HC Deb 15 April 1975 vol 890 cc374-91

8.24 p.m.

Mr. Hamish Gray (Ross and Cromarty)

It is perhaps fortunate that following a debate on transport in London I should have the opportunity of raising the question of transport at the other end of the land. I have great pleasure initiating this debate on the question of rail services in the North of Scotland.

The early years of this century saw the railways in Britain at their peak, but the subsequent development of other forms of transport had a major impact on this situation. After the rationalisation programme of the 1960s, many of the uneconomic lines were closed, and at that time the North of Scotland accepted its share of the economies under the axe of Dr. Beeching.

Mercifully, the industrial development in the region played a considerable part in causing successive Governments to postpone further closures, and only last year the present Government gave a welcome reprieve to the scenically magnificent line from Dingwall to Kyle of Lochalsh in the constituency of Ross and Cromarty. This line, in addition to its tourist attraction, is now playing a significant part in oil-related projects in the West. With the threat also removed from the main line from Inverness to Wick and Thursoe, the Highlands at least can now look forward to a permanent service.

There must, however, be no question of a curtailed service on the line from Perth to Inverness. Rumours that this route was to have had its traffic diverted via Aberdeen can only be hoped to be without any foundation, for such a move would be wholly unacceptable to those who live and work in the North.

The efforts of the many people who have campaigned over the last decade for the retention of adequate rail services in the area have been justly rewarded. I should like to pay tribute to those who, both within the House and outwith the House, assisted in this task. The hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) and the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) both played a considerable part in the campaign which we fought. But I do not think that it would have had the success which it achieved had it not been for Mr. Torquil Nicholson, who is the local councillor for the Kyle area and now the regional councillor in the new authority. Regrettably, however, there now remains a host of essential improvements if the railways in the North of Scotland are to maintain their rejuvenation.

I was prompted to raise this matter tonight for two reasons: first, because of the ever-increasing number of complaints which I receive from my constituents regarding the quality of the service provided, and secondly, because of the necessity for attention to be focused on the need for planned future investment in the railway system in the North.

I deal first with the complaints. These refer to a variety of failings, but far and away the most common is the complaint about the late arrival of trains from further south. All too often no obvious reason is given to the travelling public. I cannot help feeling that in this day and age it would not be too much to expect that British Railways could devise some method of communicating with those who are actually travelling on trains and advising them of the reason for delays. There are few things which can be more frustrating than sitting in a train at a station wondering why on earth it is not proceeding on its journey.

The Glasgow and Edinburgh to Inverness service is particularly bad in this respect. A local government official recently travelled to Inverness from Glasgow. I shall read from a letter which he wrote to me: On Tuesday 8th April I left Glasgow on the 10 past three train which, as you are probably aware, connects with the main train at Stirling. The 10 past three train made a rapid journey to Stirling and we arrived about 20 to four. The train from Edinburgh with which the Glasgow train connects was scheduled to appear at six minutes past four. At that time there was no sign of the train and an announcement came over the Tannoy system that the train would appear about half past four. Half past four came and no train. It was then announced over the Tannoy that the train was further delayed and would appear at five o'clock. As by now you will have worked out, I was standing on the Stirling station platform in the cold from 20 to four until five o'clock. He goes on to say: The train arrived at Pitlochry and the engine failed. The heating went off and presumably an engine was called up from Perth. Wherever it arrived from, I do not know. but eventually it did arrive and was coupled up to the train and we proceded northwards. The heating, however was not reconnected and in the new type of first class carriage one cannot control the heating as one could in the older types … And so it goes on.

The 13.40 train from Edinburgh is timed to arive at Inverness at 18.40 hours. There is no connecting train further north, and the bus for Dingwall leaves before the train arrives. One would think that some sort of co-operation between the British Rail authorities and the bus operators could be arranged. This is no new situation. My constituent traveling further north have had to suffer these conditions for a number of years, and one would have thought that something could have been done about it before now.

Another constituent who uses the service regularly advised me that on three occasions recently there was no heating whatsoever, the excuse being given that the boiler was out of action or that no replacement engine was available.

These things may seem vaguely amusing when we talk about them in this Chamber, but I can assure hon. Members that when one lives in the North of Scotland, where at times it can be extremely cold, and one has to put up with conditions of this sort, one naturally becomes extremely angry and wants to see something done about them. Far too often I receive complaints about dirty and ill-kept carriages, toilets which do not work, inadequate heating and late arrivals. This happens repeatedly.

