HC Deb 27 May 1977 vol 932 cc1816-56

1.50 p.m.

Mr. Spencer Le Marchant (High Peak)

I beg to move, That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to bring forward proposals for a railway policy which meets the needs of passengers, customers and taxpayers while ensuring a future for the industry. I am grateful that today I have a larger hearing than I did when you were last in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Brotherton) and to those hon. Members who took part in the previous debate and spoke briefly to allow time for this important debate.

I realise that this is a difficult time for the Secretary of State because his White Paper which has been so long awaited has not yet been published, but as I look at him I feel that it must be imminent.

We have, however, two important documents before us to discuss. We have the British Rail report, and on that report I warmly congratulate the Chairman, Mr. Peter Parker, on the improvement that it shows and, to use his words, I congratulate also the railway community as a whole. Secondly, we have before us the important report from the Select Committee. An enormous amount of work has gone into this report, and I believe that this House, the industry and the country have cause to be grateful to the members of that Committee for this invaluable document. One need not agree with it in total. Few could agree with every suggestion that it makes, but, none the less, it is a work that will long be remembered.

My motion concerns passengers. It concerns customers. It concerns taxpayers and whether they are getting value for money. Finally, and this is very important indeed, it deals with the industry itself.

I do not believe that passengers are getting the deal that the Chairman would wish for them. I do not believe that enough consideration and planning is taking place. Is there enough planning for the future of British Rail to allow for the change of population, for moves to perhaps smaller towns and to the new towns that are growing up? Does a sufficient number of inter-city trains stop at stations such as Watford and Stevenage to help those commuters who live near London and wish to travel north? Are there enough cross-country routes? This is referred to in paragraph 78 of the Select Committee's Report.

Hanging over us the whole time is the closure of lines, and nobody knows that better than I do in the High Peak at Buxton, which is the highest town in the British Isles. We need a railway, on social grounds. At 1,000 ft., the railway is our lifeline when the roads are closed. That town also has the attribute that it is the gateway to one of our most beautiful national parks, which last year was visited by 13 million people. Were there to be no railway, that would present an enormous road problem for the national park.

Much has been said about closing down railways and using buses. I am grateful to the High Peak Railway Passengers Association and its chairman, Mr. Edmund Bradbury, for reminding me that only two-thirds of the bus services introduced after the 1969–75 railway closures were still operative in 1976. Is that consideration for passengers?

The annual report of British Rail makes it clear that there is to be an increase in fares and suggests something along the lines of the rate of inflation. I believe that for one section of the community alone that would be impossible. I refer to commuters. In his speech on 20th January my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley) made it clear that people's take-home pay does not keep pace with the rate of inflation. Therefore, if it is desirable—which I think it is—to keep life in our cities, we must not drive people into stopping coming into the cities because of the high fares and instead seeking jobs close to home, often in unsuitable areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) was recently in the United States of America, and I know that he made an extensive survey of commuter services there. In no place could he find a commuter service that paid. It is a desirable social method to bring people into our cities by train, and such a service cannot be expected to bear the full cost. We must pay for it, and when I look at Recommendation 420 by the Select Committee I submit that the Greater Manchester area should have some of that money because up there, as I have experience to know, things are very difficult.

There is evidence that, unlike short bus routes, there is a growing demand for rail services. Dr. Pryke and Mr. Dodgson estimate that there will be a 15 per cent. increase in rail use between now and 1981. The Government must recognise that, and in doing so take note of the changes of population to which I have referred.

The Secretary of State must be wary of cutting British Rail for seemingly short-term gains. There was a debate in the other place earlier this week which brought out the need for energy conservation, which will make the railways all that much more important in the future. Let the Secretary of State also take note that the American Government are spending millions of dollars putting back some sort of passenger and freight system. I would, in all humility, suggest that the right hon. Gentleman's job is a piece of cake compared with what the Americans have to put up with at the moment.

Passengers are crying out for a single transport policy. That comes out all the way through the Select Committee's Report. It suggests that we should coordinate into a single coherent unit our transport systems and have a timetable for bus, rail and air services. When the bus has to be used rather than rail, it should be on the rail timetable, and proper connections should be provided.

I make a special plea for those who travel inter-city on Sundays. I know the importance of track maintenance, but I wonder whether, in the middle of the day on a Sunday, it would not be better to stop inter-city trains. Last Sunday afternoon—and I emphasise that this is in no way political because in the same carriage as myself there was the right hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary to the Treasury—more than 3½ hours were spent on a bus and train journey from Macclesfield to London. That journey will, I am confident, as it always is in mid-week, be carried out in 2 hours 9 minutes later this afternoon.

I hope that it will be possible for British Rail to provide slightly better catering facilities on Sunday. In a hot summer it is difficult to believe that ice machines need maintenance, yet if beer or soft drinks are not sold out they are always lukewarm when served. It is a case of never ice on Sunday.

I propose now to deal with passenger participation. I believe that there is a great lack of consultation between passengers and British Rail. I take one example in my constituency of the complete failure of the Transport Users Consultative Committee to intervene. I refer to the service from Chinley to London. It was not withdrawn; it was just discontinued without consultation.

There is also a lack of timetable planning by feeder lines. My constituents arrive in Stockport from London and have the pleasure of seeing the little "chugger" that goes from Manchester to Buxton passing them as they draw into the station. That means a long and entirely unnecessary delay. Like most other feeder users in the country, my constituents want to know whether the cost attributed to their line is genuine. Why should that line not have credit for some of the main line money?

Passengers should have the right to challenge fare increases. When British Rail wishes to increase its fares, it should come into the open and tell us the reasons. It should open the accounts, line by line, division by division, so that the passengers know what they are paying for and can see whether the increase is justified. This point refers equally to freight customers, to whom I now turn.

The Chairman of British Rail in his statement said: We are concerned to seek every opportunity to strengthen and to improve our relationships with the customer. Never has that been more necessary than it is now for British Rail. No customers are more important than those who use British Rail to transport freight. As on the passenger side, I believe that British Rail should show how it shares its freight costs. In the past two years the total loss on freight was over £100 million. Is that the whole story? How are we to know? We do not have the breakdown.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said in a speech on 20th January: ' the cost of the railway passenger service rose from £200 million in 1964 to just over £600 million in 1974. In other words—in spite of economies—the cost of the passenger business rose by over three times. But now let us compare the cost of the rail freight business. The costs of that increased from £340 million in 1964 to £380 million in 1974. So on the freight side there was an increase of only 12 per cent.—with only a small fall in traffic. The consultation document asks us to accept that in the period 1964 to 1974 the average cost of railway passenger travel rose from 0.60p per kilometre to 2.0p per kilometre. In the same period the average cost per tonne of rail freight only rose from 0.90p per tonne to l.10p per tonne. In the same period, incidentally, the cost of road freight is shown as having increased by three times."—[Official Report, 20th January 1977; Vol. 924, c. 660.] So, do we know the whole story about the cost of freight? I suggest that we do not. The Government must carry out their stated policy of phasing out the general subsidy. Freight does not need to lose.

While I recognise the importance of heavy freight such as steel and coal, I feel that not enough is being done to encourage the lighter freight and parcels business, which could be profitable. It is obvious that re-pricing freight could bring additional earnings. We cannot consider whether taxpayers are getting value for money until all of the circumstances are known about how money is being spent on the railways. That can come about only when we have a proper breakdown of accounts. I suggest that a breakdown must be owed, not only to the public, but to everyone in the railway community.

I do not intend to go into the manpower reduction figure, which seems to be about 40,000 for that industry. It appears that that will mainly come about through natural wastage. I am not convinced that the breakdown will be realisable in the way expected. I am sure that a reduction is necessary. To get a reduction in certain sectors—I am thinking of the drivers more than others—it would be necessary to make considerable investment in such things as signalling.

