HC Deb 04 February 1976 vol 904 cc1178-83
6. Mr. Ron Lewis

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what consultations he proposes to have with the leaders of the railway trade unions about the future level of investment in the railway industry.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Anthony Crosland)

The consultations which I have already announced will certainly cover investment in the railway industry.—[Vol. 903, c. 362–3.]

Mr. Lewis

Does my right hon. Friend confirm that British Railways have been advised that investment is to be held at £238 million during the coming years? Will he also meet the railway trade unions in the near future to discuss this vital subject?

Mr. Crosland

What my hon. Friend said about the level of investment is correct. I had one meeting with the railway unions before Christmas. I have since met the TUC Transport Industries Committee and made it clear to the TUC and the individual unions that in the process of consultation I shall hope to have further meetings with them.

Mr. Durant

When will the right hon. Gentleman provide us with the results of his discussions? There is widespread anxiety amongst commuters and railway men in my area. When shall we get some answers?

Mr. Crosland

I have already said that in the next few weeks I hope to issue a consultation document and then to embark on a very full process of consultation with a view later in the year to issuing a statement as a White Paper or in some other form.

Mr. Bagier

Does my right hon. Friend confirm that the document will be not a White Paper or a Green Paper but a genuine consultative document? Does he agree that to state firmly at this stage that £238 million per year will be the investment for the next five years could and will bring about the situation about which the three railway unions have been trying to warn the public?

Mr. Crosland

I certainly confirm that the paper, which will be issued in the next few weeks, will be a consultation document in the full meaning of the word. As my hon. Friend knows by now, I do not accept the view of the railway unions about the consequences of this level of investment.

Mr. Norman Fowler

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the consultative document will be debated in the House? Will he also assure the House that any fare increases will be equitably spread and that there will be no question of discriminating against commuters?

Mr. Crosland

Having a debate in the House, which I should greatly welcome, is obviously a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Mr. Skinner

And the Opposition.

Mr. Crosland

And the Opposition, certainly. The whole object of the trans- port policy review is to try to bring a greater degree of equity into a transport policy which fundamentally is in a state of complete confusion.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. There are similar Questions later on the Order Paper.

24. Mr. Robin F. Cook

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what estimates he has made of the likely size of the rail network and the quality of its services based on a five-year investment level of £238 million.

Dr. Gilbert

I have no evidence that stabilising investment at about its present level—the highest for many years—need cause massive reductions in either the present railway network or quality of service.

Mr. Cook

Then can my hon. Friend assure the House that the consultative document will reiterate the Government's commitment to the present 11,000 miles of rail network? Will he accept that many Members' including myself, who represent constituencies with less than 20 per cent. car ownership find it very difficult to explain to our constituents why, at a time when the Government are massively expanding investment in the car industry, we appear to be proposing a major cut in public transport investment?

Dr. Gilbert

There has been a continuing trend under Governments of both complexions for the balance of public expenditure on transport to swing against the construction of roads in favour of public transport. I have already made it clear that my right hon. Friend and I have no intention of reversing or even stopping that trend.

Mr. McCrindle

Can the Minister confirm or deny reports that, with a view to encouraging the transfer of the transportation of goods from road to rail, substantial additional taxes are to be expected on road transport? Will he confirm that, as some goods cannot be conveyed in any way other than by road, to impose such additional taxes would be to increase the cost of living?

Dr. Gilbert

The consultative document will address itself to the proposition in the Socialist Commentary booklet on transport policy that all modes of transport should carry their full costs, and that includes their social and environmental costs.

Mr. Walter Johnson

Does not my hon. Friend realise that the railway unions and the Railways Board regard the present level of investment proposed by the Secretary of State as insufficient to carry out the necessary modernisation? If this is continued for a further five years, it can result only in a reduction in the railway network.

Dr. Gilbert

I point out to my hon. Friend that rail investment is now higher than at any time since the mid-1960s. That is in real terms and in absolute terms, even after allowing for inflation. He will also be aware that, after allowing for inflation, other support for the railways is running at historically high levels. What is more, as my right hon. Friend has made clear, all that we have asked the railways to do is to cut the deficit on freight account. There has been no request as yet to reduce the deficit on passenger traffic, which is running at a historically record level.

Mr. Banks

In view of the Minister's reply, will he give an assurance that the Leeds-Harrogate-York line or any part of it will not be closed under any new proposals?

Dr. Gilbert

I am not able to give denials or assurances about any stretch of line before the consultative document is published, and that will be very shortly.

Mr. Les Huckfield

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that not only British Rail but the National Freight Corporation and the National Bus Company must have their future investment plans settled? Will he accept that in any announcement of British Rail's investment intentions he should announce his intentions for other nationalised modes of transport?

Dr. Gilbert

I have no difficulty in accepting my hon. Friend's proposition. Perhaps it is necessary for me to repeat that the present review of policy is not confined to the railways. It is an overall review of transport policy, involving all modes.

8. Mr. Ford

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what represen- tations have been received by his Department about the future of railway services arid whether he will make a statement.

Dr. Gilbert

We have in recent weeks received over 20,000 representations about the future of the railways. The vast majority of these have been in the form of tear-off slips bearing identical wording.

Mr. Ford

In any future review of rail services will my hon. Friend take steps to ensure that socially necessary railway lines in Yorkshire are safeguarded, bearing in mind that it is a low-wage area and that the ownership of private motor vehicles there is well below the national average?

Dr. Gilbert

Those considerations will come under scrutiny in the review that my right hon. Friend was discussing earlier.

Mr. Rost

Will the hon. Gentleman remove uncertainty and doubt by confirming that work on the advanced passenger train will continue in view of its substantial export potential?

Dr. Gilbert

It would be wrong for me to anticipate the result of the review. I must ask hon. Gentlemen to be patient a little longer.

Mr. Whitehead rose—

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Walter Johnson. I apologise—Mr. Phillip Whitehead.

Mr. Whitehead

I make allowances for your Welsh squint, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Johnson) had risen earlier. That was why I called him.

Mr. Whitehead

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, whatever else the railways will be, they will not be bus routes? Would he care to repudiate or publish—better still, publish and repudiate—the grotesque document which has been circulated within the Department suggesting that the railways be torn up and replaced by bus routes?

Dr. Gilbert

I have already made it clear that the Department has considerable reservations about various proposals in Professor Hall's report. The report has been published and is available to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Channon

Does the Minister agree even in advance of the White Paper that, if there were to be any prospect of commuter fares going up by the 40 per cent. or 50 per cent. rumoured, that would be unfair and would cause great hardship to tens of thousands?

Dr. Gilbert

My right hon. Friend pointed out that difficult questions of balancing equities were involved in doing anything to restore the finances of British Railways. It is beyond question that in certain parts of the country the major proportion of the subsidy to keeping fares down goes to the better-off sections of the community.

Mr. Thompson

Will the Minister assure the House that there is no truth whatever in the rumour that the line from Glasgow to Stranraer is to be cut?

Dr. Gilbert

I am not aware of the rumour.

Mr. Ron Thomas

Will my hon. Friend comment on the ludicrous situation in Bristol where a land use transportation study has put forward comprehensive proposals to keep traffic out of the city at the same time as British Railways are to close a valuable commuter rail service within the city?

Dr. Gilbert

I am not aware of British Rail's closing any commuter service in Bristol or elsewhere. No proposals for such a closure have come to me.