piccadilly Circus station at midnight on a Saturday. I discovered that the nearest public convenience which was open was about a mile way. Any antipodean coming to look for the hub of the Empire would have supposed that he had found its bowels—and you could smell it! That really is not the kind of service which attracts passengers.

The charging at the point of use in particular is another regular piece of government philosophy. London Transport's present annual report shows that it has deterred passengers; there has been a fall in the expected level of ridership. So, on the one hand, we have the best system in the world being run down. On the other hand, when it comes to roads there is a completely different philosophy. I know I must learn that I should no longer say, "spending money like water". Like the newspapers I must learn to say instead, "spending money like water authorities". Their effusions many of your Lordships will recently have read.

It is difficult to give a figure for the cost of the London assessment studies because we are looking at a long series of options. We do not know which option will be chosen and therefore cannot say what it will cost. Whichever options are chosen, the costs, compared with £48 million or so saved from the operating subsidy on the Underground, will be very considerable. In the Independent I saw a total figure for the assessment studies as high as £3.5 billion. That surprises me but I shall be glad if in reply the Minister can deny that figure.

Not only are the studies expensive and an indication of profligate readiness to waste public money; they are also done by a method which is seriously flawed. Each study, the West London assessment and those for South London and the East, are being done in a separate little box without reference to anything else. In the case of the western environmental improvement route—a case of newspeak if ever I heard it—the map at the beginning of the report shows what is claimed to be the whole area affected by the plan. I find that impossible to believe. One end of the projected route merges into the Westway; so it is not to be imagined that it will not increase the volume of traffic coming on to the Westway. I am very familiar with what happens there. The Westway is like a great cannon firing projectiles into the centre of London. When the traffic reaches the Marylebone Road and the Euston Road it stays there. That is the problem with local road schemes. I sometimes wonder whether the road section of the Department of Transport is a training school for service with the Flying Dutchman because it simply does not consider what happens to people when they reach the end of the road. Nor does it seem to consider the possibility which all recent research seems to sustain; that is, that roads generate traffic.

In my own case—I plead guilty to using roads where they are made available—I have found that the opening of the M.25 means that I make the journey from West London to Cambridge by car instead of train. That sort of decision may be repeated many times over. Therefore, when we open a new road the volume of traffic goes up until the speed of the traffic goes down again and back to the sub-saturation point at which it started. Therefore, all we do is divert traffic from rail to road. We run things down further.

Such schemes also involve a considerable disruption of housing. Again, I cannot put a figure on this, but houses in London do not seem to me to be something of which we have an over-plentiful supply. I should like to know whether the Secretary of State has consulted his noble friend Lord Caithness who is at present engaged in a study of homelessness. If "trickle down" works in one place, it will work in another. If one displaces people from homes, they must go somewhere else. When they go somewhere else, they must displace someone else, until at the bottom someone is left homeless. Is that either the way to save public money or a humane or efficient way to run London?

There is also a major problem with blight. One cannot be compensated for an option. Therefore, we have very large numbers of homes under blight. Again, I have listened to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, talking about the vital importance of bringing more housing onto the market. That was his central objective in the Housing Bill. I believe that here we have a case of the Government not letting their left hand know what their right hand is doing. I believe that they should get their act together rather more.

I recall, when the Westway was first opened, the television shot of what it was like to live in the houses there. I thought then that we had reached the point where we could say that never again would a major urban road on that scale be opened. However, political memories may be short. If people do not remember the outcry which that created, it may be that we shall have to live through it again.

I do not wish to say that I am against all road building. In particular as regards the South Circular assessment, there may be a case for some of the minor schemes. There is a case for more trains on the Underground and for more lines. They should not be built on a policy of no braces, with no possible means of support. Money will be needed. The CBI is clearly right. There must be cohesion between road, rail and Underground. Above all, we must look at London as a single unit. Among many other suggestions we should consider the CBI's suggestions for park and ride facilities at outer London stations and better use of the river. There are plenty of constructive ideas. I hope that the Government will get together with the CBI to discuss them and that when they do the Government will remember that London is a single unit and that you cannot have something for nothing.

8.6 p.m.

Lord McNair

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Russell couched his Question in fashionably monetarist terms and it seemed to me that he answered it in the negative. I am going to suggest that the answer was and is bound to be: no. That is because so much of the Government's transport policy is based on a vision in which I believe there is at least one colossal blind spot. Surely we must assume that there is some basic ingredient in this apparently insoluble problem which no governments have yet identified. I am speaking only for myself and I am not making any party points. No governments in the past 50 years have got to grips with this problem and that is roughly how old the problem is.

Let us consider a medical analogy. If a developing country suffered from an inexorably rising death rate from cholera and if the government had been repeatedly urging the populace to wash food before eating and to wash their hands before cooking and all to no avail with no improvement, how long would it be before a bright scientist pointed an accusing finger at the water itself? The Government would then attend to the drains and the purity of the water supply and the problem would quickly be solved.

However, our traffic problem will not be so easily solved. On the other hand, it will not be solved at all until we have eliminated or illuminated that blind spot in our collective thinking. In order to grasp what is that blind spot I shall have to ask your Lordships to make a rather difficult intellectual somersault—perhaps almost a quantum leap in our thinking. We have to accept and act on the axiom that the car is the enemy. It is a deadly and implacable enemy. It is not, can never be and only pretends to want to be user friendly. It induces a form of arteriosclerosis in what the French call the circulation of our capital and our other major cities, and that is spreading outwards. One of these days, sooner rather than later, it will reduce the circulation in the capital to a state of total immobilty. Taxi drivers who should know openly talk about that imminent possibility. I suspect that the police are uneasily aware of that. But is the Department of Transport?