I was interested last week to meet the General Secretary and President of ASLEF, which was holding its conference at Buxton. I wonder why there is not one union for the whole of the railway movement. It is one industry, one community. There are, however, three unions. Mr. Ronksley made it clear to me how necessary it was in certain circumstances to have a second man on the train. He was talking as a driver, pulling many oil wagons, who went into unmanned sidings. He spoke quite a lot of the safety element. Mr. Ray Buckton, the General Secretary, pointed out how important investment in track was and spoke of the continuous welded line, of which we now have laid 8,000 miles. Already we are 370 miles behind target on that programme. It costs £100,000 a mile and it is reckoned to do 520 miles per year.)If the investment is not kept up on that it will mean that within a few years all the available money will have to be used on that project and there will be nothing left for the remaining 3,000 miles of the railway system which will be unable to carry traffic at the speeds expected. That brings me to the wider question of signalling and ancillary services.

What is vital is that the industry should know that on all sides of the House we have confidence in it. We must say that we recognise the enormous importance of the railways to the future of Britain. The future of British Rail depends upon higher productivity. In the words of Mr. Parker: Higher productivity, then, must be the key. Higher productivity is the rock on which our future must be built. I wish to see an end to the rail versus road argument. Both are necessary. Right, suppose that large lorries must pay more tax; we must not set out to clobber the road contractors. The long-distance bus has its rôle. Let us have one fair transport policy. Having found that policy, let there be fair competition and, with great respect to every hon. Member, let there be minimum interference from us.

2.9 p.m.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant) on the manner in which he has moved his motion and the work which he has clearly put in. I also congratulate him on his private enterprise in choosing to discuss transport at this time. During the course of his speech I was flipping through the consultative document published in April last year. I noticed that the last sentence from the then Secretary of State of the Environment, the late Anthony Crosland, said: We shall welcome forthright views on the issues which it raises. Those forthright views have not been given in Parliament except in one brief debate, and it is therefore all the more commendable that the hon. Gentleman should have allowed us at least a short debate on the future of British Rail. I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said, and although I shall draw examples from Wales, they meet many of the points put so eloquently by the hon. Gentleman.

I shall try to look at some of the long-term trends because the debate provides an opportunity to project future trends and to try to forecast the transport problems that are likely to arise in the next few decades. I shall also try to consider whether the policies that are being adopted and are likely to be adopted in the White Paper can be properly adapted to meet new demands.

I am struck by the contrast between the objective case for rail expansion and the bullish attitude towards the railway industry as a whole and the negative, restrictionist attitude that one finds so often when looking at the railway industry, even from the British Railways Board itself.

Among the major problems looming on the horizon is that of support for greater rail usage. The hon. Member for High Peak referred to the energy crisis, and this subject was debated in another place this week. Projections indicate that by the mid-1980s the western world will be approaching an oil crisis. President Carter has shown his leadership qualities by his psychological challenge to the Americans to face up to the problems posed by the shortage of oil. Oil conservation must play a greater rôle in our policies and, both on passenger and freight, rail is less energy intensive than its competitors, except buses.

The Government should follow President Carter's lead and tell this country that, even with our North Sea resources, we have to face up gradually to adapting ourselves so that we do not have to make policy changes too abruptly in the early 1990s. This adaption will have to be made by pricing policies on petrol, traffic management schemes and a whole range of transport policies to reorient people gradually in favour of greater rail usage.

The second important factor is the environment. Quality of life arguments are likely to play a greater rôle in the policies being pursued by the Government. Until my election to Parliament, I was a councillor in the Golborne ward of North Kensington, which had the West-way visited upon it in the mid-1960s. That road was put there without any concern for its impact on the community. People were brought in and we are still trying to pick up the pieces of that obscene intrusion into our inner city life in an area that was already multi-deprived. It is difficult to quantify the environmental impact of such roads, but we know the effect that they have on the quality of life in cities and villages that suffer from juggernauts.

Railways do not present the same problem. They are there already, and housing policies can take their existence into account. In addition, there are increasing land use arguments in favour of rail. A recent report by a group at Reading University on future land use in Britain forecasts an increasing demand on scarce agricultural resources being made by roads. The demand and protests made by people against the environmental intrusion of road projects are certainly far greater than the protests at rail subsidies and the cost of rail and public transport.

We must also consider the safety factor. I need not underline the heavy daily toll on people's limbs and lives on our roads, and I was surprised that the consultative document did not include safety as a relevant criterion in its list of objectives in a national transport policy. It is significant that no passengers' lives were lost on British Rail in 1976. Compare that with the enormous toll on life and limb on the roads, and one need say no more. I am disappointed that the Government appear to be pussyfooting around the road safety problem.

The Government have made concessions on speed limits and appear unwilling to push the Bill on the compulsory wearing of seat belts, despite the effect on human life that can be quantified as a result of that unwillingness. There has also been a deafening silence from the Government in response to the Blennerhasset Report on drinking and driving. When are we going to learn what the Government intend to do about this vital report that is gathering dust in a recess in the Ministry of Transport? Why do the Government appear to be so unwilling to take an initiative in road safety? Are they mesmerised by the road lobby?

The whole basis of the consultative document is laissez-faire. There are projections of the likely car ownership in the 1990s, and all other conclusions on rail and public transport are drawn from the basis of allowing an apparently unrestricted expansion of car ownership. That may be a popular view—we have to take people's preferences into account—but it may not be a possible view in light of the energy and other costs that will assume a greater rôle in future projections.

If there are a number of factors in favour of great rail usage, what is the spirit in which the railways face their future? In talking to railway men in South Wales, I am struck by the relatively low morale of the work force. There is a fear of cuts. They have gone through a period of restriction. In my part of the world, more than 70 per cent. of the rail network has been excised since the early 1960s and there are fears that the rail network in Wales will be restricted to the Swansea and Holyhead lines. There are even fears about the Cambrian Coast and the mid-Wales line that is so vital in tourist and community terms, even though certain assurances have been given about the future of the line.

A management that has grown up and been trained in a period of retrenchment and restriction is still adopting a defeatist attitude to the future of rail. I say this despite the introduction of the high-speed train on the line to Swansea which has resulted in a 15 per cent. increase in passenger use of that line. But those who are used to an atmosphere of cuts will find it very difficult to adjust to a period of expansion, as we have seen in British Rail's current defeatist attitude to the future of the Fishguard-Waterford line. I and others have been very distressed by the restictionist criteria that the Transport Users' Consultative Committee has adopted in looking at the future of that service.

That defeatist attitude contrasts with the more buoyant, more expansionist future for rail among our Continental partners which the Select Committee noted in its recent Report, particularly in Western Germany, in spite of the higher car ownership and usage in West Germany. What I have said about that defeatist attitude must be at least qualified by what we see now as the attitude adopted by the new Chairman, Mr. Peter Parker, who appears to be ready at last to bang the drum for rail, which is bound to have a beneficial effect on morale within the industry.

If we will the end of the greater use of rail, for a number of reasons, can we will the means by a bigger investment and more Government support? On the freight side, I have been very disappointed to see the relatively low take-up of the Section 8 grants for private sidings. Apart from the effect that they would have on freight usage as such, private sidings would also have environmental affects in preventing the rail journey from having to be completed by lorry to the eventual point of delivery.

The Government project £35 million to be allocated under that head for the next five years. The latest figure I have is that by last October only 14 schemes under Section 8, totalling £2.7 million, have been approved. In Wales only two schemes have been approved under the section, with a total of less than £200,000. This lack of push, this lack of drive on Section 8, is scandalous, and there needs to be a Government inquiry into the reasons. Whether the reasons are a lack of will, planning objections or whatever, the performance on Section 8 is very poor.

I agree with the hon. Member for High Peak about the increasing market for wagon load traffic, not just the rôle assigned to rail in the consultative document, that of carrying the bulk traffic—the oil, steel and coal. I shall not pursue that matter, but I shall get on one of my favourite hobby horses—co-operation in the public sector and the way in which it can assist British Rail. I have seen from a number of examples that various nationalised undertakings—the Central Electricity Generating Board, the British Steel Corporation and the National Coal Board—often adopt policies to the disadvantage of rail, which is also in the public sector. Steel can be taken by rail, but a great deal of the steel for export from my local works is still taken by road. A new drift mine is being planned in my part of the country. It is still intended that the coal shall be taken to the washeries by lorry, with an adverse environmental impact on local communities.

