HC Deb 07 November 1979 vol 973 cc392-4
10. Mr. Fry

asked the Minister of Transport what plans he has to improve commuter rail services.

Mr. Fowler

This is, in the first place, the responsibility of the British Railways Board, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will have welcomed the recent announcement of the Government's intention to refer London commuter services to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Mr. Fry

Will my right hon. Friend at least take up with the chairman of British Rail the future of commuter fares to ensure that, when the next increase takes place, the commuters do not suffer disproportionately as they did the previous time the fare increases were made?

Mr. Fowler

As my hon. Friend will know, I made it clear—I again make it clear on this occasion—that I did not favour the weighting against commuters. The Board must decide the weighting of any fares increase for itself.

Mr. Joel Barnett

Reverting to the question of commuter rail service cessations or closures, the House was pleased to hear that the article in The Guardian was incorrect. However, it will not be quite so pleased to hear the right hon. Gentleman's reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrowin-Furnace (Mr. Booth), which seemed to throw some doubt on it. The difference between options and proposals is not altogether clear. If the options are to close some services, which were mentioned in the article in The Guardian, given what the Minister said about their disastrous consequences, will he say now whether he will turn down such proposals?

Mr. Fowler

I must say to the right hon. Gentleman that no list of services due for closure has been put to my Department. I must rest on that. The right hon. Gentleman will find that British Rail is making a similar statement today.

Mr. Bowden

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the commuters in my constituency are fed up to the back teeth with the ever deteriorating service? They are reaching the point that, if there is a 20 per cent. increase next year, that will be the last straw. Will he say why the commuters in my constituency must subsidise London commuters?

Mr. Cryer

Because they voted Tory.

Mr. Fowler

I understand the concern of my hon. Friend, who has consistently put the point of view of the commuters in the House. I hope that he will regard it as a constructive step by this Government to put the commuter services under the first stringent examination of efficiency by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Mr. Flannery

And shut it down?

Mr. Snape

Will the Minister accept that it is difficult to organise commuter services so that they pay because of the millions of pounds worth of capital assets, which do nothing for 19 hours out of 24, needed to run the hon. Gentleman's constituents to their offices by 9 a.m.? Bearing in mind that the Government believe that people and industry should pay their way, will the Minister tell his hon. Friends to stop squealing? Does he agree that commuter services do not even remotely pay their way?

Mr. Fowler

I advise my hon. Friends to keep up the pressure on this subject. The efficiency of British Rail is a matter of importance to hon. Members on both sides of the House of Commons.

As for possible economies, although staffing on British Rail has been reduced generally in the past nine years, between 1971 and the present day, the number of senior officers and management staff employed by British Rail has risen from 7,800 to 9,250, an increase of close on 1,500. That is why we want a review.

Mr. Costain

Has my right hon. Friend's attention been drawn to the fact that a large number of trains are not running because of a shortage of guards? Will he ask British Rail to concentrate on this matter?

Mr. Fowler

I know that the chairman of British Rail is very much aware of that position and is trying to improve it.

Mr. Cook

If the right hon. Gentleman insists on a cut in the passenger services obligation which, as he fairly said, was on top of a cut by the previous Government, and if he is to discourage British Rail from increasing fares to certain sections of passengers, how does he expect British Rail to meet that deficit without going for the kind of closures over which the right hon. Gentleman has said he does not wish to preside?

Mr. Fowler

I will tell the hon. Gentleman exactly. In the words of the chairman of British Rail when he took over the job, an improvement in the efficiency and productivity of British Rail is the rock upon which the future of British Rail is based. I hope that both sides of the House agree.