It may help us to digest that essential truth that the car is the enemy if we give it a capital letter and personify it or deify it like Mammon or Moloch. The Canaanites used to sacrifice children to Moloch. To the Car, we have already sacrificed heaven knows how many thousands of our green acres which have vanished under tarmac and concrete, either to make roads or car-parks. To it also we sacrifice the fresh air we used to breathe and the atmosphere above us which it pollutes, to say nothing of the beauty of our towns, villages and countryside which it hideously disfigures. To top up this hecatomb perhaps one ought to remember the 5,000 or so people—men, women and children—who are killed every year by motor vehicles.

It may help if we try to regard this enemy, the motor vehicle, as an alien force determined to take over the human race. Just as unfortunate people in the New Testament were possessed by devils, we are perhaps possessed by motor cars. If that sounds fanciful or exaggerated, I ask your Lordships to consider the following facts which I gleaned from a perusal of the Daily Mail of 4th April. The newspaper conducted a poll. Of young men under 25 on whom, God help us, our future depends, 43 per cent. admitted that they cared more about the model parked in the drive than about the lady in their life. A higher number—54 per cent.—claimed that their success rate with women, whatever that means, depended first on the car.

Worse is to come. In case your Lordships are apt to dismiss these findings as evidence of male chauvinism at its most deplorable, I am afraid I have to advise you further that 60 per cent. of women—yes, 60 per cent.—told the Daily Mail that a man's sex appeal depends first upon his car, followed in descending order of magnetism by his social status, his wealth, his success and, last of all, his appearance. What clearer evidence could one possibly ask for of demonic possession? This thing has wormed its way into our very instincts.

First, you must know your enemy and identify it. Secondly, you must beware of under-estimating it. This enemy is powerful, subtle and unappeasable. Its power depends to no small extent on the formidable coalition of quisling forces which it has recruited to support its attack. The motor manufacturers are, of course, the arch villains but there are also the car workers' unions, the distributors, the oil companies, the motoring organisations, the hire-purchase companies and other debt pushers, and above all the advertisers—a fearful array to which I hope we do not need to add the Department of Transport.

The subtlety of this enemy lies principally in making itself indispensable and here governments are surely culpable. From Beeching to the deregulation of the buses we have seen a policy of craven appeasement. As I said, this monster cannot be appeased. Unlike the relatively modest Hitler who constantly assured us that he had no further territorial ambitions, road traffic expands to occupy the roads available. A dentist once explained to me apologetically that in my case he was reduced to patching patched patches. In the matter of roads we are already by-passing by-passed by-passes. We never learn.

To our shame our resistance to the enemy's attack has been the feeblest in Western Europe. I gather information only from the most impeccable sources and I am indebted to the CBI report to which my noble friend has already referred for the following information. We have nearly twice as many vehicles per motorway kilometre as the average for Italy, France, West Germany and Belgium. Per kilometre of trunk road we have two and a half times as many vehicles as their average. From those figures the CBI draws the classic appeaser's conclusion that we need more roads. On the contrary, we need fewer cars.

How does one achieve that? It will take a far cleverer person than I to answer that question, but I think I can make one fairly confident prediction. The answers, when they are found, will be politically highly inexpedient. Therefore, they are unlikely to be proposed, let alone enacted, except by consensus—and that is rapidly becoming one of those words you must not use on the telly before nine o'clock.

However, there are some things which any government worthy of the name could do at once. We used to have a differential road fund licence according to the size of the car. The manufacturers did not like it so the Government dropped it—an early quisling victory. Could we not look at that again? The next best thing to having fewer cars is to have smaller cars. If we could reduce the average length of vehicles by 10 per cent., I have calculated that a 10-mile tailback on a motorway could accommodate 2,500 extra vehicles per lane of traffic. It would not get rid of them but at least they would not be anywhere else, if your Lordships see what I mean.

Might we not also consider a progressively higher rate of road fund tax on a family's second, third and subsequent cars, perhaps even encouraging people to scrape by with only one car by reducing the tax on the first. I would go further and pay a substantial tax credit to the no-car family. Road pricing is already under consideration. No doubt it will come but it will have the usual effect of making life more enjoyable for the rich and nastier for the poor.

More encouragement, with government money, should be given for park-and-ride schemes. That is an obvious measure. So are better and more affordable trains, carrying more freight as well as more people, and the greater use of inland waterways and coastal shipping. All those measures are obvious but certainly not enough. It will take more than those measures to turn the tide against this enemy, but it is essential that we should start fighting back. We need some slogans: "Four wheels bad, two wheels better"; "Is your car really necessary?"; or perhaps, borrowing from Roman history, "delenda est" Cortina.

I have nearly finished but to claim some relevance to the Question on the Order Paper I must metropolitanise the closing part of my speech. It was this western environmental improvement route, referred to by my noble friend, which quickened my interest in this gloomy subject. It was the name which first struck me. One feels that poor George Orwell might just as well not have bothered writing 1984 if bureaucrats can still coin such egregious euphemisms as "western environmental improvement route". If it is ever built, which God forbid, what will it actually do? For a short time it will enable motorists to drive flat out from a traffic jam near Olympia to another one on the Embankment. After a short time of course, like the M.25, it will become a traffic jam in its own right. Meanwhile, while theoretically and dubiously improving the environment for some people, it will render life virtually unlivable for a lot of other people, keeping them awake at night with its noise, belching its fumes in through their windows and blighting the value of their properties. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will be able to assure us that this crazy scheme is dead. If not, we would like to know what stage it has reached in its gestation and when we may hope to hear more.

