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11.17 am

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon)

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on their maiden speeches. I made mine no less than 31 years ago, so I took to heart the latter's remarks about youth and age. Perhaps in 31 years' time he will reflect on this occasion as I now do on my maiden speech.

I am glad that we have heard from different parts of the country, including Birmingham and Sleaford, as the London area tends to dominate these occasions. We have heard about a huge number of subjects, although not everyone contrived to cover every subject in one speech, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) did.

What has been notably absent is any contribution from the Liberal Democrats. Given how they boast of their prowess and assiduity in our constituencies, it is remarkable that they are entirely absent from this important and traditional part of our parliamentary year.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West covered so many subjects, I will restrict myself to one—a self-denying ordinance, perhaps. It is a subject on which my constituents feel extremely strongly and it has been of particular concern over the past few months: commuting, and the state of the railway lines running into and out of London, which is an extremely important part of many people's daily lives.

I am especially concerned about safety and overcrowding. The problems that we face are a microcosm of all the problems faced on railways throughout the country.

Safety is a particular concern in my area. Only a couple of weeks ago, there was a serious near miss just north of St. Mary Cray when, it is thought—there will obviously be an inquiry—a driver passed a signal at danger and nearly collided with a train travelling the other way. That happened at about 5 o'clock in the evening; there were 200 or 300 people on both trains and the situation could have been extremely serious. Fortunately, the driver realised his mistake and the other driver also put on his brakes, so a collision was avoided.

That was only two or three months after a similar incident at Hither Green further up the line, again in the rush hour, when the trains did collide. The accident was not serious, but it resulted in huge chaos throughout the day, with people being stuck in trains and having to walk along the line. Those two incidents in short succession could have been extremely serious had it not been for the quick action of those involved.

As a result, I asked various questions in the House about the number of recent SPADs and I spoke to local railway people, in particular Olivier Brousse, managing director of Connex South Eastern, and the manager of my local railway station, Dave Chapman—both outstanding men who are fighting hard for better conditions for passengers travelling regularly in and out of London.

The statistics provided by the Government in response to my questions showed that SPADs have decreased in the past three years, about which I am glad, and, in particular, that Connex South Eastern has improved its record. I also learned from Olivier Brousse that the number of serious SPADs had been halved during the past 12 months, all of which is excellent.

One reason for such an improvement is that railway companies in my area have introduced a simulator, which enables drivers to understand the problems. It is astonishing that drivers can pass signals at danger. If a car

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driver were to pass a red light, it would be a serious incident, and for it to happen so frequently on the railways is a matter of concern. However, good management practices and new techniques have improved matters.

In addition, a train warning system should have been installed by 2004. Its installation for the complete system is some way off and I hope that in the meantime real progress can be made, but that is to be welcomed. Railway safety is being tackled reasonably seriously, at least in my part of London.

The situation on punctuality and reliability is more mixed. For example, the regular commuter watch report in the Evening Standard shows that punctuality on trains in and out of London is still poor, but clearly there have been significant improvements since the dreadful days after the Hatfield accident on the east coast line. There has been something to shout about there, but there is still considerable room for improvement.

The real worry is overcrowding—an enormous problem of which those of us who commute regularly are well aware. It is unpleasant and tiring to stand throughout a journey, and for even longer in the event of a breakdown. Commuters who are packed like sardines wonder what would happen to them in the event of a collision or near-collision if they were so jammed in that they had no means of exit. That weighs on people now in a way that it did not in the past.

Having talked to train companies, local railway managers and Railtrack, I see no prospect of improvement in the years to come; indeed, there may be a worsening. The new 375 stock that is being introduced on many lines in my area, and no doubt elsewhere, can accommodate fewer passengers. There is a crumple zone at the end of each coach for safety reasons, which I welcome, and there is improved access for disabled people, but that has led to the loss of about six seats from each coach. The modern coach has certain advantages, such as closed circuit television, and the coaches are brighter and more comfortable, but they have less capacity than the existing slam-door coach.

If platforms are the same length and signals are at the same point, a train cannot carry more coaches, and so has less capacity but the same number of people trying to board it. Ultimately, overcrowding will be more of a problem than it is now. It is true that new coaches are being introduced slowly at off-peak times, but despite their many advantages they will not solve the problem of overcrowding.

Overcrowding on commuter trains can be dealt with only by further investment in the railways to increase the length of platforms and to re-site signal boxes so that trains can have 12 coaches rather than eight and so have the capacity to deal with an increasing number of passengers. Hundreds of thousands of commuters travel into and out of London, which is the backbone of the economy.

During the past two years manufacturing industry has declined, and unemployment is declining only because the service industries are expanding. The biggest service industry of all is the City of London and the west end, which provide many jobs. London is the heart of the economy, and if transport conditions deteriorate further there will be serious consequences for London as a major centre of the economy and the quality of life for the many who work here. That is a serious matter.

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I hope that the Government will consider the matter carefully. Will they say clearly what investment can be made? Not a lot of money is needed to lengthen platforms and improve signalling. For example, on my line the figure is thought to be about £100 million over several years. There is to be a meeting in September between those involved in such changes and the Strategic Rail Authority.

I hope that Railtrack will consider such investments seriously, but the problem is how it can raise the money. It has been almost completely destroyed by the Government over the past four years, and is no longer the vehicle for raising money that was envisaged four years ago. Given its current share price, it can no longer do that.

There is a real problem in raising finance through the private sector via Railtrack, so the Government must clearly put something into the system. We do not know what the Government intend. The figure of £60 billion over 10 years has been bandied around, but we do not know what that means in terms of a strict timetable and what projects will be given priority, so we need to hear something specific from the Government in the short term.

I hope that the matter will be considered during the recess before Parliament resumes in October, and that some clear decisions will be made to the benefit of my constituents, perhaps at the meetings in September. I want the companies to improve their management to deal with incidents of signals passed at danger; I want the train protection and warning system brought in more quickly and more thoroughly than is at present intended; and I want the Government to reconsider the investment issue and make it plain, with a timetabled allocation of resources, exactly how they can contribute to more investment to deal with the severe problem of overcrowding, which affects my constituents every day of their working lives. I will want clear answers when we return after the recess.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: I call Mr. Banks.

11.30 am

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): A popular call there, Madam Deputy Speaker. I accept that I was a fraction late, and it was appropriate that I came in during a speech about public transport, which was the reason why I was slightly late. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) will no doubt agree that a distinguished, vintage—rather than old—Member can be allowed a little flexibility in addressing the House. I am grateful to be given the opportunity to do so.

It is always good to participate in the summer Adjournment debate. We have heard a couple of good maiden speeches today, but usually one sees the usual suspects lining up for this end-of-term whinge. Indeed, it is often referred to as whingeing gits day, and I hope that it will long remain so. As several hon. Members have observed, such opportunities to raise matters about which we and, we hope, our constituents feel strongly are important to us as Back Benchers, as those opportunities are so often missing from the business of the House.

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