Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th June 1979.

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Photo of Mr Patrick McNair-Wilson Mr Patrick McNair-Wilson , New Forest 12:00 am, 26th June 1979

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This general purpose Bill is one of a long series of such measures which have been introduced since the board was constituted in its present form in 1962. With the leave of the House, I shall ask for the right of reply to deal with any matters which are raised by hon. Members during the debate. I understand that it is the custom—I seek your ruling here, Mr. Deputy Speaker—that matters of a general nature relating to the railway system can also be raised during our debate.

The Bill began its life in January 1979 and, as a result of serious reservations held by outside bodies and a number of hon. Members—and the fact that we have had a general election—the Bill is obviously very late in its timetable. However, the matters which are covered in the Bill are extremely important to the successful operation of British Rail. It is very much hoped, therefore, that the Bill will be given a Second Reading so that many of these urgent and important matters can be dealt with speedily.

The hon. Members for Goole (Dr. Marshall), Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Morton) have taken the proper parliamentary steps in the past to block the Bill in earlier stages, and I shall in a moment try to deal with some of the matters which I know have been concerning them. However, the Bill is designed to provide structural changes, of a works type and in other ways to make for a more efficient rail system.

Perhaps there has never been a moment in our post-war history when the need for a really efficient rail system was greater than it is now. We are facing a grave new energy crisis. To all of us who watch freight on the roads it is something of a disappointment that we cannot utilise our existing railway system to a greater extent than we do at the present time. Indeed, I should like to feel that moneys can be set aside at some future point for further electrification of the railway system, since this will enable a far more sensible and wise use of energy to be made. In my own constituency, where this has been done, it has led to greater efficiency, better time-keeping and so on.

Before coming to the general terms of the Bill, I should like to plead that we should as soon as possible look again at the possibility of a Channel tunnel, because we are now talking in an international context in energy terms, and with Britain in the Common Market we should also be thinking of transportation in an international context.

The Bill is in six separate parts. Hon. Members have already received an explanatory note about the main provisions of the Bill. Part I deals essentially with incorporation, setting out a method of incorporating relevant previous legislation as it affects the Bill. It also seeks to amend the Compulsory Purchase Act 1965 so that the Board cannot enter on or take possession of land without giving not less than three months' notice to the owner, lessee or occupier. Part I is, I believe, fairly non-contentious.

It is when we get to part II that we begin to run into what has proved so far to be the serious opposition. It is designed to give the Board powers to undertake certain works and at the same time to detail what those works may be. Not surprisingly, in a situation of this type, many individual interests are affected.

Perhaps the most significant sources of conflict in this early part of the works programme are works Nos. 1 and 2, which deal with the problems relating to Manchester. I see several hon. Members from that part of the country who—if they are fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—will no doubt seek to promote their own particular causes. But in works Nos. 1 and 2 it is the intention to provide a better transport system in Manchester than exists.

I recognise, as does the Board, that the hopes—which have been quite rightly based upon what happened in 1972—and the desire for the Piccadilly-Victoria link, have to some extent gone to one side. Nevertheless, the proposals in the Bill to provide a short connecting line between the Salford station and a point near to the Deansgate station, go some way towards meeting a serious problem. The line will provide a rail surface link from both the north and south of central Manchester and, as is stated in the promoters' statement: Works Nos. 1 and 2 are new railways which will provide a connection between existing railways, and implement a plan for improvement by the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive of surban passenger services, in Greater Manchester. I recognise that this is essentially, to those who would rather see something bolder, half a loaf, but it may be that half a loaf is better than no bread. I am not in any way in those words offering an ultimatum, but I am suggesting that there is a positive proposal here. Perhaps, when hon. Members have made their comments upon it I might comment further, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I receive the permission of the House to reply. But I want to make very clear that a positive proposal exists which should be of material benefit to Manchester.

In clause 7, of the Bill we come to another serious objection. It is the objection which has been raised by the hon. Member for Goole relating to the closure of the England Lane crossing at Knottingley. The Bill deals at some length with alterations to crossings and inevitably it creates problems in certain areas. I want to make clear that crossings are never closed without the most careful consultation, and also that substantial savings can be made as a result of these changes.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's complaint about England Lane, he will know that the Board has given an undertaking that, with leave, it will withdraw this part of the Bill in Committee. But his complaint about England Lane at Knottingley and that section of track relates to part of the merry-go-round train system to the Selby coalfield. To some extent the problem has been heightened by the decision to go ahead with the Drax power station. I do not in any sense object to that. As a strong believer in the coal industry I am delighted to see it built.