8.20 p.m.

Lord Mountevans

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for raising this topic albeit only as a trailer for the much wider debate that we shall be having in three weeks' time. I notice that we have a transport debate, a transport issue, or a transport topic every Wednesday both today, next Wednesday, the Wednesday after; and the noble Lord, Lord Underbill's debate is the icing on the cake towards the end of the month. By that time I believe that we shall all need a recess because we shall have become as tired of transport as of water and electricity.

This is a wide question concerning projected expenditure. One notices that the Question refers to the Government's projected expenditure on transport in London and whether it represents value for money. I was surprised that the words "Her Majesty's Government" were put in here because there is a great deal of investment taking place in transport in London which is not investment by Her Majesty's Government. For example, there is the Heathrow rail link proposal that is before your Lordships' House at the moment; the new Thames crossing in East London and the Docklands airport. There is also the Docklands Light Railway itself besides the London—Cheriton rail link to the Channel Tunnel. All these projects are relevant but they are not Her Majesty's Government's projected expenditure.

Having made that point, perhaps I may simply and briefly say that projected expenditure is running at more than £ 1 million a day for London Transport alone. I believe there is a similar figure as regards Network South-East. There is a considerable figure being spent on roads. There is a great deal of investment going on, but is it value for money? I wish to look at the question of public transport and the rail side of it. I believe that as regards British Rail and the Underground investment in safety is always value for money because safety must be paramount. That was brought out not only by Mr. Fennell in his report on the King's Cross disaster, but it is brought out with great regularity by the chairmen of British Airways, British Midland and British Rail.

We tend to take safety for granted particularly in a public transport context. Five people were killed in a railway accident at Purley and you would have had to be on Mars to escape the press coverage that followed the next week. Three days before the Purley accident six people were killed in a head-on collision in Northumberland. You would have to be very acute to notice that in the media. I make that point because I believe that we take our public transport safety absolutely for granted. I believe that safety should be paramount and we are entitled to take it for granted.

The noble Earl mentioned the CBI study, and I mentioned it myself in an earlier transport debate concerning the Southampton light rail proposal. I believe that investment in avoiding congestion must always represent value for money. As the CBI study states, if congestion costs £15 million per annum or, as it says, £10 per household per week, then any investment, be it by Her Majesty's Government or private investment in public transport, will represent value for money. One also has investment in convenience and reliability in public transport. That must always be value for money, too. We all have our little nitty gritties concerning London Transport and British Rail. The barriers that London Transport are bringing in are a bête noire of mine.

Earlier on I mentioned safety and I do not believe that these barriers are safe. In fact London Transport has now admitted that if they fail they do not necessarily fail safe which is a base premise of all transport safety systems. If they fail they fail safe, as the saying is. At the end of the day investment in public transport whether by Her Majesty's Government or through private funding, must be justified because it is targeted and it meets a need. That is a topic that I hope to return to during the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, in three weeks' time. It must contribute not to the parochial well-being, but to the national well-being. Although the noble Earl's Question mentions London, transport in London and in the South-East is no longer a parochial issue because it is a national one. Any investment must make a contribution to the national well-being.

In the old days we talked about arterial roads, but as the noble Lord, Lord McNair, reminded us, nowadays all transport infrastructure is arterial and that is essential to the well-being of the country, be it the roads, the railways, the Underground, the buses or, as he mentioned, the coastal shipping. Provided that Her Majesty's Government's investment in London Transport contributes to the national well-being, then I feel that it does offer value for money.

8.26 p.m.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, I do not intend to say anything about the wider problem of transport in London, though I absolutely accept what was said by the noble Earl in opening this debate that it is all one problem and it has to be looked at at some point as a general problem. I wish to speak about the Underground. But before doing that, I say only this about buses. London Transport is determined that buses can only be run through London in convoys with large gaps between a convoy of five or six buses of the same route number. London Transport maintains that it is impossible to stop that. It is possible to stop it, but it is difficult.

During the war I had some little responsibility for transport. We were told then that it was impossible to prevent it from bunching. I may say that the first time that transport was machine-gunned from the air it very quickly learnt to avoid bunching. I am not recommending that cure at the moment, but it can be done. The other point that I wish to support very strongly was made by my noble friend Lord McNair. He said that you should tax larger and more powerful cars at a heavier rate than small ones. That does not suit the manufacturers but it would make sense in this country.

I have been travelling on the District Line for 35 years on most week days when Parliament is sitting. I am a very loyal supporter of that line and it is very much the same District Line from the direction of Ealing and Richmond. I am sorry to say that it has deteriorated in that time. The stations are dirtier, the management is more slovenly and what is particularly striking is that clearly the employees are much less happy. Very often today there is no one to take the tickets. There was no one at my station this morning to take the tickets. If there is someone he is usually reading a newspaper or sometimes eating his lunch. I agree that it is a very boring job, but when I first started to travel on that line the staff were very cheerful, they were apparently contented with their work and did a very good job. That situation has deteriorated.

