Northern Line

Oral Answers to Questions — Transport – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th March 1988.

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Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South 12:00 am, 14th March 1988

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on London Regional Transport proposals for investment in the Northern line.

Mr. Mitchell:

Current plans include an additional eight trains, a new depot next year, and investment of £45 million over the next three years on continuing station improvements, signalling and better communications. Major plans for altering the configuration and modernising the line are also being considered by London Underground.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

My hon. Friend mentioned an additional eight trains. Does he agree that that total will be regarded by commuters on the Northern line as woefully inadequate? Does he accept that there has been a dramatic deterioration in the quality of service being given to my constituents and to many other residents of London? An improvement to the Northern line should be the top priority of London Regional Transport.

Mr. Mitchell:

London Regional Transport clearly understands that the situation on the Northern line is not as good as it would want, nor is it as good as the London Regional Passengers' Committee or the Government would want. Average waiting time on the Northern line is now 4·1 minutes, which is perhaps not as bad as some people might imagine. An investment of £20 million is under way at the Angel to replace lifts with escalators, and a further £20 million scheme to eliminate island platforms is being considered. The eight additional trains that will become available next year are a significant improvement. One is doing the best that one can within the time available, bearing in mind the very sharp increase in the number of passengers.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

Is not the £45 million a classic example of throwing money at the wrong problem? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is not investment to titivate stations that is required, but more guards and drivers? Does he not realise that London Regional Transport has sold off, on his instructions or those of his right hon. Friend, large numbers of houses in areas where guards and drivers are in short supply, so that they are not encouraged to be in on early and late turns? Would it not be better to spend some of the millions that he mentioned on buying back those houses and reversing the Government's policy, so that at least some encouragement is given to the recruitment of much needed guards and drivers?

Mr. Mitchell:

As always, the hon. Gentleman has got the position only half right. The driver shortage on the Northern line is currently 23. Far from there being a shortage of guards, as the hon. Gentleman said, there is a surplus of 22. Considerable training is being undertaken. Six guards are currently under training as drivers and another 10 are starting on 14 March. A further 35 guard-train drivers for other lines are currently under conversion training for Northern line duties. That is 51 against a present shortage of 23. The hon. Gentleman will understand that we are dealing with the problem.

Photo of Sir Sydney Chapman Sir Sydney Chapman , Chipping Barnet

As the chairman of LRT agrees that presently the Northern line is "an abomination", will my hon. Friend accept that two measures are urgent priorities? One is to pay a premium to get extra staff to man the Northern line, because staff leave that line. Apparently one of the reasons is that it is the longest tunnel in the world. Secondly, the increased capital investment, which I welcome, should be examined to see whether the Northern line is getting its fair share. There ought to be additional capital investment to cover the need to train the new staff that are necessary on this line, as well as to cover the other technological progress.

Mr. Mitchell:

I have already given the House the figures for the substantial amount of training that is taking place, specifically of drivers for the Northern line. The average weekly wastage of train staff grades in 1987 was only eight. Compared with the figures that I have given, that offers some grounds for reassurance. Investment is very much the key to raising standards, and investment in LRT will be running at £ I million a day next year. That £365 million is 60 per cent. higher than during the last year that the GLC was in charge.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd , Stretford

In his usual complacent way, the Minister insists that there is an adequate number of drivers. Will he confirm to the House that things are kept ticking along on the Northern line simply because 55 guard motormen are covering for drivers? Will he confirm also that, for that reason, my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Speaking) made a valid point when he said that we should consider something practical about the housing of staff used on the Northern line?

Will the Minister confirm that it will be some 10 years after the completion of the investment programme on the Central line before we can expect to see any real investment in the Northern line to get rid of these problems once and for all? Can he tell the House that he will look seriously at bringing the investment forward? Does he recognise that the failure to provide proper investment for the Northern line — not the rest of the system — is part of the reason why these problems will run on into the future?

Mr. Mitchell:

It is not for me to bring forward investment proposals for the Northern line or any other line. It is for the management to bring forward what it believes to be the right priorities. I shall draw the management's attention to the hon. Gentleman's anxieties, but it is not for Ministers to propose investment. That is for those who operate the system.

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. We are making rather slow progress today. May I ask for briefer questions, and perhaps we will have briefer answers too?