HC Deb 02 November 1973 vol 863 cc573-84

4.0 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

I wish to raise the question of the future of the railway system in Scotland, which is a rather different topic from what we have just been discussing. Before I come to the general problem, however, I might dispose of a constituency matter on which I wrote to the Minister a few weeks ago. I have had a few complaints about the revised services recently announced for Fife, and it was on the strength of those and other matters that I wrote to the Minister on 9th September 1973 about the general problem and about the situation in Fife. The reply which I received from the hon. Gentleman, dated 12th October, indicated that, so far as rail services within the new local authority regions were concerned, under Section 15(3) of the Local Government (Scotland) Act the new regional authorities will have power to make grants towards any costs incurred in connection with public transport services wholly or partly within their area. I presume from this that the circle line, which has been suggested by responsible bodies in Fife, could be financed in part or in whole by the new Fife regional authority, and for that we are all grateful.

I should now like to come to the general proposition of how one sees the future of the Scottish railway system. In June 1973 British Rail produced a summary of their major rail development proposals and submitted them to the Government. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us this afternoon when we might expect a policy statement on this matter. I do not know whether this debate is too late to influence what the Government have in mind for the future rail structure in Scotland.

I think we all now understand the importance of an integrated United Kingdom transport system, but Scotland's own rail system should not be regarded simply as an appendage of the English system, either in determining the overall future of railways or in allocating future investment. The special Scottish Economic Bulletin on North Sea oil emphasised on page 14 the important contribution that is already being made by the rail system towards oil development in Scotland, and I am sure the Minister will agree that that importance will increase. Heavy freight loads, such as the bulk handling of oil, of timber to the Fort William pulp mill, and alumina and aluminium from the Invergordon smelter, will be an increasing burden on the transport system in Scotland. Yet, despite the desirability and the inevitability of these trends, there has been little British Rail investment in the modernisation of the rail system outside the central industrial belt of Scotland.

The run-down of the Scottish rail system is presented most startlingly by quoting the number of railway workers in Scotland over the past 25 years. In 1948—I give round figures—the total employment in Scottish railways was 65,000; in 1972, it was 22,000. Put starkly, out of every three jobs available in Scottish railways in 1948, only one is now available.

The loss of over 40,000 mainly male jobs is, in any circumstances, a serious blow. It is no part of my case to apportion blame in party political terms; both parties have been responsible for that situation. If I may quote one other figure, in 1950 the length of track in Scotland was 7,391 miles. In 1972 it was just under 4,000 miles, a reduction of nearly 50 per cent. in the length of track.

Since that run-down, unforeseen developments have created a new situation, and not least of these is the growing importance of North Sea oil energy resources. That must mean a radical change of attitude towards the transport system, and particularly towards British Rail. On 27th June a document was sent by the Scottish Association for Public Transport to every Scottish Member, putting forward a case for an imaginative Scottish rail electrification programme, and that, I understand, was sent to all appropriate Government Departments and other interested bodies. I assume that the Minister has that document in his possession.

The Under Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Keith Speed)

indicated assent.

Mr. Hamilton

It pointed out fairly convincingly the advantages of railway electrification, and I think these advantages are accentuated by the increasing shortage and the rising cost of other fuels, notably oil. Electricity is not only cleaner, but experience has shown—and the document I have mentioned quoted figures—that the electrification of railways almost invariably leads to greater efficiency and substantial increases in traffic. It quoted an example of the Glasgow-Gourock-Wemyss Bay line where in the first nine months of its operation there was a 50 per cent. increase in the amount of passenger traffic which it carried. There are very powerful economic and environmental reasons why one should go ahead with electrification, and, once it is started, reasons for continuing to expand become stronger. Teams of engineers are got together. One gets a continuous use of specialised manufacturing capacity and, therefore, a lower overall cost.

Very properly the Scotsman on 8th July commended electrification of the Glasgow-London line, which, I understand, will be completed some time in the middle of next year, and the electrification of the Hamilton circle surburban service. Suggestions were made by the disinterested body for further electrification, and I should like to know, for example, what the Government's ideas are on the electrification of the King's Cross-Edinburgh line. Whatever proposals there may be in the pipeline, there are no proposals to date for electrifying the internal trunk lines except the Edinburgh-Glasgow line at some unspecified date.