At the station I use there used to be gates. They were extremely badly designed and anyone rather more athletic than I could actually vault over them and did. Those gates have gone and a considerable amount of money has been spent. In other parts of London a new and slightly better design of gate has been introduced. But I wonder if they will work. My impression is that at the moment they are not working partly because there is a gate open at the side through which people pour and partly because no one seems to know how one is supposed to operate them and whether one is supposed to go through them both coming and going. I suggest that the Government might jerk up London Transport and ask if these gates really are an improvement and how they are supposed to be operated.

It will also be extremely interesting to know what they cost. What is very noticeable is that apparently very little money is available for repairs or even a lick of paint, but new operations are carried out. At the station I am using now there has obviously been a large expenditure of money in the past three or four years. About a fortnight ago I asked how much it was, but I have not yet heard. The platforms have been resurfaced which was largely unnecessary, and the ticket office has been moved. The benefit to the traveller is very little, if any. But it will be interesting to know why it was done and how much it cost. When repairs are carried out they take an unbelievable time. I am told that the installation of the new escalator at Holland Park station took longer than it did to build the whole Central Line. In the days of picks, and shovels and horses it took less time to build the Central Line than it has taken to reinstall the escalators at Holland Park. I have asked London Underground how long Gloucester Road station on the Piccadilly Line has been out of action. I have not yet heard. It has been out of action certainly for a year or two. Two weeks ago one of the escalators at Green Park station was out of action. I went through the station five days later and it was still out of action. The trouble appeared to be only a broken tread. Surely in these days of technological revolution London Underground could mend a broken tread in under four or five days.

We constantly have announcements about the failure of trains to arrive. The announcements are usually couched in the form that trains are running late. Such an expression could only be dreamt up by someone who does not use the Underground. No one goes for a specific train on the Underground. What we want to know is whether the trains are running at all and when they are likely to come.

Far more important than improvements to the machinery, which no doubt are important, is the morale of the staff. In my view that it what has deteriorated. It has deteriorated because, as anyone who travels on the system can see, the Underground is badly managed. One can tell at once whether a regiment or a shop is well or badly managed. Clearly the management of the Underground leaves a good deal to be criticised. Important though safety is—and it is very important—I very much hope that it will not divert effort from improving the management.

Why is the management so bad? One reason is that the management never travels on the Underground. Some years ago I was given lunch by the then directors of London Transport. Most of lunch was spent inveighing against the private motorist. My noble friend Lord McNair will approve of that. I went around the table and asked the top brass how they had arrived at their offices that morning. In every single case the directors had arrived in chauffeur-driven cars as the only passengers in those cars. One of the problems of the Underground is that the directors do not travel on it. Incidentally, in 35 years I have never seen a Minister of the Crown on the Underground, and so naturally as it does not affect them they do not know what goes on below the stairs.

In this kind of business it is the loyalty, keenness and enthusiasm of the staff that counts above all else. It is not at all clear for what purpose and how the Underground is supposed to be run. In this respect I follow what was said by my noble friend Lord Russell. Is its prime and only aim to make money? There is complete confusion spread by the Government as to what its aim should be. If it is a service, we must learn from successful services. The armed services are extremely successful. The Post Office was extremely successful. The Government should lay down quite clearly that this is a service. It cannot be run as a competitive business.

It is useless to say that competition can be introduced into most of the transport systems of London. If we are agreed on that point we need a fairly senior officer from one of the armed services, not a retired officer—the bane of this country is finding jobs for people who have retired—but a man of the rank of major-general who is used to leading men and to man management and to running a service. That is the attitude we need on the Underground. It is missing. Such a man might well be an engineer.

I am amazed at the time repairs take. For example, the bridge at Inverness is still down. During the war engineers would have replaced that bridge probably overnight and certainly within a week. Motivation and leadership are missing. That is my main recommendation for what the Government should do about the Underground. It cannot be said that there is not a demand. I travel on the Underground at all times of the day and sometimes at night and it is always full of people. There is no lack of customers.

We do not know what is spent on it and how the money is used. There is plenty of demand but a lack of management and leadership, and certainly a lack of any overall view about the future of London transport. The sooner we make clear how and why the system is to be run—for the service of the public and not as a commercial operation—the better. When we have that clear we will be able to recruit someone who will restore morale to the Underground. This will do an immense amount of good not only for those who work on it but above all for the passengers who have to use it.

8.35 p.m.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and to my noble friend the Minister for intervening in this debate at a late hour without giving notice. However, I believe that this is an important issue, notwithstanding the substantive Motion which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has tabled for debate in a fortnight's time.

I declare an interest. I have travelled on the London Underground since the mid-1940s, both on the District Line, as has the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, and on other lines. I must say at once that, bearing in mind that London Underground carries even in off-peak periods 30 million or 40 million people a year, and during the tourist season probably double that number, it is on the whole a very good service. That is due primarily to the drivers and other staff who give this service. I must agree to a large extent with the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, and others that the management must to a certain extent be called into question.

I have travelled into King's Cross Underground station both before the terrible tragedy and on one or two occasions since then. I travel on the Underground sometimes late at night. Green Park, a busy station, has been mentioned. All too often nobody is at hand to help. We have to bear in mind that this country depends on tourism. Many tourists come here with a limited knowledge of English, and they need help. Westminster station is busy at all times of the year. In one month's time the tourist season will be at its height.

