Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am delighted that the Minister for Transport in London is to reply. I hold the Government responsible for the care and maintenance of the Forth rail bridge, and I am pleased that a United Kingdom Minister is present.
I have written to the Scottish Office, to no avail. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has been more successful, however. He received a letter, dated 2 February, from the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), the third paragraph of which states:
As agreed, officials have also sought the views of Railtrack and ScotRail. You also wished the views of the Bridgemaster to be sought. As you will appreciate, the Bridgemaster is an employee of British Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd, who are contractors to Railtrack for the day to day management of the Bridge and for carrying out the maintenance programme. It is Railtrack who determine the maintenance strategy for the Bridge and have overall responsibility for it.
I do not want the Government to hide behind any organisation, whether it be Railtrack or British Rail. I hold the Government responsible for the maintenance and safety of the bridge and its funding.
Everyone knows that the Forth bridge is an engineering wonder of the world and a tourist must for people visiting Scotland. In Scotland, we consider that it belongs to the people and not to the persons who are its caretakers. Funding must be found, but that funding should not be for an industrial museum. That is not the intention of my speech. I want the Forth bridge to be an integral part and working model of communications between Fife, Lothian and the rest of Scotland.
We hope that rail commuting and freight levels will be increased on that route and that the proposal for a second road bridge which has been mooted by the Government will be put aside. One of the problems with the second road bridge is the fact that the problem of the bottlenecks will not be solved. One will get over the water more quickly, but one will hit a bottleneck more quickly as well, especially in and around the city of Edinburgh. If the Government wish to build a bridge, they should consider the Kincardine area. The bridge there has too much traffic. The savings from dropping the proposal for the alternative bridge could go into maintaining the Forth bridge properly.
I have visited the Forth bridge as a guest both of Railtrack and of ScotRail. I have sailed below it with my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe). We have examined it in detail and it is in a deplorable condition. Again because of the good offices of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow, I have a letter dated 14 February from the Health and Safety Executive. It spells out in the third paragraph:
In effect the situation is that the Railway Authorities have been moving since the early 1980s from a short term cycle of repainting to a long term cycle. The short term cycle involved manual abrasion of the structure followed by 2 coats. The long term cycle is involving shotblasting which is a lengthier process requiring more robust access equipment—including scaffolding to give a firmer base for this heavy work. Five coats of paint giving a 25 year life is being applied.
That is absolutely fantastic. We saw the effect of that work. We have no criticism of that. The organisation is
tackling the trellis work, but when asked how long it would take to do the that work, it said that it would take 10 years.
In the meantime, what do we do with the bridge? Does the rest of it deteriorate? I submit as visual evidence an article in the Independent on Sunday, which was published on 23 October 1994. It contains pictures of the bridge. It shows a rusting hulk. It is a not a ship that has been tied up in Lerwick or a Bulgarian klondyker that has been ignored and that has not had funding. It is a part of the bridge. Anyone who looks at the picture can see actual rusting of the structure, and that it is in a deplorable state. That is a scandal for such a bridge.
If hon. Members think that I am exaggerating, let me tell them that I have a letter from a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), Mr. L. Mackenzie. I shall not read the letter—it contains far too much detail for that—but I would be happy to submit it to the Minister at the end of the debate. On a fishing expedition near to and below the bridge, Mr. Mackenzie saw a girder and rivets fall off into the water. He was so worried that he put on his helmet, which he used when riding his motor cycle.
Since 1993, Mr. Mackenzie has tried to talk to the people who are in charge of the bridge. He has listed in detail all the people whom he has contacted. He reckons that, at a conservative estimate, he spent up to £200 on telephone calls. He has had the runaround. I submit that as an example of an ordinary member of the public who is worried about the state of the bridge, and who is getting nowhere because the authorities are dodging the issue.
The repair and maintenance of the bridge is too little, too late. What is being done is admirable. A first-class job is being undertaken, but a massive area needs to be covered. A structural, financial and, yes, independent inquiry into the bridge is needed, with action from the Government and funding of it.
I am aware that the Treasury has put the dead hand on many activities of the Government and of people connected with Government spending. Short-termism seems to be the policy of the Government. That will not be tolerated by the people of the United Kingdom. I re-emphasise that I hope that the Minister will not hide behind, and, in some way, hand over total responsibility to, Railtrack. If Railtrack continues with its current expenditure, the rest of the bridge will fall to bits. Why put a new engine in an old car if the old car falls to bits? It is admirable to put in something new to bring part of the bridge to a high standard, but if the rest of the bridge falls to bits, it is no use.