The new investment of £835 million at the Port Talbot steelworks has been planned with little if any thought to the way in which British Rail might be used to service the expansion. In all the public sector there should be a presumption in favour of the use of rail, to have a cross-subsidisation within the public sector. The onus should always be in favour of rail, within agreed tolerances. Little, if anything, appears yet to have been done to encourage such use of rail within the public sector. I know of examples in my own locality where it is not done, and it should be encouraged.

I turn rapidly to the passenger side and the search for new business. The hon. Member for High Peak has already made some of the points that need to be made about this matter—the additional suburban and cross-country stations, for example. In those areas which suffered particularly acutely from the Beeching surgery in the early 1960s, there may even be a case for reopening some lines or opening to passengers lines which are restricted to freight.

It is a sad commentary on the thinking of the current British Rail management that one of its answers to the new challenges was to have a transfer, albeit with some concessions from the National Bus Company, to buses from part of the rail network. That has been vigorously opposed by the Welsh Consumer Council on the basis of our own experience—we have also been given examples from the High Peak area—of just how few of the bus services which were meant to replace rail in the 1960s still exist. I think that the statutory obligation is to continue those bus services for only two years, and many have died after that, leaving communities isolated.

It is clear that that policy will just not work, for topographical and a number of other reasons. There is still not enough drive behind bus and rail co-ordination. For example, it is scandalous that in my constituency of Swansea a bus station is being planned a mile and a half from the rail station, when there is, or was, ample space near the rail station to have a combined bus and rail station.

Mr. Le Marchant

Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that proper use is made of rail land? As we go round the country we all see an enormous quantity of rail land and cannot help feeling that under British Rail's new policy much more use should be made of it.

Mr. Anderson

I fully agree. So much rail land is hoarded, stored up, sterilised, often for no good reason. I take an example from North Kensington, where one has only to look at the Barlby Road sidings, which could be used for housing in that area of acute housing stress but which British Rail is still hoarding like a squirrel for apparently no good reason. I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's point about the negative policies of British Rail in this respect and the need for more of what is being done on the hotel side and using British Rail land, as at Liverpool Street, for commercial development.

I have mentioned the signal failure in my own area to co-ordinate bus and rail investment in the new bus station. There are many examples from different parts of the country of failure to co-ordinate timetables between bus and rail.

If there is to be an expansionist future for rail, for the objective reasons I have given—environmental, energy and so on—where is the vision that can achieve it? We know that we have in our rail network a major, under-utilised national asset. Too many of our people are prepared to be content with a downward drift of the rail services rather than work for expansion. We need a very different, more radical and exciting approach if we are to use our rail services to their full potential.

2.29 p.m.

Mr. John Cockcroft (Nantwich)

I am particularly pleased that this debate should take place today and that you should call me to take part, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have an interest, in that I sit on Sub-Committee A of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, which has been looking at the question of the railways for the past year or so. Moreover, I worked for a short time in the Treasury 10 years ago in the public enterprises division, on work involved with transport. Many of my constituents in Nantwich, moreover, work for the railways in Crewe.

The conclusions of the Select Committee report on the Nationalised Industries did not receive as much publicity as it might have done on account of the strike and the difficulties that were experienced in obtaining copies of it. I remind the House that the report—which was unanimous—said, in effect, that the present size of the railway network should be retained but that there were many ways in which there could be improvements. It said that the railways, if properly managed, could look forward to a prosperous and successful future.

I take the view that any future drastic reduction in the size of the railway network would be a great mistake. It is, of course, difficult to say definitely that such a statement is justified, because there are many unassessable things that must be taken into account when comparing the cost of road and rail transport. It is difficult to put a figure on the cost of an executive stuck in a car, trying to get into Birmingham in the rush hour, for instance.

I have travelled around looking at the railway systems in other countries. It is apparent that almost every system in the world loses money, and that where networks have been drastically cut down—as in the classic case of New York—the people concerned have bitterly rued the day that it occurred. I hope that it will not happen here.

The Beeching era was a success in that it was essential that lines should be costed, and that had not been done before. It is a difficult exercise because of the allocation of overheads. What was done then, in financial terms, was right. However, the size of a railway network is a political decision. I regret that large areas of the United Kingdom have now been deprived of railways. Were the network now to be reduced from 12,000 to, say, 8,000 miles the constituency that I represent—geographically one of the largest in England—would be largely deprived of railways. All sorts of people, such as old people who cannot afford cars—and increasingly one does not have to be old to be unable to afford a car—would be deprived of their means of getting round the country.

I shall not go over in detail the case for maintaining roughly the present size of network. That must depend on the Government's assumptions about the cost of traffic congestion; and the danger and damage that is caused by large lorries that are unsuited to many of the roads over which they travel. It also depends on assumptions about future energy requirements and energy supplies in the world; and upon the problems of the oil-consuming countries. All those matters are relevant. There is also the matter of pollution—although that is now a much overworked word and it seems that anything that one does not approve of can be described as pollution. Nevertheless, it is a relevant factor if one defines pollution in the sense of lorry and car fumes and the damage that is done to ancient bridges such as Farndon-Holt Bridge, in my constituency.

Railways do far less damage than most other forms of transport. There are also technological developments concerning the railways. This is an encouraging aspect of the British Rail scene, in which I take a great deal of pleasure. In many ways Britain now leads the world in railway technology. I have travelled on high-speed trains to Wales and other places and I have been enormously impressed by how much has been achieved. I have been impressed not only by very recent developments but by other developments that have taken place during the last decade. Thus the time that it takes to travel from London to Liverpool or Manchester has fallen by one-third, and sometimes by almost a half. Until quite recently there was a great increase in the revenue from those lines.

Another aspect is that the railways are an enormous national asset. We were the first country to build railways in a big way—just as we were the first to do many things about which we can take much pride. It would be foolish to throw away such an asset. The future, by definition, is unknowable, but there may be further technological developments concerning the railway system that will continue to make it a relatively more attractive form of transport.

The United Kingdom—which I hope and expect to remain united—is exactly the right size for a fairly intensive railway network. That does not apply to such countries as America, which are obviously far larger and where aeroplanes are much more apposite for long-distance journeys. Apart from journeys from London to Scotland—I mean, for example, journeys from London to Sheffield—by the time one has reached the airport and then got away from the airport at the other end one might as well have gone by railway. Air travel also suffers from the inconveniences of fog and bad weather.

However, there are problems about the future of the railways. An integrated transport policy seems to have become the Holy Grail. We heard about it during the sittings of the Sub-Committee. I sometimes wonder whether anyone knows what an integrated transport policy is—apart from co-ordinating bus and train timetables. I have thought about it for many hours and sat through many sessions in Committee, but I am still not sure what it is, except that we should avoid wasteful competition between road and rail transport. Road transport on motorways may be cheaper but, again, we must consider the cost of maintaining the roads as opposed to the railways.

Many mistakes have been made in the past. I can give a classic example that may be relevant if in future the network is reduced. It is the Oxford-Cambridge line, which used to go from Oxford to Bletchley. It was truncated at both ends, and now only the middle section of that line is used. About 10 years ago much money was spent on the line. Diesel engines were put on it, and the unions were encouraged to relinquish some of the stationmaster jobs at the little stations. Had more time been given for negotiation on manning schedules I believe that that line would still be open in its entirety. It was one of the few east-west links in this country. When the railways were built they tended to radiate out of London, and that has remained the case ever since. That is one example of a line that might have been maintained.

I want to draw attention to the fall in the number of people employed on the railways in the last decade or so. It has been quite dramatic. We found that the unions—both privately and at formal hearings—were extremely cooperative in discussing the need for productivity on the railways. I am not saying that there is not room for considerable improvement. One difficulty concerns the manning schedules. Like so many other things in a country as old and conservative as this one, they are difficult to change. It will take a long time for things to be changed and it will involve particularly delicate negotiation. However, it is undoubtedly true that productivity on our railways—as in other countries—could be substantially increased, given time and patience.