I do not dispute the need for ticket barriers. Other countries use them but there are innumerable problems. People from overseas and even from this country have problems with the barriers. They do not know where to insert their tickets. At Westminster station the other day I put my ticket in the correct slot but nothing happened. Fortunately, second time round, something did, but one must put oneself in the position of a tourist. There are real problems in this respect. Are the ticket barriers financially viable? Are we getting value from them or could the same amount of money be better used for improving the platforms and recruiting more platform staff?

The idea of the ticket barriers is to prevent people defrauding London Underground. None of us wants to see that. However, I believe that those barriers are causing problems, especially to disabled people and people with luggage. Of course I know that there is a separate entrance for people with luggage, but not everyone is as intelligent and as far-seeing as are members of this House and those of another place. We have people on the Underground who do not live in London. They may come from Scotland and Wales and they are not accustomed to using the Underground. Those are very real problems which I believe the Government must consider.

I turn now to the Southern Region. I travel through Clapham Junction station at least 10 times a week from my home in Surrey to your Lordships' House or to London on business. The safety record on British Rail and on London Regional Transport is unique; indeed, it is an excellent record despite the recent tragedies. But we have the problem of delays. Sometimes we are given information as to the cause of the delay, especially in the trains which have intercommunication systems. But all too often a train can be held up outside, say, Wimbledon Station or perhaps Clapham Junction station and no information is given. I wonder how much business is lost and how many export orders are lost as a result of such delays.

I believe that safety is paramount and if there is a signal failure then we must accept that fact. However, all too often too little information is given. I believe that the noble Earl has done a great service by tabling this Question at a particularly appropriate time. No one knows what will happen in a few days' time regarding London Underground. Nevertheless, I must say that despite all the criticisms which we advanced about transport in the London area, and bearing in mind the number of passengers carried, I believe that the safety and punctuality record is on the whole a very good one.

However, we must look to the future. Each year more and more tourists are visiting this country. The latter brings me briefly to the question of roads. I live within a mile of Junction 9 of the M.25 motorway. Noble Lords who use the Heathrow-Staines end of that road will know what horrendous delays there are at that point. Again, I wonder how much time is wasted and how many export orders are lost as a result. I still earn part of my living working in the City of London. Therefore I am acutely conscious of the time lost in connection with business orders which can count so much towards the economy of this country. I ask my noble friend the Minister to look at the whole question of the M.25 motorway.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord McNair, mentioned the question of public conveniences, both on the Underground stations and on the motorways. I believe that that is a very vital matter. I say that because the M.25 is 100 miles long. Further, how many Underground stations have such facilities? I know that the excuse for the lack of such facilities is the risk of vandalism and all the other problems; but the facilities are necessary.

Finally, I believe that if we are to have a really efficient transport system in London—indeed, I think compared with many other countries we already have a good transport system—we must direct our attention to the essential facilities which in so many cases now are sadly lacking.

8.44 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, as indeed are other noble Lords, for putting down this Question. I shall endeavour to deal specifically with some of the present, or proposed, items of expenditure. I shall do my very best not to stray on to the general problem of transport and management of transport in London because, as has already been mentioned, I shall be opening a wide debate on such problems on 24th May.

Perhaps I may say at the outset that we are dealing here with the whole question of expenditure in London, but our thoughts often stray to LRT. Since LRT was removed from local government and nationalised—yes, nationalised—under the Department of Transport and the Secretary of State, the emphasis has been on cost cutting and savings, so much so that Sir David Mitchell, MP, when he was Transport Minister, said in January 1986: Cost cutting is the key to LRT's success". We welcome the fact that there is increased passenger use of the Underground and of buses. But, at a time when passenger use is increasing, there are also widespread complaints of overcrowding and congestion. Indeed, that fact is admitted by the chairman of LRT in his introduction to the business plan of 1989–90.

This is the time when consideration must be given to tackling London's transport infrastructure. Transport in London, a publication published by the Department of Transport with a foreword by the Secretary of State, reminds us that 700,000 commuters travel into London daily to work. But, in addition, over 40 million people a year visit London for the day and more than 20 million make an overnight stay in the city. On page 11 of that document we find that, The Government's aim has been to improve quality, provide for increasing investment and move more of the cost from taxpayers to users". I shall return to that aspect later. I must remind noble Lords on the question of revenue support that the taxpayer pays one-third of the grant and ratepayers, through the levy on local authorities in Greater London, pay two-thirds. As we have emphasised time and again—and other noble Lords have done likewise—no public transport system in Europe is expected to raise as much fare income as the Government expect LRT to do. There must be financial support on an adequate level to assist public transport in London.

There is great criticism of staff shortages. Indeed, it has been referred to in many press reports and has also been mentioned by LRT and British Rail. Reference has already been made to announcements regarding delayed trains. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, mentioned that point. However, announcements often say, in addition, that the delay is due to staff shortages. There was also reference to the undermanning of booking offices on the London Underground and inadequate manning—in fact, almost total absence of any manning—on station platforms, especially in the outer areas.

London Regional Passengers' Committee—to which I shall refer a good deal because it is an important body—has said that overcrowding has been rightly castigated and that it leads to the increased use of cars on the roads. The LRPC says that the problem is due to over-tight revenue budgeting. I do not wish to tempt the Minister to go into the question of current negotiations as regards possible industrial stoppages. However, the passengers' committee, which is an influential body appointed by the Secretary of State, states quite clearly that wage rates are such that they do not attract the proper type of worker and hence we have staff shortages.

