Sir George speaks up for Cyclists
9 May 2007
This is the speech Sir George made in the house of Commons

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing the debate and on his eloquence in speaking on behalf of the country’s cyclists. As he said, the debate is timely, as the Government are drafting their White Paper and our constituents are e-mailing us asking for a more friendly interface between cycle and rail. It is also timely, because London is preparing to host the start of the Tour de France on 6 July.

I was interested to read in Hansard an earlier debate on this subject, at the end of which the responding Minister said:

“I hope that we shall return to this subject many times in the future and that this debate will have the effect of encouraging Ministries and local authorities to adopt a forward-looking policy.”

That debate was in 1975, and the Minister, Denis Howell, was replying to an Adjournment debate initiated by the then hon. Member for Ealing, Acton. I am delighted to see my successor-but-two, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter), in his place this morning.

At that time, I was also the chairman of the all-party group on cycling. In the intervening 32 years, I have progressed to become a patron of that august group. I am sure that I was not nearly as active a chairman as the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) has been in putting forward a programme for parliamentary colleagues. We did, however, start a parliamentary cycling pool in the 1970s, to encourage back on to two wheels Members who had lost the habit of cycling and did not want the hassle of buying and maintaining a bicycle. The pool had a large number of members, who each got a key to a box in the Members’ cloakroom. In the box they would find another key to a padlock, which gave access to a bicycle on which they could be let loose on the streets of London. The pool encouraged a large number of Members back on to two wheels, but it was not an unmitigated success because many bicycles migrated to Members’ constituencies and we never saw them again. In 1979, anticipating the Thatcher reforms, I privatised the cycle pool and sold it off to its members.

The 1975 debate was answered not by a Transport Minister, but the Minister for Sport, which reflects that cycling was then seen more as a recreation than as a valid means of transport. In that debate, the villain of the piece was British Rail. Like the hon. Member for Battersea, I had a shopping list of requests, one of which was for

“a bicycle unit within the Department of the Environment...which could advise local authorities, British Rail and others on measures to encourage cycling.”

The Minister replied:

“I cannot accede to the request that my Department should set up a separate cycling advisory unit.”

Happily, we have had alternative Administrations in the meantime, and that particular deficiency has been put right.

I went on to ask for a cycling allowance. I said that if the Minister wanted a trial scheme,

“he could start with Members of Parliament, many of whom need some gentle daily exercise to keep them in proper condition.”

The Minister replied:

“Speaking on behalf of 98 per cent. of hon. Members who find the present mileage allowance totally inadequate to cover the cost of driving their cars on parliamentary business, I must say that I cannot encourage the hon. Gentleman in that direction.”

He also said,
“I do not think that hon. Members generally would support that proposition.”

Of course, we now have a cycling allowance, although I have never claimed it. I hope that the Minister who is responding today has a different speech writer from the one who drafted the ministerial reply back in 1975.

I also asked for cycle routes through the Royal parks and for cyclists to have a head start over cars at traffic lights, and I am happy that some progress has been made in those areas. I then had a go at the specific subject of this morning’s debate—cycle-rail integration. I said:

“No debate on improved facilities for the cyclist would be complete without paying tribute to British Rail’s fearless campaign to keep bicycles from its stations and off its trains.”

I went on to mention inadequate parking facilities, high tariffs and inadequate carriage facilities—some of which have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Battersea today—but I made little headway. At that time, British Rail was, of course, a nationalised industry. However, in his reply the Minister said:

“Thankfully, the Government have no responsibility for the individual management policy of British Railways. I have very little hope or confidence in an organisation which forces the travelling public to drink coffee out of cardboard cups”. —[Official Report, 11 July 1975; Vol. 895, c. 1018-30.]

He then invited me to approach British Rail directly myself to see whether I might make better progress. It is a paradox that Ministers appear to have more control over the now privatised rail industry than they had over the nationalised industry some 30 years ago.

This morning, we need to outline some short-term measures, as the hon. Gentleman has already done, and some medium-term measures. In the short term, we need clarity, certainty and, where possible, consistency. We need clarity as to what the rules are and to be able to find that information easily. I accept that those rules might have to vary between train operating companies in the short term, depending on their capacity and the configuration of rolling stock.

We need certainty that when a traveller is told that he can take his bicycle on a train, he can do so, rather than getting there and being told by the conductor that he cannot. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need the ramps that he mentioned.

In the medium term, we should consider rolling stock and franchise agreements with a view to tilting the terms of trade more towards the cycling railway traveller. We need more flexible rolling stock in which seats can be tipped up to make more space for bicycles. We need more cycle-hire facilities at main railway stations and more convenient cycle racks. At Waterloo, one has to walk halfway to Clapham Junction, along platform 12, to access the cycle racks. As franchise agreements are redrafted and train operating companies are invited to bid, the Minister would do well to insert into those agreements some of the items on the CTC’s shopping list, which indicates how we might make progress.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on at least one item on that shopping list. Some 10 years ago, a small sum of money was available within the Department as part of something called cycle challenge. People could bid for that money to develop innovative cycling schemes to promote cycling. That encouraged best practice and brought forward a wide range of ideas. The CTC has talked about a cycle-rail innovation fund. I do not think that it matters particularly what such a model is called, but it is a useful model that the Department might consider to raise the profile of this issue, put some money on the table and encourage exciting new ideas.

My final plea is for the tandem rider. If the cyclist has been gently persecuted by the railways for decades, the tandem rider has been martyred. My wife and I had to ride an extra 20 miles one day, because the conductor would not allow a tandem on a train that allowed bicycles. I therefore join the hon. Member for Battersea in not ignoring tricycles, trailers and the rest. The challenge confronting the Minister is in unlocking potential. We do not want to make people cycle to the station, but many people would like to if it were easier, safer and more convenient. That is what we need to do. I cannot guarantee that I will still be here in 32 years, but I hope that any debate on this issue in 2039 will be able to point to this debate as the time when the campaign to promote better cycle-rail integration really took off.



 
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