However, I must place on record that I have always received courtesy from the staff at both Inverness and Glasgow when I have complained on behalf of constituents, and I would add that Mr. D. J. Cobbett, General Manager of the Scottish Region, has gone to a great deal of trouble investigating complaints which I have raised with him.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that all too often a great many of the complaints arise from the fact that old rolling stock is used on these lines—stock which I would say is put out to grass on the north line—although I have to admit that even the Clansman, the new Inverness to London day train, has come in for its share of criticism. On 20th March, for example, it started the 600-mile journey south without any heating at all. The locomotive's indicator showed that the heating was working. Checked at Aviemore, this proved to be wrong. And so it goes on. Checked again at Perth, the train was signalled away before the electricians had time to repair it. This sort of complaint can be repeated over and over again. Why cannot these things be checked before the train starts?

In a Question recently I asked the Minister for information about investment in the Scottish Region, but I was given the answer, which rather hid behind the facts, I thought, that the figures were not available on a regional basis.

I must suggest to the Minister that the Government should perhaps forget some of their grandiose schemes about participation in industry, which is going to cost the taxpayer hundreds, if not thousands, of millions of pounds, and spend just a fraction of this money on the modernisation of essential rail links.

No link in the country at the present moment is likely to become more important than that of the Perth to Inverness line, and particularly the section further north from Inverness to Wick and Thurso. With inadequate roads to many parts of this area, rail services have become of even greater importance. Furthermore, I should like to suggest to the Minister that he reject the present costing methods used by his Department and British Rail for determining the amount of the subsidy allocated to each line. The present method contains many anomalies and should be modified. I would also ask him to reconsider the formula for comparing road and rail subsidies. They are ridiculously biased in favour of roads.

I should like now to make some positive suggestions as to how the services in this area might be improved. First, in view of the industrial importance of the North of Scotland and the fact that a great deal of additional industry has been created by the discovery of North Sea oil, I suggest that the Government should insist on special investment in rail improvements in the area. By that I mean the whole of the main line from Perth northwards. I am not talking about a small area on a constituency basis. I am convinced that that would be beneficial and, in the long term, a sound Governmental decision on investment.

Secondly, I suggest that British Rail should be asked to prepare, in conjunction with the Scottish Transport Group, a co-ordinated schedule of services so that bus and rail transport could connect and work in the best interests of the travelling public. I feel that that does not happen at present.

The Scottish Association for Public Transport produced an interesting document in 1972. I am sure that the Minister will be aware of it. On page 10. paragraph 6.4, we read, there is a need to reorganise certain bus services in the Northern Highlands. At present the bus network tends to exist in isolation from other transport networks. Long distance stage bus services connect with shorter distance stage services, but rarely do buses connect with trains or ferries. It is incredible that for such a long time these conditions should have been allowed to go unheeded. I am not blaming the present Government any more than I blamed my right hon. and hon. Friends who then sat on the Government Front Bench. There has been a disregard of the needs of the Highlands of Scotland regarding rail transport by successive Governments. Although a number of hon. Members have drawn the attention of Governments to this matter, for some unknown reason there seems to have been a lack of co-ordination between the various departments and bodies which could have done something about it. I trust that this will be put right without further delay.

Thirdly, I suggest that many of the diesels which are used on lines in the North should be replaced at the same time as the coaches. I refer not only to the lines from Inverness to the North, but from Inverness to Aberdeen. This is a well-used service which merits additional investment. I am certain that if journey times could be cut, greater use would be made of the services.

Finally, the Minister will see from the fact that a number of hon. Members from northern constituencies are present that this matter causes great concern to all who represent the area. I hope, therefore, that he will now be in a position to give us an assurance that the Government are instructing British Rail to submit proposals for long-term improvements in rail services in the North of Scotland.

8.39 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Henderson (Aberdeenshire, East)

First, the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) is to be congratulated on his initiative in arranging for this debate tonight. Secondly, we should express our thanks that, due to a fortunate quirk in the procedures of this House, it is possible for more than one hon. Member to speak before the Minister winds up the debate.

I should like to address myself mainly to the North-East of Scotland. The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty has understandably dealt with the position in the Highlands and the North.