LRT's statement of strategy for 1988–91 states in paragraph 4.8: Staff levels, particularly in support areas, have been reduced substantially over recent years, and if cost effectiveness is to increase, further reductions are essential". ! It is clear what is intended by that. The paragraph then referred to a detailed review of Underground staffing now being undertaken. It claims that during consultations many comments have expressed a strong desire for there to be more staff on London Underground. The paragraph continued to say that there were plans for the redeployment of staff, but it suggested that London Underground might have to look at the possibility of having more staff, which would affect the financial results. Again, the question of what is important is reflected in that statement.

I recognise the efforts made by the new chairman and his board to see that LRT puts into effect the recommendations of the Fennel Report which resulted from the tragedy at King's Cross. I recognise also the financial assistance that the Government have given to help with safety measures. My first question has already been referred to by other noble Lords: why have we proceeded with the costly installation of ticket barriers when we are not certain whether they should remain? The public are concerned about the barriers and generally ignore them. I ask any noble Lord who uses Westminster station how many passengers use the ticket barriers. They find the place that is open and go straight through. That is the case in other stations that I have used.

My second question is: has the Minister seen the Guardian report of 19th April headed, "Fire hazards linger". That is a reference to the report of the fire brigade inspectors made public that day. It was based on checks they made in October and November 1988. They said that almost a year after the disastrous fire some serious fire hazards and a shortfall in fire-fighting equipment had still not been dealt with. Is that due to a shortage of money or a shortage of adequate staff to cope with the position?

Perhaps I may now refer to the Central Rail Study. It sets out particulars of much needed developments in new lines, especially on the Underground. It states that the bill could be as high as £3 billion. However, the Secretary of State and other Ministers, including the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, from time to time, have repeatedly said that if there is to be new investment in transport, the passengers who will benefit should meet the cost through fares.

I should like to refer to a leading article in The Times of 27th of January which states: There are only two remedies for such congestion. Either new rail lines must be built, or fares must be raised to the point where passengers are driven on to already full roads or out of London altogether". Another part of that leader states: The study is reticent about how the new routes are to be paid for, but the outlines of the Government thinking are clear. Mr Channon said that the users must pay". The London Regional Passengers Committee said that it would be unacceptable to expect passengers to pay directly for any schemes proposed by the Central London Rail Study. In paragraph 26 it says that although the schemes would cost billions of pounds they must be approved and constructed as quickly as possible. It then states: If London is not going to grind to a halt". I shall refer now to the buses. In the statement of strategy to which I have referred, paragraph 4.7 claims that over the past few years the conversion of buses and trains to one-person operation has been a major area for cost reduction. I am sure that I am correct—other noble Lords will back me on this—when I say that the public thoroughly dislikes OPO. The London Regional Passengers Committee and the transport committee of the other place have both criticised one-person operated buses and trains, but the Minister for some reason has said that those buses are cheaper to run, safer in operation and more reliable. I challenge the Minister to say how they are safer in operation. They may be safer for the driver by protecting him from possible physical violence, but they cannot be safer in operation and surely they are not more reliable. We have seen the queues of people which form when people try to get on to one-person operated buses and try to pay their fares. The buses sometimes have to double bank because cars are illegally parked in the bus areas.

A London Regional Transport Press Notice No. 69 of April 1989 states that one objective given to LRT by the Secretary of State is the restructuring of London Buses ready for deregulation in the early 1990s. My first question is obviously, why? My second question is why split it into 11 companies? Ministers claim that that would strengthen accountability. How will division into 11 areas provide greater accountability? The London Regional Passengers Committee says that progress on an integrated public transport service is now going into reverse. The press notice to which I referred said that contracts now cover 25 per cent of LRT's total bus network mileage. The press notice says: Overall contract services operate more reliably than London bus services generally". The London Regional Passengers Committee disagrees. On page 27 it refers to the poor quality of bus routes, and describes the use of unreliable second-hand buses, all but ready for the scrapheap, as an ill-judged effort to reduce cost. On page 15 in paragraph 57 the committee stated that the biggest single problem of tendering related to arrangements for handing over routes from one operator to another; that, each time, promises are made to passengers which are not fulfilled.

I shall tell the Minister of some local experiences. My wife does not drive. She has to use the local bus network. All our local buses are contracted out by LRT. One bus still has the name "Mansfield Buses" on it. That endorses what the London Regional Passengers Committee said about the purchase of second-hand buses. On one service the buses are filthy. I am certain that London Transport would never have permitted such buses to be on the road. One service has no service number on the back of the bus. People rush to the bus thinking that it is theirs; they go around to the front and find that it is not theirs at all. Buses are cancelled. My wife has walked home from Loughton to Buckhurst Hill on a number of occasions because the half-hourly service has become a one-hourly service as the bus has been cancelled and the operator has no spare vehicles to put in its place. I cannot understand how LRT can claim that contracting out is generally more reliable.

My final point deals with the road assessment studies. Transport in London, on page 16 rightly stresses that better use could be made of roads to deal with bottlenecks, to improve awkward junctions and traffic flow. It also states: There is no point in building new roads into central and inner London if their main effect would be to cause commuters to switch from rail to road. Congestion on the roads would be as bad as before". I am certain that most noble Lords present completely agree with that statement. But it appears in the official document issued by the Department of Transport, endorsed by the Secretary of State, Transport in London. Therefore why continue with a widespread road assessment study and not confine ourselves to the points which were made about making better use of them, dealing with bottlenecks and awkward junctions? Local boroughs, local highway authorities could best tackle that problem without all the expenditure going into road assessment.