I wish to say a word about the catering facilities on British Railways. I move in a triangle between London, Cambridge and Cheshire, so I possibly spend more time on the railways than most other hon. Members and certainly more time than most members of the public. I have experienced almost every sort of meal on the railways. I feel strongly that the sort of flexibility that exists on the shorter lines, such as that from Kings Cross to Cambridge—where one can have a meal of any type at any time of day, whether it is a sausage or a proper three-course meal—is the sort of thing that the railways should aim for in the future. I am delighted that the new high-speed run to South Wales has been doing so well. On many existing lines, such as that between London and Manchester, British Railways persist in having expensive set meals at set times.

Mr. Ronald Atkins (Preston, North)

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that on the Euston-Preston-Glasgow line some of the things that he has been asking for are being introduced on some trains?

Mr. Cockcroft

Yes, I realise that. Things are moving rapidly in the right direction. I thought I would just give an extra prod. I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that matter.

One problem is that there are still three railway unions. There is a widespread feeling, even among trade unionists, that things would be simpler were there fewer unions on the railways. I hope that will come to pass. The travelling public have on occasions suffered in the past because of disputes between the unions which have not necessarily concerned the management of British Railways.

I should like to make a further point which I have made on other occasions. It concerns investment. What is the investment programme of British Railways? We read about new electrification schemes on lines, such as the Bedford to Liverpool Street line, but there is an increasing consciousness that some lines and rolling stock are being allowed to run down. Commuters often complain about deteriorating services, and so on. Many people ask "Why bother to electrify the relatively short lines? Should not the money be spent on improving existing rolling stock?"

However many Green Papers and White Papers there may be in future, the sooner decisions are made about the railways the better. There has been an improvement in morale on the railways. I wish the new chairman well. The changes in the management structure of British Railways are for the better. It is encouraging to see how many railway-men with a lifetime of experience on the railways are being promoted.

2.42 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Atkins (Preston, North)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant) on his speech. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Cockcroft) and my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) on their contributions. The hon. Member for High Peak introduced a very important matter—the future of British Railways.

As two hon. Members have referred to the question of unity between the railway unions—I am a representative of ASLEF—perhaps it would be in order for me to deal briefly with that matter. Over the years various attempts have been made to get one railway union. Such a suggestion is not favoured by any of the three unions representing different grades of railwaymen. The size of a union does not necessarily bring harmony or stop bad industrial relations. It will be recalled that there was a serious dispute between lorry drivers and dockers who belonged to the same union. The solution of industrial disputes is more difficult than merely joining together the different unions into one large union.

Much as I enjoyed the speech made by the hon. Member for High Peak, I must take issue with him on his remarks about rail freight subsidies. I expect that the hon. Gentleman knows that these subsidies have rapidly dwindled. As the hon. Member for Nantwich said, it is difficult to quantify costs. Bearing in mind the dwindling of the subsidies, it might be argued that there may be other costs for which rail freight does not pay. That argument could be used against road freight. It would be unfair to reduce the rail freight subsidy in too much haste as long as the competitive form of traffic—the juggernaut—still falls short of meeting its resource costs of £5,000 a year. It would seem fair not to abolish the rail freight subsidy until the juggernaut is taxed to its full resource costs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East referred to the position of freight in Wales. A large proportion of coal in South Wales is now being carried by road. That is a most unsatisfactory form of transport for such material, but no effort is apparently being made by the two publicly-owned industries concerned to put the matter right.

A large proportion of steel traffic is also carried by road. The only significant rail transport within the iron and steel industry is the carrying of iron ore from Port Talbot to Llanwern. I think that more could be done by way of transferring some of this traffic to rail.

My hon. Friend also touched on the question of oil conservation, and I want to devote most of my speech to that problem. It has become increasingly significant in the last few years, and particularly in the last few weeks. At the beginning of last week a report appeared from the "Workshop on Alternative Energy Strategies". That is the work of a private group of 35 business, Government and academic leaders from 15 leading industrial countries. It stated that the West could face a new energy crisis within the next decade, and that industrialised countries could run short of oil supplies as early as 1981 —that is a far more serious situation than we have so far imagined— if Saudi Arabia decides to hold its production at 9 million barrels a day. If a ceiling of 20 million barrels a day were imposed, a world shortage might be postponed until about 1990 but, even on the most optimistic assumptions, oil would be running out within the next 25 years. It is unlikely that it will be possible to get Saudi Arabia to increase supplies significantly in the next few years. In fact, I think that the Middle East is likely to go on conserving its oil supplies and possibly restricting them. Therefore, the oil situation is very serious.

This disturbing report confirms recent warnings by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Central Intelligence Agency…the basic danger is that the world energy situation could become critical. Most Governments and businesses plan for only five to 10 years ahead. The energy gaps which opened up beyond 1985 either were invisible or, if perceived, ignored. Even if governments adopted vigorous conservation policies, energy demand would continue to grow. It is important to consider the future of British Rail beyond the next five years. Unfortunately, most of the studies on the planning of transport seem to end in the early 1980s. That is true of the Consultative Document, which is inadequate from that point of view. The projection of transport needs after 1981 is almost ignored. A similar study by Prike and Dodgson also ignores that situation.

A study in the Socialist Commentary falls short in the same way. When considering the more distant future of British Rail we should remember not to use the costings of the next few years. We should remember that until 1981 oil will still be plentiful and prices low compared with what they will become later, with dwindling supplies and increasing demand.

I shall refer to an article which is not generally known. I shall quote extensively from it, although I shall do so freely in the interests of brevity. The article is based on a lecture by Sir Peter Masefield at the Sir Seymour Biscoe Tritton Memorial Lecture, called "Energy for Traction," and was printed in the Railway Engineering Journal in March 1975.

Sir Peter said that he was concerned about the future energy problem. He said that in March 1975; and since then the situation has become worse. He said: One feature has come to dominate all transport operations since the end of 1973. It is the leap upwards in fuel costs as a result of inflation and, even more, from the upwards jacking of oil prices by the OPEC Cartel from 17th October 1973. In the five-and-a-half years since July 1969 —the House should remember that Sir Peter is speaking in early 1975— the average price of fuel oils for transport in the United Kingdom has increased by five times—from around 3.5p a gallon to more than 16p a gallon leaving taxation out of account.… There have been significant increases since then.

Sir Peter went on so say: transport everywhere is currently dependent upon oil. The modern world is, indeed, oil dominated….In transport, oil now supplies about 91 per cent. of all the energy consumed. This is, clearly a situation which must be viewed with concern, notwithstanding the promise of North Sea oil…. Unfortunately, from an energy point of view, the railways provide only a relatively small proportion of the world's transport effort—about 17 per cent. of the revenue load-t-km operated in the western world. Because modern railways use energy relatively efficiently for the work they do—railways consume only some 3 per cent. of the total energy used in transport. By contrast, road transport (which uses about 78 per cent. of the energy consumed in transport as a whole for the production of 16 per cent. of the load-t-km and air transport (which uses about 12½ per cent. of the total energy for 03 per cent. of the load-t-km) are wholly dependent on oil, as is shipping to complete the total…the day will come when these fossil fuels are no longer available. In the meantime, there can be no doubt that much effort is required to achieve a maximum of efficiency in the use of energy for transport—as for other aspects of modern life. Sir Peter went on to deal with price escalation. Again I remind the House that he was speaking in 1975. He said: British Airways"— and he knows a good deal about that— turbine fuel costs have increased almost fourfold since 1972…between 1972 and 1975, despite the use of a higher proportion of larger and more efficient aircraft, the fuel element in British Airways' total expenditure has gone up from 10.1 per cent. of total costs…to 26 4 per cent. of total costs. Everything possible must be done in all forms of transport to gain the maximum of output…from both the fuels and manpower employed. We must remember that in railways, too, the use of manpower is relatively efficient.