The provision of rail and transport services of all kinds in the North-East of Scotland leaves a great deal to be desired. There can be few hon. Members from Scottish constituencies who do not recall the traumatic shock of the Beeching proposals of 10 to 15 years ago which resulted in a contraction of rail services in the North of Scotland on a scale and of an intensity which perhaps had not been thought possible. Many hon. Members will no doubt feel that the Beeching proposals represented one of the most ghastly and deplorable mistakes made by any Government in their transport policy.

Against the background of the growth that is taking place in the North-East of Scotland at the present time, I must put it to the Minister that the transport services are totally inadequate to deal with the demands being made upon them. A change is taking place in the economic and industrial power of Scotland, away from the West of Scotland and towards the North and North-East, with the development of what the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty called "North Sea oil" but which I am sure he will join with me in agreeing should really be called "Scottish oil".

Mr. Gray

indicated dissent

Mr. Henderson

The hon. Gentleman is dissenting at the moment but I am sure that in more private moments he would agree that it is Scottish oil, and I am quite sure that when we are all sitting together in a Scottish Parliament, where these things should be decided, he will be entirely in agreement with me.

The development of oil is certainly placing a tremendous strain on the whole infrastructure of the North-East of Scotland and all of us, of whatever party, who represent constituencies in that area, are extremely concerned that the Government have not awakened to the fact and have not taken enough action to make sure that that infrastructure is adequate for the changes that are taking place.

If the Minister agrees that we are seeing a change in industrial emphasis and industrial power, surely he must agree that it is high time that the Government took their finger out, and did something about getting the resources and the capability to handle it. Many people have previously raised with British Rail the question of the rail links that exist. There is still a line from Aberdeen to Fraser-burgh which takes goods traffic only. There is strong pressure for that line to be converted, or for other services to be provided on it. so that there is passenger traffic from Aberdeen to Fraserburgh. There is also strong pressure—and the Government should take special note of this aspect—to restore the line between Maud and Peterhead to allow it to take freight and passenger traffic.

I have taken the matter up with British Rail and I must say that despite all its expressions of sympathy, we do not seem to be getting far with British Rail on this issue. In a recent letter, the agreeable Mr. Cobbett, to whom the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty referred, said: We have naturally been watching with the greatest interest the developments which are taking place in the North-East since the commencement of oil exploration in the area and have made every endeavour to exploit the possibilities of obtaining suitable traffic by rail. I must put it to the Minister that if British Rail had any commercial sense whatsoever it would be doing far more than it is doing at the present time in the North-East of Scotland.

Mr. Cobbett's letter goes on to say that British Rail has suggested that a feasibility study should be carried out at the expense of local authorities in the area. If Woolworths were about to open a shop in Peterhead, that firm would not ask Aberdeen County Council to carry out a feasibility study at the expense of that county council. Surely, if British Rail have any commercial sense whatsoever, and any interest at all in viability, it ought to carry out a feasibility study on its own account—or has British Rail no confidence in the North-East of Scotland and the development of the area?

I believe that we have now a situation in which there is a great prospect for British Rail in that area if only it has the courage to grasp the opportunity. I hope that the Minister, taking into account the appalling roads in that area and particularly the death traps on the road from Peterhead to Aberdeen, will use the influence which undoubtedly he has with British Rail and will instruct British Rail to press ahead and to ensure that a full depth study is carried out of the prospects for rail traffic, passenger and freight, in the north-east of Scotland. Let us get on with this and waste no more time.

8.45 p.m.

Mr. Russell Fairgrieve (Aberdeenshire, West)

Like the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson) I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) for initiating the debate, which concerns a most important subject for the North-East of Scotland. My support for the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East, however, stops short of his remark about North Sea Oil. I do not know whether it is British oil, Scottish oil, or Shetland oil.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty has gone into the subject of the railways in complete detail and there is no need to go over again the most important points that he raised. Railways are becoming increasingly important, and it is easy to see why when one considers the disadvantages of travel by air and by road. With air travel there is a delay at each end of the journey and travel by car is becoming increasingly expensive, not less so after today's Budget. The railways are the one form of travel which can beat weather conditions, and that is of considerable importance in the North-East of Scotland.