Dealing with this, the Minister will recognise the Question which he answered on 6th March. I asked about the development by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory of the London Area Model to assist in analysing strategic policy options. This had been commissioned by the London Planning Advisory Committee, which repeated that it saw no reason whatever to doubt the decision to use that model. The report based on the model revealed that the Government's policy of road building while cutting public subsidies was absolutely the worst option. However, the Minister said: There is not much point in using a model if it does not reflect the policies which the Government are adopting, because the results … are likely to be of no … value".—[Official Report, 6/3/89; col. 1258.] I hope that when we come to the general debate on the problems of London some of these points will be kept in mind. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for enabling us to pinpoint some of the important questions on present expenditure and the necessity for future expenditure.

9 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue this evening. As the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has said, we shall have a much more wide-ranging debate than this on 24th May. The noble Earl asked whether the Government's projected expenditure on transport in London represents value for money. That is the Question which I shall attempt to answer.

Of course the Government are concerned to see that the best results are achieved from investment in road and rail projects in London, as in other parts of the country. We certainly want to see these investments representing value for money. We believe that our policies are achieving this objective. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, quoted the CBI survey, transport services are key components of London's economy and influence its overall efficiency. We want to see London's economy growing, for the benefit of those who live and work in London and for the country as a whole. We recognise that an efficient transport system is an important prerequisite of this growth. So we believe the resources employed in transport should be utilised and expanded in the most efficient way. We believe that this can best be achieved by fair competition between transport modes, by investment in roads and rail conforming to broadly comparable criteria and by resources being allocated to the services people want and are willing to pay for.

First, public transport: we believe that London's rail transport operators should work towards achieving financial objectives similar to those applying in other industries. This means that the costs of running their services, renewing their infrastructure and investing in new facilities should generally be borne by those who use and benefit from the systems. We believe that where passengers obtain benefit from new investment there is no reason for subsidy to be paid unless there are demonstrable benefits such as the relief of road congestion. There is certainly no reason to pay grant to keep fares artificially low, particularly as most rail users in London are better off than the majority of taxpayers, from whom the extra money would have to come.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, talked about government money being spent in this way; but of course what it comes down to is the taxpayers' money. The financial objectives we have set the operators have therefore been demanding. They have resulted in lower operating costs and increased revenue from passengers. This has enabled record levels of investment at a time when subsidy for the systems has been falling. The returns on the new investment have been more satisfactory and the share of the cost that has needed to be met by taxpayers has been reduced.

The noble Earl talked about efficiency versus safety and the board of London Regional Transport acccepted and agreed their objective to reduce unit costs by 2.5 per cent. per annum. They exceeded it to the extent that they achieved reductions of 3.7 per cent. per annum. Obviously those objectives were not unreasonably demanding. The letter setting out those objectives made it clear that they were supplementary to LRT's clear statutory duty to operate safely. There is no reason why proper concern for efficiency and value for money should conflict with safety. The Fennell Report said that there was no evidence that the overall level of subsidy was inadequate to finance the necessary safety-related spending.

London Regional Transport has surpassed the financial objectives set in 1984 for bus and underground services. Revenue support has been substantially reduced and efficiency has been improved. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport has given a remit to the new chairman of London Regional Transport to review LRT's plans and put forward proposals for a management, investment and financial strategy which aims to give safe and reliable bus and rail services, and good value for money. The strategy must be prepared by the end of June. Following this the Secretary of State will agree a set of medium term objectives with the chairman. The objectives will include quality of service objectives for the Underground and will enable the Government to monitor and measure LRT's performance so as to obtain the best possible value for money for its services.

The noble Lord, Lord Grimond, was critical of the management and efficiency of LRT. There is no doubt that the Underground provides a service, but that is no reason why it should not be operated with efficiency. Nor is it true to say that it is not in competition. It competes with British Rail and it competes to attract passengers who might otherwise choose to drive into central London in their own cars. That is a point which has been made by a number of speakers this evening. There is therefore every incentive for the Underground to be efficient. The Fennell Report identified serious deficiencies in the management of the Underground. Those deficiencies are being remedied, new managers have been appointed and new procedures are being introduced.

Quality of service objectives have already been agreed with British Rail for Network SouthEast and the Government are keen to see that investment aimed at raising quality should benefit both customers and taxpayers. A particular problem of concern to everyone who uses the railway is that of overcrowding, to which noble Lords have referred, I think particularly the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. Network SouthEast has experienced growth in demand of over 20 per cent. in the past four years. Some of this growth has filled up seats which were previously empty, and BR has been able to cope to some extent by adjusting timetables and train lengths to match supply more closely to demand. This may sound trivial, but it is astonishing what effect this more efficient use of resources can have.

In spite of a 5 per cent. growth in the last 12 months, overcrowding is, on average, no worse. But both BR and the Government recognise that much more needs to be done. Indeed, the Government have asked BR to bring forward investment to relieve overcrowding and achieve its other quality of service objectives as soon as is practicable. The immediate result has been that 324 additional vehicles have been approved by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State since October last to increase the fleet on Network SouthEast services north of the Thames, at a cost of over £113 million. I hope that will be of encouragement to my noble friend Lord Auckland.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred to the central London rail study. He asked how the new lines would be financed. New lines are needed because of strongly rising traffic levels, which we expect to grow further. Therefore, the first source of finance is obviously those who will benefit from these schemes. That will mainly be passengers, but also developers who stand to gain from increased land values.

The central London rail study has taken account of the value passengers place on travelling in comfort, and more quickly, and therefore of how much they would be willing to pay for that.