Sir Peter gave a number of other figures which strengthen the case for the maintenance of railways in public transport. He said that In 1975 road transport will use about 78 per cent. of all transport energy. The motorcar uses half of the total energy consumed in the United Kingdom. The motorcar is a relatively inefficient user of fuel in terms of load-t-km produced. Private cars consume 50 per cent. of the energy used in transport to produce 2 per cent. of the load. Trucks and vans on the road consume 23 per cent. of the energy to produce 14 per cent. of the load. Aviation consumes 12½ per cent. of the energy to produce 0.3 per cent. of the load. Buses and coaches on the roads consume 5 per cent. of the energy to produce 0.5 per cent. of the load. Sea transport consumes 4½ per cent. of the energy to produce 62 per cent. of the load. Rail transport, which is another efficient form of transport from the energy point of view, consumes 3 per cent. of the energy to produce 17 per cent. of the load. A similarly good figure for inland waterways is given. That consumes 2 per cent. of the energy to produce 5.8 per cent. of the load.

Sir Peter said: From this we can draw up a comparative league table of revenue load-tonne-kilometres operated, per unit of energy consumed. Sea transport comes at the top of the league, when we take into account both the energy used and the load-factors achieved. In relative terms: sea transport (chiefly goods) 1,000; railways. 411; inland waterways, 175: road trucks and vans, 44; private cars, 3; aviation, 2. For passenger transport the order is this, in terms of energy consumed in relation to load: railways, 100—this is leaving out sea transport—buses and coaches, 65; private cars, 25; aviation, 7.5.

This article, which deserves to be better known, makes clear not only the urgency of conservation but also the need to maintain our railway track and, indeed, to extend the services and possibly the track in the future, when fuel shortages will become very serious. I do not think that there is a sufficient awareness of this. I can remember a time in the late 1960's when publicists and fuel experts were talking about closing coal mines and depending entirely on oil. Their projections were overtaken by the events of 1973. Then they began to realise that fuel shortage was not just a political question but one of conservation. So it is that now we have debates in this Chamber that ignore the seriousness of a petroleum shortage in the future.

For example, the Prime Minister said recently that during the next four years investment in the railways will be kept as it is now. I do not know whether he meant in figures or in real terms. However, in four years' time we shall reach the year 1981, which is regarded as the first critical year by the international report to which I have referred. It seems to me that we should now be investing in our public transport, particularly in railways, and not cutting down investment. Once the oil shortage begins to bite, I think that railways will come into their own. I am certain that if railways continue for a little longer in the next few years, they will then be able to look after themselves. But it is all the more essential now that we should equip them for the tasks ahead.

British Rail seems now to be grappling with this problem successfully. What it needs now is encouragement in the way of investment. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has shown me the current issue, for June, of Modern Railways, which refers to the view that many of us are taking, which is that there is a good deal to be said for turning back to the classic railway operation, with modern equipment, of course, which we did not have previously, in the form of the air-braked wagonload freight network.

We have been greatly assisted by TOPS, which is ideal for this. Unfortunately, TOPS is not being used as it should be. It can tell us where every wagon is. As one of my friends in ASLEF told me, for instance, TOPS told one divisional officer that there were 200 wagons in sidings somewhere in North Wales two weeks ago, and TOPS told him last week that there were still 200 wagons in North Wales in the sidings. He knew exactly where they were, but they were not being used. We are waiting for them to be used. The wagon-load network is one way out of this problem.

Also, in the June issue of Modern Railways there is an article on the Stag crane, which is described as a new approach to handling containers. The article says, Now a low-cost lorry-mounted system has been developed which turns any rail siding into a contained terminal. With rising road transport costs forecast, its inventor believes it could bring a freight bonanza for British Rail. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South has tabled a Question for Written Answer asking the Secretary of State for his opinion on this system. I am not anti-road; I believe in integration for road and rail traffic both in the passenger and freight sections. I acknowledge that the great bulk of our traffic will always have to be carried on the roads and that the traffic will expand generally in our increasingly industrialised society.

But our problem as politicians is what to do about British Railways. That is what we are concerned about in this debate. We know that British Railways must be retained, and we also know that the economics of rail transport is concerned with "volume hunger" and with using capacity to as great a percentage as possible in order for British Railways to become viable. In line with increasing costs on the roads I believe that many road hauliers, as some have already decided, will go in for trunk hauling by rail for the longer journey and distribution at both ends, by road.

I also think that the whole future of British Railways would have been improved had the Channel Tunnel been built. As a matter of fact, the article by Sir Peter mentions that the journey to Paris by means of the Channel Tunnel is just about the optimum distance for profitable traffic with passengers. Perhaps even more importantly he should have said that the Channel Tunnel, permitting long haul traffic, would have brought the best returns for freight traffic, because I believe that is the reason why Continental countries are running their rail services more profitably.

I repeat that we are not anti-road. I know there would be a great future for both modes of transport and a great future for this country if both modes were more closely knit and used for the traffic that they are best able to carry.

3.7 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. William Rodgers)

This seems an appropriate moment for me to intervene. I join other hon. Members who have thanked the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant) for giving us the opportunity of discussing these matters this afternoon. There is so much that I could reply to if this were the appropriate occasion. I was interested in a number of the comments made by hon. Members which related to wide issues of policy. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) told us what we might have heard had he been fortunate enough to catch the eye of the Chair on 20th January in our discussions on the consultation document.

I wish that it were in order for me to follow my hon. Friend into some of the byways that he pursued, particularly those related to road safety. I can only say that I very much welcomed his interest and I shall rejoice in the pressure that he continues to bring to bear on me and on others in this direction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) discussed the relative costs of road and rail. I do not disagree with much of what he said. I welcomed what he said at the end of his remarks about the need to recognise the rôle for both road and rail.

The hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Cockcroft) said something about technology. I agree that we have made a number of important advances in technology for our railways of which we have every reason to be proud. No doubt these are issues to which we shall return in the future.

I had much sympathy with the earlier remarks of the hon. Member for High Peak. He referred to his personal experiences in travelling from Macclesfield to London on a Sunday. I detest Sunday travel at all times and I have the misfortune, to which I am not looking forward, of travelling back from Leeds to London this Sunday. But it is difficult to maintain and renew the railway track without sometimes inconveniencing travellers and obliging them to travel more slowly. It is something of an uncomfortable experience and I am sure that British Railways will do its best to alleviate the inconvenience which it represents to the travelling public.

I am in a slight difficulty in this respect because of two reasons of which the hon. Gentleman will be aware. In the first place the White Paper is now moving through its final stages, and any major statement on the railways makes sense only against a whole range of policy options, for public transport and the private sector, for road as well as for rail.

I do not think the House has had an unreasonably long time to wait for the White Paper, although I understand the impatience of hon. Members. The consultation document was published barely over a year ago and consultations continued until the end of 1976. Indeed, the debate in the House did not take place until 20th January. Therefore, if the Government are to do justice to these expressions of opinion in a sensitive area in which the views of many people are entitled to be considered, the drafting of a White Paper—a policy document that could run to 30,000 words—is bound to take time. It is my responsibility and that of the Government as a whole to endeavour to get the matter right, although it will be for the House to judge in due course whether we have achieved that aim. No doubt the opportunity will be taken at an early stage after the White Paper to discuss the matters which it raises, including those which have been touched upon today.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

Will the Minister give some idea exactly when the Government White Paper will be published?

Mr. Rodgers

I cannot go further than I have already gone. I hope that it will be published within a month or so, but the processes which White Papers undertake are very thorough. Although I do not claim that the recent printers' strike has delayed the White Paper, I would point out that the normal processes perhaps took somewhat longer than I judged, since I have not produced a document of this kind before. I hope that the White Paper will come forward shortly. I shall endeavour to keep the House informed.

Secondly, there is the Select Committee Report. I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Nantwich was a member of that Committee. The House knows that it is normal practice for the Government to consider such reports and to publish their conclusions, usually in White Paper form or something similar. We have had the Select Committee Report for a matter of weeks. We shall consider it carefully. We shall take account of it as far as we can in the White Paper, but a considered reply according to the normal practice of the House will come separately. Generally, I very much welcome the Select Committee Report. Both in Government and in Opposition I have long been a supporter of Select Committees, though I appreciate that that is not shared by everybody. I was pleased to see my faith justified in this latest Report of the Select Committee.