The Government should recognise that using purely commercial criteria in assessing the value of particular projects or investments is insufficient, particularly in transport. Social factors and social rates of return can often outweigh the commercial disadvantages, most especially, for instance, in rural areas and areas of natural beauty. This was recognised in Section 56 of the Transport Act 1968, which provided for capital grants for investment in approved railway passenger facilities. Such powers could be used for regional development purposes, and I believe 75 per cent. grants were available. Applications under the Section 56 proposals have been limited, and the document to which I have referred quoted an answer in this House which indicated that from June 1970 to February 1972 £72 million in such grants had been authorised for London and the South-East alone and only £11 million for the whole of the rest of Britain. Since then—that is, since early 1972—£65 million worth has been approved for the Tyneside electrification scheme, and £110 million worth to rail projects in or around London.

The only major scheme in Scotland to benefit under the 1968 Act provisions has been the £1½ million Hamilton circle line to which I referred.

Those facts and figures seem to run counter to all regional policy principles of decentralisation, and that is compounded by the Government's proposals to go on with the Maplin third London airport and the Channel Tunnel.

If road investment were allocated on the same basis as rail investment has been allocated, 90 per cent. of the road investment programme would be concentrated in the built-up South-East. But that has not happened. Read investment is assessed on a regional basis. In 1971–72, 12 per cent. of all road expenditure in Britain was in Scotland. Perhaps the Minister can give me comparable figures for rail investment in the same year.

Social criteria have played little part in rail investment outside the scope of Section 56 of the 1968 Act, but in road investment social considerations have been taken into account. Thus, in the Moray Firth area of North-East Scotland we have a road system given high priority, sometimes preceding industrial development. Here is one example. The Perth-Inverness road, the A9, is currently being built, and the Government expect completion by the late 1970s. The estimated total cost will be £43 million. I am not certain what the traffic expectation is, but I have been told that it is 1.2 million or 1.3 million vehicles per year.

When it authorises that kind of expenditure, the Treasury must make some assessments of return on capital. I suspect that the return on that capital, according to the figures with which I have been supplied, will be fairly derisory.

On the other hand, the rail system on the same route, Perth to Inverness, carries 50 per cent. of the freight between those two cities, mostly oil industry equipment going north—about 400,000 tons, if I understand aright—yet not one penny of rail investment has gone into improving the efficiency of that line or into its modernisation.

If the same investment criteria as applied to suburban electrification schemes in London and elsewhere were to be applied to Scotland, and the Secretary of State for Scotland had funds available under Section 56 to finance rail electrification projects recommended by the Greater Glasgow Transportation Study, there could be a great extension of electrification, for instance, from Glasgow to Cumbernauld and East Kilbride and from Paisley to Ayr, as well as on other inner suburban projects which I need not enumerate because the Minister is aware of them.

As regards long-distance routes, the Highlands and Islands Development Board has said that the Perth-Inverness line should be electrified. In my view, that would be as sound an investment as the £43 million road project between those two cities. Regional development criteria would suggest electrification also of routes from central Scotland to the Moray Firth and the Aberdeen area. This would result in quicker journeys, greater capacity, environmental benefits, fewer accidents and a stimulus to economic growth.

If the line were to be electrified between Stirling, Perth and Inverness, that would provide a fast and relatively cheap link to the South. Moreover, electrification from Glasgow to Larbert and Perth to Aberdeen would link Aberdeen to the main electrified network.

I hope that the Minister will assure us that these projects have been thoroughly examined and that reference will be made to them when we have the White Paper.

If the hon. Gentleman can make some statement on the future of the Kyle of Lochalsh line, which is under threat of closure by the end of this year, I hope he will give that favourable consideration. It would be a tragedy if that line were to be slaughtered. It has great tourist potential, and with some financial help from the oil companies, as suggested to me by the Labour candidate for Ross and Cromarty, it could be saved.

The Scotsman on 16th June this year had this to say: oil is an uncertain ally for the Kyle campaigners. The project for building oil platforms near Kyle has run into heavy opposition. It may or may not earn the Secretary of State's approval, but even if it does not, a harbour and rail head at Kyle should be worth keeping to serve developments elsewhere on the West coast. But the ease for the Kyle line should not be founded mainly on oil. It passes through splendid scenery; passenger traffic has been increasing in the past two years and should be capable of further expansion, especially if public interest is stimulated by attractions like steam locomotive excursions. It then said: with imagination the Kyle line could be given a magnetic appeal", and then it says: if oil has persuaded the authorities to reassess the future of the line, its other uses and potentialities should reinforce the case for prolonging its life indefinitely". In the Minister's letter to me on 12th October an assurance was given. He mentioned the assurance given in the railways debate on 4th July when the Minister said that Draconian cuts of rail services which had been rumoured in the Press were not the answer to the rail industry's problem. But how Draconian is Draconian? We want to know, and we should be told, how and where the cuts will fall. What we want are not cuts in the railway system but expansion and modernisation. The road haulage lobby in this House is far too strong, and it is time the rail lobby, such as it is, was heard increasingly. That is what I am engaged in in this Adjournment debate today.

Oil and gas resources off the coast of Scotland are immense; their full extent is not even remotely known. When it is known, a fast, efficient transport system will be essential to carry equipment for use by that industry onshore and offshore. The roads in Scotland, even the modernised roads, are inadequate to this purpose. They are expensive and accident prone. The railways are far safer.

The fuel considerations are important. Motor vehicles that use the roads must use oil and petrol, whereas the railways can use coal, our indigenous fuel, in the form of electricity through wires.

On all these grounds there is scope for an imaginative approach to the whole question of transport in Scotland, and I believe that it is in the national interest that there should be an increasing emphasis on the railway system.

4.18 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Keith Speed)

I thank the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) for raising this subject. First, I confirm his understanding of my letter concerning Fife about the new set-up under the Local Government (Scotland) Act. I am not sure I agree with him completely when he says the road lobby is too powerful. He gave the impression of a struggling rail lobby. He was present for the debate in July, as I was, and he will realise that the rail lobby in this House and outside is very powerful. As long as it is powerful and based on sound premises rather than false premises, I personally welcome it.

The future of the rail system, whether in Scotland, England or Wales, has been continuously under the public microscope during the last few months. Both my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries and I recognise the importance that hon. Members on both sides attach to this vital issue.

I shall turn, if I may, to the Scottish railways in a few moments. Of course, these are only part of the national railway system and are not just tagged on to the English system.

First, I should like to say something about our present thinking. Both I and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries spoke of our attitude to the future of the railways during a debate on 4th July. In July last year, my right hon. Friend asked the Chairman of the British Railways Board to undertake a thorough examination of the industry to see what choices there were for rail policy. We asked for the board's views on the railways' future rôle, and what it would cost the taxpayer. The board has only recently completed this series of studies.

The Government are now considering the results of the studies. My right hon. Friend's intention is to put the Government's proposals before Parliament very soon, certainly within the next few weeks. Both my right hon. Friend and I will be interested in what the hon. Gentleman said this afternoon, particularly about some of the Scottish rail services. From that point of view, what he said is not too late.

Although the review was made necessary by the board's serious financial position, it is taking full account of the wider social economic and environmental implications and of likely transport requirements in the decade ahead. The industry is a complex and important one, and all previous attempts to put the railways on a firm financial footing have failed. The Government are therefore determined not to take any hasty decisions. I recognise, however, the considerable unrest and anxiety about the future of the industry which is felt by those working in it, by hon. Members and many members of the general public. That is why my right hon. Friend told the House on 4th July that he did not consider that Draconian cuts in the railway network were the answer to the industry's problems.

I do not want to become involved in an argument on semantics, but I think that "Draconian cuts" meant what it said. Within a few weeks, when we present to the House our conclusions on the review, I think that the hon. Gentleman and the House will be reasonably satisfied with what we propose in the light of those remarks.

Perhaps I could also remind the House of my right hon. Friend's approval last month of the introduction of a high-speed diesel service on the London-Bristol-South Wales route, which demonstrates the Government's faith in the future of the industry.

The hon. Gentleman has been interested in a memorandum prepared by the Scottish Public Transport Association recommending the expenditure of £25 million—£35 million on railway electrification in Scotland and in further use of powers under the Local Employment Act and the 1968 Transport Act to develop Scottish railways. I do not think I need add to my right hon. Friend's statement, in answer to the hon. Member's Question on 11th July, that he is always ready to consider any representations or advice about the railways that he receives from Scotland. We are giving careful consideration to the Public Transport Association's proposals for electrification of more lines in Scotland.