Why is it always thought that only London should be the area with commuter services? Let us consider what an inventive approach would achieve. Take the example of my constituency of West Aberdeenshire which contains, apart from a large rural area, an urban belt around the city. From Dyce the railway passes through Bucksburn, Kittybrewster, the city of Aberdeen, and the line did go on through Cults, Bieldside, Milltimber, and Culter. The area has a population of over a quarter of a million, but surely there would be great saving if there were a fast single-line service running back and forth on this stretch. Consider how many cars such a service would keep out of the centre of Aberdeen, and think of the inconvenience that would prevent to the people there. In Brussels there is a fast rail service between the city centre and the airport. It covers exactly the same distance and operates in the same conditions as exist between Aberdeen and Dyce. With an inventive approach and a modern attitude we could make much greater use of our railways.

I hope that British Rail and the Government will put on their thinking caps and do something constructive about the railway services in North-East Scotland.

8.47 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

I am always happy to discuss railways and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty and for having initiated this debate tonight. We debated the railways yesterday evening, and I advise the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Fair-grieve) to read the speech by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison), because it would seem that the two hon. Members are somewhat at cross-purposes. One of the things we were being cautioned about last night was that the £340 million subsidy to British Rail could not be extended much further. We were told not to be romantic about the railways, but it is difficult not to be romantic about them, because they are such a wonderful subject to study and become involved in.

One does more harm to the railways by trying to over-stretch them than by considering seriously the job they are cut out for. They can do a very great job. I believe that the people in the north and central belt have a sincere and understanding interest in their railway services, which provide a safe all-weather transport system for passengers and goods. The affection which we Scots have acquired for our rail services lies in recognition of the valuable contribution that they have made to our social and economic life. This is probably no more true than in the North of Scotland. Although the railways provide essentially a nation-wide service, they nevertheless impinge closely upon the life of local communities.

However, in the North of Scotland, especially with the discovery of reserves of oil in the North Sea and the consequent demands of the exploration and production industries, there has been given to the railways and to the local services a national importance which perhaps they did not have in the days of which the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson) spoke, when there were the drastic Beeching cuts. That is something that the economists will be arguing for a long time. Was that the right time to do it? Should it have been done? Nevertheless, I believe that if such an exercise were done now there would be considerable changes, especially in the North of Scotland.

Whilst Scots are generally pleased to be intimately involved in the exploitation of their new-found indigenous natural resources, which mean so much for national economic prosperity, they are rightly concerned at the effects that the imposition of this additional demand has on their rail services. They are also anxious to see that the quality of service in its widest sense is improved.

Mr. Hamish Watt (Banff)

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that there is great urgency, because the oil services are now utilising roads? The Aberdeen-Inverness road was never meant to carry the traffic that it is now carrying. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many of the towns and villages do not have suitable bypasses, and that therefore there is a greater urgency to move more traffic on to the railways?

Mr. Carmichael

I hope that I shall be able to deal with that matter in more detail. We should also remember that while it is true that there is a great deal of money being spent on the A9—approximately £130 million—it is the Government's duty to ensure that transport facilities are provided in sufficient quantity and of sufficient quality in order that the development of our economy is not restricted for the lack of adequate facilities for the transport of goods around the country.

I have great sympathy with the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty over the great irritation caused by the fact that in the railway system one does not know what is happening when there is a hold-up or an engine has to be changed. Many of the little matters become big matters when one is travelling in an unheated train. It was urged on us yesterday that the Government should not become managers of the railways. That job is for the experts on the railways. I am sure that, the point having been raised tonight, the General Manager of the Scottish Region of British Rail will pay even more attention to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

These are matters which are important in running the railways, but which, at the end of the day, only the management of the railways themselves can investigate. I hope that I have the hon. Gentleman's understanding when I say that I do not propose to deal with the detailed points that he raised.

Mr. Gray

I do not expect the hon. Gentleman to deal with the detailed points, but these matters have been raised on many occasions by hon. Members without success. If one cannot shout about them here, where can one shout about them? One can only hope that the message will eventually get through.

Mr. Carmichael

This is what I suggested. The very fact that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter again in the House will provide an additional spur to the Scottish Region of British Rail. But it should also be a responsibility of Government to ensure that people can easily travel to work and to the shops and to ensure that there are facilities for leisure travel.

It must also be borne in mind that the Government have an overriding responsibility to ensure that these needs are met in the most efficient fashion, so that undue pressure is not placed on the nation's limited resources, to the detriment of other equally important programmes. Transport is just one of the many aspects of our economic system for which resources must be provided and between which the Government must strike a balance. That is precisely what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was speaking about earlier today.