I agree with the importance of some of the administrative matters of detail which have been mentioned in this debate involving the travelling public and coordination between bus and rail time tables—for example, in terms of the building of interchanges. I was sorry to hear the story unfolded by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East because the other day I was privileged to open the Bradford interchange. Perhaps that is a rather grand project for 1977, but it was conceived some years ago. I am pleased that by this means bus passengers are able to step virtually off the bus and on to the train, or vice versa, and that private cars are able to park near by. We must seek to make our view on coordination and integration more meaningful.

I value this debate on the railways because it has made it possible for me to refer to the concern which has been expressed about the carrying of pigeons and other livestock. The British Railways Board has today announced its decision to continue to carry pigeons and other livestock. This decision follows the recent discussion by the Central Transport Consultative Committee. The Board now proposes to open discussions with users with the aim of devising a new system for the carriage of livestock on the lines of detailed recommendations made by the CTCC. In the meantime, the traffic will be carried as normal. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome this demonstration of the Board's respect for the interests of consumers.

Mr. Anderson

I welcome the announcement, but does my right hon. Friend agree that this problem relates not only to the fact of carriage, but to the recently increased costs of such carriage, which bear particularly heavily on small owners. Will consultations with users pursue the possibility of reducing the current high level of costs?

Mr. Rodgers

I am sure that it will. This is very much a matter for the British Railways Board. To be fair to the Board, it is faced with the difficulty of working under constrictions placed on it by the Government and by Parliament at second stage and finding out how it can manage in view of its revenue and costs. I am sure that, having noted the reaction and reached this agreement, the Board will do its best to meet the case on consumers as far as it can. I am sure that the Chairman will note the points that have been made.

The hon. Member for High Peak referred to this, and my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East talked about a "bullish view". I appreciate that there have been problems of morale on the railways, but the railways are a great national asset and there is a central and continuing rôle for them.

The railways have four major tasks: as a major carrier of passengers between centres; as a major carrier of commuters, particularly in London and the South-East; as carriers of large flows of freight, especially bulk traffic; and, under their public service obligation, providing more stopping services in many parts of the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East and my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North referred to the carrying of coal and steel in South Wales. I was disappointed to hear what they said about the extent to which this traffic is not carried by rail, because I agree that the strength of the railways on the freight side lies very much in the carriage of bulk traffic such as coal and ores. I hope that the railways will use marketing techniques. This point was made in the course of our discussions. I agree that British Rail must use all its marketing techniques to get its proper share of rail freight.

In the area of freight, the railways are contributing to our industrial strategy. I have said that, provided the assessment of relevant costs is fair, freight must pay its way and there is no case for a subsidy, but I believe that the railways have a substantial and profitable freight operation ahead of them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East referred to Section 8 grants. As he knows, on page 20 of the Annual Report and Accounts of the British Railways Board, which have just been published, there is a table indicating the situation with regard to applications for grant under Section 8 of the Railways Act 1974. The table shows that 18 applications have been approved, that 32 are being considered, and that 90 are being prepared. I believe that Section 8 has made an important contribution—not a large one, but a useful one—and I am sure that no worthwhile scheme as laid down under the 1974 Act will be rejected for a lack of funds.

As for the passenger services, I think the debate has confirmed that there are two significant areas of policy. The first relates to the size of the subsidy in its relation to fares and the second to the rate of investment in the railways. I want to say something about both those things.

As to the first—and I know that the hon. Member for High Peak recognises this—the dilemma is very simple. As I have said on many occasions during the past few months, we pay for the railways either through fares, or through rates and taxes. There is no other way, and both are bound to be uncomfortable, especially at times of inflation.

When fares go up, no one likes it. I do not; why should anyone else? At the same time, none of us can argue that, when the man on average earnings, with two children, pays £21 a week in tax, there are enthusiastic taxpayers wanting to see themselves paying more in order to subsidise the railway system. We have to find a way through this very difficult problem.

A number of other countries whose railways are running much higher deficits than ours are worried about the size of those deficits. For instance, in West Germany, which is much richer than we are, they have been talking in drastic terms of a reduction of their network by one-quarter to one-third. They have found it necessary to talk in terms which I would not use because of the equation between fares, revenue and subsidy.

Mr. Ronald Atkins

I expect that my right hon. Friend is aware that the deficit in Germany was running last year at £3,250 million, and British Rail has already suffered much more from closures than have the German railways.

Mr. Rodgers

I think that is true. But the point remains that I do not think that anyone believes that there can be an open-ended subsidy for the railways. There have to be limits, because if we do not get the money out of rates and taxes and fares, we have to cut another essential public service. It is a question of finding the right balance. It is much easier to do that when public expenditure is rising than when it is stationary. One of my difficult problems with the White Paper was how to get a quart into a pint pot, or how to get the priorities right when there is no more money to spend. So our view of the railways and how they should bear the burden of their costs is relevant.

On many services, there is a subsidy of between 2p and 20p a passenger-mile, and some of these are very high figures. We cannot ignore them when trying to work out how we provide for the needs of the railways, including what balance should be struck between what commuters ought to pay and what the taxpayers should pay.

On balance, although we all accept that, in order to maintain this valuable national asset, there must be a substantial public subsidy, at the same time, those who are regular travellers on the network and who benefit most from the services it provides must make a reasonable and, in times of inflation, rising contribution to its costs.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East for choosing a phrase which sums the situation up well. He had spoken in favour of the railway network and rightly attached importance to it in terms with which I would find it difficult to disagree. He said that if we define the ends, can we will the means? That is the basic point.

Sometimes I have to say that we do define the ends but duck the question of willing the means. But I am afraid that for the Government of the day that is not enough. We have to find how it can all be done. This is true also of investment in the railways. Perhaps what is remarkable is that, despite the current financial situation, investment in our railways has not been cut. As my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North said, our aim is to keep it steady over the next four years. Even though the level is not what the Board might want—and it will have difficult decisions to make—it gives it a clear idea of what resources will be available to it in the short term. It is doubtful whether a decision to increase investment now could properly be implemented before the 1980s, in any case.

In the longer term, new decisions will have to be made in the light of changing circumstances. But of course we must approach our decisions flexibly, in the same way as the railways must be flexible to meet changing needs, because that is their purpose. Both the Board and the unions understand the problems, and even within the current restraints the Board is making significant progress in improving and modernising its services.

As the House knows, quite apart from the decision I made last year on the electrification of the Bedford-St. Pancras line, I have quite recently announced a new high-speed train for the London to Penzance service and approved the building of 250 new coaches for the inner London suburban services on the Southern Region.

I wish to refer briefly to productivity and to say that it is, in the first instance, a matter for the Board's day-to-day management. There is always room for improvement, and the Board and the trade unions recognise that. Inevitably, changes take time, but the record of the railways in this respect is a good deal better than some have suggested. The railways carried more freight in 1976 than in 1975, using fewer wagons and locomotives. Railway manpower has been reduced by over 7,000 in 1976 while revenue has been increased. That will be of interest to the hon. Member for Nantwich.

I come now to exports. This is an issue which has not been referred to, but the tribute paid to the technology in the railways could flow over into a recognition that there is a vast resource here of technical and managerial expertise which is being marketed abroad. The competition will be tough, but the recent large wagon order from Kenya is an example of how this project can succeed. The Board will have the full support of the Government in its endeavours. These have important consequences for the railways and affect employment prospects.

My hon. Friends the Members for Swansea, East and Preston, North had a good deal to say about energy. I simply say that I acknowledge the importance of this and realise that we must not prejudice the long-term by bad short-term decisions. Unfortunately, the problem of dealing with the energy aspects of transport is not easy because the most drastic solution and, perhaps, the one most in keeping with President Carter's statement, would be to use a pricing policy to ensure large increases in the costs paid by road transport. I do not believe that the House would be any more enthusiastic about that than it was about the Chancellor's modest Budget proposal to increase petrol tax. Energy considerations must be an important matter in all transport planning. They will be very much in my mind as I approach the final decisions on my White Paper.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly since I have not been present for most of the debate. We are constantly hearing of what President Carter has said over an enormous range of subjects. I hope that we shall not give the impression that we shall be dragged on President Carter's coattails over a great many interests. These decisions should be ours alone, irrespective of what President Carter may decide for America.