Government grant can be made available, if needed, to make projects viable, and if justified by benefits such as the relief of road congestion, the cost of which could not be recovered from the users.

I turn now to the subject of roads. I enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord McNair, on the subject of the motor car. However, I think motor cars are here to stay, and therefore it is important that we look at the road programme. New roads and road improvements are appraised in terms of the benefits as valued by users, and from reductions in accidents. Judgments are made of environmental gains and losses. The appraisals value user benefits on similar principles to investment in public transport, and the effects on other forms of transport, safety and the environment are taken into account.

To help us achieve better value for money we have introduced new tendering procedures to produce faster road completion. We have also introduced new design standards which will reduce the need for maintenance work and avoid the costly delays it causes.

These changes would be applied to the western environmental improvement route project, to which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord McNair, referred. This project, on which we are consulting the public, is designed to relieve the many transport problems in the Earl's Court area and to improve its environment. It would be built alongside the railway runnning between Holland Park roundabout and the River Thames, with links to Wandsworth and Battersea bridges. Using the space alongside the railway line enhances the project. It reduces the amount of land needed to be purchased from local people and minimises the disturbance to householders. Unlike the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord McNair, we firmly believe the project will represent good value for money. The significant reductions in traffic on existing roads around Earl's Court should benefit around 6,500 households, result in fewer accidents and lead to more reliable bus services.

We have made it clear, however, that no final decisions will be taken on WEIR until the report of the West London assessment study has been considered. This study is one of four assessment studies which are looking at public transport as well as road options in areas, mainly in inner London, with particularly severe transport problems. Consultants are assessing and testing the options to see how they relieve the problems and meet objectives we have agreed with local authority interests, the major transport operators and the police. The objectives recognise the need to develop an efficient transport system for London and to assess private and public transport projects on a comparable basis. We have said we will not support schemes which do more harm than good, and that we do not propose to build new motorways in London. If it becomes clear that any scheme is not worth retaining, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will make an announcement.

I remind noble Lords that investment in public transport is at a higher level than investment in roads. If investment in public transport continues at the present rate of between £600 to £700 million a year—that is for London Regional Transport and Network SouthEast—between now and the end of the century the total could amount to over £7 billion.

The noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, referred to the possibility of more private sector involvement in the transport infrastructure. We believe there is increasing scope for bringing private sector finance into transport projects and to secure the benefits this would bring in terms of innovation, enterprise and management efficiency. We are keen to encourage private finance initiatives where this would be a more cost-effective way of providing or operating transport infrastructure than our traditional approach, or would mean the provision of new types of modern facilities for road users. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is actively considering the scope for the private sector's greater involvement.

A number of questions were asked by noble Lords. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked about the knowledge test for taxi drivers. I am sure that all noble Lords would agree on the desirability of well-informed and knowledgeable taxi drivers. If my honourable friend the Minister of State denied that "the knowledge" would be abolished, then, my Lords, he is the Minister responsible for that particular section of the department's activities.

A number of noble Lords have mentioned the new Underground ticketing system on London Transport. The objects of introducing the Underground ticketing system are severalfold. They are to reduce queuing at ticket offices; provide more access and exit gates for passengers; improve the layout and capacity of ticket halls; improve security for ticket staff and revenues; release staff for supervision elsewhere in the stations; and particularly to cut fraud, which is estimated by the Underground at some £26 million a year. The noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, referrred to them not being failsafe. I understand that the type of power failure resulting in some of the exits remaining closed is very unlikely, and that in this unlikely event, only about one in three gates would not open. Remedial action to eliminate this possibility will be completed by the end of June 1989. In the interim, staff are under strict instructions to open all gates immediately in the event of this sort of power failure. The railway inspectorate are content with the precautions taken. The safety override devices used by staff to open the gates in an emergency are unaffected by single-phase power failures, and so the emergency capability remains unimpaired.

My noble friend Lord Auckland said that the gates were inconvenient for passengers travelling with luggage or with children, and for disabled passengers. I understand that all stations with automatic gates will also have a manually-operated gate for people with handicaps, young children or luggage, and I understand that there will always be staff available to assist passengers who need help. My noble friend Lord Auckland also referred to the M.25 and the difficulties there. We have a study that is reviewing the performance of the M.25; we are particularly studying the Heathrow and South West London orbital movement around that area.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred to one-person operated buses. They represent better value for money. About £250,000 a year is saved on each major route converted. They are more reliable. There are fewer cancellations because of the need only to match a bus and driver, whereas crew operations require bus, driver and conductor. They are safer for passengers. They are four to five times safer than open-platform buses because there are far fewer boarding and alighting accidents. They are safer for the staff because conductors are three times more likely to be assaulted than drivers of one-person operated buses. Accidents are very rare. We are not complacent about this. One accident is one too many; therefore, we propose to strengthen the safety requirements. Draft regulations are already out for consultation.

The noble Lord also referred to the restructuring and tendering of London buses. A restructured London Buses Limited will operate, we believe, closer to customers and more like local bus companies. Tendered routes have higher reliability than LBL services. Many attractive new services are operated by brand new buses. For instance, the route 24 operated by Grey Green in this neighbourhood.

I have found the debate that has arisen from the noble Earl's Question most helpful in giving me the opportunity to explain the Government's policy on transport investment in London and the part that improved efficiency and value for money play in it. Once more I am grateful for the opportunity that the noble Earl has given me.