I give a warning that I will hold the Government solely responsible if any accident or something else happens to anyone in and around that bridge because of the lack of maintenance and care. I do not think that I am making this statement on my own. The people of Scotland, the people of the UK and many people worldwide genuinely care about the structure. I emphasise that I do not want it to be turned into an industrial museum. That structure is part and parcel of the lifeblood and communications of this country and of the region that I represent.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. With my hon. Friends the Members for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), I have visited the Forth bridge. One may wonder why a west coast Member of Parliament involves himself in this situation, but, as the Minister will know, I am a member of the Select Committee on Transport and I believe that it is important to focus attention on the shortcomings of Railtrack.
For a number of years, I have been concerned about the bridge's structure. I have made four visits to it to examine it in more detail with some other people. Major implications are involved in the continuing lack of any form of maintenance. Many aspects of the structure require examination.
There are implications for the tourist trade in Scotland, given that the bridge attracts a fair proportion of the tourist trade to and around the South Queensferry area. That is important. The bridge is a landmark of some distinction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian suggested, it is viewed as the Scottish wonder of the world.
The state of the bridge is, obviously, of most concern. I have some experience of steel work. Having worked in a shipyard as a steel worker, and in ICI as an engineer, I have some understanding of how structures start to erode. It was clear from the visit that we made, especially during the boat trip beneath the bridge, that corrosion was at an extreme stage. There is absolutely no evidence of paint on the part of the structure nearest the River Forth. Bulging steel and warped steel plates are visible. In some areas, there is a void of any structure.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian said, the Health and Safety Executive report looks only to the short term. We want to ensure that the bridge is able to perform its function over a long period. In no circumstances would I accept that such an important issue should be left entirely to Railtrack. The current examination of the financing of the railway industry shows that ScotRail has given Railtrack £170 million. The Minister might care to ask Railtrack how that money is spent.
I, too, would back an independent inquiry. Indeed, nothing less would satisfy the Opposition—nor should anything less satisfy the Minister, if he has any understanding of the problems. I know of two reputable companies that have vast experience of painting and repairing steel work that is similar in nature to the Forth bridge. There must be other companies that could also be contacted to give evidence to any inquiry. My hon. Friends the Members for Midlothian and for Linlithgow would be the key to any inquiry.
The Minister is a fairly reasonable person. In the past, he has helped me with the affairs of the Transport Select Committee, and I am grateful to him. We need a commitment from him today that not only will he consider the matter more seriously than the Scottish Office, Railtrack and, over the years, British Rail have done, but that he will agree to set up an independent inquiry. I want my name to be added to the campaign.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) on securing this debate. Recently, there has been a great deal of publicity about the Forth bridge, much of which I believe has been exaggerated. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) in his place. I value his contribution to the debate. I envy him and his hon. Friends their sailing expeditions, which sound quite delightful. Personally, I do not have the time for that sort of diversion—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] There are those who have speculated about why—[Laughter.] I repeat, the sailing trips sound as though they are the most delightful occasions.
I acknowledge the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton). I am aware that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has had some interest in this matter, and he has recently asked an oral question about it.
The concern about the publicity generated about the Forth bridge has been worrying on two counts. First, it has been worrying for the great many people who are admirers of the bridge as a structure of architectural interest and believe it to be a national monument. Secondly, there are those who claim that it is being run down as part of a hidden agenda to cut train services in Scotland. I hope to be able to reassure the House that the latter proposition is certainly not the case. I hope to put minds at rest about the structure.
Sir William Arrol's bridge has been a dominant feature over the Forth estuary for 105 years. However, it is not just a Victorian bridge of historical and architectural interest, or a structure that is aesthetically pleasing. Like any river or estuary crossing, it is primarily a working transport link, currently carrying more than 200 trains a day over the estuary.
For many years, the bridge was maintained by British Rail, until Railtrack assumed responsibility for it when it was established as a Government-owned company in April 1994. Railtrack has since received some adverse publicity about an alleged lack of maintenance and safety concerns about the structure. I assure the House that those fears are unfounded. Safety concerns are taken extremely seriously by Railtrack. The Forth bridge has been assessed by a wide range of engineering experts, including the independent Health and Safety Executive, all of whom declared themselves satisfied with the structural integrity of the bridge.