Mr. Rodgers

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right about where the decisions lie. In this interdependent world the views expressed by one leading statesman of one country must be taken into account when consideration is given to how far we have a common interest in world energy supplies. The idea that decisions on these matters will be made other than by the Government with the consent of Parliament is not realistic.

I come now to the complementary rôles of the Board and the Government. The Government's task is to determine the place of the railways in the transport scene and the resources that they can have. I have a great faith in the future of the railways. They have a vital and a central rôle to play. It is the Board's job to use the resources available to provide a railway system which gives the Government, the passenger, the customer and the taxpayer the best value for money. It is not for me to deal with the question why there is never ice available on Sunday or any problems of catering. This is not because I am indifferent to such matters but because it would be wrong for a Minister to try to assume managerial responsibility for an industry for which he has responsibility to this House.

I am confident that the British Railways Board and its new Chairman, Mr.Peter Parker, appreciate the complementary rôles between myself as the representative of the Government and Mr. Parker as the representative of the Board, and I believe that the relationship between the Board, under Mr. Parker's direction, and the railway unions is closer than ever.

It is my job to set the framework and it is for the Board, in conjunction with the railway unions, to secure a well-run and effective railway system. That is precisely what this country wants and precisely why the hon. Member for High Peak so wisely and so much to our advantage raised this matter.

3.31 p.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant) on raising this subject and on the exceptionally able way in which he did so. As he said, there are many real problems facing our railways industry and the sort of approach suggested by my hon. Friend had much support on both sides of the House. His approach of getting the maximum value for the money spent must be right, and will be applauded.

I also compliment the hon. Members for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), who for once did not speak about the Vehicle Licensing Centre at Swansea, and the hon. Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins). Both hon. Members spoke about energy conservation, and the hon. Member for Preston, North quoted at length from a magazine article written by Sir Peter Masefield. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not refer to the end of the article, when Sir Peter said: From all of this, in British transport in future years we must strive for higher productivities". That is a point worth making, because it was one of Sir Peter's major conclusions.

Mr. Ronald Atkins

I did not leave out that part of the article for any ulterior motive, but because I was already taking too long. My point was that if railways are run to capacity, productivity will increase automatically.

Mr. Fowler

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his position clear. Another point at the conclusion of that article takes up what my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) said in his intervention during the Secretary of State's speech about the position of the United States, which the Chancellor of the Exchequer always seeks to pray in aid. Sir Peter said: On average, each citizen of the United States uses twice as much energy in a year as does an inhabitant of the United Kingdom We should not push the comparison with the United States too far.

I am not sure that the Secretary of State has taken us much further down the track towards his transport policy. Having been presented with this unrivalled opportunity to reveal some of his main findings—which we should all have welcomed—he has gravely disappointed us. I hope that he will not disappoint us further when the White Paper eventually appears.

I do not know whether I misheard the right hon. Gentleman, but did he suggest that the White Paper would run for 30,000 words?

Mr. William Rodgers

I said that it might run up to about 30,000 words and that that was the sort of figure that I had in mind.

Mr. Fowler

In that case, it looks like breaking new ground, not only in the length of time that it has taken to produce. We have been waiting three and a half years, and a 30,000-word White Paper will be something indeed.

If I may make one point while the Secretary of State is with us—

Mr. William Rodgers

May I just say—

Mr. Fowler

May I make my point first? On the last occasion when two volumes of a consultation document were presented, the then Secretary of State—we have had quite a number of Secretaries of State—presented that document to the Press and many outside bodies well before it was presented to hon. Members in the House. If the White Paper is to be so long, perhaps we may have discussions between any channels that the right hon. Gentleman cares to open about the way in which this great volume can be made available to hon. Members on both sides of the House who are concerned about transport at the same time as it appears on desks in Fleet Street, and not after.

Mr. William Rodgers

I certainly give the undertaking that the hon. Gentleman asks for. In the publication of the White Paper I shall be very properly bound by the well-understood rules of the House about the availability of White Papers. I would not think of departing from them.

On the other point that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I am beginning to feel rather anxious. I have been so busy writing words that I have not been counting them carefully. If the White Paper turns out to be somewhat shorter than 30,000 words, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not think that it has been axed by my colleagues. It will be only that I could not count properly.

Mr. Fowler

This is becoming more and more mysterious. First, we have had to wait three and a half years for a White Paper and have been expecting it at any time. At one stage we were told that it was to be a 30,000-word White Paper. Now it is clear that great chunks are being taken out of it or that the Secretary of State cannot count, which also does not give us great confidence about what is to appear. I shall now leave the White Paper to one side.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Cockcroft) said, this debate is well timed, because it comes only days after the publication of the Select Committee's Report on British Rail. That report is full of international comparisons, but, as I have suggested before, there is one comparison not in that report which is of particular force as we wait for the Secretary of State's White Paper, and that is the comparison with the position in the United States, where the railway system was allowed to run down and decay, maintenance was neglected, and the service became totally unreliable. However, in the last five or six years the United States Government have decided that a system is needed and a new system is being re-formed at vast cost—Amtrack for passengers and Con-rail for freight. The cost of the development runs not to millions but to billions of dollars.

The United States' example has a great deal of force for us, because it stands as a warning of what can happen—most of all, the cost of getting policy decisions wrong, and the cost of putting them right again.

I wish to make one point clear. I believe that it is the united desire and aim of hon. Members on both sides that the British railway industry should have a real future. I pay tribute to the many achievements of British Rail, including the development of the high-speed train and, as the Secretary of State said, the export achievement that British Rail has maintained in recent months.

As my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak rightly pointed out in his motion, the future of the industry is inextricably linked with the ability of the passenger and the taxpayer to pay. There is little doubt that if we see the kind of fare rises that we have seen in the last two years it will have a profound effect on the industry. There is no doubt about the major cause. After every conceivable reservation had been made on price restraint, the additional fare increases were the direct result of wage inflation that the current Government presided over in the first part of their period in office.

Of course, the effect has been felt—and this is the tragedy—at a time when the Government have changed tack and have limited pay. I am not sure, even now, that everyone fully understands the position of rail passengers and particularly the position of rail commuters in this country.

Thousands upon thousands of commuters face a real crisis. Their fares have been doubled at a time when their incomes have been held down. Not only has their standard of living been reduced generally, in the same way as the standard of living of the rest of us; their cost of travel to work has increased to such an extent that some of them have shifted from using the railways while others have shifted their jobs nearer home. That point should be underlined. They have faced the biggest fare increase that this country has ever known at a time when their incomes have been severely limited. That is the problem. It is a real problem, which is often acute, and it must be taken seriously.

We are talking not of the so-called affluent middle class but of thousands of men and women who have gone out of London for one reason alone, and that is to seek cheaper housing. They have been encouraged by the policies of successive Governments in making that decision.

I can give just one example which was used by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton). My hon. Friend has taken a close interest in this problem. The example relates to the journey from Chelmsford—which is a town that I know well, because I was brought up in it—to Liverpool Street. Two years ago the cost of annual second-class season ticket from Chelmsford to Liverpool Street was £167. It is now £390. During less than three years the cost has increased by £223, which is more than 130 per cent. Many commuters are now paying more than £500 to get to work. At the same time other travel costs have also been increased. That is a significant element, which we must take into account, and it is right that it is included in the motion.

Another interest that we must consider is that of the taxpayer. One of the ironies of the present situation is that although fares have risen by this unprecedented amount, transport subsidies have also increased. In 1975–76 transport subsidies totalled more than £600 million, of which £410 million went to the railways and a further £242 million to investment in British Rail. During the last year the position has improved and it is a welcome improvement, particularly during Peter Parker's first year as Chairman of the British Railways Board. Even now we are spending about £354 million in operating support. That is about £1 million a day.

