HC Deb 23 February 1970 vol 796 cc822-7
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

I am glad to be able to inform the House that I have today approved the British Railways Board's proposals for the electrification of the West Coast main line from Weaver Junction, near Crewe, to Glasgow.

The estimated cost of the electrification, including the cost of locomotives, is about £25 million. The work will be carried out concurrently with the programme of track improvement and modernisation of signalling on the route which has already been authorised. The board intends to start work immediately with the aim of introducing the electrified services early in 1974.

In combination with the related track improvements, the electrification scheme will enable British Railways to provide faster, more reliable and generally more attractive passenger services as well as enabling them to realise worthwhile economies in operating costs for all services, passenger and freight. It will eliminate the need for change of locomotive on journeys to the North-West and to Glasgow.

I am confident that this project will play an important role in the development of the national transport network while, at the same time, making a satisfactory contribution to the long-term financial viability of the Railways Board. The consequent improvement in strategic communications with North-West England and Scotland will also be of benefit to the economies of these areas.

Mr. Michael Heseltine

As the Minister knows, we on this side have been putting down Questions pressing for this decision for well over a year and, therefore, we naturally welcome this continuation of an electrification programme which the previous Government introduced.

Can the Minister tell us, however, whether this decision has any implications for the dramatic cuts in railway investment which have been made under his Government since 1964, and whether this programme is to be carried out within the reduced level of investment now applying or whether special allocations will be made by the Government for this purpose?

Mr. Mulley

As to the question of delay, as long ago as December, 1967—and this was repeated again last April, when the rationalisation scheme was approved—it was made clear that approval of this programme could not be given before the end of 1969. I do not think, therefore, that there is a case for suggesting that there has been a delay. Of course, it is an important programme which has justified a thorough study of all aspects.

As to railway investment, the cost in the first year will not be very substantial and will be met within the board's existing ceiling. For 1971, however, the board's investment ceiling will be raised to cover expenditure on this project, and in 1972 and 1973, for which the ceilings have still to be settled, this project will be taken in account in arriving at those ceilings.

Mr. Marsh

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what he expects the discounted cash flow rate of return on this investment will be?

Mr. Mulley

The d.c.f. rate will, of course, depend on numerous factors, but I am quite satisfied that it should not be less than, and, indeed, may well be substantially above, the minimum rate of 10 per cent. which we use for assessing these programmes.

Mr. Clark Hutchison

Will the Minister accept that this is a wise and helpful decision on his part and that of the Railways Board, but may I have his assurance that this programme will have no repercussions on the East Coast route as regards through expresses from London to Edinburgh? Further, what is the position about gas turbine engines on that line?

Mr. Mulley

There is no intention that this programme should be linked with the East Coast line and I have no proposals before me for electrification on that route. I would not like to give off the cuff an answer about the engines on the East Coast line. This is essentially a management matter for the board, but I will inquire into it and let the hon. Member know.

Mr. Hynd

Will my right hon. Friend recognise that this announcement will be widely welcomed, not only in railway circles but in business circles generally and in the country, as confirmation of the success of the Government's economic policies which have made this possible?

Can my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that on this occasion there will be no stopping with the programme halfway, as occurred too often under previous Administrations?

Mr. Mulley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. This is an important decision for the railways and will, I hope, be well received by all those who work on the railways as an indication of our faith in their future.

As to not stopping the programme half-way, certainly I give that assurance. As well as the electrification, there is to be a complete rationalisation of signalling, track, and so on, so that there should be an absolutely first-class line all the way to Glasgow.

Mr. Monro

While welcoming the statement, may I ask the Minister whether the Crewe to Carlisle section will be finished before the Carlisle to Glasgow section is begun? Secondly, can he say whether there will be any redundancy among diesel train crews in Scotland?

Mr. Mulley

I cannot give an answer as to the exact way in which the work will be done, but I will make inquiries. This is a matter for the Railways Board, but it only heard this morning of my decision to approve the project.

On the question of diesel crews in Scotland, I am not sure about how it is intended that workers on the diesels will be used in other parts of the inter-city services. As the diesels themselves are to be fully utilised, I would think that their crews would find employment. I am not exactly certain how this works in Scotland, but I will let the hon. Member know.

Mr. Lawson

Will my right hon. Friend accept that people in Scotland, particularly in the West, will be delighted at this announcement? Will he bear in mind, too, that it will fit in with the very substantial development of the Clyde Estuary, a deep-water estuary which may very soon become one of the most important outlets which Britain has to the Atlantic?

Mr. Mulley

I am sure that, for various reasons, this is the right decision, but my hon. Friend will not expect me to bring ports business into railway business in answer to his question.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that what has been lacking in the railway electrification programme is continuity, and that because of the delay in reaching this decision, although it is very welcome now that it has come, the costs imposed on manufacturers, and hence on British Railways, are higher than they need have been? Will he bear this in mind, in view of the fact that the programme is due to be completed in 1974, and begin to think now of what is to come after that?

Mr. Mulley

The responsibility for initiating proposals for further electrification rests with the board. I understand that it does have some further schemes under consideration, but I must also make it clear that, in recent years, public sector investment programmes have had to be kept under restraint in the interests of the general economic situation.

Mr. William Hamilton

Can my right hon. Friend say whether Scottish Region of British Railways is completely satisfied that it will get a better return from the £25 million investment on electrification than it would from £25 million on improved dieselisation and the improvement of the existing system? Will he give a further assurance, following the supplementary question by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison), that there will be no diminution of the system on the east side of Scotland?

Mr. Mulley

All these questions are essentially management matters for the Railways Board. I do not go around the railways asking for individual regional views. The views of the board as a whole are transmitted to me, and the board is satisfied that this will yield a worthwhile return.

Equally, with respect to the second part of the question, again I cannot give detailed assurances about trains and timetables on every part of the system.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Does this decision indicate that the original decision to electrify as far as Crewe has proved to be right and that, therefore, the decision of one of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessors, which was very much criticised at the time, has now been justified?

Mr. Mulley

I do not know quite what the right hon. Gentleman means by being right. Obviously, it would not have been sensible to pull up the system if it had not been right. I think that there is scope for considerable argument about the actual figuring on the matter, but certainly I think it right that the line to Crewe should be extended now to Glasgow.

Mr. Milne

Is my right hon. Friend aware that while I welcome this suggestion about the British Railways network, I find that in his answers to questions he has been less than forthcoming about the question of the east coast line? While, as he rightly says, it is the responsibility of British Railways, will he ensure that the Newcastle to Edinburgh and the Newcastle to London east coast links are maintained?

Mr. Mulley

I know of no proposals for electrification of those links. Certainly, I will convey to the British Railways Board the views which hon. Members have expressed, but there are no proposals before me, and I do not know of any under consideration, for electrification on the east coast, but obviously services will continue.

Captain W. Elliot

Is the Minister aware that over the past two decades enormous sums of money have been spent in improving inter-city travel by rail, but that at the same time millions of commuters have suffered appalling and deteriorating conditions? Is he quite satisfied that the allocation of resources as between inter-city travel and commuter services is quite fair?

Mr. Mulley

It is very hard to lay down a general principle, but the Railways Board is concerned about that matter and has done quite a bit to improve commuter services, although I am only too well aware, as is the board, that much still remains to be done. However, I think that inter-city services have greatly improved in recent years and that this improvement has been very welcome.

Mr. Spriggs

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this decision will be welcome throughout the country? Will he give an undertaking that no more of the feeder services will be closed down between Crewe and Scotland?

Mr. Mulley

I cannot give a blanket decision about all railway services in answer to questions arising from this statement.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker