HC Deb 12 January 1977 vol 923 cc1417-9
10. Mr. Nicholas Winterton

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he next intends to meet the Chairman of British Railways.

31. Mr. Ovenden

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he last met the Chairman of British Railways; and if he will make a statement on this meeting.

Mr. William Rodgers

I last met the chairman on 20th December. I expect to meet him again soon.

Mr. Winterton

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that an informed debate on the problems of British Railways should take place and that it can take place only if accurate costs line by line and service by service are available to the public? Is he aware that many stations, which could be much more profitable to British Railways, are at present being sacrificed because they are subsidising other areas? Will he bear in mind that this matter is very worrying to the excellent long-serving personnel of British Railways?

Mr. Rodgers

I am wholly in favour of an informed debate about the problems of the railways, provided always, as I have said before, that we support the chairman and his board in trying to solve the problems facing them in the national interest and that we do not try to manage the railways ourselves. It is not the responsibility of the House of Commons to assume day-to-day interest in details which are properly left to the board appointed by the Government. I am sure that the Chairman of British Railways will note what the hon. Gentleman said. If there is more information which he can usefully publish, I am sure he will seek to do so.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts:

Will my right hon. Friend indicate to the Chairman of British Railways yet again that continual fare increases are counter-productive? Will he give the chairman an assurance about the future of British Railways by indicating that when the economic situation changes, as it must, the Government will again look seriously at the need to extend subsidies to public transport?

Mr. Rodgers

I am reluctant to make promises on my own behalf or on behalf of successor Ministers to the Chairman of British Railways, because I could possibly mislead him. My hon. Friend will recognise that a substantial subsidy is still made to British Railways, and that will continue. It is provided for in our public expenditure programme.

I know that the Chairman of British Railways is trying to peg fares through the current year. I only wish that it were true, as my hon. Friend suggested, that if rail fares were reduced in real terms there would be an increase in revenue sufficient to offset the loss. Our experience, particularly in the period 1971–74, is that unfortunately that is not the case.

Mr. Forman

When the right hon. Gentleman next meets the Chairman of British Railways, will he once more draw his attention to the possibility of productivity increases as one way of restraining the costs of British Railways, as about 70 per cent. of their total costs are now accounted for by wages and salaries?

Mr. Rodgers

I do not imagine that I should necessarily want to say that to Mr. Parker. I think Mr. Parker would want to say to me that he has been having considerable success in reducing costs within the railway system and that he intends to pursue the course which he has begun of close co-operation with the trade unions to make sure that we have as efficient a railway system as we can manage.

Mr. Bagier

Will my right hon. Friend ask Mr. Parker, when he next meets him, whether he believes that there could be an alteration in the cost structure applied to British Railways regarding the tremendously high cost of track in comparison with its main competitor, whose roadways are mainly provided free?

Mr. Rodgers

Yes. This is a familiar issue which has been debated in the House on occasions in the past and will, no doubt, be debated again. The cost of maintaining the railways is very high and it is necessary to have a substantial investment programme. These are the kind of matters which I discuss with the Chairman of British Railways from time to time. They are also matters which we shall discuss in the House when at last, God willing, we have our transport debate.

Mr. Watt

Is the Secretary of State in a position to allay the fears of NUR and ASLEF members in Scotland about the railway lines north of the Edinburgh-Glasgow axis being axed? When he meets the Chairman of British Railways, will he discuss with him the deplorable—in many cases dangerous—state of the rolling stock presently being used in Scotland?

Mr. Rodgers

I am sure that the Chairman of British Railways will note what the hon. Gentleman has said. Equally, I would expect him to deny that there is any question of danger. I understand the anxieties of railwaymen because of contractions in the past. Here again, the Chairman of British Railways is pursuing a policy of consultation with the unions on a wider scale than previously, and that is appreciated.