I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's question now, but I shall endeavour to do so in due course. I know him well and I have great respect for his experience and for his approach to these problems. I do not believe that either he or I would wish to question the integrity of the Health and Safety Executive. I am sure that that is not in question on either side of the House. Indeed, if I wished to strike a slightly discordant note, I would say that there have been many occasions when evidence from the HSE has been quoted by the Opposition against Ministers, precisely on the basis that such advice was independent and therefore could be relied on.
On the question whether the HSE was suitably qualified to carry out the work, I shall endeavour to find an answer to that, but I would be very surprised were there to be any foundation to an allegation that the HSE was not competent.
I want to reiterate that the Forth bridge was assessed by a wide range of engineering experts, including the HSE—which is an independent body—all of whom declared themselves satisfied with the structural integrity of the bridge.
I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's request to the attention of the HSE. It is the HSE's report and, if it so wishes, I would be content for the report to be released. However, the Opposition are straying into unusual territory in questioning the integrity of the HSE. They have frequently used that body as a stick with which to beat the Government. I have no complaints about that in general. However, I do not believe that a case is very strong if it relies on a criticism or implied criticism of the work of the HSE. Therefore, I do not believe that the recent call for yet another independent engineers inquiry is valid.
Railtrack, using HSE-approved access arrangements, regularly inspects the more remote areas of the bridge more thoroughly than ever before. It is able to ensure, therefore, that attention can be concentrated on the areas of highest priority. I know that many people view the Forth bridge as a monument of national importance. The hon. Member for Midlothian rightly said that that was not the way in which he regarded it, and I am grateful to him for saying so, because that is a sensible position to adopt.
However, it is important to recognise that Railtrack's object is to maintain the structure as a working railway bridge, a vital transport artery, and it does not claim—nor indeed does it have a remit—to maintain the bridge as a gleaming national monument or a tourist attraction. Its priority is to maintain the bridge as economically as possible without compromising safety.
Railtrack's present maintenance and painting programme, approved by the Health and Safety Executive, is fully—I emphasise, fully—adequate to protect the structural integrity of the bridge. Railtrack is identifying and prioritising the painting of those areas that are of structural importance, rather than adopting a "quick fix" solution to appease critics which would be only temporary and not in the bridge's long-term interest.
Railtrack's maintenance programme is currently contracted to British Rail Infrastructure Services, which relies on expert metallurgical advice from British Rail Scientific Services in Derby. In the light of that advice, the old painting processes, which involved wire brush cleaning of the metal followed by two coats of paint, have been changed to a more modern technique, which involves shot-blasting the metal and applying five coats of paint.
Although it is true that shot-blasting can be used only on a small area of the bridge at a time, the results of that technique together with the new painting method are expected to last between 20 and 25 years, rather than the four to five years' life expectancy of the old method. What is more, the painters, who are meeting Health and Safety Executive requirements in their painting activity, can now gain access to the more inaccessible parts of the bridge, so generally improving the overall maintenance standards.
I tell the House, with some sense of personal disappointment, that the popular opinion that British Rail used continuous end-to-end painting methods on the Forth bridge is, sadly, a myth. Key areas of the bridge have always been prioritised for painting, while other non-essential areas have often been left for many years.
The House will also recognise that safety standards are becoming continuously more stringent, and in the past 20 years far more demanding standards have been applied by the Health and Safety Executive—on, for example, specialist scaffolding—than previously. Painting methods have been altered accordingly. We no longer allow the painters to dangle from rope above the structure as they carry out their painting work.
I can assure the House, importantly, that the metalwork of the bridge is, contrary to current scaremongering, in good condition. I will ensure that any allegations made by the hon. Member for Midlothian, or by constituents of his to whom he referred in his speech, are fully investigated, and I shall let him know the results of that investigation.
The metal is not, as some have claimed, devoid of all protective coatings in some parts of the bridge. The elements of tubular sections which appear to be most affected by flaking paint are covered by an undercoat of carboniferous material and black iron oxide, which continues to protect the metal. Surface corrosion on those elements has little significant impact on the structural integrity of the bridge.