Yesterday we discussed the vast sum involved in both the revenue support of the railways and capital investment. It is often said that in transport matters, particularly concerning the railways, Scotland—especially the North of Scotland—has had a raw deal from both the Railways Board and the Government.

Mr. George Thompson (Galloway)

I know that this is a debate about railways in the Highlands, but does the Minister agree that in the South-West of Scotland we, too, have had a raw deal, in that the A75 has to carry traffic for which it was never meant? If the railway line had not been subject to the Beeching axe, we should have been in a better position to attract new industry into the area today.

Mr. Carmichael

One day we can, perhaps, have a debate on the effects of Beeching. I have no objection to the hon. Gentleman's entering the debate. I thought that he was going to speak about the Highland railways. I hope that practically every Scot has travelled on the Kyle line or on the line to Fort William and up to Mallaig. The Highland line means a great deal more even to the Lowland Scot than to people in the rest of the country.

If the railways had still been open in the South of Scotland they might have been able to make an important contribution, but we must always remember the expensive nature of the railways. If they are correctly used, with the correct traffic and the correct level of traffic, they are a most efficient way to move large numbers of people and large bulk traffic. In the absence of those conditions, they are not a very efficient way to move things. In considering transport matters, the Government must ask what is the best way to do the job.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (South Angus)

What form of inexpensive transport exists for these areas? If the railways are axed, and then bus services are reduced, how do people in rural areas travel?

Mr. Carmichael

This is a subject close to my heart. I have been doing a great deal of work recently on rural transport. It is a difficult problem, for which there is no easy solution. In the past 20 years or so we have seen the increased use of the motor car. Even if all the railways were reinstated tomorrow, large areas of the country would still have a need for a study of rural transport. The railway network was probably more widespread in these islands than in any other part of the world. That was part of the problem. There were railways just about everywhere. The motor car and the petrol and diesel engine have now spread communities so much that even if we renewed every railway line we should still have the difficult problem of rural transport.

In most cases a railway is not a very efficient or economic way to provide rural transport. This is one of the points of contention over Beeching. The railways have an extremely important job, which only they can do, but they must be tailored for the job. We have only to look at a map of the Scottish railway system to see that a great many services were retained. The unique contribution to the social and economic well-being of Scotland was considered to be sufficient justification for their retention.

The Transport Act 1968—I was a member of the Committee which sat for a long time examining the measure—introduced a system of Government grants ensuring the continued operation of the railways. The Government appreciate that there is no possibility of a national rail passenger network of anything like the present size becoming financially autonomous. As a result, we have in the 1974 Railways Act, extended and developed the support arrangements of the 1968 Act to incorporate the entire passenger system. We have placed the Railways Board under an obligation to continue to operate the passenger network at substantially the present size and quality. We are paying compensation for the consequent losses. There could be no clearer indication of the Government's recognition of the value of the railway system.

The benefits of this new attitude to railway services for the North of Scotland were manifested in July 1974 by the announcement of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport that the Highland line from Inverness to Kyle was to be reprieved and the closure proceedings on other lines were to be halted at once. Many people who have enjoyed a journey through the beautiful countryside along this line were delighted at this reprieve. The hon. Member spoke of the work done by people to save the Kyle line. He did not speak of "MacPuff". I took some part in that campaign before 1964. I have been on the Kyle line several times and am pleased to see that there is a fair amount of use of that line. Nevertheless, the hon. Member must know of the large costs involved in keeping it open.

While the hon. Member is principally concerned this evening with securing improvements to rail services in the North of Scotland, he is, I am sure, appreciative of the quality of Anglo-Scottish services. Commuting as we do between our con- stituencies and Westminster has given us the opportunity to see the achievements of the Railways Board and its enthusiastic work force. Electrification of the West Coast main line last year has reduced the journey time between London and Glasgow to five hours, making the day return by rail a comfortable, practical proposition. Journey times on the East Coast line to Edinburgh have been steadily reduced in recent years and introduction of the high speed diesel train in 1977 will give even further improvement, reducing the journey time to below five hours. This shows that the Railways Board is looking at the areas where there is an undoubted need for improvement where there is the traffic, and where rail is the ideal way in which to move people.