The fact is that the Selby coalfield can supply both of the Drax stations when they are completed, and can also supply Ferrybridge and Eggborough. At present it is designed and planned that the coal shall be taken from a drift-head at Gascoigne Wood and then proceed west on a railway track which passes those other power stations to which I have referred, ending up at Drax. It is also true that Drax A and Drax B could take the whole production from the Selby field, which will be fully operational by 1987. However, the Central Electricity Generating Board wants the freedom to switch coal from one station to another, and does not want to be committed to sending the coal on a new piece of track direct to the Drax power complex. The reversal of direction would not be sensible unless 90 per cent. of the coal went to that station, and therefore the British Rail Board does not regard this as a viable alternative, and the CEGB will not give any assurance to this effect. Were the Drax A and B power stations supplied from that source, something like 56 trains a day would be needed, quite apart from anything else in the way of rail traffic. My concern for the case that the hon. Member has promoted is that if the Board goes ahead and withdraws the closure of England Lane, we are still faced with crossing a piece of track which will have a large amount of coal traffic on it.

That brings me to the alternative—namely the building of a bridge, about which the hon. Member has had discussions. Because there is already a substantial plan to improve the roads in the area—and the particular plan has already received local approval—the Board would not be prepared to sponsor the building of such a bridge. Nevertheless I am advised that if the hon. Gentleman continues with his proposal, and obtains the support of various bodies—local authorities and others—the Board would be prepared to be represented at any discussions that he might initiate.

I might add that since there is a substantial traffic improvement scheme already under way at Headlands Lane and Spawd Bone Lane, and for the reasons that I have given about the CEGB's determination to have freedom in switching coal and in fuelling the power stations from other parts of the country if necessary, the proposal that the hon. Gentleman put forward for a new piece of track for the fuel to travel in the opposite direction would not be acceptable. One must recognise that the planning of the Gascoigne Wood sidings and the construction of them has already begun. I would be happy to reply to any other points that the hon. Member cares to raise but in general that is the case that the Board has put forward.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw on his elevation to the Opposition Front Bench. He raises the question, in clause 12, of another crossing. Good progress is taking place in the negotiations with the local authority on the matter of the Walkeringham station level crossing. I recognise that the parish council has a strong view on this matter, and it may be that if the hon. Member catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, I shall want to comment further on this matter. The Board is extremely anxious on all these matters to try to find common ground. This is not just an attempt by the Board to close off crossings willy-nilly. It is an attempt to produce sensible cost savings, and a more efficient system at the same time.

Part III of the Bill deals mainly with compulsory purchase and provides the powers to acquire the land in works Nos. 1 to 7 which we have been discussing. It also deals with the powers for the purchases in schedule 2, and hon. Members will find the purposes of schedule 2 in the explanatory note.

Part IV is a major part on its own, dealing with Fishguard harbour. Here again, the delay in getting the Bill through Parliament has led to a serious problem. Contracts are ready to be let, and since Fishguard harbour requires a lot of work to be carried out on it, it is a matter of some urgency that the Board presses ahead. The works involved are to the extention of the quay wall, some reclamation of the sea bed, the acquisition of some small parcels of land for the diversion of a footpath and the raising and extending of at least one footbridge. This whole area of Fishguard harbour is not controversial but it is extremely important to the Board's operations.

Part V deals with the protective provisions and is self-explanatory. Part VI deals with miscellaneous provisions and I shall be happy to comment on any of these if there are any issues particularly worrying hon. Members.

We have a general purposes Bill which, for the most part is non-contentious. It is important and urgent. While I recognise that some of the problems to which I have referred will not blow away just because meetings take place, I hope that hon. Members will bear with the Board in its desire to try to find accommodation for those who have problems which so far have not been resolved.

We have had some delay as a result of the general election, but it has never been more important to get a good railway system. In fact, we have a good railway system in this country. Here we are talking about matters such as level crossings, with which European countries would never bother. The British Railways Board goes to enormous trouble to ensure the safety, not only of its passengers but of all the people who are in any way involved in the lands which it owns. Therefore, for this reason these detailed matters are brought before the House of Commons for deliberation and I very much hope they will enjoy the support of the House.