Railtrack is concentrating on cleaning and repainting eight lattice tie-members. Those parts of the structure are very important to the integrity of the bridge, but it is difficult for one to see from a distance that they have been repainted. This year, Railtrack will also turn its attention to some of the central cantilever sections of the bridge.
British Rail Infrastructure Services also carries out routine maintenance. It removes the debris—dead birds, litter and so on—from the crevices of the bridge. In spite of recent criticism, there has been no change in that procedure under Railtrack's management.
I know that there has been some—
I am not questioning whether the maintenance is going on; I am questioning the lack of maintenance in other parts of the bridge. The maintenance that is taking place is first-class, but it is insufficient. An admission was made about timing, and I have witnesses—my hon. Friends who were with us when the question was asked. That is the question that I want the Minister to concentrate on—how long will it last?
I say to the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect, that I fear that the conclusion that he has drawn is not the conclusion drawn by the Health and Safety Executive in respect of the structure or the conclusion drawn by Railtrack. Railtrack has never disguised the fact that it does not see itself as having a remit to produce a gleaming national monument. I agree, as does Railtrack, that one could, in essence, spend many more millions of pounds on improving the appearance of the structure, but Railtrack has maintained throughout that its real responsibility is to maintain a vital transport artery.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the structure is a working structure and part of the railway system. Railtrack maintains it in accordance with its responsibility to ensure the safe operation of the railways. If there are proposals to add to the work that is being done, and which the hon. Member for Midlothian says is excellent work, I have no doubt that my hon. Friends in the Scottish Office would be perfectly happy to discuss such arrangements, but I am saying that the structure must be retained as a safe structure.
Apart from the habitual maintenance functions that I have mentioned, which mean that Railtrack incurs regular maintenance costs—incidentally, spending no less on maintenance than was spent on it per annum by British Rail—a £4 million programme to replace the weighbeams and to renew the rails has been carried out. It was completed in July 1994 and it has meant that the speed of a train crossing the bridge is now 50 mph rather than the 20 mph restriction imposed in the early 1990s because of worn and splitting tracks. No one, as far as I am aware, denies that that is a vast improvement. It emphasises and demonstrates Railtrack's commitment to the bridge's future.
In spite of all that I have said about maintenance and safety aspects of the Forth bridge, and in answer specifically to the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), may I say that Railtrack willingly accepts that, from a cosmetic point of view, the bridge could look better. Railtrack has, as I said, explained that it would cost tens of millions of pounds to paint it to the high cosmetic standards that some critics demand. I repeat that Railtrack is not in the business of maintaining a tourist attraction. Even if there were limitless funds, there is a physical limit to the area of the bridge that could be painted at any one time using current painting methods and complying with the Health and Safety Executive's important requirements.
I appreciate that many people, including many hon. Members, regard the bridge as a national monument, and no one denies that it is a great feat of Victorian engineering, but it is not in any sense threatened. I have no reason, and I do not believe that there is any good reason, to doubt Railtrack's evidence that the bridge is structurally sound.
I shall advise the hon. Gentleman as soon as I can on whether there is a later date. It would be necessary to ascertain precisely what inspections had taken place, and I would not want to mislead the House or the hon. Gentleman. I understand his argument.
However, I emphasise the facts that I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House need to know. Although many millions of pounds could be spent on cosmetic improvements to the bridge, the independent Health and Safety Executive has no doubt that the structure is sound, that it has been maintained at the same cost at which it was previously maintained by British Rail, that there are no structural defects, that reports of flakings or large pieces falling off are—as far as we are aware—as yet unsubstantiated, and that the bridge remains a vital part of our transport network and in an absolutely safe condition for that purpose. I do not believe that it is reasonable to expect Railtrack to paint the bridge simply for cosmetic purposes. It goes beyond its remit and resources.
I hope that what I have said has reassured the House that the bridge is being maintained and that it is a safe operational structure. I have no reason to doubt Railtrack's assurances that all the necessary steps are being taken to maintain the bridge in a sound condition. Railtrack has made clear its commitment to the Forth bridge and I am happy that we can look forward to another century of trains crossing it.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), the constituency Member of Parliament for the area, I am dismayed at the Minister's answer. We are talking about the greatest engineering structure of the 19th century. Baedeker of 1906 gave half a page to Salisbury cathedral and two pages to the Forth bridge. It is a great monument and it is not being treated as such. All this business of cosmetic—