While the railways are responsible for planning and operating the railways, the Government accept their responsibility to make sure that there are adequate facilities to meet the sudden increase in demand for transport which has occurred as a result of the discovery of North Sea oil. More people are travelling to the North-East of Scotland on business. On the freight side there is a need to carry raw materials, such as steel and cement for the construction of oil rigs and for the servicing of off-shore oil installations.

Large quantities of steel are also required for the building of pipelines to carry the oil when it comes ashore. In addition to the immediate needs of the oil industry it seems likely that there will be a long-term increase in the demand for transport as oil-related industries develop in Scotland. The provision of the required capacity to cater for these developments is being treated as a matter of some urgency. I can assure the hon. Member that the Government are aware of this situation.

The Perth-Inverness line is the key to rail transport to the North of Scotland. As I announced yesterday—I am sure the hon. Member will have received a note about this—I have asked the Railways Board urgently to consider what investment is required to enable the line to efficiently carry the increasing traffic volumes, both freight and passenger, that will occur as North-East Scotland is developed.

I know that there is presently much public disquiet about the unpunctuality of passenger services on this line. Last year I travelled up the line with Mr. Bobbett and I noted the single tracking in parts and the steep gradients. The unpunctuality is the result of the lack of capacity, which causes trouble when one train service impinges on another. I need hardly say that any proposal made by British Rail for investment on this line will be considered quickly and sympathetically by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport.

Both my Department and the Railways Board have received suggestions that the rail commuter services between Tain and Inverness should be improved. I have taken this up with the Railways Board. The board tells me that improving the services would result in a substantial increase in the financial losses made by the existing services. In present economic circumstances, no one would lightly add to the Railways Board's deficit, but we recognise the special circumstances of this region and we are therefore considering whether an experimental improvement in the services would be justified.

If it were decided that the experiment was justified and it showed that the augmented service was being fully used and making an effective contribution, we should want it to continue, but if it showed that the increased service was not justified, we should need to revert to the present position.

I was interested to hear about the West Highland line to Mallaig and the need for investment in rolling stock. Again, in the first instance it is a matter for the Railways Board to decide on its investment programme. The board then puts the programme forward to my right hon. Friend. I do not think that it would be right for me to intervene before any proposals are received by my Department, but I am sure that the board will take note of what has been said tonight about the service. One purpose of an Adjournment debate is that people outside the House are made aware of what is going on, although there is a good turnout of hon. Members tonight.

The need for investment may seem so obvious to hon. Members as to remove the need for the Government to consider any proposals. Alternatively, hon. Members may wonder why the Government do not put forward proposals of their own. I shall deal with both points briefly.

First, on the question of Government control, as I said earlier, rail competes for scarce resources with all sorts of other investment which society values. The Government must ensure that resources are allocated in accordance with a coherent pattern of priorities and that individual projects will yield a satisfactory return.

Secondly, why is an investment programme not made by the Government? The main reason is that the Railways Board has been established by Act of Parliament to manage and plan the development of the railway system. Only the board has the expert knowledge to work out a sensible investment scheme. In relation to Perth-Inverness, the board must forecast how much traffic is likely to use the line and what sort of traffic it will be, so as to determine how much evtra capacity needs to be provided. It has to determine not only how best to increase track capacity but also what is the requirement for new rolling stock of various kinds.

Many factors have to be considered when determining how much capital expenditure is needed. For example, the amount of investment necessary will depend on how many oil platform building sites are authorised in the North of Scotland. It will also depend on the extent of other industrial development in the north and on the length of time required for the infrastructure work. All these aspects have to be carefully weighed. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the board is being given every assistance in preparing its appraisal and all the information that the Government can provide. I also give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that the Government will consider urgently any investment proposals which the board puts forward as a result of its appraisal.

I hope that what I have said will clear up some of the misunderstandings about the Perth-Inverness line that have recently appeared in the Press. It has been suggested in some quarters that nothing has been done about it and that nothing is being said about it. Even in some of the technical journals, which should know better, it has been suggested that the Government and the board may have been at cross-purposes. I can assure all hon. Members that that is not true.

The Government expect the board to do the technical job of making an assessment and considering the traffic involved. The Government perhaps, are capable of doing that, but the railways are geared to do it. Once the board has come forward with its proposals it is for my right hon. Friend to consider them in the light of the debate that we had last night on the total allocation of the railways and the allocation for the passenger services. It is for my right hon. Friend to decide on the possibility of increasing the grant or in some way of helping the board to provide the service when he considers that it is right that we should provide in that part of Scotland.