As for the use of powers under the Local Employment Act and the 1968 Transport Act, it is certainly our intention that, where these offer appropriate means to help Scottish railways to develop to fulfil a useful rôle, there should be every encouragement to do this. My right hon. Friend, together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, is always happy to consider carefully any proposals for railways investment that may be put to him either by the Railways Board or by local authorities.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the fairly dramatic reduction in mileage on Scottish railways over the 22 years from 1950 to 1972 and the equally dramatic reduction in staff employed on Scottish railways over that period. The reduction in staff was achieved not just by cutting some of the activities but by a genuine increase in productivity in which the rail unions have co-operated very well over the past decade or two.

The hon. Gentleman may well have had further closures in mind. I hope that I can lay a few ghosts. I have already referred to my right hon. Friend's statement on 4th July. I can assure the House that the "mad axe-man" referred to in an earlier debate is dead and buried. I shall give some figures. I do so not to make any party political point, because the hon. Gentleman has not approached the matter in that way, but to point out that during the past three-and-a-half years two passenger services and 15 passenger route miles only have been closed in Scotland. I do not believe that anyone could claim that that has been a major closure programme.

Further, I can assure the House that there are no Scottish services currently being considered for closure. Obviously, I cannot give a blanket guarantee for the future. That is the present position.

The hon. Gentleman has asked me about the Inverness—Kyle of Lochalsh line and made some interesting comments about it. After full consultation with the Secretary of State for Scotland, consent for closure was given in December 1971 on condition that the service should not be withdrawn until the beginning of 1974, and then only after specified replacement bus services had been provided.

There has been considerable development in the concrete oil platform construction industry, and in oil exploration off the coast of Britain, since that decision was taken. We considered carefully whether recent developments could justify the retention of the passenger service. We had particularly in mind the possibility that the line could be used to transport heavy freight if there were to be major oil developments on the West Coast.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray), who is a Whip and silent in this Chamber, has not been silent outside. He has been conducting an energetic and forceful campaign, and I have seen him about the matter on a number of occasions. He has been putting consistently the point of view that it would be folly for the line to be closed at this stage.

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries recently concluded that it would not be right to implement closure on 1st January 1974, even if arrangements for the replacement buses could have been made in time. He will instead be considering the line's future when we have a clearer view about future requirements for freight traffic. As he recently informed my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty, the line will be kept open throughout 1974, so as to give ample time for a sound decision to be made in the light of the further assessment which he will be making. I hope that that will be welcomed in the area. We shall be further considering the matter with the Scottish Office and the Department of Trade and Industry.

I now turn from closures to investment. Recent Government investment approvals have indicated our confidence in the future of the Scottish railway system. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the electrification of the Glasgow suburban Hamilton circle at a cost of approximately £1 million. Inter-city services to Scotland via the East Coast main line are being accelerated year by year. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the answer which he would no doubt like about the electrification of that line, but services are being improved even with diesel stock. I recently travelled on that line in a high-speed diesel train which has not yet been authorised. There will first be a service running to South Wales. I wish to see improvements on the East Coast main line.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the West Coast main line. He is right to say that within a matter of months the service from Euston to Glasgow will be completely electrified. That will mean cutting the Euston/Glasgow time to a best ever, just over five hours. That will cut nearly an hour off the present best time. That will be of great assistance.

There will be improvements not just on the London/Glasgow line but in the services from Euston to Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham. Continuing efforts have been made to improve local services. Services in Fife are of particular interest to the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, a regular interval service was introduced between Edinburgh and Dundee and Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath at the beginning of last month. As a result, the travelling public will have a regular service. Easily remembered times are equally important. That has been one of the successes of commuter services in various areas. At the same time, although it is not a major consideration, taxpayers generally are to be saved about £65,000 a year in Government grant.

I have spoken mainly of passenger services, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the movement of freight is of importance I must emphasise that the scope for transferring freight from road to rail is very limited. We are encouraging the railways to do what they can do best. For example, there have been considerable developments of freight services in the Invergordon area. To force on to rail freight which is carried in small consignments and which requires door-to-door delivery would increase transport costs and deprive a great many parts of Scotland of their standard of living and a choice of goods which people expect.

I must remind the House that during the last 10 years successive Governments have assisted British Railways generally by offering £3,000 million—

The Question having been proposed at Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.