Clearly, as the Secretary of State has agreed, at a time when any Government must be aiming to reduce public expenditure that amount must be seriously examined.

I do not pretend that it will be easy, but transport policy must seek to reconcile various interests. They are our interest in the future of the industry, the passengers' interest in fares and in avoiding the kind of fares explosion that has occurred in this country during the past two or three years, and the taxpayers' interest in achieving economy and value for money. We are particularly assisted in these matters by a number of reports, notably the report of the Select Committee and British Railways Board's response to the consultation document.

One thing that the Select Committee has achieved in its report is the end of a particular argument—the argument about possible improvements in productivity. For the last 18 months I have been putting this point forward, not always with the approval or acceptance of hon. Members opposite. I have said that productivity has been and should be an essential part of policy. It must be remembered that in the railways industry wages and salaries account for more than two-thirds of operating costs. Therefore, improvements in productivity and the use of manpower must be vital to the railways' financial health. Those are not my words; they are the words in the Government's consultation document, and they are right.

No one underestimates the significant manpower saving that has been achieved in the last 13 years on the railways. A total staff reduction from 476,000 to 231,000 appears in the consultation document, and now it is rather lower than that. Nevertheless, all the evidence before us suggests that further significant improvements are also possible over the next three or four years.

Clearly, a great deal of outside attention has been paid to this matter in reports such as that of Pryke and Dodgson, but let us take the evidence of the British Railways Board itself. In its response to the consultation document the British Railways Board, then under Sir Richard Marsh, reported that a total manpower reduction of 43,000 was possible by 1981—not, I emphasise, by massive redundancy but by natural wastage and the control of recruitment. That message has now been underlined even more emphatically by Peter Parker, the new Chairman of the British Railways Board.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak reminded us that Peter Parker said: Productivity is the rock on which we must build the future of railways. The one outside piece of evidence that I would use is that of the Select Committee—an all-party group—which came conclusively to the view that productivity could be improved.

All the evidence seems to point the same way in this respect. All the evidence points to the fact that such improvements are possible, and common sense dictates that such opportunities should be taken. Improved productivity is in the interests of the fare-paying passenger, the taxpayer and the industry itself. In that respect, at least, all three interests are the same. Productivity in the industry is and must be the key, but clearly that by itself is not sufficient for an approach to the problems of the railways.

It is also necessary to decide which, if any, businesses within British Railways need support. In some cases there is no justification in principle for such support. We can argue about the phasing out of support, but in principle I can see no reason for it.

The most notable case, I suggest, is that of rail freight subsidies. When I spoke in the debate on the consultation document in January I said: In the freight area, we want decisions left to the customer. The Government have a rôle in devising fair track costs for both rail and road. But the rôle of the Government should not extend to seeking to direct traffic. Both rail and road have natural advantages—rail for heavy bulk traffic and road for the many shorter distances in this country. But, in that choice, the man most likely to get the decision right is the customer."—[Official Report, 20th January 1977; Vol. 924, c. 727.] I was therefore extremely glad when, at the Road Haulage Association's annual dinner, the Secretary of State confirmed that this was now his policy. He stated emphatically that the customer was in the best position to make the choice between different modes. We welcome the right hon. Gentleman's conversion to our policy on this matter. We have consistenly put it forward, and we hope that it will be emphasised further in the White Paper.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also agree that there is no reason why Inter-City should not be profitable. Unlike the United States, for example, rail in this country is quicker and cheaper than air. The only real competitor is road. I agree with the Select Committee about the National Bus Company, and the opinion that it should cover its costs and that there sould be fair competition.

The position is more difficult when we consider commuter services. The nature of the services needed in the morning and evening peak hours demands more labour and equipment than is necessary throughout the rest of the day. It has been shown to be extremely difficult throughout the world to run commuter services on a break-even basis. The difficulty of the profitability of commuter services faces every nation. I believe that support will be necessary over the next period. It is important that commuters should have the opportunity to adjust. We shall therefore watch with the greatest care to see what the White Paper says on that matter.

We part company with the Select Committee on its suggestion that a new tax should be placed upon employers, to be paid as a levy to British Rail. In its report the Select Committee says that a form of financing public transport facilities in large cities could consist of a tax upon central area employers whose work forces generate a large share of the unremunerative peak period demand.

That theory is unjustifiable, on a number of grounds. It contains no incentive for increased performance by the railways. It represents an extra tax on employers who are already hard-hit by the present level of taxation. Perhaps worst of all, it would have an effect that is not intended. It would encourage firms to move out of the city centres. That would defeat the policy of trying to bring back life into the city centres. I shall need a great deal of convincing that an extra tax on employers is the right way of solving the problem.

In any agreed approach to the railway industry it is necessary to follow the advice set out in a leader in The Times last year, that where specific uneconomic services are necessary and are wanted, public transport operators should be recompensed for them. I agree with that in principle, but in practice it brings us back to a major obstacle—the identification of specific uneconomic rail services. Such identification is no longer, possible because British Rail does not identify the costs of separate services. There are difficulties involved in producing a better identification-of-cost system than we have at the moment.

Above all, I believe that the Government need a yardstick. An essential part of an agreed approach on the industry is that the Government must have better financial information on the way in which public money is spent in the industry. The taxpayer is still paying over £360 million a year in operating subsidies and the passenger is facing sharply increased fares.

It is in the interests of both the taxpayer and the rail user that better information is provided. That is also in the interests of the Government. No one should disguise the difficulties facing the railways.

I welcome the initiative taken by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak in introducing this debate. It is an important industry and in many of its functions it cannot be replaced. That is particularly true of the commuter passengers that it carries.

The Government have a rôle in ensuring that future. But it is not only, or even mainly, a job for the Government. The industry must make every effort to produce the efficient service that is needed by passenger and taxpayer alike and which, in the long term, is in the best interest of the Government and industry.

3.55 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I should very much like to take up the last few words uttered by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler). I believe that one of the most important facets of the future of British Rail that must be given very serious consideration is the position of the Board with regard to the Government.

We have recently seen the Government imposing certain decisions upon the Central Electricity Generating Board. I believe that it is wrong in essence for Government to impose decisions upon the Boards of nationalised industries. If the Boards are as efficient as they are supposed to be, as I am sure they are in almost every case—I believe that Mr. Peter Parker has made very good progress in his first year—they should be interfered with as little as possible by Government.

All of the nationalised industries are engaged in high technology and are industries in which very considerable capital investment has to be made. Extremely difficult long-term decisions about equipment and the operations of those industries must be taken by the Boards. The Government should interfere as little as possible—indeed, I would say not at all—in the decisions that must be taken on these matters, because with a change of Government and with differing conditions in the economy, attempts may be made to overturn some of the programmes that the nationalised industries, and British Rail in particular, have considered absolutely essential to the future welfare of the public and of the industry that they are operating.

What also disturbs me is something that has grown up in relation to control of the nationalised industries. We have seen it particularly in railways, where the public and above all, commuters, are bound, without any possibility of making anything other than puerile objections to measures such as fare increases. Furthermore, we as Members of Parliament may not raise what are termed the day-to-day operations of the nationalised industries—and in the case of the railways, fares—in the House of Commons. I believe that it is the day-to-day operations, above all, on which Parliament should be able to question the nationalised industries, through Ministers, because of the effect that they have on the lives of the people.

Particularly is that so in regard to commuters. Those of us who represent constituencies to the South-East Region know full well the problems faced by many people from our constituencies who have to travel daily to London, to and from their work. The enormous increase in fares has put many of them on the breadline. Young people who went to the areas that we represent in order to purchase cheap houses now find that because of the enormous increases in rail fares and mortgage repayments it is beyond their ability to keep pace with the cost of living. I hope that the Minister will try to ensure that there are no increases in fares in those areas for commuters in the foreseeable future.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved. That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to bring forward proposals for a railway policy which meets the needs of passengers, customers and taxpayers while ensuring a future for the industry.