BRITISH RAILWAYS (No. 2) BILL (By Order)

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Albert Booth Mr Albert Booth , Barrow-in-Furness 12:00 am, 26th June 1979

I wish to concentrate mainly on the important issue of the Castlefield curve and the possibilities of development of the Pic-Vic. I shall do that if only to illustrate, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Morton), Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris) and Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks) that there was a belief by a considerable number of people, including three who have spoken tonight in the debate, that the Castlefield curve was to be regarded as an alternative to the development of any other rail transport system for central Manchester and an alternative to any direct rail access to central Manchester.

Whether or not those people were correct in that belief, and whether there was an alternative, their actions in raising that matter in the House tonight have resulted in an undertaking being given that the provisions in the Bill for works Nos. 1 and 2 will be withdrawn in Committee. So the situation that we now have to consider is slightly different. It is whether, by withdrawing that part of the Bill, the proposers have contributed in any way towards an improvement in the rail services in central Manchester, or whether they have set that back for a very long time, or at least until such time as another British Railways Bill can be brought before the House.

If the proposition upon which my hon. Friends stated their objections to the provisions in the Bill for the Castlefield curve was correct, namely, that by proceeding with it there would be no possibility of proceeding with an alternative and better one, that is a serious matter. The terms in which the sponsor spoke, particularly in his reference to half a loaf being better than none, must raise the fears of many interested people that there is no alternative and that they will be left with none for so long as it will take to prepare another Bill.

If the proposition were correct the argument would be overwhelming. No one could suggest, after having made an objective study of the alternatives, that the Castlefield curve would be anything other than a very limited improvement in terms of rail access in Manchester compared with the Pic-Vic line or any other tunnel development that would have provided access to stations in the centre of Manchester.

But it is unfair to suggest, as has been suggested in the debate, that British Railways were proceeding on the proposition that the Castlefield curve was in some way better. I can find no evidence that British Railways were proceeding on such a presumption. When I examined their comments on the medium-term rail studies—I admit that these were initial comments—I found a very clear indication that British Railways regarded the only real solution to the problem of city centre distribution as the encouragement of greater use of the rail system by the linking of the northern and southern rail networks across the city in the form of the Pic-Vic tunnel or some similar scheme.

I take it from that, and I shall be interested to see whether I am contradicted, that in this Bill British Railways were making provision for the Castlefield curve in the belief that the Pic-Vic system, or a similar system, would not be going ahead, or would not be going ahead in the immediate future. I would therefore have welcomed from the sponsor an assurance that this provision would be put in the Bill in that spirit and with that intention, and not in any way to frustrate development at the earliest possible date of an alternative and better rail system from central Manchester.

I believe that the development of such a system is of considerable importance, in terms not only of convenience for travellers but of employment in the central Manchester area. I invite the House to consider for a moment the effect on employment in central London if London Transport had to close down the Tube system so that there was no access by rail. It is only too obvious that, given the problems of modern conurbation transport, once the conurbation develops to a certain size with a certain population density, a rail system, probably a tunnel system, but certainly an inner city rail system giving access to a wider rail network, could make a considerable contribution to the employment potential of that city.

Before long the House will require some kind of assurance that reconsideration is being given to this problem not only by British Railways and the local authorities concerned but by the Government. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give some indication tonight that the Government appreciate the size of the problem in terms of the convenience of urban transport, employment implications, the inevitable change that will take place with the increase in fuel costs, and the environmental hazards created by heavy lorries in our city centres. All these elements require a reconsideration of the priority to be given to rail transport within the city centre.

The other feature that has been surprising in this debate is the assumption that the system would go ahead with the passing of the Bill. The Bill, if I have read it correctly, would not have committed British Railways to proceed with the Castlefield curve. I think that British Railways would, in any case, have been willing to examine alternatives to provide a better rail service. This Bill, in its present terms—here I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape)—enables British Railways to frustrate a developer who has a contract enabling him to develop land that would be required should British Railways seek to go ahead with the Castlefield curve.

Without that there is always the possibility that ere British Railways may prepare its No. 3 Bill, or the next Bill that might have the same effect, that developer might have started work. This does not mean that the development could not take place, but it is fair to assume, as I do, that it could take place only at considerably greater public expense. That would be very much to be regretted.